Resisting Land Grab: Movement Against Bahria Town's Violent Evictions Gains Momentum

Resisting Land Grab: Movement Against Bahria Town's Violent Evictions Gains Momentum
Land grab by Bahria Town was strongly resisted for the first time at a protest held in Karachi on Sunday. Thousands of people from various cities of Sindh staged a sit-in on the Super Highway in front of Bahria Town Karachi’s main gate. 

While the sit-in of various political parties organised by the Sindh Action Committee was underway, unknown persons suddenly began vandalising property and several buildings and vehicles including the main gate of Bahria Town were set ablaze.

Following this vandalism, the police resorted to aerial firing and tear gas shelling to disperse the protesters. Hundreds of workers including the leadership of Sindh Action Committee, members of various political parties and Sindh Indigenous Rights Alliance were booked on several charges including terrorism. Furthermore, over 100 people including Jiye Sindh Qaumi Mahaaz (JSQM) Chairman Sanaan Khan Qureshi were arrested. Protests are now being held all over Sindh seeking release of the protesters.

'Vandalism at Bahria Town a controversy to weaken the struggle'

Sindh Action Committee (SAC) has distanced itself from the riots in BTK. Meanwhile, the Sindh Indigenous Rights Alliance (SIRA), which has been fighting against Bahria Town Karachi for land grabbing for the last seven years, termed the unrest during the protests a conspiracy to weaken the struggle. A statement issued by the SIRA said, “The purpose of the siege was to sabotage the sit-in, counter the struggle of the Sindh Indigenous Rights Alliance and force the locals to sell their lands to Bahria Town. SIRA will not give up its peaceful struggle with such tactics. We will continue to strive with the same steadfastness that we have been striving for the last eight years. SIRA rejects all false FIRs; and demands that all these FIRs be disposed off.” 

The reason why the people of Sindh held such this protest is the recent incident which took place in early days of May. A month ago, due to the strong resistance put up by the villagers, BTK guards and policemen retreated after waiting for two hours with bulldozers, excavators and heavy machinery. According to some reports, two protesters were injured when private guards and policemen opened fire during BTK’s attempt to bulldoze agricultural lands to make way for a housing scheme. The guards were also accused of kidnapping and wounding some of the locals who were later rescued by the villagers and taken to a nearby hospital.

After videos of the incident surfaced on social media, people expressed anger and criticised the BTK administration, as well as the Sindh government and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). On Twitter and Facebook, the hashtag #SayNoToBahriaTown was widely used to condemn BTK’s actions. Various political parties of Sindh criticised the BTK and the provincial government over the issue and protest demonstrations were staged in many cities.

Various District Bar Association; Karachi, Malir, Hyderabad etc. had passed resolutions and condemned the occupation of land and displacement of indigenous people.

Villagers possess legal documentation proving their ownership 

Bahria Town claims it is the rightful owner of the land where forcible evictions are being attempted. In a statement, it has been claimed that the land is owned by BTK and is legally allotted to the company. The Sindh government has yet not clarified its position on the question of how the land was acquired. Spokesperson of the provincial government Murtaza Wahab did not respond to request for comment on the matter.

Malir district has an area of ​​2,557 square kilometres. This includes hilly terrain, plains and agricultural land. There are several hundred villages but they have not been formally recognised. Slain activist Dr Parveen Rehman had started an initiative to formalise these villages. She was collecting documents in 2008, but after her murder, the efforts in this regard ended.

The locals say that they had been living there since pre-partition days and that the land is their own.

Speaking to Naya Daur Media, Hafeez Baloch, a local political activist associated with the Sindh Indigenous Rights Alliance and the Awami Workers’ Party (AWP), said that many villagers have legal documentation for their land.

