Badrunissa: Okara’s ‘Terrorist’ Peasant

May 2016

Badrunissa is one of several hundreds of peasants booked under Pakistan's draconian anti-terror laws.

Badrunissa is one of several hundreds of peasants booked under Pakistan’s draconian anti-terror laws.

The dusty fields of Okara do not seem, at first glance, to be home to a mass protest movement for fundamental rights. It only takes a few minutes of digging beneath the surface, however, to get at the truth: this district has been at the centre of one of the country’s most prominent working class struggles against domination by the military for more than a decade.

The tenant farmers and landless workers of the military-owned farms in Okara have a long history of resistance against the landed elite. Those efforts intensified during the reign of military dictator General (retired) Pervez Musharraf in the early 2000s, when the authorities reneged on an agreement with the tenants to change the terms to suit the retired military elite. Overnight, tenant farmers were turned into contracted labour, on land that they have been tilling for generations.

Alongside the change in terms came harsher working conditions and low wages, prompting the tenants to organise in the form of the Anjuman-e-Mazar’een Punjab (AMP). A demand for their rights was met with a harsh crackdown from the State, which has declared these landless peasants to be “terrorists”. Many innocent peasants have been killed over the years during military operations, hundreds have been arrested, baton-charged and teargassed. The army has not hesitated from using particularly violent methods to suppress dissent and many peasant leaders and villagers have been illegally detained and tortured over the years. 

Badrunissa, a middle-aged farmer and community organiser, is one such working class “terrorist” peasant.

In these fields, she commands respect, and is feared by her enemies, if the number of FIRs registered against her by the State are anything to go by. ‘Appa Badr’, as she is known here, says she is a fighter to the core, and has been a thorn in the side of a repressive State for years. Currently, she is wanted in nine cases by the police, and has evaded arrest on several occasions. Once, she recalls, she was in Okara city visiting an ailing relative in hospital, when the police spotted her. She charged at them, furiously demanding they show her an arrest warrant and that lady police officers be deputed to carry out the arrest. While they busied themselves in complying, ‘Appa’ escaped through a rear entrance.

Badrunissa is one of hundreds of protesters who have been charged as terrorists under broad-ranging Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, in addition to charges of unlawful assembly and disruption of public order, for simply protesting against their treatment by the State. Today, they are unable to leave their villages for fear of arrest.

But she doesn’t let that stop her. She’ll appear out of nowhere at peasant gatherings of thousands, give an electrifying speech and then disappear into the cornfields  before the police are able to apprehend her.

If need be, she sometimes dons a burqa to go from home to home, mobilising protesters while evading detection. In an area where villages are constantly under surveillance by local law enforcement, and the homes of workers are frequently raided under the pretext of “counterterrorism”, ‘Appa’ helps the people avoid arrest and keeps the movement alive.

On the streets, she’s known for having beaten up young men who dared to challenge her, and having scared off policemen attempting to put her in handcuffs. 

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Okara’s ‘Thappa’ Force organizes hundreds of women against state violence.

Leading the ‘rural intifada’

Badrunissa was born in a village near Okara and grew up among the farmers who have built one of Pakistan’s strongest movements against the military elite, often referred to as the ‘rural intifada’. She moved to Kashmir when her husband found work there and lived there for the better part of a decade.

For years, she worked in the social sector for women, helping disadvantaged women and imparting education to young girls in the disputed areas of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, before the floods brought her back to the plains of Punjab. 

She found a home among the farmers working on the military-owned agricultural land stretching from Sahiwal to Renala Khurd. A mother of three, she lives in a small two-room house made of mud, brick and stone, in a village on the Kulyana Estate. Here, she cultivates the land, rears cattle and dreams of opening a school for girls. It did not take her long to be elected as a leader by the mazar’een when they began to organise against the military elite in Okara. 

Of her many stories of working with women in this rural backwater, one has stayed with me. One day, a pregnant woman started to go into labour while she was working in the tomato fields. The landowner, however, refused to let her take time off. Badrunissa helped her to escape, taking her to a hospital where she delivered a healthy baby. ‘Appa’ herself helped in the delivery, as a trained midwife. 

That day, Badrunissa went from home to home, making sure that all of the local women went on a strike. The next day, as the delicate tomato crop began to rot, the landowner, in a panic, threatened the women with dismissal. Badrunissa wouldn’t budge. She distributed whatever food she had at her home among the women, telling them to keep resisting, with the call of “Allah Waris!” 

As the landowner’s intimidatory tactics failed, negotiations ensued. And Badrunissa, this crusader for the rights of the oppressed, managed to not only publicly shame the landowner, but also to ensure the workers’ wages were doubled, that they received a daily two hour break, and were provided additional security and benefits at the landowners cost. 

