“You should leave my house as soon as possible,” 55-year-old M Bhagri insists. “If someone saw me standing with you here and talking...”
Bhagri is worried about repercussions for his family. He wants to talk about the murder of his 8-year-old daughter, but says he does not have his landlord’s permission. Lower caste-Hindus like Bhagri comprise 80 per cent of the total Hindu population living in Sindh's remote areas, and most are fearful peasants and bonded labourers who have been working for local landlords since decades.
It has been five years since Mina* was killled, and while Bhagri remembers every detail, he says it is difficult to talk about her. Had he been more vocal, events might have turned out differently.
When Bhagri’s older daughter Beena* married Jagu*, she didn’t move too far away from their home. Jagu’s village, Veenhal Bhanoth, was not far from Bhagri’s own Meeranpur village, about six kilometers from Hala, a PPP stronghold. His younger daughter Mina, eight-years-old at the time, was particularly delighted about this geographical convenience: she could visit her older sister at her new house whenever she liked.
On March 15, 2011, Mina left her house as usual to go spend some time with her sister.
Two days later, her body was found abandoned in wheat fields by H Rind, the landlord of the area. He quickly informed Bhagri, who rushed to the spot to find that his daughter’s corpse was serving as food for stray animals and dogs.
In a photograph shared with Dawn.com, Mina poses with her youngest sister, her parents on either side. Dressed in pink, she wears lipstick, bangles, and an orange dupatta tied around her forehead. Her white cheekbones and narrow, kohl-set eyes resemble her mother's, but in gestures she mirrors her father.
Bhagri keeps an enlarged, framed copy of the photograph at home. It is one of Mina's last. It is a contrast to the sight policemen found when they rushed to the fields four years ago; Bhagri was standing by her body, and both were taken to Taluka Hospital Hala. A few hours later, the post-mortem revealed the girl had been raped and strangled to death.
Dr Tahira, who conducted the post-mortem on March 17, found six wounds on Mina’s body. The report revealed she had died of cardio pulmonary failure due to wind-pipe compression. The rapist had strangled her to death with her own dupatta.
Bhagri took little Mina home to carry out her funeral rites. He imagined a lifetime of grieving for his second-youngest child, but at that moment he was consumed with anger. He was fixated on a more pressing matter: of lodging a First Information Report (FIR) and finding the murderer.
The police meanwhile started their own investigation. Eyewitnesses said they had seen a man drag the girl into the fields. As they did with other crimes, the police launched into action against suspects nominated by their own men and by the local landlord. They arrested and detained three men from the Hindu community who were interrogated under murder charges. It would later emerge that they had no connection with the crime.
During the course of the investigation, which went on for six months, the men stuck to their story, insisting they were innocent.
"Such incidents are common and are hardly resolved," says Pushpa Kumari, co-ordinator of the Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network. She knows from experience: violence by Muslim landlords against lower-caste Hindu workers is commonplace, since a sense of religious superiority and power gives them security against their victim. “Women in these communities are especially weak and vulnerable,” says Pushpa.
By 'these' she means lower-caste Hindu communities like Bhagri, Kolhi, Meghwar and Oad. There are upto 40 castes, also called 'scheduled caste' communities.
Often, incidents of violence result in scapegoating men from scheduled castes. "These issues are faced by peasants from lower-caste Hindu communities on a daily basis," agrees Punhal Sario, President of the Sindh Hari Porihat Council (SHPC). "It is the height of barbarism that they cannot do anything against violence and coercion."
“People don’t think twice before physically and sexually assaulting these [Hindu] girls,” Pushpa adds. “They know the ‘poor Hindus’ can’t do anything against them.”
Six months into the murder trial at a sessions court in Matiari, a new man entered the picture. M Shah, who was a manager for Bhagri's landlord, was produced in court by the police. He admitted his guilt and agreed to record a confessional statement before the civil judge and the judicial magistrate.
