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!