Marginally less invisible


Photo Courtesy: Jamal Ashiqain

When I was invited by activist and political blogger, Sana Saleem to talk to women at flood relief camps set up inside Sindh in the district of Thatta, I was quick to accept. I went to around eight camps that day as part of a team of about twenty professionals including dentists from Baqai Dental Hospital and a military entourage to ensure the group’s security and organised delivery of sustenance. Some housed as many as three hundred survivors, while another was less of a camp, and more of a community of thirty huddled on a dry patch of flat land, taking shelter under their charpais.

It was a large camp that struck me as distinctive, possibly the largest one we saw. It was not the camp, made of a couple of hundred tents, but the people there that were, somehow, different. There was a quietness about them, a despair that reached beyond a month of suffering; it seemed to have extended through ages, handed down by generations past. In previous camps that we had visited, women were eager to talk, tell us their stories, and take what we may have to offer. When the women of our team offered them sanitary napkins, many said that they were unaware of their use, but wanted to learn how to use them.

At this camp, the manner of the survivors was completely different. It was not just in the way they talked, or what they did not say, but also in the posture, how they inhabited their space, how little of it they took up, and the way in which they inhabited it. At the farthest end of the row of tents, an older man sat on his haunches on the sandy ground a few steps away from his ‘home’ if you will. If the tent were his home, this would be his front garden, I thought. His arms folded in front of his body across his knees, he stared ahead. Inside the tent, a young woman did ‘housework’ as a young man sat on a charpai staring at his feet.

I asked the man his name, but he remained silent, staring ahead. When I asked where he had come from, he replied with one word — goth (village). From the bag of clothes I had been given to distribute, I took out a few items. Unlike the other survivors who were eager to take what I held forward, this man did not move a finger. He continued staring ahead. These are clothes, I said. Do you want them? He continued staring, and gave an almost imperceptible shrug. I turned to the woman in the tent, who was busy working with her back to me. The young man on the charpai had not moved. Do you understand Urdu, I asked the man, having come across mostly Sindhi speakers along the way, and wondering if that was the reason behind his reticence. Yes, he said, looking at me for the first time. His eyes were grey and watery, the whites yellow. Most people I had met that day had jaundiced eyes, which was not surprising given the water they have been drinking not just since the floods but well before then. I put the clothes on the ground at his feet, and walked to the door of the tent. I had some biscuits and clothes for children, which I gave to the woman who also hesitated to take anything from my hand.

I was further confused when I encountered this dispiritedness over and over at that particular camp. “First, it’s because they’re not Muslims; they’re scheduled caste peasants,” Colonel Shahid, our Pakistan military escort said when I broached the subject with him. “Second, they have not owned anything ever in their lives or over the generations. Everything that you saw there, including the livestock, the few buffalo and goats are owned by the landlord of their area; these people keep them for him.” The colonel went on to explain the process to me of how a calf is given to a family to raise. While the family cares for the animal, fifty percent of its produce, such as milk and fertilizer, is given as interest to the landlord. Once the buffalo or goat is of age, it is returned.

Photo Courtesy: Hira Saleem Malik

Seeing the peasants for the day made me think of Karamat Ali of PILER (Pakistan Institute of Labor and Education Research) who speaks on and works for families such as the ones I met. On visiting his website, I found this news item (scroll to the second article on the webpage), about the case of Manu Bheel, a Dalit peasant whose family has been held in the private prison of a powerful landlord, Abdul Rehman Mari, for the past 12 years. “It’s not just one case, one story,” Karamat Ali said to me when I spoke to him about it a while ago. “There are so many stories, so many issues. I wish the media would give the state of these peasants more attention.”

It may not be too late. As an employee at a foreign donor agency said to me in confidence, these floods might be an opportunity for some of these people who are otherwise forgotten to be perhaps, marginally less invisible.

13 Responses to “Marginally less invisible”

  1. Thanks for writing this Naveen. Like many others, I too have hopes that from the depths of this despair will rise a new dawn for people like those whom you encountered at the camp. The floods have stripped away their invisibility and brought them centre stage. There is no excuse for the government or ‘civil society’, failing them now.

  2. Thank you for visiting the affected people and sharing the situation there. Its really very sad and my heart gets heavy to find out people are in such difficult situation. All of us need to play our role in whatever form we can. We are trying to gather whatever we can to make donations for the flood victims. Please keep us posted and we hope they will get back their homes soon.

  3. 4 Ali Hassan

    Very very good article, the religious minorities in Pakistan are treated very badly , I have been to many villages and far flung areas, they are given to live a very small life, I really feel sorry for that. Very good article again.

  4. We should be ashamed of the state these people have been living in, We failed to give the majority of our population their basic human rights, to health, education, freedom, food, water…. We have actually kept them enslaved for all these years.

  5. I have always found your posts excellent. The charpoy is also my husband’s favorite item as it can be used innovatively.

  6. That’s a good post Naveen. You’ve exposed one of the most pressing issues with the peasants, especially those from the minority communities (who have always been looked down on). I hope the media picks up on stories like these because I believe the media can make a difference in molding public opinion. Keep doing what you do best. 🙂

  7. 8 Nassim Ally (Ali) Osman

    don’T blame me when i say that this flood is a blessing in disguise for pakistaN

    thiS flood gives people like you and those who share the same vision of a new pakistaN the opportunity to connect with the wretched of pakistaN at the most dramatic moment of their life

    theY are the one for whom a new pakistaN should be created
    anD it will be done by them
    onlY by them
    don’T miss this point or else forget the new pakistaN

    futurE leaderS of pakistaN should connect with them
    work with THEM
    educate them about a new pakistaN

    educatE the mass
    givE the mass a vision of a new pakistaN

    thiS is the opportunity to connect with the wretched of pakistaN
    anD organize them for the new PAKISTAN

  8. 9 Asad Khorasanee

    When will the Pakistani media pick up the challange of exposing the disgraceful,non existing taxation system of Pakistan.Stop blaming other states for not helping Pakistan enough during its time of need,look within yourself and see how many rich families have helped out,not only during any crisis,but sustaining our nation,through their due share of income tax,and get Pakistan out of the begging state status.I work for a realty firm in Fremont ,Ca,with four branches,and started collecting clothes,shoes,blankets,etc and manage to get a shipping container full to ship out to Pakistan,and I left Pakistan in 1974.

  9. 10 Majeed Thahim

    this is wonderful post naveen and like way you put the things before readers. keep it up

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