Land Theft as Colonial Legacy in Pakistan



Land stealing is one of colonialism’s main features. In contexts where colonialism has left most of its logics intact, land theft continues to be a common practice by state and private developers, as Fatima Anwar describes in this text about Lahore and Pakistan in general.

“This land is my mother, and you can never set a price for a mother.”

When I was an undergraduate student at LUMS, Pakistan’s “premier” university located in Lahore’s Defence Housing Authority (DHA), the campus was sporadically visited by a strange amalgamation of protestors. In the middle of Defence’s neat, posh streets, it seemed that an entire village had materialized outside our heavily guarded front gate. A village that claimed my alma mater was built on their stolen land. With them, they carried a Supreme Court order that declared this land “unlawfully acquired”.

During one of these protests, a woman tells me she can’t read the paper she holds, but she knows no one believes her claim without it. As I attempt to photograph her documents, I’m called into the LUMS security office for “consorting with the hooligans.” First, I am told they’re liars; greedy for more money because the land has shot up in value after all the “development” and “investment” that has occurred. I bring up the Supreme Court order. A recalibration occurs. Now, I’m told that LUMS bought the land lawfully through DHA, unaware of any wrongdoing, and that whatever qualms the protestors had should be taken up with the housing authority.

Years later, in a small real estate office at the ever-expanding periphery of Lahore, I would come to learn how often and easily this happens.

The real estate agent, an old family friend, was showing my father the allotment plans for a new DHA phase. The map demarcated neat rows of five marla, eight marla, and ten marla plots alongside roads, commercial areas, and land set aside for parks, schools and so on.

On this specific map that agent uncle had rolled out on top of about ten other housing society plans, there was a small aberration — multiple irregular outlines within which the neat rows of plots were distinctly marked with diagonal lines. These seemingly random areas in confusing shapes were clearly at odds with the organizational logic of the map’s straight lines. Bored and mildly curious, I asked agent uncle about these blobs of land.

“These areas? Oh beta, don’t worry about these — they’re some gaoun (villages) that haven’t been cleared out yet. This happens sometimes, but the plots you see are more or less the final allotment. Everything will be in order by the time we get to balloting. It always is.”

I think about that map and those lines often. I think about the sheer entitlement and disregard for human life required to draw those lines.

I am reminded of other groups of men who used to draw lines through people’s lives. A group of men in Spain, dividing up the world half and half in 1494. Another group of men in Berlin, 1885, parcelling off the entire African Continent, like so many obscenely large plots in a Pakistani housing scheme. Yet another group in New York, itself built on stolen Lenape land, with a piece of paper to steal the Palestinian homeland in 1947 — a perpetual, ongoing theft.

Each time with the same colonial arrogance, deceit, and the construction of a hypocritical and mythical “greater good.”

Here, in Pakistan, there’s a lot we’ve inherited from the colonizers. The oft repeated list now elicits yawns: our military, our railways, our bureaucracy, our laws, this language I begrudgingly write in. But colonialism is the cursed historical gift that keeps on giving…

Here, in Pakistan, there’s a lot we’ve inherited from the colonizers. The oft repeated list now elicits yawns: our military, our railways, our bureaucracy, our laws, this language I begrudgingly write in. But colonialism is the cursed historical gift that keeps on giving — look hard enough and you find it hiding under our tongues, creeping in the backs of our alleys, settled into the bones of this country. We inherit more than colonial institutions; we inherited colonial beliefs and traditions — among them, the tradition of the line on the map; of occupation and theft.

It is always the same story.

Barren land. Undeveloped land. Terra nullius.

Barbaric, uncivilized inhabitants. Backward peoples. Jaahil log.

The colonial drive to occupy. The colonial drive to expel.

The colonial need for self-aggrandizement and dishonest justifications.

The myth of the greater good. The myth of knowing better.

La mission civilisatrice. “National development.”

It is always exactly the same story.

Deconstruction Statio
From a series of illustrations by Pakistani artist and architect Maaz Jan (May 2021).

In the latest iteration of this colonial logic, the Punjab government is attempting to instrumentalize the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 (another inheritance) to expropriate some 100,000 acres from the agricultural villages near the banks of the Ravi river. Fertile agricultural lands are being declared barren so they can be acquired at criminally low rates and handed over to private developers who stand to make billions off housing schemes for the urban upper and upper-middle classes crowding Lahore. 

The farmers protesting the forcible acquisition (read: theft) of their land point out that the Land Acquisition Act may only be used for a clearly communicated public purpose — which, historically, legally, ethically, and intuitively, does not encompass private housing schemes for the rich. In response, the explicit and implicit state narrative is that “development” is in of itself a matter of public interest. Somehow, the 80,000 farmers who have cultivated this land for decades are not part of the “public” whose interest is being accounted for.

Explicitly weaponizing the language of public interest, the act legitimizes all acquisitions for the project as “for the public purpose as specified in the Land Acquisition Act, 1894.”

To counteract the farmers’ protests and court petitions, the government passed the Ravi Urban Development Authority (RUDA) Act of 2020. Explicitly weaponizing the language of public interest, the act legitimizes all acquisitions for the project as “for the public purpose as specified in the Land Acquisition Act, 1894.” This past February, when citizens in Rawalpindi protested against the government’s forced “acquisition” of their ancestral land at below market rates, the aviation minister held a press conference to demand that citizens “sacrifice their lands for the country” because “development needs sacrifice.”

