Bonded for $37 till the landlord wants

File Photo.

File Photo.

KARACHI: To suppress the voices against different forms of modern slavery, including bonded labour of the agricultural workers, “unidentified” hands kidnapped an activist, kept hostage for three days and freed with a message; stop all type of activities against bonded labour.

Mool Chand Kolhi, the brother of a well-known activist advocate Veerji Kohli who went missing mysteriously on November 27 when he went out of his home in Hyderabad to a local pharmacy in the neighbourhood, returned back on Saturday.

Veerji, who was himself a victim of bonded labour when he was young told this scribe over telephone that ‘some’ powerful hands want them to stop their struggle against bonded labour.

“They (he was so terrified that he did not want to name those unidentified persons who kidnapped his brother) kidnapped my brother and sent a message that we must stop our struggle against bonded labour and must return to our native village in Thar Desert, but we will not be stopped by such tactics,” said Kolhi.

Sindh is notorious in terms of bonded labour. It is an agricultural province, but different studies suggest that Sindh has the highest rate of landlessness in Pakistan, as more than 40 percent of land in Sindh is tenanted out by big landlords. These big landlords keep the poor and landless peasants in their custody in the name of debt bondage, which is the biggest form of slavery and found most commonly amongst agriculture workers in Sindh. Majority of these victims of modern slavery belong to religious minorities of Hindus.

Like countless other Dalit families of Hindus in Sindh, Kolhi’s family was one. Veerji Kolhi, a member of the so-called lower caste, or Dalit community (officially declared as scheduled castes of Hindus) belongs to a small village Dhana Gam in Thar Desert near Indian border. Thar Desert, with deep ground aquifers, is an arid zone, where majority of people who are herders, are dependent on rainwater for grass and agriculture. In late 1980s when Thar Desert started witnessing impacts of climate change and suffered frequent droughts, like other herders of the area, Kolhi’s family started their seasonal migration towards northern agricultural belts of barrage areas of Sindh in search of fodder for their herds and livelihood for them.

The family reached Ghulam Muhammad Memon village of Jhudu town in Mirpurkhas district and started working as harvesting workers on the lands of a local influential landlord. “My family took a loan of Rs 4,000 (approximately $37) from the landlord and despite working day and night, the entire family including minor children on the lands, the landlord was not ready to end the loan money and he restrict the family not to leave the place until we pay back the loans, so we spent three years there,” recalled Kolhi.

It was the time when Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP)’s Shakeel Pathan launched a grand operation against bonded labour in Sindh with the help of courts and freed several thousand-peasant families living in the private jails of the landlord.

“It was 1992 when I was only 12 and my family was illegally detained and was forced to continue working as bonded labour, HRCP Hyderabad chapter sent a court notice to the powerful landlord and thus we got released from his custody,” said Kolhi. During the stay at the fields of the landlord, young Kolhi witnessed worst kind of atrocities. “I was very much inspired by Ramjee Kolhi, who was a famous dacoit and I wanted to be like him,” said Kolhi.

But then he changed his mind. “After getting released from the private jail of the landlord, Shakeel Pathan encouraged me to study and I made a promise to myself to fight against the people involved in forced labour,” said Veerji.

Veerji and his sister Krishna started their education. Being a Dalit, poor and belonging to an area like Thar Desert, education was not so easy for them. After sometimes, both joined Mehergarh, a centre principally focused on creating a critical mass of young people who were committed to develop responsible citizenry, progressive leadership and an impetus for collective action. It was founded and managed by renowned activist and author of “Working with Sharks” Fouzia Saeed.

“At Mehergarh, our lives changed entirely,” said Kolhi. Later, he become a lawyer and started filing cases in favour of the victims of bonded labours.

“In 2012, I was kidnapped, tortured and was asked to stop helping these poor people, not this alone but many time I got threats, many fake cases were registered against me. Raising voice on forced conversions are crimes not to be forgiven for, especially if you are a Hindu,” he said.

Hear my Voice 

They (he was so terrified that he did not want to name those unidentified persons who kidnapped his brother) kidnapped my brother and sent a message that we must stop our struggle against bonded labour and must return to our native village in Thar Desert, but we will not be stopped by such tactics”

Source: Daily Times

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