One of the villagers Chacha Faiz had documentation of his land too, and he never agreed to sell his land to BTK. “Our roots are linked with the land. Our ancestors’ villages and historical sites prove that this land is ours… No one, not even the provincial government, is ready to question Malik Riaz. It seems that Bahria Town is a state within a state. This repression is an attack not only on the villagers of Malir but on all of Sindh,” he said.

There are many historical sites, including some graveyards resembling the Chokundi cemetery near Thatta, Buddhist stupas and carved stones on the land acquired by BTK. The grave of Mokhi, a character from Sindhi folk tales and Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s poetry, is also believed to be in the area.

Torture and harassment for standing up to Bahria Town

Murad Gabol, son of Faiz Mohammad Gabol, a pioneer of Indigenous Rights, is fighting a legal and political battle against Bahria Town like his father. He was tortured and detained and was also named in the FIR of BTK riots despite the fact that he was not present during Sunday's protest.

“Everything, even the graves of our ancestors were razed by bulldozers. Bahria Town is demolishing homes, centuries of heritage and hills,” Murad Gabol said. Though there are a number of historical sites with strong ties to Sindhi history and folk heritage, none of them have been recognised or preserved by the government.

Villagers also face water scarcity and various other difficulties in sustaining their lives. “Before Bahria Town began the operation to render us homeless, there were a number of drinking water wells and small patches of agricultural land. The wells and lands have now been bulldozed. This is what Bahria Town is doing to us,” Murad said.

He remembers being picked up by the police and BTK security, harassed and tortured. He filed a petition against Bahria Town in the Sindh High Court (SHC) on April 30. The petition, filed through Advocate Kazim Hussian Mahesar, lists the Home secretary, the deputy commissioner, the Malir SSP, the Gadap SHO and Bahria Town as parties.

It seeks a ruling making the demolition of the village, the construction of roads and the disruption of drainage lines illegal. It also seeks the reopening of village roads blocked by the BTK.

Bahria Town had started its operation by acquiring land in the Malir district of Karachi. It has now expanded to include Jamshoro district and is currently spread over 46,000 acres. Construction is in progress in Deh Mol taluka, Bhola Khan police station and Jamshoro district.

In a May 2018 decision, the Supreme Court had declared Bahria Town's land swap with the Malir Development Authority illegal. In the same month, an investigation team had informed the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) that the Bahria Town administration had illegally taken possession of thousands of acres of government land in Malir, with help from some officials of the Revenue Department, the Malir Development Authority and the SBCA.

In the 2019 case against BTK, the Supreme Court had ruled that Malik Riaz had to pay a Rs 60 billion fine for acquiring government land at unreasonably low rates. BTK had asked for a reprieve, but the court had rejected the petition. The bench constituted to implement the Supreme Court verdict had on March 21, 2019, accepted Bahria Town’s offer of paying Rs 460 billion in seven years in return for legal title to the land. The late Faiz Mohammad Gabol had won a case to halt construction by the BTK, but the work is still in progress.

“On 35 of the 50 petitions that were filed, the court issued stay orders, but the BTK did not stop,” says Kalmati, another resident of the affected village.

The Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA), on July 22, 2020, had termed BTK construction unauthorised and illegal.

'Law fails to protect the villagers' rights'

Villagers claim that Bahria Town is on the fast track to taking over the land. “The rights of the people are guaranteed in the constitution, but unfortunately the constitution itself is not protected. The country's highest court, interpreting the constitution, accepted Bahria Town’s offer to pay Rs 460 billion in return for legalising the possession of illegally occupied lands,” says Bakhshal Thalho.

Ever since the inception of Bahria Town, people from different goths of Malir have started protesting against it. This is not the first time an attempt was made to evict people from the land that they have cultivated and lived on for centuries. Over the past few years, many residents of Karachi’s Malir district have accused Bahria Town of forcibly occupying their land and displacing the inhabitants of old settlements.

Residents of villages affected by the expansion of the BTK have formed an organisation called the Sindh Indigenous Rights Alliance (SIRA), which has been protesting for eight years.