The vice-president of the District Bar Association Matiari District, Badal Gahoti, confirms M Shah’s statement, in which he did not leave out any detail: he had "committed Zina" with the deceased eight-year-old, and "when she started crying, he had closed his hand upon her mouth".
“She died then,” he said in his statement. Shah detailed how he removed her gold earrings and all her jewellery, including a silver bracelet and a nose-ring. Before leaving, he threw her body in the wheat fields where she was eventually found.
Shah was promptly arrested and thrown into Hyderabad Central Jail; a fresh trial would follow, and the previous suspects were released. Justice was on the way to be served, but the trial met with delays. Bhagri had drained out his savings, and started borrowing money so he could travel back and forthto the court. But suddenly, Shah was released on bail.
Despite pressure from villagers, civil society members and Mina's family—all of whom thought court proceedings could only end in one way—the police had abruptly let the rapist off.
The strangest truth, however, surfaced later: it was Bhagri who pardoned the very person who raped and killed his daughter. A compromise had been brokered by the landlord.
“I did not take any bribes or enter into any compromise with Shah,” Bhagri insists. He doesn’t want to name anyone, and rejects allegations that any money was involved.
Bhagri says it’s simple: he was “under pressure” and he had no other choice. “Shah was the manager of the local landlord,” Bhagri says. “These people can influence anybody.”
One of the men who had earlier been arrested and released filed a defamation case against Bhagri some time before Shah was released. Bhagri had not seen the suit coming; it was the police who had named the man in their report.
His eight-year-old had been raped and killed, the legal process had swept out his finances, and he was already in debt. He had borrowed money from people for managing court affairs and travelling for the hearings. And now, just when it was all closing to an end, the defamation suit came like a slap in his face.
It meant new expenses. More loans. He felt what he had lost could not be recovered, and he had a duty to protect what he had left.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he cries.
Senior Advocate Bahal Ghoti says Mina’s family knows exactly who murdered and raped her. “They were harassed,” Bahal says, “And were too scared to disclose the reality to anybody.”
It is the tragic story of a poor man unable to get justice because the perpetrator is too powerful. In the Matiari district, none of the farmers own the land they till, explains SHPC President Punhal Sario. Bhagri lives with his family in a cloth tent propped up on a stretch of land: the landlord owns this too.
"Despite working all day in the fields, they cannot as much as demand accounts of the crop harvest," Sario elaborates. Most of these farming families—typically from the lower-caste Hindu communities—are stripped of any rights or ability to make independent decisions. "They cannot talk to anyone or do anything outside of their duties without the local landlord’s approval."
Even personal decisions are not allowed with landlords intervening in everything from deciding whom their employees vote for, to whom they marry. In some cases, farmers have to seek permission before going somewhere to visit a friend or family.
“I’m certain Bhagri was compelled to enter into a compromise by pardoning Shah,” Sario says, adding that local policemen support landlords, not the peasants. He feels that most people arrested during the course of the investigation had nothing to do with the case. "Shah only confessed to the crime because he knew he would be pardoned."
Although the area is a stronghold of late PPP leader Amin Faheem and sitting Sindh Minister Jameel us Zaman, Bhagri thinks police and political leaders don’t care about landless Hindu peasants like him, and are complicit in spreading violence with the local landlords. “If things go wrong, it only creates more trouble for us.”
"There are also Muslim peasants," the driver interrupts to explain, "But they are not as weak and vulnerable as non-Muslim peasants, especially lower-caste Hindus." He is referring to communities like the Lagharis and Solangis, for whom he says different rules apply.
But for lower-caste Hindus, there seems to be a script: keep quiet when there is a transgression and move on with life.
“I’m scared of him [the landlord],” Bhagri admits.
“If this incident involved a Muslim peasant girl, things would have gone differently,” the driver concludes in a matter-of-fact tone, “No one would have pardoned the accused man.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of victims and their family on their request.
Sahib Khan is a journalist based in Hyderabad. Header photo by Sadia Khatri