Saturday, 22 April 2017

Veerji Kolhi - A light we must protect

In 2014, when I heard the news about children losing their lives in Tharparkar because of the long drought that it was facing, I decided to visit it with relief items for those who were in need of them. I called a friend Gulnaz Sheikh living in Hyderabad to help me and she introduced me to Veerji Kolhi, a smiling man who looked busy on phone sorting out the truck we needed to take the relief items in. I noticed Bhit Shah’s picture in his small office that he had set up in his house. Bhagwati, his wife had prepared very tasty Sindhi curry for me and we left for Nagarparkar early morning next day. Veerji and I travelled together for 8 hours and those hours were the most fascinating hours for me listening to Veerji’s life’s story, his commitment to help the people of his village, his awareness and interest in gender equality, his love for the sun, moon, trees and rain and his knowledge on people from Bacha Khan to Fidel Castro to Benazir Bhutto to Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and the history of Sindh. It was like being in some fiction novel. Since that day I have been visiting Nagarparkar regularly with the help of Veerji and we are both travel companions while making an effort to make a model village that we can replicate in the whole UC Behrano and hopefully eventually in all villages of Nagarparkar.

Veerji Kolhi with his daughter Divia

Veerji Kolhi belongs to a village Dhanagaon in Nagarparkar – a desert area that has been facing drought for years now. Whenever the drought hits Nagarparkar, thousands of families migrate in search of work to bigger towns. In 1988, while Veerji was studying in 5th class, his family also migrated and they went to a place called Juddo in Mirpur Khaas where the family worked as laborers with a landlord. Veerji and his sister Krishna resumed studying there. When people from Nagarparkar leave for bigger towns, they don’t have any familiarity with the new area, they do not hold the influence of any ‘powerful’ background, so many times the feudal / landlords of those areas force them into bonded labor. Veerji’s family worked there and after 7 months when they wanted to return, the landlord asked them to pay Rs.65, 000 for the work that they they had done or continue working there by force. His family could not afford basic food items to be able to pay a big amount of Rs. 65,000 so they continued working there. The feudal asked Veerji’s father after 6 months, that if his children would study, who would do the extra work after which Veerji and his sister Krishna had to leave school and work there for the next 4 years. During that time Veerji’s uncle who himself was free of bonded labor found out about a person named Shakeel Pathan from the organization HRCP in Hyderabad helping people release from bonded labor. He told them about Veerji’s family after which they were released in 1992.  After the release Veerji resumed his studies while working as a clerk in an agriculture farm with a police officer Muhammad Nawaz araayein. Veerji always talks very high of him as that police officer also supported Veerji in getting private education from 1992 to 2005.


This was when his life took a major turn and he met Dr. Fozia Saeed in Hyderabad. Besides many other meaningful roles that Dr. Fozia plays, she is also the director of an ngo called Mehergarh and she asked Veerji to attend a 2-months residential training on leadership in Mehergarh Islamabad. By 2005, Veerji had never even watched a movie ever in his life, as he didn’t know movies even existed. He excitedly attended the training and received the most outstanding student award and that’s when he got a little recognition and Nazish Brohi published his interview in newsline and another was screened with Toseeq Haider on PTV.  Veerji believes Dr. Fozia to be a light in his life when he was in the dark. He considers her his teacher, mother and he is never done with being grateful to Dr. Fozia for changing him from a farmer to a lawyer to a leader. He was taught tools of leadership, human rights, gender equality in the training and he learned it for life. He said that after attending the training when he returned, he couldn’t bear the oppression and exploitation being faced by people and started the journey of becoming a lawyer and human rights activist fighting for the rights of people.


He got thousands of people released from bonded labor and contributed in raising and working on countless issues. In 2010, Kastoori Kolhi’s rape case happened that Veerji raised with a media campaign and he took it to Supreme Court after which the chief justice took a suo moto action against it and the people involved in rape were also punished but the rape was done by the son of a powerful feudal who made Veerji suffer so much for standing for justice. Veerji’s life went in danger. He was shot at while he was in his car with his family; there were false cases filed on him, a case of stealing a cow and eventually a murder case in 2011 that happened in Nagarparkar while he himself was in Hyderabad. Since 2011 to 2017, Veerji has attended around 143 court hearings, spending money on travelling, lawyers and giving so much time of his life to a case he has got nothing to do with.



