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Kailash Satyarthi’s Pakistan connection

October 30, 2014

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Nobel Peace Prize 2014 winner and children's rights advocate, Kailash Satyarthi. -Reuters/File Photo
Nobel Peace Prize 2014 winner and children's rights advocate, Kailash Satyarthi. -Reuters/File Photo

Some two-and-a-half decades ago, at a time when not many were around to help Pakistan’s bonded labourers find freedom from slavery, they found a friend from India: Kailash Satyarthi — Nobel Laureate, 2014.

Bonded labour in South Asia continues till this day, in various sectors and in various forms. Bonded labour in brick kilns is one of its historic forms – passed on from generation to generation, these are enslaved lives with neither hope of justice nor retribution against those who foist slavery-like conditions upon them.

Even in this day and age, in 2014 Pakistan, they are traded from kiln to kiln; their debts are transferred from one owner to another. Nobody knows how much money they owe their masters, nobody dares to ask either. Entire families spend their lives paying off a sum they have absolutely no idea about, because no one in the families can count.

In this system of slavery, its the voice of the children that ultimately falls silent. It is to amplify their voices that in 1988, Kailash Satyarthi would first meet Ehsanullah Khan, a journalist who became the de facto chief of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) – an NGO carved out of the support of the Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaaz (BMM; Brick Kiln Workers Front).

The BMM was formed in 1967 following a successful case of retrieving two women from a brick kiln owner. A young journalist at the time, Ehsanullah was introduced to an old man by the name of Baba Kaala.

Baba Kaala had been running from pillar to post at the Lahore sessions courts to find a sympathetic ear: his daughters had been kidnapped by the owner of the kiln on the pretext of not receiving the monthly installment on the debt the old man had incurred.

The elder of the daughters was held hostage by the owner and later forced to marry him. The younger one was gifted by the kiln owner to his manager in appreciation of his services in abducting the girls; the manager too married her.

Ehsanullah was moved by the tale; he wrote a column narrating the woeful tale, and then followed it up by submitting a number of applications to several legal channels. The story found public attention and sympathy; soon, legal and police action were taken. Baba Kaala would have custody of his daughters again.

This little victory was the beginning of a new journey – word travelled far and wide that a brick kiln owner had been defeated, with the help of a journalist. Some workers then organised into a front, to take the fight to more owners.

On September 18, 1967, the BMM was born. It demanded abolition of the peshgi system (debt bondage), jamadari system (middlemen) and the thekedari system (slavery-like system). Comprised largely by brick kilns workers, the organisation was loosely structured but its leader was undoubtedly Ehsanullah Khan — the only man in the organisation who could read, write and count.

The movement started in Lahore; with the largest concentration of brick kiln-based bonded labour in Punjab. A mix of religious biases and caste hierarchies ensured that those in bondage remained in bondage. Most kiln owners were (and still remain) either direct influentials or those with influence over the influentials. At the thana level, the police largely remained subservient to their wishes.

“The Muslim people were the first to attack us,” recalls Ehsanullah during a telephone interview conducted back in 2006. “I was abused for trying to help Christians. But then the pastor in Lahore would also argue that that the Lord wanted his people to obey those who provided them with bread and butter. Nobody sided with us.”

The brick kiln owners and the police accused him of being an irritant, a sharpasand, and of being a communist. Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Pakistan, under CR Aslam, maintained its distance from Khan, arguing that Khan was essentially “counter-revolutionary.”

Ehsanullah found some sympathetic voices from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), but this association came to haunt him once Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government was toppled. Ehsanullah would generally raise funds for the BMM through PPP-backed rallies and public meetings. “Contributions to keep the organisation running were many,” describes Ehsanullah. “We would always have sacks full of money at the end of each jalsa.”

This money was utilised in a legal struggle: the BMM would utilise a court bailiff for extracting individual labourers and families from brick kilns, then presenting these individuals to the courts, where their existence and attendance was noted. “If the judicial staff was honest, we knew they would set the labourers free,” claims Ehsanullah.

