Islamabad’s Forgotten Villages

Sep 2014

According to Muzzafar Khan, a recently-retired Director of Environment at the Capital Development Authority (CDA), the primary bureaucratic body in charge of the city’s planning, and the body that received the mandate for land acquisition when the building of Islamabad began, it all began in 2002.

“At first, for security reasons, the navy closed the road near the Margalla Hills, where the naval commander lived,” he says. “They then made a walking track near the hills, and cordoned it off with mesh wiring to make it solely used for naval officers and their families.”

Two thousand and two was the year that the naval headquarters moved to its present location near Kalinjar and Gandhian, says Khan. And, it was the year that the CDA provided the navy a “No Objection Certificate” to construct a fence. Speaking candidly about the navy’s augmenting and calcifying security infrastructure, however, Khan recalls that the fence slowly became a wall, as the security concerns of the navy grew.

Though the security concerns faced by the navy came after actual attacks on their installations–and threats issued to the armed forces–they left little room for local villagers to oppose encroachments onto their land.

According to the resident, Kazafi Khan, the villagers grew increasingly uncomfortable with the expansion of security infrastructure in their area.

“The navy [first] built a wall for security reasons, [but ended up] blocking access for the villagers and for the whole valley. [Including the sections of the valley,] which is part of the Margalla Hills National Park,” he says.

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Photographer: Sara Farid | The wall that separates the villages from the Naval Complex

While the growth of security infrastructure made sense from the perspective of the armed forces, residents interpreted the expansion of the navy onto village land as a threat. Villagers say that the wall, which the navy claims it built to curb insecurity, implied that residents were part and parcel of the threats faced by the armed forces. It was a feeling that they shared with slum-dweller residents around the capital, who under the military rule of Pervez Musharraf and recently under the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government, felt increasingly cast as security threats rather than the residents that they were. At best, say villagers who are not named, they were ignored in the security planning carried out by the state. Given Kalinjar and Gandhian’s proximity to the Naval Complex, villagers too were at risk of danger, and yet the navy offered no protection. It seemed to the villagers that the growing security infrastructure served only naval officials.

In response, village residents constructed their own wall to preempt further encroachment into their lands, and sent internal messages through contacts in the armed forces to resolve the conflict. They also organized a committee to negotiate with the navy and the CDA–the latter provided a sort of civilian legal and institutional cover, they felt, to the navy’s actions. Kazafi Khan says he approached a relative within the army, in attempt to get better access to naval officials, and to convince them that they had rights to the land as one of its earlier settlers.

“The navy wants to take possession of our land to construct housing for their officers,” Khan explained. “However, we feel we have much more of a right as it is our ancestral land.”

However, the villagers’ confrontations created more issues than it solved. Instead of addressing their issues, the navy created hurdles for the villagers, as they attempted to get on with their daily lives.

“Our problem is that the Naval Complex is closest to us,” said Khan. “The hospital is there and the school is there. At first, we could enter by leaving our identity cards at the gate, like other civilians. But after our resistance, the guards only arbitrarily allow us in.”

The resistance and difficulties faced by the villagers have created an unlikely alliance between them and the city’s environmentalists. Dr. Anis-ur-Rahman of the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation is one of the most outspoken of these environmentalists, and he says that the armed forces have used security as an excuse to trump environmental regulation.

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“The armed forces shifted the boundary pillars in national park land,” he said. “For any changes you bring in the park you have to follow environmental law. It is mandatory for anybody and everybody, but as you know, security concerns override everything else and ‘security’ is an easy argument to make.”

His frustration with the navy’s encroachment of conservation land has become the basis of an alliance between environmentalists and the villagers.

“We feel that the villagers must be fairly treated. Instead of pushing them into a ghetto, they should be given property rights […]. Despite all [the] differences [and disagreements between the navy and the villagers], if they are made part of the solution, as opposed to [being] seen as the problem, both the armed forces and the local residents will benefit,” says Dr. Rahman.

In Dr. Rahman’s eyes, the unlikely alliance between the environmentalists and the villagers against the armed forces hints at a possible way forward as everyday citizens grapple with increasingly ubiquitous forms of military encroachment.

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As Pakistan has become part and parcel of the Global War on Terror, security has taken on a new significance in the post-9/11 environment. That is why it, arguably, does not make sense to see the navy’s explicit motivation of security in wall constructions and land encroachments as anything but coincidental.

In the years following 2001, the Pakistani state and a set of journalistic and academic researchers cast internal instabilities as part of a larger, global threat. Even electricity shortages were portrayed as part of a volatile degeneration into chaos. By using this language in a post-9/11 world, the state created a narrative that became increasingly difficult for ordinary citizens to protest. In similar attempts to push residents off land that they have lived on in Islamabad’s slums, sometimes for over four decades, security is used as a primary argument, almost a sort of end-of-conversation tactic for those who want to argue for residential constructions for the poor, and against arbitrary evictions.

However, while 2001 strengthened narrative justification for the increased securitization of our surrounding environment, the expansion of the armed forces has far deeper and long-standing historical roots, especially when it came to organizing our physical surroundings. The army in particular–and the navy and the air force to a lesser extent–have for many years played a vital role in the country’s organization of space. For instance, the ever-expanding Defence Housing Authorities in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi are all significant land development schemes that, over the years, have greatly affected the country’s urban landscapes. The Pakistan Army acquires public land next to urban areas at no cost or massive discounts, and distributes it among its officer class. These recipients of land are then free to sell their shares at market prices, with no or few restrictions. In her research into the urban real estate market, for her book “Military Inc. – Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy”, Ayesha Siddiqa cites the case of the Army Welfare Trust project at Sanijani in Punjab. Developed at the cost of USD 12.41 million, the project earned its members a profit conservatively estimated at USD 413.49 million. Indeed, this becomes possible, says Siddiqa, because of the collusion of elite classes.

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Also read:

Dispossession in the Name of Security

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“The political players in Pakistan and other dominant classes or groups are bound like the civil bureaucracy and the entrepreneurial class are bound together in partnership with the military fraternity. […] Since the country’s socio-political system is predominantly authoritarian and has a pre-capitalist structure, the ruling classes are not averse to using military force to further their personal, political and economic interests. The elite therefore continue to strengthen the armed forces and contribute to the evolution of the military fraternity into a class,” says Siddiqa.

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15 Responses to Islamabad’s Forgotten Villages

  1. […] bring you two investigative long-form articles in keeping with TQ’s mission. Zehra Hashmi investigates the encroachment by the Pakistani Navy on village land and Asad Hashim takes stock of the […]

  2. TQ Chāt | # 21 | Tanqeed on Sep 2014 at 11:04 AM

    […] by the way, have you seen last week’s releases from our Fall 2014 issue? neoliberalism against privatization and how the state sanctions bonded labor and islamabad’s lost villages. […]

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