Once a landlord's serf, Pakistani Hindu woman enters elections

Published: April 14, 2013

Veero Kolhi,a freed bonded labourer turned election candidate, carries a digger on her shoulder as she walks out of her home to work in field on the outskirts of the city of Hyderabad in Pakistan's Sindh province. PHOTO: REUTERS

HYDERABAD: When Veero Kolhi made the asset declaration required of candidates for Pakistan’s May elections, she listed the following items: two beds, five mattresses, cooking pots and a bank account with life savings of 2,800 rupees ($28).

While she may lack the fortune that is the customary entry ticket to Pakistani politics, Kolhi can make a claim that may resonate more powerfully with poor voters than the wearily familiar promises of her rivals.

For Kolhi embodies a new phenomenon on the campaign trail – she is the first contestant to have escaped the thrall of a feudal-style land owner who forced his workers to toil in conditions akin to modern-day slavery.

“The landlords are sucking our blood,” Kolhi told Reuters at her one-room home of mud and bamboo on the outskirts of the southern city of Hyderabad.

“Their managers behave like pimps – they take our daughters and give them to the landlords.”

To her supporters, Kolhi’s stand embodies a wider hope that the elections – Pakistan’s first transition between elected civilian governments – will be a step towards a more progressive future for a country plagued by Islamic militancy, frequent political gridlock and the worsening persecution of minorities.

To sceptics, the fact that Kolhi has no realistic chance of victory is merely further evidence that even the landmark May 11 vote will offer only a mirage of change to a millions-strong but largely invisible rural underclass.

Yet there is no doubt that hers is a remarkable journey.

 Veero Kolhi, a freed bonded labourer turned election candidate, works in her house on the outskirts of the city of Hyderabad. PHOTO: REUTERS

A sturdy matriarch in her mid-50s who has 20 grandchildren, Kolhi — a member of Pakistan’s tiny Hindu minority — is the ultimate outsider in an electoral landscape dominated by wealthy male candidates fluent in the art of back room deals.

Possessed of a ready, raucous laugh, but unable to write more than her name, Kolhi was once a “bonded labourer,” the term used in Pakistan for an illegal but widely prevalent form of contemporary serfdom in which entire families toil for years to pay often spurious debts.

Since making her escape in the mid-1990s, Kolhi has lobbied the police and courts to release thousands of others from the pool of indebted workers in her native Sindh province, the vast majority of whom are fellow Hindus.

On April 5, Kolhi crossed a new threshold in her own odyssey when she stood on the steps of a colonial-era courthouse in Hyderabad and brandished a document officials had just issued, authorising her to run for the provincial assembly.

With no rival party to back her, Kolhi’s independent run may make barely a dent at the ballot box in Sindh, a stronghold of President Asif Ali Zardari’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

But her beat-the-odds bravado has lit a flame for those who adore her the most: families she has helped liberate from lives as vassals.

“Once I only drank black tea, but now I am free I can afford tea with milk,” said Thakaro Bheel, who escaped from his landlord a decade ago and now lives in Azad Nagar, a community of former bonded labourers on the edge of Hyderabad. “These days I make my own decisions. All that is thanks to Veero.”

BAREFOOT IN THE NIGHT

Like millions of the landless, Kolhi’s ordeal began a generation ago when drought struck her home in the Thar desert bordering India, forcing her parents to move to a lusher belt of Sindh in search of work harvesting sunflowers or chilies.

Kolhi was married as a teenager but her husband fell into debt and she was forced to work 10-hour days picking cotton, gripped by a fear that their landlord might choose a husband for Ganga, her daughter, who would soon be ten years old.

One night Kolhi crept past armed guards and walked barefoot to a village to seek help. Her husband was beaten as punishment for her escape, Kolhi said, but she managed to contact human rights activists who wrote to police on her behalf.

Officers were reluctant to confront the landlord but they relented after Kolhi staged a three-day hunger strike at their station. More than 40 people were freed.

