Tackling the problem of a battered childhood led Ehsan and other BLLF militants to confront problems arising from the education system. Pakistan, which means “the land of the pure”, was a country with an unfair school system, where more than 50% of children could not attend school regularly. Many children were forced to drop school only some months after having started the course due to the actual price of education, such as books, part of the teacher’s salary and transport.
Graduated from the best colleges in the country, such as Atkinson or Saint Anthony of Lahore, or educated abroad, businessmen used the economic necessity as the justification for employing children. The most cost-effective solution for families was getting their children to work in carpet factories; although wages were extremely low, they could at least contribute with a bit of money to support their family. The system was well organised and it had the intellectuals’ complicity.
RESISTING AT ALL COSTS
This cynical reasoning responded to the mentality of many families who, as in the case of Iqnayat Bibi, saw no possibility of escaping from this system. For millions of poor Pakistani people hit by unemployment selling their children or handing them over in bonded labour was the result of a tragic economic equation; parents were not hired and were therefore forced to give their children away. The market economy leads to these and other perversions subject to moral judgement despite their frequency.
FIGHTING IN THE FIRST PLACE
After having achieved some victories for the use of radical political methods in his fight against brick factory owners, the founder of Bhatta was reluctant to any prudent action. As a good trade unionist, he believed that the situation would not change unless there was social and political pressure from a set of forces.
Responsible for a humanitarian organization, his militant’s experience prevented him from relying solely on negotiations. He knew that he and his supporters were inevitably on one side of the barrier, whereas the industrial carpet manufacturers and other brick kiln owners were on the other side. Eshan wanted the Bonded Labour Liberation Front to be an instrument to fight rather than to negotiate.
FINALLY, BEING ABLE TO SPEAK!
By the end of 1992, in the Great Plaza of this trading village of Punjab, more than a dozen police officers were deployed around the city. There was a pleasant atmosphere in the meeting which had been announced for several days through almost revolutionary posters calling workers of carpet factories and brick kilns to gather their force together against their oppressors.
In the rostrum, set on a small lifted platform, fiery speeches followed each other during an hour. All the leaders invited to speak to the microphone recalled the law that had been enacted. A law voted by a majority in an extraordinary session of the federal Parliament of the country, and later approved by the Head of State, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, on 11 March 1992.
The law had been published in the Gazette of Pakistan, local official paper, on 17 March. This legislative seven-page text containing twenty-one articles, together with the 18 September 1988 Pakistani Supreme Court’s historic decision of prohibiting the principle of paishgee came to complete the legal arsenal used by the Bonded Labour Liberation Front.
For BLLF, the law passed by the Pakistani Parliament in the spring of 1992 was invaluable. The article four of the Bonded Labour System Act specified that the bonded labour system should be abolished and that all enslaved workers should be freed.
Although strong for this political victory, Ehsan –a clever unionist, journalist and lawyer– was aware of the remaining obstacles. In recent months, he had stepped up protests and meetings from Lahore to Faisalabad, through the cities of Multan and Kasur, and to the hidden corners of Punjab.
The program was always the same: some speeches delivered by four or five workers well-known in the labour circles, interspersed with songs or short comedies. Previously, they put up posters on the walls of the villages, and visited the farms, mills, and brick and sports factories. The white and red posters announced the schedule of events.
PRISONER IN HADDOQUEY
In 1991, there was a demonstration in Sheikhupura, Haddoquey. Sheikhupura was two hours by bus from Arshad’s sweatshop, the place where Iqbal worked. By that time, the boy had spent six years living in a state of total servitude, weaving carpets day after day after day. Patras, his brother, was also working there. At the age of 11, after having been enslaved for several months in a brick factory, Patras had decided to follow Iqbal.
In this atmosphere of systematic crushing oppression, Iqbal believed Arshad was nice to him; being less violent than others made him a “good boss”
Little by little, Iqbal had developed the weaver apprentice’s automatisms of this hard job. His fingers were crooked by long hours of being twisted to thread the wool through the future carpet and to pull it forcefully to make the knot.
THE FIRST STRIKE
By the end of 1992, Iqbal had hardly heard about the BLLF and its militants’ efforts to mobilise enslaved workers. It was Patras, his own brother and workmate, who had informed him. At the end of 1991, persuaded by one of his neighbours, Patras dared to go to Sheikhupura to attend a meeting organised by Ehsan and BLLF’s partners. In this meeting, over two thousand people could listen to orators denounce the ‘mafia of the carpets’ in public and demand ‘the abolition of ‘paishgee’ in every field. Inflamed by these words, Patras went on strike the very following day. A real strike in Arshad’s sweatshop!
The people in charge of the BLLF had agreed that 18 September 1992, anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision, should be proclaimed ‘the day of child slaves of the carpet industry’. BLLF’s supporters had even dared to exhort foreign importers to boycott the Carpet Fair of Lahore, display of economic local power.
MUNNAWAR VIRK’S GOOD WORDS
Iqbal was physically ill-treated, but he was forced by penury to continue working for Arshad, a boss of “good” manners and always ready “to help his family out of economic difficulties” by loaning them some rupees and lengthening Iqbal’s paishgee.
Three days before the demonstration of 1992, Iqbal met a BLLF’s lawyer called Munnawar Virk in Haddoquey. Chubby and obstinate, the person in charge of the local BLLF was walking under the monsoon rain along the alley that led to Iqbal’s sweatshop while Iqbal, sitting in front of his loom, was trying to protect himself from the water leaking through the straw roof. Munnawar was distributing leaflets, an incongruous initiative in a neighbourhood where most people were illiterate. However, the aim was to attract the major possible number of workers to the next political meeting. Perfectly conscious of the susceptibility of these rural villages, he knew that he had to face the consequences of agglutinating people. Almost every worker had complaints against their bosses or against the merchant emissaries of Lahore’s carpets but few people dared to rebel against so much injustice. To begin with, because few ones were aware that there was another possibility; they only knew that their working conditions were unbearable but simultaneously believed that this was inevitable.
It seems Arshad stroke up a conversation with this stranger. He invited the lawyer and his guide to sit down and offered them the welcome tea. Arshad did not seem to be displeased with the idea of contrasting his points of view with those of the militants. Like many other tenants, he was anxious about the recent decision of the Parliament of Islamabad to abolish work in servitude. Arshad was afraid to have to confront the organisations that defended human rights, and which had appeared in the media lately. He preferred other tactics, he said that he found it legitimate that carpet workers were organised on condition that contracts were recognised. In view of another system, Arshad held that the ‘paishgee’ was the way of assuring the necessary workforce and that not having work would be worse.