That was just one instance of Badrunissa bringing the men of the area to heel. At gatherings of protesters, she often dominates large crowds of men and women, who shrink beneath her commanding presence, as she makes cheeky jibes about not being afraid of the area’s heavily armed police. She wears her injuries with pride, too. They include a fractured shoulder and various broken bones, sustained during years of being baton charged and tear gassed.

Leading the ‘thappa’ force

For Badrunissa, her strength is a responsibility. If she shows weakness, she says, hundreds of woman rallying behind her would lose faith. They look up to her, she says, as a mother, sister and leader.

In 2007, during a particularly violent state crackdown on peasants, the police managed to arrest a significant number of men. Fearing that the movement would lose momentum, Badrunissa brought hundreds of women out in the form of the infamous ‘thappa force’. As more men started getting imprisoned, women came to the forefront armed with ‘thappas’ (a flat wooden stick used to wash clothes) to face the heavily armed paramilitary Rangers. The ‘thappa’, used to wash away the dirt, acquired symbolic significance among women who organised themselves to drive away the military. 

For years, women have borne the brunt of police brutality by the State. Women relate many instances of police and military raids on their houses when heavily armed men have barged in, threatened and harassed them and damaged whatever few belongings they have. Over the years, women have been picked up by the police, sometimes without any charges, and many have spent years in jail for demanding their rights. Despite the attempts of the State to instill paranoia and fear in the villagers through violent beatings, torture and surveillance, the women of the mazar’een tehreek have refused to back down. 

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Unlike other leading figures in the area, whose financial resources allow them to maintain their power, Badrunissa’s power comes from the people, and is for the people.

Badrunissa is acutely aware of her place in the movement, without being self conscious or boastful. Unlike other leading figures in the area, whose financial resources allow them to maintain their power, Badrunissa’s power comes from the people, and is for the people. Often, she says, she has been made offers to join the local political elite as they tour the villages in their regal cars. She refuses to join them on principle, she says. Instead, she hops on donkey carts or walks for miles with her fellow members of the community, listening to them and their problems. It is this integrity that makes her one of the most respected leaders in Okara. And, for the State, one of the most dangerous.

As I prepared to return to Lahore, after being hosted by ‘Appa’ for a research trip to Okara’s Kulyana estate, she took a quick glance around the street, scanning for the local police informers, who often follow her and report her activities to the authorities.

Satisfied that they were not present, she snuck into our van and joined us on the journey to Lahore. Once there, she pounced up the three flights of stairs to the office of a radio station she had been invited to speak at about the AMP’s demands. As I dropped her off at the studio, I felt immensely moved by this working woman, this lioness who subverts an exploitative system and threatens the military and the State. By this warrior, this social organiser, this speaker of truth to power. 

By this “terrorist peasant”.

Mehlab Jameel is an anthropologist in training who takes a keen interest in issues pertaining to gender and sexual politics in postcolonial contexts. They live in Lahore and can mostly be found exploring the streets of the historic city. They can be reached at @mehlabjameel

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4 Responses to Badrunissa: Okara’s ‘Terrorist’ Peasant

  1. Aamir Ali Rana on May 2016 at 5:34 AM

    Kudos to the brave lioness. And thankyou for writing this phenomenal article.

  2. Mubbashir on May 2016 at 4:14 PM

    Excellent article Mehlab, thank you for this wonderful profile.

    You article inspired me to share a few words about another AMP leader, Busra Bibi, who passed away recently, Busra played a crucial role in maintaining the morale and determination of AMP whenever the military and police attacked the villages to arrest AMP members and leaders.

    Busra was one of the main organizers of the Thapa Force in her village as she bravely confronted the soldiers and physically fought off the police when they tried to enter people’s homes in the 2004. She along with the women in her village surrounded the police officers and held them in the village until the DPO was forced to release AMP leaders who had been arrested.

    Busra was brave in her words and her actions, she lived a life free of fear and full of purpose. I am sure that this struggle will continue for a long time and we will see many great leaders emerge from it.

  3. Rabia Anum on May 2016 at 5:47 AM

    Thankx For Excellent Article Mehlab in my Point of view greatest threat that whole country-men face is nearly 60 percent corrupt establishment and the all leaders in rule that blackmail innocent people that prefer their own personal security disregarding the nation.. people are dying of hunger due to no employment and where employment is made that is on source and influence…right of common man is usurps …..Is it not terrorism ..what the role that party leaders play for no any good of common person and disregard Justice is just equal to terrorism that is being done by bad and dirty persons

  4. Maheen Rasheed on Jun 2016 at 1:59 PM

    What a brave, inspiring woman. And a wonderfully written article as well.

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