Veerji Kolhi was elected as the chairman of his union council Behrano on 19th November 2015 as an independent candidate after which he joined PPP. During his election campaign he promised the people that he would make a model union council. When he won the elections, for one year after the elections at least the budget was in process because UC Behrano was a newly created UC so had some account issues. He could just not waste that one year and his conscience didn’t allow him to upset the people who voted for him with hopes so we raised funds and started working in his UC without waiting for budget and he opened 4 solar schools, 2 dispensaries and 1 first aid center, constructed 5 wells in villages with no wells, provided water supply to each house in one of the villages, conducted workshops with women to help them participate in municipal decision making and provided solar energy to one of the villages, constructed a community center that he had planned to have a library in, opened a women sewing training center etc. He also helped develop ration cards for everyone in his Union Council so during drought they could all receive the relief sent by government in a fair manner and he would make sure it was fair and distributed among all by giving his 100% to it.  Veerji has so many plans for the people of Tharparkar to get local job opportunities so the people don’t have to migrate if there are no rains. He believes that he will be able to provide basic needs and basic rights to the people of Nagarparkar because of which he joined the government so he can ensure sustainability in the projects that he implements. His purpose is only to serve people in the best possible way.


On April 1st, 2017 he was sentenced to life by the District Session Judge Tharparkar in the same murder case that we all believe he was falsely accused in. In all of Veerji’s conversations one can so easily tell that he is really against violence, exploitation, oppression and neglect. Its impossible for the people like myself who know him, to even imagine that he can murder a human when he even raises his voice against animal abuse. He resonates peace around him with the way he talks and all of his actions. Veerji Kolhi , the human who advocates freedom is once again caged in life for a crime he has not committed. He is fond of reading, poetry, and writing. He tells us famous love stories of Sindh, quotes from famous saints of Sindh, he talks about environment healing and the love for nature. He is aware! So many people saw electricity for the first time because of him; they saw water pipes in their houses for the first time because of him. Whenever I travel with him and there is anyone on the road asking for a lift, no matter what, he gives them a lift, whenever I am with him, he is solving people’s serious issues, no matter how busy he is, he keeps himself available for the people of his UC. He is not just another person that we are raising our voice for; he is a bright light in the darkest of places.

An appeal has been submitted in Sindh High Court against his conviction. Thousands of people are waiting for justice and seeing their leader again bringing positive change in their lives. He bears a never-ending ocean of wisdom, love, hope and encouragement to any thirsty soul that passes by. Save him!

Thursday, 19 May 2016

11 things that moved me towards JOY

Since childhood, I have been hearing quotes like “Joy is your original nature”, “Joy is within you” from different philosophers, spiritual masters etc but couldn’t understand how. Personally happiness has always been a point of interest for me and I have always seen happiness as the epitome of all success. When I was very little, my permanent prayer would be “ Dear God, make me happy forever”.

It’s hard in this fast paced society to find time for self and avoid complaining about various external factors we assume as our reasons to be away from joy. With time and experience, I added certain things to my life effortlessly and they moved me towards joy. Its not that I don’t get sad anymore because I still cry, get angry, have some unhealthy habits, get involved in arguments, get emotionally low but I can tell with full confidence that most of the time in my life, I feel a constant inner joy and below are the 11 reasons why.



1. Wake up early and sleep early
I wake up at 4:00 am and make sure I don't miss the sunrise. This gives me 4 hours of my personal time before going to work, helps me enhance my productivity, I feel healthier mentally, enjoy my quiet time and it has improved the quality of my sleep.


2. Yoga, breathing and meditation
I have attended many courses of the Art of Living in which I learnt sun salutations, padma sadhna, three-stage pranayama and Kriya. Every morning at sunrise I do 12 rounds of sun salutations followed by three stage pranayama, forceful breathing, chanting and kriya (breathing and meditation) and when I open my eyes I feel as fresh as a new being every day. All of this takes 1 and a half-hour and by 6:00 am I am done. This practice helps me stay in the moment, gives me clarity of mind and besides many other benefits it helps me experience a deep inner peace of mind.

