COMMENTARY
 
Pakistan: Seraiki Belt Where Children are in Chains
The Nation
June 25, 1997
In parts of Pakistan’s Seraiki region, there are some madrassas where children are kept in chains for years. They are brought there forcibly by their parents and elders and are left at the mercy of those who run the madrassas.

“Please help me get out of this place. Talk to my brother. Tell him if I stayed here any longer, either I would kill myself, or the Shah Saheb would do so,” said Janbaz, 15, with tears in his eyed and legs chained and tied to a heavy wooden block.

Janbaz is one of the 27 boys at the Darul Ulum Shirazi, a madrassa located behind the Railway Station of Piplan, which is a small town in the Seraiki belt and is situated some 35 kilometers southwards from Mianwali.

Syed Bashir Hussain Shah Shirazi, commonly known as Shah Saheb, runs the Darul Ulum. He takes pride in keeping the boys in chains. “These boys get spoiled in the outside world, where everything is happening against God’s will. Once they are chained, they are cut off from un-Islamic civilization, and thus become ‘Quran de Qaidi’ (the prisoners of the Quran),” he said.

The boys fear Shah Saheb, and hate him too. He tortures them with a black hunter, which lies at the place where he sits in the Darul Ulum. When alone, at night, they abuse Shah Saheb and discuss possible ways to get out of the “torture cell.

“We know you are a newspaper reporter, and the photos you are taking will be published in the newspaper. But please do not tell Shah Saheb that you have taken these photographs. If you did, he would punish us,” said Janbaz, after this correspondent managed to take some snaps of the boys in chains in the absence of their “master.” They were happy and wished someone should help rescue them.

Janbaz is from Bhakkar, 40 kilometers from the town. He has spent over seven years in the madrassah. Janbaz was nine when he was first chained. After his parents died some eight years ago, his brother-in-law, an electronics dealer, brought him to the madrassah.

“I want to watch television, and move around, but I am helpless,” said Muhammad Ashraf, ten, who is also from Bhakkar. His mother has married thrice, and father twice. One of the youngest kids around, his job is to take care of those who visit the madrassah. For that, he has to move around in the courtyard. And with his legs chained, he has developed a peculiar way of walking, rather hopping. It is his third year at the madrassah.

“Ashraf used to run away from home. Therefore, my father sent him there. Nobody at home cries for him. His mother may have, but now she lives with another man in Sargodha,” said Muhammad Afzal, Ashraf’s elder brother, aged 12, at a small retail shop in Bhakkar.

Except one or two, the boys at the madrassah are from the nearby towns and villages. Abdullah, 19, was from Lahore. He is a driver. His father wanted to send him to Saudi Arabia. Each time he was taken to the airport, he ran away. Finally, some three months ago, his father gave him to Shah Saheb, who believes the boy will go straight to ‘Saudi Arabia after getting” the treatment he deserved.”

The Darul Ulum Shirazi has some 39 boys. Twelve of them are not in chains, and their main job is to move around in the town and collect food, which all the boys share. Every one of the chained boys, often-to- twenty years, wears one heavy chain around each leg. The chains are tied to a wooden block weighing about 15 kg. Some five boys are tied to one wooden block. The children below ten are, however, not tied with the wooden block. The chains are not locked; they are welded to minimize the chances of any escape.

All the boys wake up at four in the morning. Till midnight, they learn the Quran by rote. Sometime, they have an hour-long nap in the afternoon. Anyone who fails to do the daily task, which includes learning some ‘manzils’ of the Quran by heart, is punished by Shah Saheb. In summer, they sleep on the dusty floor of the courtyard. In winter, they sleep in one big room. Sleeping and mobility becomes a problem for those who are tied with the same wooden block. They spend their days and nights, and share their moments of anger and grief, together.

The new entrants prove to be most troublesome. They cry at night. One chained child, preparing fodder for Shah Saheb’s buffaloes, looked very sad. “He has to. For he is a new entry and has not accepted his ‘qismat’ (fate),” said another kid. The boys are not only supposed to be the “soldiers of God” they are also Shah Saheb’s domestic servants. For instance, they have built a spacious house for their “master,” adjacent to the madrassash.

Shah Saheb has been running the Darul Ulum for over 20 years. “I came to this town as nobody,” he said. But now he is one of the richest and influential persons in the area. Town people say he owns a bus, a car, a house, a few shops, acres of irrigated land, and a lot of cash in the bank. How could he manage to mint money and make property? Nobody questions!

Shah Saheb has his own devotees, many of whom come and visit him every day, tell him their problems, he prays and gives them ‘taaveez’. “People in and around the town are very happy with Shah Saheb, primarily the way he teaches Quran Nazira and Hifz to children by isolating them completely from the rest of the society” said Hameed, a local tailor.

In the Seraiki belt, educational backwardness, religious rigidity, feudal exploitation and poverty are believed to be the root-cause of public passivity on such grave violations of human rights. However, Ch Javed Akhtar, a social worker in the area, argues the reason why such inhuman practices continue with impunity is that “the so-called human rights activists in the country never try to tackle human rights issue at the grass root level. Every year, they waste millions on personal comfort and publicity.”