“I was very scared, but I hoped that I could win freedom for myself and my family,” said Kolhi. “That’s why I kept on running.”

Now Kolhi spends her days careering along dirt roads in a battered Suzuki minivan decorated with stickers of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Latin American revolutionary, on her quest for votes. Her only luxury: Gold Leaf, a brand of cigarette. Her only campaign equipment: an old megaphone.

While Kolhi clearly enjoys meeting supporters – greeting women by placing two palms on their bowed heads in a traditional gesture of protection – she has still only reached a fraction of her constituency’s 133,000 voters.

The favourite remains Sharjeel Memon, an influential businessman and PPP stalwart. Memon was not available for comment.

DAUGHTERS FOR SALE

Despite the struggle Kolhi faces, the fact she is able to run at all has emboldened campaigners for workers’ rights in Sindh.

Even remote areas of the province have not been immune to the influence of a more assertive media and judiciary that have reshaped national politics during tumultuous years following a 1999 army coup and a transition to democracy in 2008.

“The landlords are afraid of court cases so they do not abuse and torture people as much as before,” said Lalee Kolhi, another former bonded labourer turned activist, who is no relation to Veero Kolhi.

lalee Kolhi, a freed bonded labourer turned activist, smokes a cigarette while she sits on a  bed at her home. PHOTO: REUTERS

In some areas, land owners can still exploit a symbiotic relationship with the bureaucracy, police and courts to deprive workers of rights and attempt to sway their votes.

Although Veero Kolhi works with a local organisation that says it has helped rescue some 26,000 indebted workers in the last 12 years, several estimates put the total figure of bonded labourers in Pakistan at roughly eight million.

Not all landlords are tyrants, but the arrival last month of an extended family of 63 share-croppers at Azad Nagar, the village for freed workers, provided a glimpse of the time worn tricks they use to ensure debts keep on growing.

Lakhi Bheel produced a scrap torn from an exercise book that declared he had acccumulated obligations of 99,405 rupees after toiling for three years.

Bheel said he had decided to make a break for freedom after the land owner threatened to sell the family’s daughters in return for bride prices.

“I didn’t eat meat once in three years,” Bheel said, adding that shotgun-toting guards had sometimes roughed up workers. “We had to pay half the salaries of the men who were beating us.”

Kolhi’s supporters say the only way to end the oppression in Sindh would be to give destitute workers their own plots of land. But as long as the feudal class retains political influence, talk of land reform remains taboo.

Undaunted, Kolhi — bedecked in a garland of red roses and jasmine — launched her shot at office with an ultimatum.

“First we will ask the landlords to obey the law, and if they refuse we will take them to court,” she said, her voice rising with emotion. “We will continue our struggle until the last bonded labourer is freed.”

Veero Kolhi, a freed bonded labourer turned election candidate, along with her supporters makes a victory sign as they chant slogans during an election campaign. PHOTO: REUTERS

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Reader Comments (44)

  • Voice Of D.I.Khan
    Apr 14, 2013 - 1:33PM

    Bitter Truth is… You can’t win ma’am, you need support from powerful people to win… :(

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  • Apr 14, 2013 - 1:33PM

    There are millions of bonded labourers in our country. The only path to their emancipation is a peoples’ revolution, revolution which starts from people like Veero Kolhi.
    Thank you Express Tribune for covering this story. =)

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  • Arsie
    Apr 14, 2013 - 1:34PM

    Respect

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  • Nobody
    Apr 14, 2013 - 2:16PM

    She’s got some serious lady stones. Respect.

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  • SkyofBlue
    Apr 14, 2013 - 2:21PM

    You go gurl

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  • Candid1
    Apr 14, 2013 - 2:24PM

    I will vote her, and so should every other Pakistani who want to free the country the clutches of the feudals.

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  • Riaz.
    Apr 14, 2013 - 2:29PM

    She confirms MQM’s vision.

