By Najma Sadeque
Published in the The News, You Magazine
With so many promises of helping those in need being thrown around, it is high time that our government actually made an effort to take some positive steps. You! takes a looks at one such incident where poor needy villagers sought for help outside the Karachi Press Club…
How desperate do women and children have to be to live and sleep on a footpath of a strange city for weeks – without any privacy or protection from the elements and the jarring noise of passing traffic from dawn to late night, eating when there’s money to spare or when someone donates food, but unable to afford ‘dood-patti’, their chief source of energy, because it costs 12/- per cup in the city. The children and elderly were not supposed to be on hunger strike; but hunger was enforced by circumstance.
With their network of highly varied ears and eyes, governments are the best informed about happenings all over the country, including what goes on in and around press clubs. For nineteen days a dozen people, old and young, from a tiny village in Singhoro, Sanghar, lay on the footpath outside the Karachi Press Club. Their banners clearly explained their appeal for help, but not a single ‘elected’ politician from any party or ‘concerned’ bureaucrat bothered to come to them. When political bigwigs visited the press club on other business, including Fatima Bhutto and Shazia Marri’s sister, the villagers approached them, but none followed up on their promises to meet again. The elderly wife of the late village head fell at the feet of Nisar Khuhro begging him for help. The press clicked away. It made no difference.
Until on the twentieth day, following threats of dire consequences by hoodlums hired by their tormentor, an agitated, 70-year old elder collapsed of a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital where he died.
Prior to that, the villagers had an endless series of horror stories to tell to the few who were willing to listen. In 1988, the local strongman, a wadera and ex-MPA of PML-F and their current persecutor, occupied a house where a pregnant woman was living. She was about to give birth but he would not even wait for the delivery to be over. Consequently, she gave birth under the most horrendous circumstances and the baby died. The entire village was witness to the inhumanity.
The village is not a woman’s world. Feudalism is particularly intolerant of women, and of girls’ education. A school was set up but it was destroyed. After that primary and middle-level classes were carried on in homes. Nor are these villagers enslaved ‘haris’ – and they were offended by what the term suggested. They were workers, artisans and farmers who took pride in their labour.
But this was the ‘domain’ of Pir Pagara since the time of Suri Badshah, according to a reporter who chose to remain anonymous. The locals always voted for whoever they were ordered to. Yet, since the ’80s, they have been enduring intimidation from local waderas demanding free labour … and their land. Piece by piece their lands were appropriated until only the 14 acres on which their modest village stands was left.
Last year, the villagers did the unthinkable. Inspired by Benazir’s return, they broke the trend and voted for PPP instead. Their candidate lost, but that became additional reason for the local wadera, ex-MPA Varyam Faqir, to oppress them.
Varyam Faqir owns tens of thousands of acres, protected and patronised by others even more powerful. He is said to have risen from being a milkman making deliveries on a motorcycle, to becoming owner of tens of thousands of acres of land by unconventional – or perhaps what would be considered routine – means. Much later he claimed that the Goth village didn’t exist. He had either forgotten or didn’t care that in 1984, in his capacity as an MPA, he himself had issued a domicile document to a resident of Goth, attesting to the existence of the village with his signature and stamp.
The fact remains that the Irrigation Department allowed them to formally settle over 40 years ago. The village was electrified 25 years ago and telephone connections came in 2000. The area was originally spread over 250 acres but land-grabbing began. In 2007, Varyam Faqir accompanied with 200 men attacked the village with guns, hatchets and lathis and seriously injured many, including women and children. Medical reports from the Nawab Shah Civil Hospital bear witness to this. Thereafter, half the 1500 population of the 150-hut village fled out of fear. By 2008, the sons of Varyam Faqir miraculously became the ‘owners’ of the village land. When an enquiry was made by the Revenue Department, they discovered that two concerned mukhtiarkars falsely certified that no village existed and it was an unused state land. Disciplinary action was proposed for submitting false reports – which probably never happened. The villagers also went to the High Court which upheld their ownership.
But Varyam Faqir, in the good old tradition of strong-arm feudal tactics doesn’t give up easily. Villagers continued to be beaten and harassed until it became almost impossible to earn a daily living.