The legal victories began to swell. By the early 1970s, the BMM had managed to establish itself as the uncontested voice of the brick kiln labourers in Pakistan. But by the 1980s, the brick kiln owners struck back, allegedly using force and bribes to ensure the law remained on their side. By the time the new Zia regime came into power, the BMM was in trouble. The fundraising had been dented, and there were no avenues for financial assistance either. Amidst this slump, Ehsanullah was also thrown in jail over a story he penned for Viewpoint.

By this time, Ehsanullah was convinced that he needed foreign assistance to ensure that the BMM survives. Initial efforts bore little; but once he was released, Ehsanullah met Kailash Satyarthi. At the time, Satyarthi’s organisation Bachpan Bachao Andolan was making waves for its raid-and-release strategy of having children released from bondage.

As fate would have it, 1987 propelled the burgeoning bonded labourers’ movement to its next level — again courtesy of a group of bonded labourers who had dared to speak up. Like Baba Kaala, this group was also complaining about violence against a bonded woman. An owner of a brick kiln, Malik Jahangir, had decided to sell the wife of a worker who was contemplating escaping from the kiln. The owner wanted to recover the debt the worker owed.

But Jahangir was scared too; he was fearful that a case would be registered against him by the workers. The kiln owner had his people unleash violence at the workers, seemingly to discipline them all. The men were beaten and tortured, some women raped, and the children were tied to chains. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) would even report the case of a pregnant woman who was tied to a car and dragged a kilometre.

A petition was sent to the Supreme Court through a telegram, pleading the court to take notice of the transgressions being committed against the bonded labourers. This petition was signed, among others, by a man named Darshan Masih. This group of individuals was guided by the BLLF and the HRCP; the latter claimed they had testimonies of workers whose wives and daughters were raped by the owner’s guards in their presence. The court took suo moto notice of the telegram and initiated proceedings.

On September 18, 1988, the Supreme Court of Pakistan handed a landmark judgment. Drawing on Article 11 of the Pakistani Constitution, the court outlawed bonded labour in Pakistan and granted workers their decree of freedom (Parvana-e-Azadi). The day is still celebrated as Independence Day (Yaum-e-Azadi) by bonded labourers, especially those employed in brick kilns.

The success made people sit up and take notice of the BMM. Kailash Satyarthi would explain to Ehsanullah to look at the larger picture: more cases of bonded labour had started cropping up, from various sectors and industries. One such industry was carpet weaving: children were largely employed for intricate weaving but were kept in bondage and remunerated a much smaller amount than their adult counterparts.

Kailash was influential in steering Ehsanullah to concentrate on carpet weaving too. This would be done through a new organisation, created as an NGO: the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF). The organisation would be set up on the model of India’s Bahchus Mukti Morcha (also translated as Bonded Labour Liberation Front) — an organisation set up by former minister Swami Agnivesh, and for whom Satyarthi would also dedicate time.

All anti-bonded labour activism would be brought together and consolidated under the banner of the BLLF; the new organisation would concentrate on educating bonded labourers, and teach them how to read, write and count. Along with brick kilns, carpet weaving would also be the focus of the new organisation

The BLLF in Pakistan eventually split into two sets – BLLF-Global and BLLF-Pakistan – over accusations of corruption, nepotism, sexual harassment, fraud, and even murder. Activists argue that the movement collapsed because of the unaccounted money that Ehsanullah would receive, and because all power was concentrated within the person of Ehsanullah Khan.

Even today, both sides claim innocence and the moral high ground, but there was still plenty of work to be shared around. There were millions of children still in bondage, and there was still a need for conscientious souls to dedicate their lives in the process. Both BLLFs are still surviving, in one form or another, while more NGOs working on the issue have also cropped up.

Despite the fall of the movement from its once lofty position, rights activists on this side of the border would always gratefully remember Kailash Satyarthi – the friend who helped them survive when few others did.

The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @ASYusuf