October 31, 2023
By Maryam Missal
“We don’t even know which one her real daughter is,” said Amar Sindhu, social activist and one of those grieving the death of Veeru Kolhi. Sindhu was describing Kolhi’s funeral scene.
“The entire community of bonded labourers owns her so much like a family member.”
On October 31, bonded labourers, social activists, advocates of freedom, and many others collected to mourn the loss of the fiery light bearer for those trapped in the shackles of bonded labour.
Veeru Kohli was born to a Hari (a peasant farmer with no land) in Allahdino Shah village in the tiny town of Jhudo, Sindh. At the age of 16, she was married into a family bound to a landlord because of a loan that was never settled. Veeru was caught in an endless cycle of outstanding debts despite the fact that the family’s earnings were constantly adjusted by the landlord.
In an attempt to free themselves from this slavery, Veeru moved to another landlord in Umerkot, but the man there also turned out to be a tyrant. This new landlord too had workers bonded by never-ending debts to work on the lands. There, she was ogled at, beaten, and threatened by the landlord’s men, and the landlord himself.
After her son and daughter-in-law were beaten on their wedding day, she took a bold step and ran away with her infant daughter.
Veeru escaped, got onto a bus, and found herself in a village safely distant from the landlord. She went to her brothers and relatives who helped her to collect money owed to the landlord to get the rest of the family freed, but the landlord refused to release them, claiming the debt had doubled.
But she did not give up. She heard about the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in Hyderabad and met its officials. They sent her to a senior police official in Umerkot to get her family freed. She was certainly aware of the threats that she could face – the landlord was influential and could have taken her life. Nut nothing stopped Veeru.
“Initially I was not fully prepared, but then I thought, this could be done only by me, so I went all the way…”, she once told a news source. Apart from eight of her family members, Veeru’s force freed more than 40 other bonded peasants in the mid-1990s. She then moved to Hyderabad district, to start a new life and became the beacon of hope for bonded labourers across Pakistan.
She spent 25 years of her life fighting for those trapped in bonded labour and slavery. She started a non-governmental organization in collaboration with an international organization, called ‘Azaad Nagar’. Veeru ran for elections in the year 2009 as a Member of the Provincial Assembly Sindh from PS-50 in Hyderabad.
“She liberated thousands of bonded labourers; it was because of her that bonded labourers could live freely in colonies,”
Amar Sindhu told Voicepk.
Veeru was the recipient of the Fredick Douglas Freedom Award 2009 and had the opportunity to travel to India and America. Unlike the other Kohli women, Veeru ventured out into the world and lived a life beyond the walls of her house.
She leaves behind 11 grieving children – five daughters and six sons. Veeru’s youngest daughter is 20 years old.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has shared its condolences over Veeru’s death and stated, ” As a former bonded labourer herself, she spent almost 25 years working tirelessly to free bonded labourers in Sindh and, most recently, was helping flood-affected haris rebuild their homes in Mirpurkhas. Ms Kohli’s struggle inspired scores of labour rights activists not only in Pakistan but also abroad.”
Veeru has been buried in the area of Jhudo, Sindh. Her last rites were carried out and attended by close family, former bonded labourers, and some close friends who witnessed her journey of strength closely.