On the evening of 21st March 2009, Varyam Faqir arrived with a 100 men with lathis and dandaas to attack for the second time. “Some good soul who knew of the imminent attack – we don’t know who — called the police, fearing people might get injured or killed,” the villagers explain, “The police immediately arrived and prevented the attack. But some of the villagers had already fled.”
“A few days later he filed false FIR cases against us – the SHO’s and DPO’s there have to do his bidding. We are being pressurised and coerced by the police as well. As many as 10 mobiles were sent to tell us to leave the village. One person collapsed and we admitted him in Kiddu Hospital in Hyderabad. It was then that about 40 of us, including elders, women and children fled with whatever little we could carry and came here (outside the Karachi Press Club) looking for protection. Only as many came as could afford the bus fare. We thought we would find justice at these gates.”
There they lay for almost three weeks, always hungry and thirsty, mostly ignored. It wasn’t until after two weeks the media began to notice, but other country events dominated. It required a tragedy to get them on the headlines, and they got it on the twentieth day.
Many villagers had already disappeared and it was easy enough for Varyam Faqir to simply intimidate those left behind. “He warned us saying he would file so many cases against us that we would spend the rest of our lives in jail and our children would be left destitute. We appeal to the Chief Justice of Pakistan to please protect us.”
At 10 o’clock at night on 11th April, with no media witnesses around, Varyam Faqir’s men turned up to terrorise the group outside the Press Club. Highly agitated, the elder Khaskali collapsed and was rushed to hospital where he died.
When the Labour Party arrived for a scheduled protest rally in their support, they found the villagers beside themselves with grief. In no time, the electronic media arrived, with politicians from different parties in tow. With a death on their hands, they had to answer questions as to what took them so long. They made claims but had no satisfactory explanation.
In the meantime, police dithered to avoid – ostensibly under instructions – registering an FIR. Curious-looking, unidentified yet identifiable men kept taking the naive and bewildered village men aside trying to persuade them to take the government’s promises for redress at their word and leave quietly. But the day was saved by Justice (retd.) Rasheed Rizvi, a godsend as their instant official lawyer, and Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Economics & Research who acted on the villagers’ behalf.
Television captured a spokesman on Shazia Marri’s behalf who had the audacity to state that since the government had made a promise, there was no need for anything in writing (as if promises are normally kept in Pakistan!). A village representative thanked Ms. Marri for coming, but flatly said they would settle for nothing less but commitments made in writing. She promised an enquiry – although enquiries have already been done and need implementation. Interestingly, Varyam Faqir was sentenced to 7 years by the National Accountability Bureau, but thanks to a change of government, he got off scot-free.
Finally, after six hours of negotiations, a couple of their representatives had to be taken to the Chief Minister’s House to get that done. A post-mortem was carried out to satisfy reasons for an FIR. Finally, at midnight, the villagers were provided transport back to Sanghar with the dead body, complete with police escort.
A case was also registered in Karachi against Varyam Faqir. It remains to be seen whether he’ll actually be hauled up, and whether massive acres along with a lot of allegedly fabricated documents are scrutinised to ascertain their origin and his financial capacity to have bought them.
The next morning, several channels very revealingly covered the funeral at Sanghar. The crowd was thin because the villagers had gathered, but stayed at a distance, still terrified as Varyam Faqir’s men were everywhere. They pressed forward only after the prayers to take a last look at their beloved elder. Sure enough, a hireling of Varyam Faqir mingled with the media to take a video to identify villagers in attendance. Targets for reprisal? When he was discovered, he was thrown out, but the villagers didn’t know enough to remove the tape from the camera. Not a single senior politician from among those parties that converged at the Karachi Press Club, were there, except for one residing locally. Government was represented by the police guarding the villagers.
Since the Prime Minister and Pir Pagara are related through marriage- the day of his inauguration, the PM travelled to Sanghar for the wedding celebrations – it seems easy enough to resolve an issue of a measly 14 acres, but only if our politicians cared.
On the one hand the present ‘democratically elected’ government has announced a ‘Haris’ Land Redistribution scheme in Sindh, whereby the landless poorest of the poor, especially women, will receive free land to cultivate. Yet much of the designated lands have already been appropriated by waderas, and no guarantees are in place for protection against being dispossessed again. At the same time, waderas already owning excess land are free to oppress, brutalise and displace poor smallholders and steal their lands.