July issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Many urban dwellers know how feudal landlords control the vote: village residents accept the unquestioned authority of the feudals in exchange for the privilege of living on their ‘territory,’ and thus vote exactly as told at election time.

Less familiar is the day-to-day life under feudals, an experience largely unchanged since colonial times. It leapt into the public consciousness over three months ago, in late March, when a group of people fled their homes in Sanghar following a warning and anticipating a second attack on their village, Goth Issa Mohammad Khaskheli. They fled with good reason: in 2007, a feudal gang of 200, armed with guns, hatchets and rods, razed dozens of houses to the ground, broke their victims’ heads and bones, and looted the hamlet’s stores of harvested grain. So serious were the injuries that some victims had to be carried as far afield as the Nawabshah Civil Hospital because they required treatment which was beyond the local hospital’s capabilities.

Even otherwise, harassment was routine. Villagers, including children, were routinely roughed up for not dispersing fast enough before the dominant feudal Varyam Faqir’s approaching Land Cruisers, for resisting the orders to provide unpaid services, or just for being there. To rub salt into their wounds, goats would be let loose to desecrate the grounds of the Imambargah, and the school they built was destroyed as education spelt empowerment, which could not be tolerated by the feudals. It didn’t help matters, of course, when the Khaskhelis committed the unthinkable last year by breaking from the feudal-enforced tradition of voting for Pir Pagara nominees and choosing Benazir’s PPP instead. Unfortunately for them, the PPP lost there.

The excuse this time? The villagers were accused of defacing a huge portrait of Pir Pagara that had mysteriously materialised overnight on a roadside wall. The police and government functionaries were no help, as they would only do Varyam’s bidding. As some explained, “When Varyam spoke to us, we never dared to look at him. We bent our heads and looked at the ground till he left.”

It wasn’t always that way. Some 40 years ago, the irrigation department had allowed Issa Mohammad Khaskheli, head of the clan, to settle his few hundred clan members on the then-vacant, barren acres of what has now become Goth Issa Mohammad Khaskheli. The peaceable, industrious and self-reliant folk named the village after its founder, began to work to clear, level and improve the land, which was largely blanketed by sand dunes and shrub forest. But, inevitably, when crops began to appear and spread over the years, acre by painstaking acre, the local feudals began to realise that, given water and cheap, hard labour, they were sitting on a gold mine.

Khan Mohammad Khan Leghari, a PPP landlord in the region, happened to lease 250 acres from the irrigation department. His lands provided additional employment opportunities for the villagers. And, by 1986, Varyam Faqir became valuable enough to the PML-F to be flagged as an MPA. He used his enhanced muscle to take over Leghari’s lands, by sending a force of several hundred to completely destroy the standing crops. Not of the same mettle, Leghari gave up.

There was also persecution at other levels. Issa Khaskheli’s brother Validad, had secured a post in the irrigation department. On his retirement in 2001, after 30 years of service, he acquired 24 acres of farmland from the irrigation department, which issued him a No Objection Certificate (NOC). Faqir would not stand for this. Validad was picked up and ordered to turn over his land. He begged to be left with enough to support his family in the last years of his life. He was allowed to keep four acres, but was never able to prove the seizure of his property.

Electrified in the early ’80s, with telephone connections following in 2000, the village was long-overdue for regularisation. When Sui gas connections for the village were approved, Varyam Faqir blocked this development, although the main pipeline ran past the Khaskheli village. By then, the 200-odd acres around the village had been completely appropriated.

In 2003, Varyam Faqir’s sons miraculously became ‘owners’ of the village area itself, after ‘proving’ that it had never existed. An enquiry conducted by the Revenue Department found that two mukhtiarkars had falsely certified the village’s non-existence, claiming that state land had been purchased. Calls were made for disciplinary action against them, but this was probably never undertaken. Varyam Faqir himself made the mistake of leaving evidence, by issuing a domicile certificate to a village resident, signed and stamped by him earlier in his capacity as MPA.

Photo: Courtesy teethmaestro

Photo: Courtesy teethmaestro

Varyam Faqir has a colourful history. Not even a resident of Goth Issa Khaskheli, Varyam was a strong-armed goatherd and milkman of Sinjhoro who prospered rapidly, becoming reportedly, a typical land-grabber, complete with a sizeable private army and the blessings of powerful politicians. His status as MPA was short-lived, as the Musharraf government found that he had amassed vast lands and property worth Rs 165 million that were “grossly disproportionate to his lawful sources of income.”

He was consequently sentenced to seven years in prison by the National Accountability Bureau and fined Rs 2 million. The accountability court also ordered that he forfeit 900 acres of agricultural land worth Rs 25 million, acquired between 1985 and 2002. He was disqualified from seeking any public office for 10 years, banned and disallowed from applying for loans from any government bank or financial institution.

With Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, as his legal counsel, Varyam managed to overturn his sentence in the Sindh High Court, on technicalities, and after serving only three comfortable years, mostly as a supposed patient in hospital, where he held court in style, he was released to return to his old ways.

