COMMENT: The metastasis of power —Nazish Brohi
Veerji was abducted, assaulted, kept in confinement, and threatened with the demand that the Kasturi case be retracted otherwise he could be kidnapped again, with worse consequences. But it is a lesson he has deliberated over and chosen not to learn
Our hearts are wrenched, our minds boggled, our eyes scarred, our pockets upturned by this flood. But like with all other crises, whether terrorist attacks, rape and killings of women or inflation and price hikes, there are certain people who keep us going; at times our children, our parents, spouses, or those who inspire through their lives as profiles in courage. For me, one such person is Veerji Kohli.
Veerji used to be a bonded labourer, indentured with his family to a landlord, who design debts that can never be repaid and hold people hostage for labour in lieu of payment. He escaped as a teenager and found the resources to free his family. Since then, he has worked tirelessly for the cause of bonded labourers. From Nagarparkar, one of the poorest and most deprived districts of Pakistan in Thar Desert, he is a low caste Hindu, but from the towering caste of those who give us hope.
For a few days, Veerji disappeared.
He has been under death threat because of his frontal position in getting justice for Kasturi, a 17-year old girl who was gang raped. Kasturi Kohli was attacked on January 24 in Mokrio village in Nagarparkar, when she went out to fetch grass for cattle. Ramzan Bachal Khoso has been charged with abducting her and taking her to his father’s autaq (a place where Sindhis traditionally host visitors) where she was repeatedly raped. By this time, 40 other villagers were searching for her along with her family, and hearing her screams, recovered her from the premises of the landlord Raees Bachal Khan Khoso, and saw her physical condition that included bondage.
While the police tried to hush up the matter as they frequently do, Raees Khoso decided in a faislo (order) that his son should marry her as being married to a Hindu girl was adequate punishment for him. The Kohli clan refused, and involved Veerji, who was able to overcome police resistance by filing a petition in the high court for registering an FIR, which was finally recorded three weeks later.
As a result, the police was outraged and in retaliation, raided Veerji’s village and brought with them clan members of the rapist who beat up Veerji’s family and the police arrested 13 of them, including five children, and warned of more such consequences if the case was not dropped. But the Kohli clan refused to back off and insisted their statements should be recorded as witnesses. Refusing not just them, the police even refused to register the victim’s statement, which is procedurally necessary for presenting a challan.
For the next four months, Kasturi lived in Mehergarh’s office — where Veerji worked — while he and his partners started a media campaign and involved other civil society organisations, resulting in discussions in the provincial assembly and the Inspector General (IG) constituting a special inquiry board.
Veerji went to Islamabad to give his testimony before the board, which led to dismissal of the Station House Officer (SHO) and Investigation Officer (IO), and the suspension of SP Chachro and Moharrir of Nagarparkar. Veerji by this time was under constant death threats. Following this, there was a failed attempt to abduct Kasturi, and Veerji was instrumental in filing an abduction charge against the landlord.
The Kohli clan stood firm and stated that as long as Veerji was with them, they would not relent. Unlike cases in the past, all 40 eyewitnesses remained steadfast in their resolve and supported Kasturi despite the violence and humiliation they faced and their poverty of resources. Kasturi became a symbol of low caste hari workers’ struggle against landowning lords and her case a culmination of generations of invisible class struggles.
When Veerji and Kasturi identified the accused and on orders of the inquiry board, the accused were arrested, the threats against Veerji escalated and Ghulam Qadir Marri and Raees Bachal Khoso told him he would be picked up and tortured.
Veerji was abducted, assaulted, kept in confinement, and threatened with the demand that the Kasturi case be retracted otherwise he could be kidnapped again, with worse consequences. But it is a lesson he has deliberated over and chosen not to learn. Under no circumstances will he backtrack, and the case prosecution will go ahead, he tells me.
Veerji knows Kasturi’s assailants, and he knows his own. But he says they are not the same people and does not want to point at anyone till he has proof even the courts cannot ignore. As of now, the DPO, Munir Ahmed Sheikh, is trying to help.
It is unusual for women to come forward and identify rapists in FIRs (usually stating ‘unknown’); rarer still for hari workers to file rape charges against landowners though the incidence of rape is frequent; hardly ever that witnesses come forward to substantiate women’s accounts and support them in moving forward in legal cases; and unprecedented that a whole community rallies behind a woman to challenge the social order of power while imperilling their life and livelihood.
Kasturi’s case has gathered an importance more than that of a rape case and acquired mythic proportions for the Kohli clan as a fight for justice and a rising against historic oppression. And it is a battle Kasturi wants to fight.
Germane to the issue is that rape in Pakistan is a crime against a person, not against the state. If Kasturi or Veerji retract the case, the state itself will not prosecute regardless, because as per laws, it is not aggrieved. If it was otherwise, nothing would be gained from silencing Veerji or the countless others who are intimidated, threatened and harmed to prevent prosecution because the state would intervene. Reporting crime is a trial in itself in Pakistan. The state must feel outraged, and must become the aggrieved party in this and other rape cases. But then as even the most rudimentary analysis shows us, the ‘musts’ do not work.
Nazish Brohi is a social activist and an author. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org