The room reeked of a smell you would find only in hospitals. Balbir’s* eyes opened to a snow-white ceiling. He looked around for his family. His wife Jasmeet Kaur* sat beside his bed – her eyes swollen from weeping. The nurse came in to inject a painkiller. He could barely remember what brought him to the hospital. He was unconscious for eight days after the brutal attack.
Balbir Singh was attacked by a group of sword-wielding men on a cold night in December 2015. They entered his house and asked his name. the next thing he saw was a sword that almost sliced through his scalp. They also attacked his teenage daughter.
Balbir and Jasmeet worked for different brick kilns in Punjab, for around 12 years. They were literally ‘bought’ by a farm owner for a lakh rupees. Balbir had taken an advance amount of Rs 50,000 from the farm owner’s relative. He and his family toiled in the fields and grazed the owner’s livestock. His wife and eldest daughter did all the household chores. None of them were paid wages or allowed to leave the place. A year and a half into bondage, Balbir learnt of a local NGO and approached its team. The NGO then contacted the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of the area.
In January 2015, Balbir and his family were rescued from bondage. His debt was cancelled, and they found employment in a brick kiln close by. The owner was certainly unhappy with this turn of events. Balbir had filed a case with the SDM against the farm owner. The offender who thought he had the right to ‘own’ human beings, sent his men to finish off Balbir and his family. Balbir was hospitalized for 40 days and eight steel plates were inserted in his left hand. His daughter’s shoulder was in a bad shape too, and steel rods were placed.
Balbir’s life has changed completely. His limited capacity to do his daily chores is worrying him. A case has been filed against the owner and his men, who were arrested and later let out on bail.
Bonded labour, deemed to be non-existent by many, has proven to rob victims of their basic human dignity. Powerful men use violence to suppress the vulnerable. And they get away with impunity. Balbir’s case is a classic example of violence as a weapon used on the poor.
Balbir’s attackers are roaming around scot-free. And many more vulnerable men, women and children live under the fear of being attacked or abused. They live under the burden of bonded labour and violence – cheated, tricked, abused and exploited. As we approach 2019 – the year that decides India’s government for the next five years, will our poor still bear the brunt of violence? Will our poor still stay under the yoke of slavery?
By Sarah Jacob
*Names changed to protect identity