3. Morning bath
I have a bath playlist which has classical music from Bach, Beethoven and some violin tracks that I play while taking a bath with full awareness of the moment and it makes me feel alive, present and beautiful. I use shampoo only once a week and natural coconut conditioner once a week, rest of the days I use only water and when my hair gets dry I put a little bit of rose water in my scalp. By 6:30 am, I am done with ironing clothes, shower and changing into clothes for work

4. Never miss Breakfast
I weigh only 46 Kgs so I may not be having a very healthy breakfast but I have scrambled eggs with cheese, mushrooms, olives and some veggies with bread and masala tea (or green tea). I cook my breakfast myself and cut vegetables in a meditative state giving 100% to everything that I do with total consciousness. I feel it’s the most important meal of my day.

5. Reading/Browsing/tweeting
At around 7:30 am, I read the newspaper, contribute my bit on Twitter, check all of my social media pages and whatsapp, welcome people to the new day and read a few pages from a book. I mostly read philosophy, spiritual or motivational books and sometimes I choose to watch videos on YouTube of different spiritual gurus, authors and philosophers.

6. Job to earn 
From 9:00 to 5:00 I do a job in an NGO working for human rights and providing humanitarian assistance in emergencies. In these 8 hours besides coming home to have lunch, I don't know anything about the outside world and I am 100% into the work that I am getting and enjoy the salary it gives me by the end of the month. I earn good enough to pay my bills, have good food, help someone in need and travel within the country. At work I stay in the moment and I don't plan any activity for future and neither do I bother myself with anything that happened in the past. If I am bound to plan something specific for near future, I just write it down on a notepad and know in my heart that I will manage it.




7. Service to humanity
I run a little charity that works for equality for all and I have a big vision of what to do. When I come back from work, I meditate for 20 minutes which helps me take rest and after that I spend my time on working on my vision which includes work on registering my NGO, raising funds, spreading awareness, contacting people from the areas where I am involved in working, implementing activities in different areas of need and listening to people from different areas about their issues as I get messages from people of various geographic locations with their serious issues/matters and I then work on their solutions. I also spend this time being an activist on social media or attending protests favouring the causes I support. 




8. Traveling/ connecting with nature
I make sure I leave the town I am living in at least once a month, come what may. As I am sure about doing this in my life, I never have to make an effort to plan it but it happens automatically. Similarly I make sure that on the weekends I go into the woods, hills or near any water falls, rivers etc., I make sure that I feel the grass barefoot and also in the beginning of the year I aim for a few countries to visit and I make sure I visit at least one other country once a year. 

9. Learning a skill
I never spend my time without consciously learning a new skill. I don't learn it for my ambitions, I don't learn it for any reason but I make it a part of my life to be involved in learning at least one new skill. It can be learning a new musical instrument, learning new asanas of yoga, doing a new course on leadership, human rights, and gender equality, learning a new language or anything that interests me. It always remains a part of my life.

10. Leisure time / Spending time with family and friends
Everyday before sleeping, I effortlessly find leisure time. It's normally between 8:oo pm and 10:00 pm when I hear music actively, meet friends and spend quality time with family, watch some interesting tv series like house of cards, elementary, game of thrones etc , dance with my friends and family members, play some indoor games, do colouring or chat with friends on whatsapp. By 10:00PM I am asleep. 





11. Angel signs
Various beings/things that I encounter in my day, I take them seriously and notice them as my angels giving me guidance. It could be a feather on my way, butterflies, dragonflies, peacocks, something from my dreams or meditations. These angel signs can come as a validation or answer to a question i may have asked, or they may serve to simply remind me that my angels are with me, and that they’re ready and willing to help.

  


This lifestyle may sound mundane to some but has a lot of room to play around with the daily activities, it may sound tough to some but our body gets used to a conscious routine very easily and everything gets effortless eventually. I am sharing my daily routine with everyone because however my day is and whatever is happening in my life, when i am aware of it, it helps me remain at peace and joy. This routine helps me improve my life on a moment-to-moment basis and also helps me spread joy, love and peace around me. Everyday is a fulfilling experience and every moment looks magical. This has also helped me gain more empathy, and the power of intuition. I have met some amazing people on my journey and each one of them works as a magical mentor for me.


