Field hand, brick kiln worker, dishwasher and now member of Parliament in Punjab. Sitting across from me in his Lahore office, Punjab Human Rights Minister Khalil Tahir Sindhu is warm and open to sharing his story - one that is both tragic, and deeply inspiring.

Rising from humble beginnings, Sindhu narrates how a sitting MPA recently asked him how a chura could become a minister.

"This hurt me more than the memories of me carrying muck during my childhood," he says.

The MPA was born in the early 70s in a small Christian village in Montogomery Wala, Punjab.

“I was very young when I was told that both my parents had passed away. Being the only child, I was adopted by my grandfather’s brother,” he recalls.

Sindhu was enrolled at Saint Peters High School which was run by a local Catholic Church. This was where he also acquired his pet name Kheelu.

Unlike most children in the village, though, his life was far from playful.

“When I was in grade 3, I would toil in the fields where I had to carry cow dung on my head and throw it," he says.

“Saint Peters High School was a co-education school and all my male and female class fellows used to make fun of me just because I had to carry cow dung. Even my relatives didn’t spare me.”

He says he lived with this, and continued to perform the task for as long as six years. His dedication to his job became a reason for relatives to exploit him for ungodly amounts of labour. He was made to work ─ first, at a brick kiln, and later at a carpet weaving factory.

The difficulties didn’t end there for Sindhu. “My relatives didn’t give me proper food; all I got was leftovers. Sometimes when I didn’t get anything to eat, I would go into the fields to look for food.”

While he was still in school, he discovered that his mother was still alive.

“My grandfather hid this information from me for several years because after my father’s death, my mother was married off to another man.”

He says there were several instances when he thought of meeting her but soon realised that establishing contact with her could probably jeopardise her marriage.

"I recently found out that she passed away."

Sindhu's hardships did not deter his resolve to finish school which, in his words, became his ticket to freedom.

“When I graduated from Matric, upon my request, my church sent me to John Paul hostel in Faisalabad where I completed a Bachelor's Degree in Education (B.Ed)."

There, he says, his life became a lot easier. He funded his college education by working as a dishwasher in a local restaurant.

Friendship with Shahbaz Bhatti

John Paul’s hostel is where Sindhu befriended the late Shahbaz Bhatti who was his roommate for about seven years.

"He was a year junior to me. Politics was our main area of interest and minority rights was our pet topic. We would often discuss the blasphemy law which particularly endangers minorities."

Sharing anecdotes about his college life, Sindhu recounts how he and Shahbaz ran for prefect elections. "Both he and I won once. We always remained good friends despite contesting against each other for the prefect position."

As far as political loyalties were concerned, he says both of them were inclined towards the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). "Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was back in the country in 1988 and Shahbaz and I felt that with her around, the situation for minorities would improve."

Always active in college politics, Sindhu was the general secretary of People's Student Federation (PSF) in Government College Faisalabad. But his views about PPP changed after he realised the party's disinterest towards minorities.

"When I worked with them on ground through PSF, I felt that they were not helping the cause of minorities so I decided to quit. And that was the last time I ever supported the party."

Shahbaz, however, remained an ardent supporter of the PPP until his assassination in 2011. "Our political preferences may have changed but we still remained close."

On becoming a lawyer

Sindhu laughs as he recalls his inspiration to study law in Lahore after passing out from college.

“I was once returning from Karachi on a bus and there was a stopover at a place called Ranipur. At one restaurant, they were playing an Indian movie called Meri Jang featuring actor Anil Kapoor who decides to become a lawyer to seek justice for his father's killing. I was so inspired by him that I also decided to become a lawyer."

While studying law in Lahore, he also worked as a medical representative in a hospital to meet his expenditures.

He credits Punjab's current Law Minister Rana Sanaullah for facilitating his entry into mainstream politics.

"Our friendship took off when he ran for elections in 1990 and won a seat from Punjab. Despite winning on a PPP ticket, Sanaullah soon joined Pakistan-Muslim League-Nawaz. He helped me become a member of the Muslim Lawyers Forum District Court in Faisalabad for PML-N. Since then, I have been associated with the party."

Even when the Sharif brothers were forced into exile after Musharraf's 1999 coup, he didn't think of leaving the party.

However, never in their wildest dreams had Shahbaz and Sindhu envisaged holding government portfolios in their careers.

Bhatti became Pakistan's minority affairs minister during the 2008 PPP government, while Sindhu held the offices of Punjab Parliamentary Secretary for Human Rights, Minorities and Law Affairs in 2008 and Provincial Minister for Health in Punjab in 2013 for 11 months until his most recent posting as Punjab’s Minister for Minority Affairs and Human Rights.

Like Bhatti, who was a vocal critic of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, Sindhu, during his legal practice, also crusaded for vulnerable minorities whom he believed were wrongly accused of blasphemy.

Asked about the current situation of minorities, Sindhu feels it is improving but stresses there needs to be a paradigm shift in mindset to prevent such intolerance and religious bias

"Recently a government advertisement in a local daily sought applications from minorities for janitorial positions. Such work is assigned to Christians only. I complained to Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif that the government should not post discriminatory advertisements. It is highly offensive. The CM ordered Punjab Chief Secretary Khizar Hayat Gondal to remove such postings and ensure that it's not repeated again."

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