Overwhelmed by the Khaskheli’s complete powerlessness over the decades, Validad finally suggested that the villagers go to Karachi for justice. The lawyers’ movement and the restoration of the chief justice gave him hope. He had read of frequent hunger strikes outside the Karachi Press Club that sometimes bore results.

Not everyone could flee, however. Few could afford the one-way fare of Rs 300 to Karachi. Those who did come had decided to take a now-or-never stand, as they felt they couldn’t bear any more victimisation. Some sold personal items to raise the fare. The group included children, some of them not even old enough to walk.

A rude shock awaited the 70 Khaskhelis who squatted outside the Karachi Press Club. Their banners announced the reasons for their hunger strike, but they weren’t prepared for an indefinite protest. For three weeks, barring a few small vernacular papers, they were ignored by the major print and electronic media. It seems that protests outside the Press Club have become so routine that reporters tend to overlook them, even when in full view. But, then again, neither did the highly-placed politicians like Nisar Khuhro, Shazia Marri and Fatima Bhutto, who visited the Press Club.

It was by sheer chance that some women activists came to the Press Club one day and noticed their plight. By then, the Khaskhelis had run out of money, including what Edhi had donated to them and were starving. The women and children were never supposed to participate in the hunger strike.

An e-mail appeal went out and individuals immediately responded, organising a daily supply of food which continues to date. A month later, Shirkat Gah, a women’s rights NGO, took over responsibility for the protestors. These women thus addressed a problem that resistance by the poor is invariably faced with: protests often fizzle out because a choice has to be made between survival at the cost of compromise, or dying of hunger in the process of protesting.

Meanwhile, emissaries from Varyam Faqir kept coming, warning the villagers to end their protest. Soon, a final threat arrived: pack up and leave, or Varyam would ensure that every breadwinner would disappear or find themselves in jail, their children reduced to beggary. Having suffered such consequences before, Validad spent a distraught, sleepless night pacing the footpath, painfully aware of what faced him. Early the next morning on April 12, while praying in the Karachi Club mosque, he collapsed of a heart attack. He was rushed to hospital, but died soon after.

03Khaskheli_protest07-09His dead body was brought to the Press Club. Ignored in life, he gained prominence in death. The Labour Party, Pakistan Institute for Labour Education and Research (PILER), several NGOs and civil society joined in the mourning. The media was informed, and the death drew them like a magnet. The police tried to avoid filing the FIR the activists demanded against Varyam Faqir and others held directly responsible for Validad’s death. Large numbers of plainclothesmen were conspicuously trying to dissuade the villagers with false promises, asking them to go away quietly. Yet this was no longer easy, as Justice Rizvi, who had extended pro bono legal services to the Khaskhelis, was now actively defending their interests.

The continuous glare of TV cameras telecasting live, forced more than half-a-dozen provincial ministers and advisors, including Shazia Marri and Sharmila Farooqi, to finally appear and pledge redress. A confident Rafiq Engineer, minister for Katchi Abadis, was naïve enough to outrageously declare that since the government had made a public promise, it was not necessary to put anything in writing. But the Khaskhelis would settle for nothing less than a written commitment for the regularisation of their village, a cause for which Validad lost his life.

The police were finally forced to file an FIR, providing for the arrest of Varyam Faqir and other accused persons, and the seven ministers and advisors present signed a statement promising the restoration of the village within a week. They even arranged transportation to carry Validad’s remains, along with all the Khaskhelis, back to the hamlet, along with a police escort, as the villagers feared for their security en route.

This fear was well-founded. Despite additional police forces and several independent television channels, providing uninterrupted coverage, the poorest of the mourning villagers — warned not to join in the funeral prayers — kept their distance. An intruder with a handycam, pretending to be a TV cameraman, filmed evidence of those who attended against Varyam’s orders. His amateurishness, however, betrayed him and he was eventually removed.

The villagers waited over a week before they returned to Karachi. Concerned for the safety and privacy of the clan’s women and children, Karamat Ali, head of PILER, arranged accommodation where the villagers could get a comfortable night’s sleep and attend to their other needs, also bussing them back and forth in the mornings and evenings.

They are now in their 10th week of waiting. It soon transpired that feudal politicians were indulging in delay tactics, while they conspired to make it appear that the village had never existed and was created (unauthorised) only recently.

Meanwhile, Varyam Faqir and four others applied for bail before arrest. At every hearing, the court was packed with intimidating feudal ‘bodyguards.’ After several adjournments on flimsy grounds, bail was denied and a warrant issued for their immediate arrest.

Along with television cameras there were plenty of witnesses to Varyam Faqir’s escape from court. A mighty struggle ensued when Varyam Fakir’s driver audaciously slapped a policeman who had collared the wadera. Plainclothesmen were filmed dragging him away down the stairs, but he was then seen running off alone, finally fleeing with cohort Dr Hashim to a waiting car, without anyone chasing or trying to stop them. After watching television footage several times on YouTube, it becomes clear that the escape was engineered by the deceptive plainclothesmen and having the police not take action. Varyam and Hashim remain fugitives and absconders to date.