Fatima Lahore Funambulist
“Walking along the Gujjar Nullah at night, the ruins tell a story of people’s lives/aspirations in fragments…the room on second floor, with golden hearts & pink walls….” / Photo by Professor Nausheen H. Anwar.

I feel, at this point, a fatigue in replicating the extensive work on the history of the farce of “development” as public interest — let us call it, simply, another inheritance.

The proposed Ravi City project, unsurprisingly, has its own maps. Fancier 21st century digital models too. If one looks up “Ravi City” one finds a mock-up of a megacity with impressive high-rises near glistening water. Self-described as a “Dubai-esque” skyline on the Ravi riverfront, this image is a violent lie — superimposed on the lives currently being lived there. Mimicking the disregard of the maps and mock-ups, the government has already opened and awarded bids for the development of this land that has not yet been “acquired,” to Pakistan’s largest construction and real estate tycoons.

Across the provincial border, in Sindh, the indigenous people of Malir have been engaged in a David and Goliath fight against Pakistan’s largest real estate tycoon, Malik Riaz, who also happens to be one of the primary developers for the Ravi City scheme discussed above. An ever expanding behemoth, Malik Riaz’s Bahria Town swallows up increasing swathes of land, pays off the national media and the judiciary, employs the help of both police and military forces, and evades the National Accountability Bureau on an annual basis. In 2019, upon receiving an “offer” of Rs. 460 billion, the Sindh High Court retrospectively legitimized Bahria Town’s occupation of Malir. Emboldened by its consistent evasion of accountability, Bahria Town is currently carrying out a violent campaign of expansion and occupation into the villages that inconvenience its masterplan for “development.” In the past few months, those resisting Bahria Town have been beaten, tortured, shot at, arrested, and threatened with terrorism charges as their homes are demolished and crops razed by Bahria Town’s expansionist forces.

Yes, housing for the rich at the expense of the poor. Yes, roads and markets to increase land investment values and real estate profits. But it’s not just about the money. Bahria Town comes pre-packaged with concrete signifiers of what it aspires to represent. Known, as it is, for miniature replicas of what Malik Riaz considers to be the epitome of development/civilization: the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and Trafalgar Square to name a few. Every step of the way, from the initial theft of land to the final design of the buildings and monuments constructed, Malik Riaz’s Bahria Town is the bastard child of European colonialism in South Asia.

“Ameeron ka qanoon alag, ghareebon ka qanoon alag”

Meanwhile, in another cowardly judgement, the Supreme Court has legitimized the demolitions of the homes of 50,000 people near two of Karachi’s nullahs (small canals). These demolitions, an extension of a World Bank funded project to clean Karachi’s nullahs, began in the searing heat during the month of Ramadan, in the middle of the days of fasting. The Karachi Bachao Tehreek (Save Karachi Movement) has been raising funds for the displaced, organizing protests, facilitating court petitions, and furiously disseminating updates as we are flooded with images of families being manhandled by police, left stranded under the burning Karachi sun, as part of a “clean-up.”

The weaponization of sanitation to invade and demolish, rearrange and expel the poor — yet another inheritance.

Anwar Funambulist3
Eiffel Tower replica in Bahria Town, Lahore. / Photo by Burhan Ay Photography (2016).

Nothing I’ve described here is new. But something odd happened this past May — as Pakistanis poured into the streets to protest the destruction of homes in Jerusalem and Gaza, the images coming out of Palestine and Karachi became difficult to distinguish. Families in front of bulldozers, children’s toys among rubble, homes ripped open.

What happens when that which you claim to oppose becomes a mirror?

These projects are colonial in spirit: they pursue colonial goals, utilize colonial justifications, and view the “Native” inhabitant through the colonial gaze. These projects are colonial in method: they utilize colonial laws like the Land Acquisition Act and are prodded by neo-colonial institutions like the World Bank.

We are confronted with the fact that our own government behaves like a colonizing, occupying power. Out of this newfound framework of uncomfortable familiarities, a different language of land rights can be articulated. Not against foreign colonizers, easily identified and decried, but the ones we still live with. One that engages with ideas of colonial processes, like land theft and occupation, continuing outside of the historical colonial timeframe. One that identifies, today, the brown man in the white man’s old shoes.

Out of this newfound framework of uncomfortable familiarities, a different language of land rights can be articulated.

Reflecting on our current state of affairs, I am reminded of the verses written by revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz on the occasion of Pakistan’s independence. Rather than a celebration, it is a devastating lament of the widespread communal massacres of Partition (another bloody line on a white man’s map). In my reading, he was also pointing to a deeper truth we must confront about our “independence” made up of colonial borders, institutions, and ways of being.

Ye daagh daagh ujaala, ye shab gazida seher,

Wo intezar tha jiska, ye wo seher to nahi-

This stained light, this night-bitten dawn,

This is not that dawn for which we waited.

This is surely not that dawn for which we waited, and so we must continue the work of one day reaching it. ■