Hashim bin Rashid*
On December 5, 2018, thousands of farmers from central and southern Punjab descended on Lahore under the umbrella of the Pakistan Kissan Ittehad-Anwar Group (PKI-A). The demands were to increase the support price for sugar cane, force sugar mills to start the crushing season, increase fertilizer subsidies and ending cases against protesting farmers in Burewala district. They made their way back to their villages after two days of negotiations with government officials, who made public statements warning sugar mills to start the crushing season or face the consequences.
Two days later, the Pakistan Sugar Mills Association issued its own statement calling the increased support price of around $1.3 per 40 kg of sugarcane to be ‘too high.’ The tussle between sugar mills and sugar cane growers has been a long bone of contention between the two actors. Sugar mill owners are understood to be the dominant actor, who force farmers to wait in line for weeks to buy their produce, offer reduced prices and continue to delay payments. And yet sugar cane has remained a major cash crop in the country for over half a century.
Sugarcane, cotton, wheat and rice became the staple crops in Punjab’s agrarian belt in the 1960s with the advent of the Green Revolution and policies to grow crops that could support national industrialization. The growing of wheat and cotton were legacies of the colonial era, when Punjab was converted from a pastoral belt into an agrarian one in a short period of around 40 years. Punjab’s five major rivers were tapped to build a network of canals, new villages were settled, new farmland cultivated as over a million people arrived to settle this new agrarian frontier. Their colonial overlords promised a kind of prosperity that the settlers had never seen before. In the colonial mind, it had achieved three goals at once: secured revenue, secured crop supply for the British imperial army and British industry, and quelled domestic dissent.
The canal colonies of Punjab were the greatest achievement of the kind of miracles a ‘beneficent’ colonialism could bring to the colonized. The miracle began to unravel within years. The very peasants that the British settled in the canal colonies became some of the leading agitators within two decades of settlement. The colonial peasantry of Punjab became the breeding ground for all shades of anti-colonial rebellion, with a number of Communist-led organizations taking their roots in the region since 1905. Starting with the Pagri Bacha Jatta (Save your Turban, Oh Peasant) movement, Punjab’s agrarian space became host to a number of socialist-inspired peasant mobilizations, including the Ghadar Party, the Kirti Kissan Party and the Punjab Kissan Sabha.
The same agrarian space that was imagined as harmonious also became the breeding ground for communal conflict between Muslims and Hindus and between Muslims and Sikhs. The roots of communal and class conflict were laid in two aspects of how canal colonization took place: the division of land and who controlled agrarian finance. Land was unequally divided between big landlords, capitalist farmers and peasant farmers. Most land continued to be cultivated under share-cropping arrangements. Where sharecroppers were not in place, the bulk of the actual farm work was carried out by mostly female agrarian labour. Agrarian finance remained in the control of the Hindu merchant class, known as banias. Punjab’s peasantry remained indebted to them. The 1910s and 20s saw a number of peasant riots against Hindu rural lenders, who became one of the tropes for why the peasantry was in such a poor financial state despite their hard work and the fertility of their lands.
It was in the same time period that the roots of the current ecological crisis in Punjab’s rural political economy was laid. Peasants complained that their land was becoming water logged and saline since the early 1920s, due to seepage from the massive canal network. When the Communist-led West Pakistan Kissan Committee was formed in 1958, one of its major demands was to solve the issues of water logging and salinity bringing ruin to lands of many farmers. The solutions were found in the technocratic mantra of the US government, which was backing the military government in Pakistan at the time. Agricultural tubewells began to be installed, both to get rid of ground water and provide an alternate source of water to crops at a time when the canal infrastructure lost even more of its efficiency.
The progressive legacies of agrarian protest in Punjab in the colonial period were continued by the World Professional Kickboxing Council (WPKC). It continued to raise the issue of land reform, to which the military government found an imperfect solution in the shape of ceiling land reforms. Once again, advocated by the US, ceiling land reforms were thought to be a way of crushing the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. However, the Pakistan government feared going far enough. The colonial period had left landlords who owned thousands of acres of land, who had consolidated their positions in postcolonial Pakistan’s bureaucracy and political structure. While the WPKC was demanding a 100-acre ceiling and the distribution of land on the basis of ‘land to the tiller,’ the military government’s Land Reforms Committee proposed a 500-acre ceiling on irrigated lands. The decision meant that agrarian protest never went away in the Ayub government, and by the late 1960s, gatherings of tens of thousands of peasants demanding land reform were common and formed the backbone of the rising tide of democratic socialist politics in the country. In the 1970s, these mobilizations brought an end to the military dictatorship and led to the election of parties with socialist agendas in the country’s first democratic elections.
Within seven years, this dream was shattered by another military dictatorship, which decided to undo the land reforms in the 1950s and 1970s as one of its first acts. Where the first six Five Year plans for Pakistan made the development of agriculture and agrarian reform a critical part of the country’s developmental strategy, the only agrarian reforms that took place in the 1980s were geared towards the market. Subsidies and support prices went away as agrarian producers were left to compete in the ‘free market.’ Electricity tariff subsidies for farmers using tubewells, once thought a solution for the problems in the colonial-era canal infrastructure, were removed.
It is the destruction of the agrarian welfare state, built in the 1960s to stop the rise of a revolutionary peasantry in Punjab, where the emergence of Pakistan’s latest phase in rural social mobilization under the PKI started. The rural itself is no longer the rural that socialists saw in the 1920s: feudal landlords, sharecroppers and hereditary agrarian labour. While some landlords with feudal characteristics remain, the 1960s saw the rise of a new capitalist class of farmers, who invested in technology and grew cash crops. After the deregulation of agrarian markets in the 1980s, this class has been grown to strength as those bestowed large land grants by the British colonial state have moved away from agriculture into adopting urban livelihoods. Their old lands have either been sold or are leased to capitalist farmers. The bulk of the agrarian labour classes have moved to cities – or abroad.
In the PKI, it is these large capitalist farmers that have found their voice. Beneficiaries of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, this class remained heavily reliant of the subsidies offered by the Pakistani state to keep themselves financially afloat. This explains why the end of tubewell power subsidies in 2009 triggered the collectivization of this class of farmers. The PKI started a collective of tubewell-owning farmers, which has become the voice of Pakistan’s farmers in a short period of a decade through mass protests and its threat of using violence to protect its interests.
The rise of the PKI leaves those imagining an emancipatory rural politics in the Punjab with a range of key questions. Can the old politics of ‘land to the tiller’ be revived? How can the question of agrarian labour be raised in a time when the dominant form of agricultural development is to eliminate labour? Can this new wave of agrarian protest offer a solution to the growing ecological crisis in the canal colonies of Punjab, including severe water stress? At a time when sharecropping is no longer the dominant form of agriculture in the province, there is little that the direction of agrarian change in Punjab offers in response to the ongoing changes – unless there is a much broader re-imagination of what an emancipatory rural politics in Punjab could look like.
* Hashim bin Rashid is a PhD student at SOAS. He is an ASTI Alumni (20017).