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Fighting spirit: The breaker of chains

Fighting spirit: The breaker of chains

Lalee was born in captivity. Her parents were haris (landless peasants) who tilled the land for an Umerkot landlord. As she discovered, her life was scripted to be all about a farm too. When she was a little girl, her family and she, their relatives and some others were sold to another landlord, this time in Sanghar. She was married at the new farm and gave birth to four children here, until a day came when she realised that like every other human being, she had the right to live a life of her own choosing.

“I don’t remember if I ever had a childhood like other children — no playing games for me, no baying for dolls, and no sleeping on a decent bed either. I only began living after my dreamy years were already lost,” says Lalee, now a grandmother, a construction worker and now a resourceful social activist.

It was in 1987 that Lalee put a stop to living as a slave. After a long, hard-fought battle — she was a 23-year-old back then — 58 peasants were liberated from a “private jail” of the Sanghar landlord. Lalee is now a social activist who gets other bonded haris freed and rehabilitated. Her battle goes on.

In the agriculture sector in rural Sindh, many peasants are still held in debt bondage by landlords who hold much sway and exercise great influence. The bonded labourers include both Muslims and low-caste Hindus; entire families of low-caste bheel and kolhi people till agriculture fields in bondage.

In most cases, poverty-stricken families accept a cash advance from landlords for their day-to-day survival. In return, they are expected to be available to work, often for no wage, from morning to nightfall. Women and children form part of the labour force. Apart from their work in the fields, many peasants are also made to work as unpaid domestic help.

This opens the trapdoor to slavery for many of these bonded labourers: since they are unable to return the original debt, they are sometimes forced to accept more loans to meet their urgent needs (such as medical care or a marriage in the family). It is very rare for these labourers to escape this vicious cycle by themselves.

“The landlord and his sons were merciless. No day passed by without physical torture on the peasants, women and men,” says Lalee. “I have still scars on my back displaying all the horrors that were inflicted on me, that I will never forget in my life. When my marriage was fixed, our landlord refused to let me go to my husband Leemo’s house. Instead, he forced Leemo to join me and work in his fields.”

Lalee found adolescence on thatched huts in vast fields where cotton, red chilli, sugarcane and pulses were grown. She was at a tender age when she first saw part of her family herded off to other fields. The lives of those left behind remained similar — a dose of misery, a helping of despondency.

But this continuing humiliation exhausted her.

Now a mother of four, Lalee encouraged Leemo and the other men of the family to migrate back to Thar, their ancestral abode from where they had originally moved to Sanghar decades ago because of drought.

The peasants moved a local court for their release, but their petition was dismissed. The night following the court order proved to be a night of immense torment at the hands of the landlords’ guards and goons.

This did not discourage the family from their desire to secure freedom.

One night, Lalee helped Leemo and eight others escape from the private prison. Those who fled joined a local lawyer and ran away to Lahore. More lawyers soon joined the cause; they moved the local sessions court and eventually won freedom for 58 people.

“Although we were liberated, I could not sleep well for the next couple of years, because I lived in fear of our landlord’s armed men arriving at our doorstep to pick us up,” says Lalee. “Everything has reversed now. I don’t fear any landlord now. On the contrary, I get Muslim and Hindu slaves released from their clutches through any and all legal means,” says Lalee.

Her two married sons are still peasants, tilling land in Hyderabad’s suburbs, but they now live a liberated life in a village called Himatabad or ‘Courage Town’. Lalee lived in Himatabad for several years, but then opted to shift to Hyderabad to help her family change their vocation from agriculture workers to construction help.

Once in Hyderabad, Lalee, an illiterate and low-caste Hindu woman, managed to team up with other rights activists and police to rescue peasants bonded from the clutches of influential landlords. We have found many peasants in bondage and managed to get some of them freed. But most are still enslaved,” she says.

As liberated citizens of the country, Lalee discovered that kolhi and bheel people’s nomadic lifestyle means that a majority of them are not enrolled in the country’s voters’ lists. She then had hundreds of people from her community get computerised national identity cards. Many voted in the 2013 elections while a woman from their midst, Veeru, unsuccessfully contested for a provincial assembly seat from Hyderabad.

Lalee’s youngest son Soomer is one of many children of former slaves who are now enrolled with schools; when asked what he wants to become he replies: ‘a good man’.

“It is heartening to see my children and grandchildren have a better childhood to enjoy,” Lalee says as her amused young grandson on her lap plays with the heart-shaped pendant worn around her neck with black string.

“I have dedicated my life to make the life of my community better,” she says as her off-white plastic bangles lining her arms clack together with her gestures as she speaks.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 31st, 2015

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