Threatening visits to the Khaskhelis outside the Press Club persisted. The villagers were told that ultimately they could not win because of the powers-that-be, so it was best to compromise. For the first time in their lives, the Khaskhelis felt the courage to reject this ‘advice’ outright.

Another repeated offer: “Let’s invite the entire media here to the Press Club, and Varyam Faqir will ‘gift’ the village to you before them.” The Khaskhelis were outraged. The village was not his to give.

Then the tone changed. An unexpected message came from an independent TV channel, claiming that Imtiaz Sheikh of the PML-F, current advisor to the Sindh chief minister, was inviting them to a television discussion. The offer was refused, but the Khaskhelis now realised that the issue had become a far bigger and much more political one.

Finally, Sheikh invited them to his house to discuss a ‘mutually amicable’ solution. They refused to go by themselves, fearing that they would not emerge unscathed, if they emerged at all. Thus, they were told to bring whoever they wished. Accompanied by representatives of PILER, the Labour Party, HRCP, some other NGOs, and the women’s group, they felt safe enough to do so.
Once more, they were disappointed. The Sheikh simply spoke of letting bygones be bygones, and to start afresh. He emphasised that even Pir Pagara, the head of the PML-F, wanted a decisive solution, but mentioned nothing about what the government or civil society wanted. The Khaskheli spokesman retorted that it was impossible to forget a past that had cost his people their lives, livelihoods and dignity. He embarked on a narrative of the ignominies of several decades, outlining stories even the NGOs were unaware of, including disappearances, cruelty and humiliations of the basest kind.

The smooth politician Sheikh contended that dwelling on charges and counter-charges could go on forever, and sought immediate peace instead. But he had not expected the protesters to be so adamant, and soon found himself promising that the village would never be harmed again. Mistaking silence for assent on their part, he asked: “Shall we call Varyam Faqir, then? Shall we embrace and be friends again?”

There was pin-drop silence among the horrified company. Was Varyam Faqir lurking there, listening? They told Imtiaz Sheikh that anything more to be said could be conveyed directly to their lawyer, and left.

Last month, the Khaskhelis and the NGOs observed the chaliswa (40th day) of Validad’s death, with a secondary purpose: to remind the government of its unfulfilled promise. The media was informed, but most outfits had long since lapsed once more into their previous indifference. There were many other events and issues to cover. But they had missed a vital point about the Khaskheli case, it was no longer just about a small, remote village. They should have wondered why a powerful feudal lord and a right-hand man of Pir Pagara should make such a fuss over a paltry 12 acres inhabited by a tribe of thousand-odd, mostly poor persons.

The lawyers and the NGOs knew the answer but it was a naïve relative of Varyam Faqir who inadvertently conceded the fact. He had been sent to Karamat Ali at PILER to present Varyam’s case and assess theirs. When asked why Varyam’s party couldn’t let the village be regularised and let the whole debacle be forgotten, he said that would be disastrous — a precedent would be set, and soon other villages would rise up and demand the same. This simply raises the question: should individuals be allowed to continue to ‘own’ villages, thereby dictating and controlling people’s lives to the point of enslavement, perpetrating a system evolved from colonial times?

After Validad’s death, the Khaskhelis had appealed to the Supreme Court through the media, asking it to take suo moto notice. They did not know that it already had. The outcome remains to be seen.

Only two official promises have been kept so far. The many false cases that were constantly filed against the villagers as standard modus operandi were withdrawn. In addition, the promised compensation cheque of one lakh rupees was, after many delays, finally issued to Validad’s widow. For this the Khaskhelis give credit to Sharmila Farooqi who, they state, always received their calls kindly and gave them a patient hearing, something others never did.

The investigations and cases in court gave the Khaskhelis enough sense of security to return to their village to continue earning their livings which had come to a standstill. But eight to 10 representatives, who have vowed not to leave until the village is officially made theirs, always remain at the Press Club. Unconfirmed reports pour in of Varyam Faqir selling off his lands — Rs 200 million worth of them, so far — to avoid possible investigation and confiscation, something which can be verified, provided access is allowed to land and sales records.

It is said that every law has a loophole and the outcome could go either way. The anticipated decision on the Khaskheli village will determine whether the feudal status quo is to be overturned, and whether honest land reform and transparent redistribution can finally be carried out.

It is understandably difficult for Prime Minister Gillani to take note of this story — which he hasn’t — given that he is related to Pir Pagara twice over through marriage, his aunt being Pir Pagara’s wife, and the knot had been tied tighter last year with the marriage of his son to Pir Pagara’s granddaughter.

It is not easy for the judiciary either, which is struggling to completely revamp the system, with so many at the highest echelons not inclined to cooperate. But this time, they have civil society on their side.