Taimur Rahman Political Archive

Long Live Marxism-Leninism!

The plight of bhatta workers

Posted by Taimur Rahman on June 16, 2006

Published in The Post 16/06/2006

Taimur Rahman

This last week I got a strong taste of the connection between law enforcement and economic power at the grassroots level. Last week Baba Feroze, Chairman of the Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaz, who has been organizing bonded brick kiln workers since 1967, was picked up by the thekedars of the bhatta maalik Hashim Ali Khan in district Kasur. With him was also picked up a bhatta mazdoor by the name of Liaqat Ali who had fallen foul of his employers.

About two weeks ago, in order to escape the wrath of his overlords, Liaqat Ali ran away from his bhatta maaliks. In retaliation the bhatta maaliks not only registered a case of theft in the local police station (Mustafabad Kasur), they also abducted his 9 year old son. Baba Feroze fought this case in the Lahore High Court and won it. The judge strictly ordered the police to find the 9 year old boy and present him in court. After a few days the police managed to procure the 9 year child from his aunt’s house. The defence argued that the boy had never been in the custody of the accused. But this could not be ascertained as the little boy was so frightened in court that he just kept weeping and did not say a word.

Last week, on June 7th, when Baba Feroze and Liaqat were visiting the house of another bhatta worker Nazir as part of their regular organizing activities, they were jumped by 30 to 35 of Hashim’s men (apparently some of whom were armed with rifles). After receiving a thrashing they were handed over to the local police at Mustafabad where so far they have not been beaten up. The police asked the magistrate for a “Remand” (custody for up to 14 days without pressing charges) but the latter refused, setting a date for their bail hearing. On the day of the bail hearing, however, the police simply did not produce the record in front of the magistrate and instead registered yet another case for a remand notice in front of the session judge.

This apparent desperation of the police seems to be motivated not by the desire to uphold the law, given that the magistrate had already taken a decision on the case, but by more sinister motives. In such instances it is frequently the case that the police and the local bhatta maaliks have an extremely strong connection with each other. Bhatta maaliks and local police officers are often from the same caste (which plays an extraordinary role in rural power politics), if not directly intermarried or related to each other through blood. Police officers in rural or semi-rural areas are often extremely ill-trained and possess only an extremely rudimentary knowledge of the law. In most circumstances they bring all the baggage and ideological biases of their class and caste into their police work. The bhatta workers, who are traditionally considered kammis, are mostly looked down upon as “backward”, “unethical”, and “sly”.

During my visit to the police station at Mustafabad for the release of Baba Feroze and Liaqat Ali, I struck a casual conversation with the constables about the issue of bhatta mazdoors. They replied (translation) “Janab, without the peshgi system (debt bondage) the business of making bricks simply cannot run.” Further, “The bhatta workers are very sly, they take the money and run away. If they have taken the money they are obligated to pay it back.” But the cake was taken by the investigating officer Shaukat Ali who remarked, “This is not a false case, I will call the bhatta maaliks into the police station and they will swear on the Quran that a donkey and donkey cart was stolen from their bhatta.” When my friend Rafay Alam, who has a foreign law degree and is about to begin teaching law at LUMS, heard these remarks he was totally flabbergasted. He said, “Can you please give this [method of investigating] to me in writing.” In response, we were all treated to an inchoate volley of hot words with the intention of intimidating us.

We had taken with us a translated Urdu copy of the decision of the Federal Shariat Court and we tried desperately to generate an interest in reading what the law states about the peshgi system. The Federal Shariat Court had upheld the 1992 decision of the Supreme Court for the complete abolition of the peshgi (indentured) system of forced labour. But the poor document received as much attention from the enforcers of the law as the constitution of this country does at the national level by the power-brokers of this country. It will take a lot more than the mere penning of a certain decree to uproot this age old system of exploitation: It will take a mass social movement.

Given that the local police in Pakistan is so utterly devoid of any sympathy for the bhatta workers and any sense of professionalism together with the strong personal (not to mention financial) connections with bhatta maaliks, the police station merely begins to act as yet another conduit for the continuing oppression and enslavement of indentured labour. The remand notice frequently serves as nothing other than a legal cover for extracting confessions through violent and brutal means. The real purpose of this entire process is neither to uphold the law nor to investigate the real facts of the case, but rather to ‘teach bhatta workers a lesson’. It matters precious little if the police, after several days of inflicting beatings, is unable to come up with a single confession: The ‘work’ is already done. The bhatta mazdoors have yet again been taught that, no matter what the law states in writing, their proper place in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is one of continuing abject slavery.

There is much talk these days of pro-poor budgets and democratic elections in 2007. In my opinion, real and meaningful democracy for the three million indentured labourers will only begin with the elimination of the system of bonded labour. This requires, especially on the part of society in general, a burning commitment for the emancipation of the oppressed.

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