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  • Striver
    Apr 14, 2013 - 2:48PM

    A true Pakistani hero. She is fighting against zulm; this is her jihad; it is our jihad agasint oppression.

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  • J
    Apr 14, 2013 - 2:48PM

    She can win, at least she is trying, better to die while trying rather than doing nothing… What a lesson for us, if a woman from a minority is fighting against feudal lords in a place where you cannot speak against feudal lords, why not educated people who are outside Pakistan or in the city can go back and fight for the people in rural areas… It can be done and it will be inshaa ALLAH… well done proud of her for standing up…..

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  • Apr 14, 2013 - 2:56PM

    Again Pakistan is behind the times. India has had quite a few dalits rise up over the years and get into power.

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  • S
    Apr 14, 2013 - 2:57PM

    Respect! And inspiring!

    Landlords monopoly will come to an end InshAllah.

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  • Eyes Wide Shut
    Apr 14, 2013 - 3:08PM

    The only way to get rid of these feudals is to eliminate them because their mindset has become so rigid that they think themselves as untouchables. Ref : shahrukh Jatoi’s case!

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  • Tariq
    Apr 14, 2013 - 3:33PM

    If only real people like Verro Kohli could come toAssemblly, Pakistan would a far better place to live in.,

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  • Reader
    Apr 14, 2013 - 3:36PM

    Sindhi commoner fighting against their vaderas? How can I join and donate to her campaign?

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  • nasser imran chowdhury
    Apr 14, 2013 - 3:47PM

    Respect from a Bangldeshi…………..

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  • Grateful
    Apr 14, 2013 - 4:06PM

    Thank you ET. You can make a big difference, Mr Editor/Publisher with publication’s reach.
    Pakistan needs an Abe Lincoln of its own for emancipation. You can at least keep trying. Good luck, Sir. And good luck Ms. Kolhi.

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  • rashid
    Apr 14, 2013 - 4:44PM

    no life for miniorities no life for women in this coutry

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  • Naveen
    Apr 14, 2013 - 4:45PM

    Legacy of sindh,kudos to ET and all sindh INHABITANTS.A special salute to musharff for electoral reforms of 2002 that partly checked the policy of ZIA UL HAQ which are responsible for current social challenges faced by PAKISTAN and growing persons who interpret ISLAM acc to saudi wahabism rather than SUFISM.Again thanks

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  • Uza Syed
    Apr 14, 2013 - 4:57PM

    This is great, just great. I salute this Pakistani woman for her courage to stand up and be counted and force her voice to be heard. I appeal MQM to back her and be the force behind demolishing the feudal kords and their rule of terror. Veero Kolhi, a freed bonded labourer is my heroin and she gives me all the hope for a change for better Pakistan and MQM nust make it our cause against oppressors here.

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  • salman
    Apr 14, 2013 - 5:06PM

    Hats off to this brave women who stood up I pray these people join MQM and its cause .. support the moment and it will help you fight the fuedals and their thugs

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  • Muhammad Junaid Tayyab
    Apr 14, 2013 - 5:44PM

    Despite everything. Great first step!!

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  • khan
    Apr 14, 2013 - 5:57PM

    thanks to the government of Pakistan

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  • Apr 14, 2013 - 6:04PM

    Dear All Minority Appologists, Please vote her and make sure she wins or stop whining.

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  • Palvasha von Hassell
    Apr 14, 2013 - 6:10PM

    Way to go! Bowled over by the courage and enterprise of this woman. Every success to her!

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  • Mohinder sandhu
    Apr 14, 2013 - 6:50PM

    This is democracy where the plight of poor of the poorest is registered and brought to peoples attention. News paper like ET can report it fearlessly.Change might take decades to come but there is hope now.Pakistan has to stay on this path firmly

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  • RIaz
    Apr 14, 2013 - 7:11PM

    She should join a political party.