On a final note it's in our best interest to invest the time in selves and see what works for us the best and remember that what I feel today as the best may be completely opposite to what I feel tomorrow as we all constantly change.

Slavery Exists

“This injustice I face is not my fate” – Veerji Kolhi (Advocate/Social Activist, was involved in bonded labor for four years.) Bonded labor is an extensive form of slavery. It is a system of forced labor, under which a debtor enters or is presumed to have entered into an agreement with the creditor for doing work in consideration of a said amount, which sometimes is of a substantial nature. As defined by the ILO, "a bonded laborer refers to a worker who renders service under conditions of bondage arising from economic considerations, notably indebtedness through a loan or advance. When debt is the root cause of the bondage, the implication is that the worker (or dependents or heirs) is tied to a particular creditor for a specified period until the loan is repaid." Bonded labor exists in all areas of Pakistan in one-way or another. It exists in agriculture with farmers working in the fields, at brick kilns and even in factories and mines. “10 years ago, we had drought in our village, Koya Nagarparkar and we had to migrate to Umarkot to a feudal lords farm. The feudal lord offered us work and good wages, so we started working there. His men followed us while we worked and made our lives very hard especially for our young unmarried girls. The men who married women from other villages were told that the feudal lord would consummate the first night of marriage because he bore the expenses of the wedding. Men and women used to work separately and we didn’t see our men for 6 months in the rainy season. Many people were killed and buried in the fields where they would run the remains with a tractor at night removing any trace of the corpse. They also made life very hard for my husband. One day they called him to the meeting area and offered him money. For two days no body knew where he was and on the third day we received his dead body “- Punni (documented by Mehrgarh – a center for learning) Bonded labor IS deeply rooted in the exploitative feudal system, which operates on power hierarchies, absolute control over people’s true democratic rule and elected democracies and has been further worsened by the recent devastating economic situation in Pakistan that has pushed countless people below the poverty line. From taking loans for marriages and medical assistance to simply surviving and feeding oneself, individuals not only pledge themselves but their entire families into bonded labor. Illiteracy has played its part in worsening the situation as people with financial needs are tricked into taking loans which are impossible to pay off in the given time frame and therefore are passed on down in the family. High interest rates, low wages and the employers’ negligent attitude toward laborers are just some of the reasons a loan is impossible to pay off. In majority of the cases, the employer tampers with the loan records and coerces the laborer to work indefinitely or face the consequences. The debt accumulated is passed down from generation to generation thereby creating an irreversible cycle of slavery. Bonded child labor is also a result of the peshgi system where a family member takes advance payment from an employer and in return pledges the child to work until the loan is paid off. The landed aristocracy has either maintained strong ties with elected assemblies or are sometimes even a part of them. Similarly, as a controlled mechanism, they have either kept strong ties with the law enforcing agencies and left little room for them to operate on their own. The disbalance between the economic and social structure mainly leads people in total standing of dependence leading them to bonded labor, as on one hand there is high
concentration of ownership, power and influence while on the other hand there are people with no ownership or means of production, neither any social standing or security. “We were like slaves that they had purchased. I cannot even tell you how we suffered. They used to do whatever they felt like doing to us. We were only given enough food to keep us alive. If we died, they would loose their laborers and the work would stop.” – Wakeelan Rajput from Khanewal. (activist/president brick kiln union, Azad Nagar) There have been anti-slavery laws for long but when ILO and Asian Bank conducted a survey, the result showed that about 2 million people were involved in bonded labor. The issue was raised and The Bonded Labor Abolition Act 1992 was introduced. The law was passed in 1992 and its rules in 1995 so it wasn’t used for three years. This law states that an individual living in a society can not be bound under any circumstance or agreement and if any loan is granted under any agreement, after the enactment of this law, it would be considered invalid. Most importantly, a district vigilance committee was to be made in every district to monitor its implementation but unfortunately from 1995 to 2015, we cannot be certain that one such vigilance committee has been made in every district. There was one set up in Hyderabad, but limited initiatives have been taken under it. Regrettably, this law has hardly been used for charging the violators and despite the declaration of bonded labor as a crime under “Pakistan Penal Code”, no violator has been charged with any punishment. The only result of these cases have been the liberation of slaves from bondage but the crimes reported by the victims like imprisoning them, putting them in chains, rape of women and murder of their family members have gone un-acknowledged. Several reasons have been used to justify the non-implementation including the change in the third tier of governance through local bodies where magistrates cease to exist and alternative term comes up. The federal law minister sent out instructions to cover this change in each law, through a notification and a generic notification was sent to cover any act to change the terminology to match the local body system but still did not help in its implementation. After the historical 18th amendment, the provinces are expected to take charge of their portfolios. It is recommended that the Bonded Labor Act 1992 should get implemented first and then the provinces can take their own decisions on its amendments. Federal and Provincial Government should ensure the enactment of this law, make sure that conviction for violators set a precedent. It is their duty to take the legislation seriously and properly notify the relevant authorities for its implementation. It is also recommended that the election commission should disqualify political candidates who are engaged in the practice of bonded labor on their lands. The government must work in close collaboration with the civil society who has collected data and information to play a greater role in the proper allocation and distribution of the funds for their rehabilitation. “We want our government to give us the rights we deserve, so that we don’t have to worry anymore about slavery. The rest we will work out ourselves, we will make our living. We feel that even though we don’t live there anymore, we are still trapped in prison as we can not leave our homes in the fear that they will kidnap us again” – Laxmi Kohlan

