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GUARDIAN: Pakistan - Hindu Families enslaved




The Guardian
18 March 1996

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FAMILIES ENSLAVED BY A LIFE OF CASUAL BRUTALITY

Suzanne Goldenberg in Matli, Sind province, reports on the rehabilitation
of Pakistanis freed from bonded labor

Like his grandfather and father before him, Rupo Koli was born a slave,
and all his days were the same: long, hard hours in sugar cane fields,
with a...rope hissing through the air towards his shoulders when he
faltered under the burning sun. 

Life was bearable until four years ago when Rupo, his wife and eight
children were sold for 50,000 rupees (1,000 BPS)  to Ali Baksh Leghari of
Batin district, a landlord whose cruelty still makes them shiver with
fear. 

They wore leg-irons in the field and were made to squat at wooden posts
before they were chained for the night. They were beaten when the landlord
was drunk or had guests to entertain, and were paid only in flour, in such
miserly qualities that for several days every month they ate grass. 

"If we...took an onion from the field, the landlord used to beat us," Rupo
said. Otherwise, they survived by gulping down a paste of uncooked flour
and water and the occasional chilli; the landlord wouldn't spare the
cooking fuel. 

Forty-eight hours after human rights activists and police led Rupo out of
bondage, the bazaar in this...town remains a source of wonder for him.
Rupo has walked into town three times this afternoon... 

Neither Rupo, ...about 40, nor his father can remember the original debt
that reduced the family from free men to bonded laborers, but after years
of back-breaking and unpaid labor on sugar cane plantations it had
unaccountably grown to 118,000 rupees (2,360 BPS). 

Although his story is horrifying, Rupo recounts it as if it were
completely normal - and in this part of Pakistan it is.  ..in the southern
province of Sind, feudal landlords rule as they have always done: with
casual brutality. 

Bonded labor was outlawed only in 1992. Shakeel Ahmed Pathan, the Sind
representative of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan,
argues...officials are reluctant to enforce the law, partly because they
are themselves from landed families, and partly for fear of offending the
most powerful people in the land. 

Many of Pakistan's leading politicians are landlords, including the prime
minister, Benazir Bhutto, and demands for argicultural reform in the past
have met with fierce resistance. 

Sind's agricultural wealth depends on bonded labor, mostly tribal (meaning
indigenous) or so-called untouchable Hindus, called haris, for
labor-intensive and highly profitable cash crops like sugar cane which are
replacing traditional agriculture. 

For the haris living on vast banana or sugar estates, the landlords are
akin to God: quick to anger, slow to forgive, and unanswerable to no one.
They rule unencumbered by such modern niceties as land reform, taxation,
trade unions or rights legislation. 

"All landlords think...haris are their property," Mr. Pathan said. 

So much so...landlord Ibrahim Mangrio did not worry about witnesses when
he grabbed Meran Devi by the hair and dragged her into a field. "He would
rape me in front of my mother, he would rape me in front of the entire
world," Meran said. 

Hanif, the...eight-year-old burrowed into her side, is...living proof of
her shame. She said his father's only concern for his future was that
Hanif bear a Muslim name. 

The original debts often forgotten, unscrupulous landlords take advantage
of the haris' illiteracy to ensure they can never be free. ... The haris
spend their lives on the estates in conditions the Human Rights Commission
describes as private jails. 

There was no question of escape, said Meran's mother, Jhema Devi. The
estate was patrolled by armed guards. "We died there; we were born and
married there. We didn't leave his land for 22 years." 

..with the intervention of human rights activists who bombard officials
with complaints about bonded labor or sometimes raid estates to liberate
haris, about 1,000 peasants have been freed. 

For their pains, Mr. Pathan said, the activists have been beaten and
threatened with reprisals; several landlords have turned up at his office
in Hyderabad demanding...he pay for the haris he has taken away. Despite
an encampment of freed haris a mile from the Matli police station, the
local police chief denies all knowledge of bonded labor in his district. 

The rude shelters...where Rupo and Jhema Devi live with 400 to 500 other
recently freed haris are the local equivalent of the "underground railway"
in the southern US states before the civil war. 

The haris remain desperately poor. Most have only one set of clothes and
afew battered kitchen utensils. But they are beginning to find work as
paid farm laborers, taking home 80 rupees a day. As the fear of being
recaptured by their landlords lessens, the haris chart their own physical
transformation. They stand straighter... 

"Now I am becoming less...black," Jhema Devi said. She had never been able
to wash properly before. 

The haris have a temporary protector in the local church, but the Irish
priest in Matli...describes their freedom as tenuous. The haris are too
unused to independence to know how to avoid falling into debt. Some of
them have become trapped again.