Being a peasant in bonded labour, she never thought she could contest polls. But just as Shirimati Veeru Kohli, belonging to the scheduled caste of Hindus, broke the chains of slavery over a decade ago, she now sets out to conquer new frontiers. Busy with her election campaign for a provincial assembly seat, she faces heavy odds and confronts politically strong candidates like Sharjeel Inam Memon, a provincial minister in the outgoing PPP Sindh government.
She won freedom for eight other families of her community in the early ’90s and presently heads her own organisation, Saath Saharo Society (Helping Together) which works to free slavery victim.
Kohli was one of those bonded peasants who till agricultural lands in different parts of this province to produce grain for two square meals a day. They live in abject poverty and misery while their debts recorded against them by their landowners continue to pile up and are never accounted for. At the farmland where they live and die, they have little knowledge of and no access to modern-day needs.
Born in a family of landless peasants from Nagarparkar — an arid region of Pakistan bordering India — she was married off to a man near Badin. They moved to Boddar farm in Umerkot to earn their livelihood on a deal of share-based cropping with the landowner. Eight other families, comprising 45 men, women and children, followed them.
“But the landowner didn’t keep his commitment and we were denied our weekly wages. I realised that we were working in bondage or slavery,” Veeru says, dressed in her traditional ghagra and wearing several bangles. “When my landowner didn’t allow the solemnisation of a girl’s marriage in my family, I thought that one day the same would happen to my daughter,” recalls Veeru.
This was a turning point in her life. She decided to defy the odds and free herself from slavery as she couldn’t bear to think about her own daughters going through such harassment.
In 1995, she slipped away from the farm and approached the police with a letter from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s Special Task Force (HRCP’s STF). When the police didn’t pay heed, she organised a sit-in and hunger strike outside the police station.
A senior police officer visiting the police station one day listened to her story patiently, and the rest of her family members were freed.
In 2002, she reached the peasant camp of HRCP in Matli and began work with Green Rural Development Organisation, an NGO headed by Hyder Malookani. In 2009, she was nominated for the Washington-based Fredrick Douglas Freedom Award ‘Free the Slave’. The same organisation is presently helping her with the election campaign.
Conditions of bonded peasants, to date, haven’t changed due to denial of rights guaranteed to peasantry under the Sindh Tenancy Act 1950 and the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992. Implementation of laws has always been on the back burner where the relevant authorities are concerned.
The 1992 act clearly defines bonded debt as an advance (peshgi) obtained or presumed to have been obtained by a bonded labourer under, or in pursuance of, the bonded labour system.
Veeru remains committed to her cause and vows to continue fighting to get people freed. “We were living in darkness but not anymore,” said an elated Veeru, sitting in her katcha mud house on the bank of Phulelli canal. “I was busy with the wheat harvest when Hyder Malookani asked me if I was interested in contesting elections,” she added.
For Veeru the outcome of elections doesn’t matter. What matters is that she has stood up to represent the neglected. Comfortable with her hard-earned freedom, she continues to make a living by working in a nearby farm.