By Andaleeb Rizvi
Veerji Kohli was sentenced to life imprisonment in a murder case in April 2017 in Pakistan, a country where human rights activists, journalists, and advocates of free speech are often killed, lynched or implicated in false cases.
Veerji Kohli works for bonded labourers and minority rights, and calls for justice against the downtrodden who are easy victims of the landlords in interior Sindh, a dilapidated province of Pakistan. In his childhood, Veerji himself was bonded in labour to a local feudal.
The human rights activist came in limelight during 2010 when he fought to get justice for a 14-year-old gang-rape victim, who belonged to the scheduled caste of Hindus in the desert area of Pakistan. It was a high profile case because of the involvement of Sharjeel Memon, a Pakistan Peoples’ Party member, who became a member of the parliament in 2013.
With the connivance of Memon’s henchmen Raees Ghani Khan Khosa and Bachal Khan Khosa, the murder case was fabricated in 2011 to get rid of Veerji. The Khosas were also involved in the gang-rape of the 14-year-old Hindu girl Kasturi Kohli in 2010.
Since Veerji was too vocal for the comfort of the feudal lords, it was more convenient for him to be put away then to be let live peacefully as he wished. Reports also say that the minority Hindus were being forcefully removed from their lands which were rich in clay deposits. The feudal wanted to lease the precious land to miners, and Veerji Kohli was a hindrance in that matter too.
He was nominated as the prime suspect in the murder case of Mohammed Sualeh Shoro, who was killed in Nagarparkar in March 2011. The case was sub judice for six years, but the ruling party in Sindh, Pakistan Peoples’ Party, legacy of the Bhutto’s, failed to protect their minority rights worker against the rich and powerful feudal lords.
Legal experts and activists allege the court neglected the alibis that established Veerji’s presence in another city – Hyderabad – whereas the murder took place in Nagarparkar. The activist, himself an advocate, produced at least seven witnesses to testify in his favour, and though he was acquitted by the police during investigations in 2011, in April 2017, the court dismissed all the evidence and alibis as lies and sentenced the activist to a life term.
Sadly, Veerji is not the first person to have been targeted by the rich and powerful political elite of the country.
Victimisation of people living on the lowest rungs of the society is systemic and very blatant in Pakistan, and those who support victims can very often be kidnapped, held prisoner, lynched, and shot dead.
In recent memory, the case of Mashal Khan is alive, who was lynched by a mob inside a university for questioning the management of that institution of higher education.
Those who work for the downtrodden invite the wrath of the status quo and by their mere mention of the word justice can become victims of the same system they fight against.
Perween Rahman, an architect and social activist, was shot dead on March 13, 2013 for standing up against land mafia and speaking for the rights of the poor.
Two activists Abdul Ghani and Haji Abu Bakar, who were fighting against mangrove cutting and land grabbing along the coastal areas of Pakistan were tortured and their bodies dumped in the sea in
Another rights activist Nisar Baloch was shot dead by land mafia on November 7, 2009. He spent two decades fighting to save an amenity park in Karachi.
Going by these numbers, it is very likely that Veerji’s life is in danger too. He has been shot at and kidnapped in the past by the Khosas and their accomplices. The case of Veerji is not a simple grudge of a feudal lord against a scheduled caste Hindu, it is a matter of land, rights, and profits.
The ruling party of the province – Pakistan Peoples’ Party – needs to stop taking the side of the powerful and protect its minority member. Sindh is known and famous for its plurality, Sufi shrines, saints, and poetry portraying harmony and peace, and people like Veerji help maintain that balance which extremism is making scarce in the country.
If there is injustice, there are bound to be parallel systems which utilise this gap for their own vested interest. We have seen this happening in Afghanistan and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan.
The government of Pakistan needs to take an initiative and ensure that the case against the human rights activist is investigated independently and without any influence.
As long as people like Veerji are around and active, and can mobilise people to fight for their rights in the Thar Desert in Sindh and other parts of Pakistan, there is hope for the country.