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  • Mohammad Hassan
    Apr 14, 2013 - 7:16PM

    I wish, could be your supporter. Keep trying I am sure you will win.

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  • abdur rehman
    Apr 14, 2013 - 7:25PM

    She can win Inshallah :)

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  • Ali Hazara
    Apr 14, 2013 - 7:53PM

    More power to you. May you succeed.

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  • Ali
    Apr 14, 2013 - 7:56PM

    Landlordism must be eradicated once and for all. The working class rural toilers need to unite across religious lines and fight the zamindars and capitalists

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  • Dan
    Apr 14, 2013 - 8:02PM

    This is the area of people like Zulfiqar Mirza and Sharjeel Memon who would come on T.V and talk crap about MQM and ppl still support them, sad.

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  • naeem khan Manhattan,Ks
    Apr 14, 2013 - 8:13PM

    Thank you ET for publishing such a heart warming story, My heart goes out to her and her family, she is a courageous woman and If I was in her constituency, I certainly will support her and vote for her.I always said that a person does not have to have a degree to be educated, intelligent and compassionate towards fellow human beings regardless who they are or what they believe. I bet she will do more for her constituency than the feudals who are aligned with this corrupt party headed by corrupt person.Kudos to her.

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  • bash gul
    Apr 14, 2013 - 9:54PM

    Only in Sindh, the birthplace of the daughter of the East, such incidences happen. PPP shame onyou

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  • Anonymous
    Apr 15, 2013 - 12:02AM

    How is she allowed to contest the elections? She can’t read or write (according to Geo) let alone hold a degree!

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  • Reas Ekberg.
    Apr 15, 2013 - 1:06AM

    @Uza Syed: MQM has invited applications for party tickets through press. They dont charge any for the tickets as the other parties do and they dont require candidates to spend from their own pockets. Party bears the electioneering costs.

    She qualify the conditions of MQM and is likely to get a ticket.

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  • jamshed kharian-pak
    Apr 15, 2013 - 2:07AM

    Madam Veero Kolhi Namastey and Salam good luck to you Important is to be there! in my youth i spent few yeras in Bahawalpur i know the life in cholistan desert but to be slave in desert is an other story thanks to TETribune giving few line to other pakistani compatriots

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  • Optimist
    Apr 15, 2013 - 5:55AM

    Her struggle alone is a sign how far Pakistan has come after Zia’s dark era!
    .
    Pakistani courts and media have given power to such people. Well done! This is just a start. We need to see many more such women in future!

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  • Pro Truth
    Apr 15, 2013 - 6:02AM

    Hats off to this lady! this is the real change we need in Pakistan when common Pakistani believe in themselves and change the world around them by standing against injustice!

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  • Ali
    Apr 15, 2013 - 9:16AM

    Amazing…Bravo…

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  • Tera
    Apr 15, 2013 - 8:04PM

    I would like to inquire if there is any way one can send her some monetary contribution to help her in her pursuit? If you can publish it, I would appreciate it very much as it would assist others in supporting her and others like her.

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  • Concerned
    Apr 16, 2013 - 1:02AM

    A lot of times I find the Express Tribune severely lacking in the quality of its articles, but occasionally, you find diamonds in the rough like this. What a tragedy that Pakistan persists in this archaic feudalism. I was blissfully unaware of how seriously messed up Interior Sindh really is.

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  • d.k.prajapati
    Apr 16, 2013 - 8:24AM

    suppot makes a victory sign as they chant slogans during an election campaign.

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  • Ali
    Apr 17, 2013 - 1:25AM

    “Once I only drank black tea, but now I am free I can afford tea with milk”…that says it all as to what our leaders especially the ones in the last 5 years have done to our country !!

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  • asma
    May 3, 2013 - 10:35PM

    i appriciate your courage, go for it my girl, we all support you, if you dont win this time no problem, keep trying, dont ever ever giveup.

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