LAW: IGNORANCE OF THE LAW

Published June 19, 2022
The hut where Shanti lives with her parents in Bhooro Kolhi | Photos by the writer
The hut where Shanti lives with her parents in Bhooro Kolhi | Photos by the writer

Twenty-year-old Shanti Kolhi is married but still lives with her parents, four sisters and two brothers. They live in village Bhooro Kolhi, located 8km west of Badin city, near the Morjhar canal on the main Karachi-Badin Road. Bhooro Kolhi is home to around 30 families of the poverty-stricken Kolhi caste.

In January 2017, while Shanti was still a 15-year-old schoolgirl, her parents arranged her marriage, without her consent, to Thanwar Kolhi, a 17-year-old farm labourer from the village Walho Kolhi, in Tehsil Tando Bagho. The marriage was solemnised by Parsomal Maharaj, an unregistered pandit from village Premoon Kolhi in district Badin.

Within just a few months of their marriage, the newly-wed couple began to quarrel, and then Thanwar beating up Shanti became a daily thing.

Shanti Kolhi
Shanti Kolhi

“He wanted to get rid of me so that he could marry a girl of his choice,” says Shanti. “He would tie up my hands and feet and beat me for hours. His family remained silent spectators because he told them that I am in an illicit relationship with someone, and this was his way to bring me back on the right track.”

The Sindh Hindus Marriage Act 2018 is a progressive law that can address many of the religious and social issues impacting the lives of thousands of Sindh’s scheduled caste Hindu women. Unfortunately, not many are aware of it

Ten months later, Thanwar dragged Shanti by her hair and threw her out of his house. “It was impossible for me to get a bus to my parent’s village, since it was late at night,” says Shanti. “So I sat on the doorstep all night. Early in the morning, I got on a bus for my parents’ house.”

A couple of weeks later, after the intervention of Kolhi community elders, Thanwar agreed to accept Shanti back, taking an oath to never beat her again. “My parents and I had wanted reconciliation,” says Shanti. “But very soon, the abusive behaviour and beating started again, despite the oath he took on the Bhagwad Gita in the temple.”

Seventy-two year old Hastu Kolhi, who was verbally divorced in 1982, could not remarry because of the social stigma
Seventy-two year old Hastu Kolhi, who was verbally divorced in 1982, could not remarry because of the social stigma

Thanwar continued beating Shanti even when she became pregnant. She had a miscarriage in the seventh month.

“He wasn’t interested in the baby, but when I lost it, he accused me of aborting the baby,” says Shanti, wiping tears from her face. “Once again, he sent me back to my parents. Now four and a half years have passed and he hasn’t come to get me.”

Shanti’s father, Rijhu Kolhi, has requested Thanwar and his parents several times to take Shanti back to her married home, but in vain. With community elders not interested in supporting the poor peasant, Rijhu’s only option left was legal action.

Mai Sonee, Shanti Kolhi’s mother
Mai Sonee, Shanti Kolhi’s mother

In April 2018, he hired a local lawyer and filed a petition in the District Court Badin against Thanwar, asking him to give maintenance and medical expenses for Shanti, in case he wants to terminate the marriage.

Four years have passed, but there has been no court decision yet. Rijhu has switched three lawyers in the meanwhile, selling a cow, two buffalos and eight goats in order to afford them.

“I am immersed in debt, despite spending all my agricultural income for the last four years,” he says. “It’s all over for me now.”

Advocate Hemandas Kolhi, who practises at the District Court Mirpurkhas and is also a Sindh High Court Bar Association lawyer for the last 11 years, believes that the scheduled caste Hindu communities of Sindh have no knowledge about the existence of the Sindh Hindus Marriage Act 2016, which later became the Sindh Hindus Marriage (Amendment) Act 2018.

“This is why it has not been truly implemented,” he says. “Moreover, the lawyers are mostly Muslim and do not have a clue about certain sections of this law,” Hemandas says.

“For instance, the lawyers working on Shanti’s case are Muslim. If the case regarding termination of a marriage was filed under the Sindh Hindus Marriage Act, the decision would not have taken more than 75 days. But the suit of Dowry Articles, Maintenance and Dissolution of Marriage against Thanwar has probably been filed under Muslim marriage laws, which is why it is taking forever.”

Although he was not completely sure, Shanti’s father also thinks Shanti’s case was filed under the Muslim laws rather than the Sindh Hindus Marriage Act.

According to Hemandas, the Hindu law addresses many religious and social anomalies which have damaged the lives of thousands of women of Sindh’s scheduled caste Hindu communities for centuries.

“This law states that a couple getting married should be 18 years of age, the pandit who solemnises the marriage should be registered with the union council where the marriage takes place, and a woman can terminate her abusive marriage, and a divorced woman can remarry,” says the advocate.

An anti-caste activist, Sufi Hussain, points out that people are reluctant to leave the dominant patriarchal system, and their ancestral customs and practices. “If the Sindh Hindus Marriage Act 2018 gets implemented, women will ask for their due marital rights, which will be impossible for the men of Hindu castes to accept, because they have dominated women for centuries,” he says.

Hussain believes that the Hindu scheduled caste communities should be prepared for a big social change before implementation of Sindh Hindus Marriage Act 2018. “Once it is implemented, social issues such as domestic violence, forced conversions, dowry, remarriage, forced sex work and the rising suicide rate being faced particularly by Hindu women, will be fixed,” he says.

Chawan Kolhi, a social worker based in village Sobho Kolhi in Badin district, urges immediate government action regarding implementation of this law, as the lives of hundreds of women are in jeopardy because of this inactive law.

“Two girls from two different villages of the Kolhi community in district Badin recently committed suicide during the first half of this year,” he says. “They were verbally divorced by their husbands, and sent back to live with their parents or brothers. In the last two years, there have been five such cases.”

Mai Sonee, Shanti’s mother, remains anxious about her daughter’s tragic life. “I worry that Shanti might try to kill herself,” she admits. “With her marriage ending up in a tragedy, no one wants to marry my other four daughters.”

Last year, Thanwar married a girl of his choice, for which neither Shanti’s permission nor a divorce deed was sought. Meanwhile, even if Shanti receives her official notice of divorce, she cannot remarry because, as her mother says, “According to Hindu customs, no one marries a divorced girl.”

“I have to spend the rest of my life here in this dark hut, alone till my last breath,” says a despondent Shanti, staring into space.

The writer is a freelance journalist, and he can be reached at bbaskhaskheli110@gmail.com. He tweets @mabas_khaskheli

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 19th, 2022

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