July 8, 2021
By Hassan Raza & Shaukat Korai
“I was asleep in my room when someone banged on the door and woke me. The person, without giving any reason, told me that the head guard Kashif Commando had summoned me. I was afraid but I went. As soon I reached the room Kashif and some other guards started beating me. I was stripped naked and humiliated. I was kept in this condition for days. After some time, Dodo Bheel was brought there as well. For days we were beaten up like animals.”
It is a painful memory for Ghulam Qadir Khokhar, a worker at the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC) – a memory that was reality not too long ago.
Qadir, along with at least nine of his colleagues were detained and tortured in a network of private prisons being run by security guards of the SECMC. The issue came to light when one of Qadir’s colleagues, Dodo Bheel, died due to severe injuries received as a result of the torture, while under treatment at a Hyderabad hospital.
Dodo’s death sparked a movement in Thar which saw days of protests by the Bheel community. Members of the community demanded the immediate arrest of the culprits, and also a deeper investigation into an entire system of private prisons in which the workers were tortured.
“We wanted the police to investigate these allegations but instead the police cracked down on our peaceful protest in Islamkot injuring dozens and arresting 150 people who are being held under terrorism charges,” explains Ranjhan Bheel, a local activist and member of the Bheel Intellectual Forum (BIF), an organization which has held impressive demonstrations to highlight the plight of the labourers. “At least 20 senior members of our organization are being held by the police illegally at this point.”
After images of the protesting Bheel community flooded Pakistani social media, a delegation of the Sindh government, including three provincial ministers, met with them to assure them of their complete support. But despite these promises, the detained members of the community have not been released. On top of this, Kashif ‘Commando’, the ring leader of the private guards, is roaming free having attained protective bail.
Meanwhile, the Sindh government has also made an offer of 10 million to the family of Dodo Bheel and has made similar offers to the families of the injured as well. But members of the Bheel community say that they will not be bribed by blood money. They have persisted in their demand for asking a deeper investigation into the prison network.
The SECMC has also demanded a free and fair inquiry into the episode and has expressed solidarity with the families of the deceased and the injured in a social media post.