Subject: Living in fear
By Imdad Soomro
24 Apr 2003
The Hindu communities in Sindh are victims of the terrible law and order situation which remains under the control oflocal influentials, writes Imdad Soomro.
Khahi, a city near Shikarpur, once a business hub of the Hindu community in Sindh, is now deserted. "The city was known for its flourishing business of cotton and cloth materials, when the local businessmen used to trade with the neighbouring cities of Jacobabad and Sukkur," reminisced an 80-year-old resident of the area. Along with this one time peaceful city there are many others nearby, inhabited by the Hindu community, which have lately been targeted by dacoits, patharidars and robbers, forcing most to leave their ancestral homes and property for safer areas.
For the residents of upper Sindh, especially Hindus, these are terrible times. In the hub cities of this community - Jacobabad, Thul, Kashmore and Shikarpur - you will find a majority of the community all set to leave their native cities. "Most of us want to shift to bigger cities now," says Bacha Ram Sewhani, a naib president of the Hindu panchayat Jacobabad. He was robbed a week ago in the middle of the city. Having lived for centuries in Sindh, the Hindu community now feels victimized. "Only in the last four months, some 25 people of our community have been kidnapped in the Thul, Kashmore and Kandhkot talukas of Jacobabad district," says Ramesh Laal, a rice mill owner.
For safety, the Hindu business community living in these areas relies on, and is at the mercy, of the sardars. It was disclosed that the Hindu businessmen pay dunn (a sort of ransom) to the influential sardars of the area. "We have no other way of protecting ourselves except to pay dunn to the sardars of several tribes," confessed Laal.
In Thul, almost 80 per cent of the business conducted by Hindus is carried out in collaboration with the sardars. Many sardars also receive financial assistance from Hindu seths during elections, this serves as a reciprocity that also ensures their security.
Last year, a Hindu seth Ashok Kumar of Rohri was kidnapped by a dozen dacoits and released only after a deal was struck with an influential of the area. "We possess no weapons, and have no strong baradari (tribe). How can we be protected without the cooperation of local sardars?" questioned a young Hindu seth who wishes to remain anonymous.
Though the law and order situation has affected everyone living in the area, it is particularly bad for the Hindu community because it has left their homes and businesses vulnerable. "They are both socially and financially insecure," says Eshaware Laal, president of the Hindu panchayat in Sukkur. But he sees hope and feels optimistic about the joint electorate system. "We will have elected representatives who will surely address the grave dangers we are facing," he adds.
The first shocking incident of kidnapping occurred in the year 2000 near Kashmore, in which 12 women including two from the Hindu community, were kidnapped by the gang of the notorious dacoit Kamal Fakeer Shaikh. As a matter of respect to women, it is widely believed that even dacoits in Sindh bow their heads before the women and never allow gang-members to insult them. Paro Chandio, a renowned dacoit during General Zia's time, was well known for his treatment of women. He held them in the samerespect as that of a mother or sister. He also helped finance several poor families with their daughters' marriages.
In the Kashmore kidnapping incident all the Muslim women were released but the two young Hindu women of Thul were kept in the panahgah (hiding place). The Sukkur divisional administration during the time, reportedly intervened and 'pressurized' the then PML MPA Sandra Saleem Jan Mazari and Chief Sardar Sunder Khan Sunderani who went into the forest for the girls' recovery.
"The Hindu women were freed after paying a heavy ransom," an insider disclosed. This was the first ever incident of its kind in the history of such dacoities, that have taken place in Sindh and they caused anguish to the Hindu community throughout Sindh. "I have only one remorse and feel guilty that those women were kept in my hiding place," confessed Kamal Fakeer, who was arrested recently in Thatta district. While talking to local reporters he exposed that it was not him who kidnapped the women, but another gang had been responsible for the kidnapping and they had handed them over to him (Fakeer).
After the frightening incident, many families opted to migrate to India to their relatives and many others left for Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur. "There are visa problems these days, but once they are resolved we will have no other alternative but to leave," said Kishan Laal, general secretary Hindu panchayat, Jacobabad. He alleged that it is the sardars who foster these dacoits and criminals. "But the locals and neighbours are our friends and they are there with us in trying times,"he maintained.
"Cases of robberies and kidnappings have increased nowadays," said Babu Maheesh, president of the Hindu community and a businessman. "The administration and police are cooperating with us but we still face great difficulties." He said everyone suffers from the difficult situation of law and order in these parts of the district but the Hindu community has beenparticularly targeted.
There is a need for mutual support and understanding of the local influentials if peace is to prevail otherwise the situation could worsen. In the upper Sindh areas, the administration and police also depend on the chieftains and sardars. "During the election campaign our first demand was for peace and security (of the Hindu community) which was put before the sardars," said a Hindu citizen. He considers the community's struggle for a joint electorate system to be in line with their demands of security. This was the first time after the separate electorate system was abolished. "Now we do keep an option of accountability when they come to us for votes," said Mukkesh from Sukkur. The situation however, remains the same. Recently three more Hindus were kidnapped from Kashmore and released only at the behest of the influential sardars. Two Hindu seths from Bakhshapur and Thul have also been kidnapped and kept for one and two months respectively.
Many towns and cities in upper Sindh have now become deserted as the Hindu community has moved to other cities. "Mostly we abandoned our homes during the Zia years and thousands of families migrated to India," recalled a Shikarporian seth.
Like Khahi, many other neighbouring towns like Chak and Bagerji have also been effected by the law and order situation and have been abandoned by Hindus. Businessmen and the industrial class were forced to leave their ancestral towns because they became victims of kidnappings, robberies, threats and extortions. "We were told either to pay dunn (ransom) or to leave," said Govind. Cities of Gharhi Mori, Therhi, Beberloi in Khairpur district and Saleh Pat talka of Sukkur district, face a similar situation.
In the ketcha, Hindu land-owners have reportedly been harassed and victimized by land grabbers. Hundreds and thousands of acres of cultivated land was purchased by the patharidars and sardars at negligible rates.
Recently in Kashmore some 20 armed personnel allegedly attacked villagers with rocket launchers, rifles and other automatic weapons at a bus-stand, leaving 15 people dead including a Hindu woman, and kidnapped nine villagers including threeHindus. "The armed men threatened the Hindu communities of Kashmore and Thul talukas to either leave the towns or face the consequences," said a local journalist who was present at the incident.
The Hindu community lives under tremendous fear amidst such threats. "Where do we go from here leaving our property, homes, and above all- our motherland behind?" lamented a local Hindu resident.