published in dailytimes on July 7th, 2015

It's now or never

On 16th December, 7 members of the inhuman Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) ferociously killed 145 people including 132 children and the number is still rising. This horrible Genocide in Army Public School Peshawar has left the silent Pakistanis shocked and disgusted. It is like when you lose a family member, not anyone outside can completely empathize with your pain. Pakistan as a family has lost its children. Had it been the first time it had happened in Pakistan, we would have been hopeful to get all kinds of terrorists eliminated but that is not the case. Pakistan has a habit of forgetting its wounds. Guns have silenced many of us and a doubtless fact is that many of us are still not able to believe the statements of TTP as we have been forced into confusion by our very own.

It took Pakistan some 30 to 35 years to be changed into a mindset that spreads hatred, radicalization, conspiracy theories and doubts because of how we have been truly brainwashed. The fact of the matter is there are still humans living in this country. We are all in pain, we are tired of burying innocent bodies everyday and we have finally united against terrorism. The silent majority has started to conclusively speak demanding only action. It may take us the same number of years to change back the mindset but the outcome of that mindset is the first thing that has to be completely eradicated.

In Bertrand Russels’s words though written a long time ago but still very current given the scenario in Pakistan, “The world is suffering from intolerance and bigotry, and from the belief that vigorous action is admirable even when misguided; whereas what is needed in our very complex modern society is calm consideration, with Readiness to call dogmas in question and freedom of mind to do justice to the most diverse point of view.”

Recently we saw the manifestation of such a mindset again. A cleric who had been openly responsible for kidnappings and attacking Pakistanis with weapons they had collected in the Laal Masjid, ran away in a burqa after being attacked back by the army, arrested and then released by our very own and given a lot of airtime by our very own. He refused to call the children brutally killed by TTP as Martyrs, he even called the TTP his brothers and immensely hurt our sentiments. When the brave civil society of Pakistan protested against his statements, he threatened to attack them on which the civil society filed an FIR against him.

Pakistan is signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) that grants all children the right to survival, development, protection and participation. Pakistan is also signatory to The United Nations International Convention on Civil and political Rights (ICCPR) to ensure that no one is denied his or her right to due process of law, freedom of life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Pakistan’s state can be held accountable in case of failure to safeguard these rights.

The civil society urges the Government to take an action against Mulzim Abdul Aziz. Today Monday 22nd December,2014 we are all gathering outside Aabpara
Police Station at 5:00 PM to demand justice. It is an appeal to all Pakistanis to break the silence, never forget more than 50,000 lives taken by the terrorists and join the movement of getting the people who terrorize us behind bars. It really is now or never. We have been silent on killings in the name of religion just thinking that tomorrow our house can be on fire too. Our house is on fire already, put it off and stand united against terrorism and their apologists.

published on 22nd December, 2014 in dailytimes