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A Tale of A Pakistani Hindu Family

      Copyright &copy 1996 Nando.net
      Copyright &copy 1996 Reuter Information Service
   MATLI, Pakistan (Jun 20, 1996 9:01 p.m. EDT) - Pakistan legally banned
   forced labour four years ago, but human rights activists say thousands
   of farm workers are still trapped in feudal servitude.
   In the southern province of Sindh, about 1,200 landless labourers who
   have escaped or have been released from the clutches of their landlord
   masters live in a temporary settlement at Matli, about 160 km (100
   miles) east of Karachi.
   "For the last 10 years my family and I tilled 12 acres of my
   landlord's sugarcane fields," Karman (one name), who belongs to a
   Hindu minority tribe of Kholi, told Reuters.
   "In return we were given a monthly ration of a maund (37.32 kg) of
   flour and a few grams of red chillies and that was all."
   Karman, who cannot read or write, has no idea how his family debt grew
   to the 400,000 rupees ($11,400) claimed by his master.
   He does remember that his previous feudal lord paid his wedding
   expenses, adding 2,000 rupees to the family debt.
   "Whenever I asked them to show me the accounts, the kamdar (foreman)
   would give me a figure much higher than the last time I had asked
   him," he said. "If anyone dared argue, they used to strip him, tie his
   hands to a pillar and beat him with sticks."
   Karman and his family are among 31 bonded labourers released in an
   April raid by authorities on the landlord's estate.
   A series of swoops on farms and private jails, launched by local
   officials with the backing of human rights activists, has freed
   hundreds of captive workers in the past year.
   Some escaped to cities or to refuges arranged by welfare groups. In
   Matli, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) is using land
   provided by the local Catholic church as a temporary settlement for
   freed labourers.
   "We decided to escape from the lands of our landlord after four of his
   kamdars gang-raped me in front of my husband and sons," said Seta (one
   She wept as she spoke of her teenaged children who failed to get away
   and are still in the hands of the landlord and his men.
   "They gagged me and when I resisted they beat me up with sticks," said
   Seta's husband Kanio. "When I fell on the floor they raped my wife."
   The couple had fallen into bondage when Kanio borrowed 1,400 rupees
   from a previous landlord, who later sold him to another one.
   Seta accused the landlord of raping her on three earlier occasions.
   "After each incident, his wife assured me that it would not happen
   again," she said. "But after the gang-rape my husband went to the
   landlord. Instead of taking action against his men, he asked my
   husband to pay his debt, which had increased to 28,000 rupees, or sell
   me to his kamdars."
   Seta and Kanio said they had heard that their children were being
   starved and beaten in reprisal for their own escape.
   The HRCP has taken the lead in trying to prise bonded labourers out of
   the grip of Pakistan's powerful landlords.
   "We had been spreading awareness about this issue for many years. Last
   year we decided to take an active part in securing the release of
   bonded labourers," Shakeel Pathan, coordinator of the HRCP's special
   task force for Sindh, told Reuters.
   In June 1995, a 16-member HRCP team visited the sugarcane estate of a
   landlord in Sindh province and later persuaded the authorities to raid
   his farm and release 67 people.
   Freed labourers recount similar experiences of being chained, beaten,
   raped or sold by one landlord to another.
   However, human rights activists say few landlords have been prosecuted
   or punished according to the law.
   Instead, the landowners, many of whom are prominent members of Prime
   Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, are pressing local
   administrators and police to halt the raids.
   They are said to have demanded that the government return freed
   labourers or pay their alleged debts.
   One deputy commissioner, who asked not to be named, said the
   government had advised local administrators to ease up on landlords,
   especially those who are members of parliament.
   "Lack of will on the government's part is delaying the release and
   rehabilitation of the peasants," said Pathan.

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