• Magazine Web Edition
  • October/November/December 2019
  • Special Feature: 72 Years After Partition
  • Special Feature: 72 Years After Partition




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    HINDUISM TODAY




    Ongoing threats to life and property in Pakistan, compounded by the abduction, conversion and forced marriage of girls, continue to drive thousands to India


    To say Hindu roots in Sindh—now in Pakistan—are deep is an understatement: a large part of the Indus Valley civilization, including Mohenjo-Daro, was located here. Hindus lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbors until the horrors resulting from Partition, which spared few. Those who remained—many too poor to flee—made the best of an uneasy situation, but an increasingly hostile environment is steadily forcing their descendants to escape to the safety of India. Once across the border, though, they endure an uncertain life for years in Rajasthan and other states. Here we tell two stories: of those who settled last century in Bhopal and those who have come since to Jodhpur.






    Bhopal, Where Sindhis Have Thrived Since 1947


    THE RIGHT TO PRAY TO ONE’S GOD IS FUNDAMENTAL. Rather than lose this right, many Hindus, faced with the bloody, traumatic partition of India in 1947, chose to flee what became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan for the freedom of the new secular India. In the mayhem that followed, hundreds of thousands of Hindu families lost their homes and livelihood, their properties and their loved ones. They arrived in India as refugees, dazed and broken, often not knowing how they would survive. Yet they had come to a place where they could breathe free and practice the faith of their forefathers openly. Spreading all over India, the Sindhi refugees struggled and made new lives for themselves.


    They settled in large numbers in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, where today there is a thriving Sindhi community—an inspiration to the new refugees languishing in and around Jodhpur. Among the original refugees was Paramhans Sant Hirdaram Sahibji (1906–2006), who founded the Jeev Sewa Santhan (JSS) to look after the needs of the community. A spiritual head to the Sindhi community, Sant Hridaram worked to help the needy and infirm. He believed in the power of education for strengthening a new generation—especially women. He saw to it that all Hindu holy days, including the Sindhi festival of Cheti Chand, were celebrated joyously and in the open. Bit by bit, he rehabilitated and gave spiritual sustenance to the Sindhi community.


    Many of the Partition survivors have passed on, but I met with several—now quite aged—to hear of the ordeals they encountered in order to retain their Hindu dharma. Most, I was told, first took shelter in rough refugee camps in Rajasthan, then moved on to Bhopal where they were given land in Barrackpore. Like Barrackpore in West Bengal, the city was named for its large numbers of British army barracks. The abandoned barracks became home for the refugees


    Some, like Hazari Mal Bacho Mal Khubchandani and his family, still live in these barracks, where in railroad fashion one room leads into the next. He is a youthful 95 with a yellow turban and a bristly white mustache. His wife, now 85, cannot walk much and likes to sit on a chair beside her home shrine and pray. The couple have 14 children, many grandchildren and a thriving number of businesses, including footwear factories.


    Khubchandani was just 23 when he came to India. Even today he is ramrod straight, and he credits that with his job of milking the family cows and looking after them. He still continues to work as a bidi (tobacco) entrepreneur. In a very millennial way, he has built his brand around himself: his turbaned profile appears on every pack of bidis!


     



    Why did he leave Pakistan? He recalls life in his homeland: the Hindus were a small minority but had lived side by side with Muslims, who were often their barbers, their weavers and their cleaners. They each worshiped their own Gods, and harmony prevailed. He feels it all changed when politics entered the picture. Doubts and suspicion set in at the time of Partition. They could not sell their properties at any price, because everyone knew it would all eventually belong to the Muslims. Leaving home with very little, the Hindus put their faith in Jhulelal, the ishta devata of the Sindhi people, and set out into the sands of Rajasthan.


    Khubchandani spoke wistfully of their lost homeland: “I miss that. It was a simple life where family and community was everything. When guests wanted to depart, we would confiscate the reins of their horse carriage because we did not want them to leave and would insist they stay on!” Such was the love and hospitality among the Sindhis, a heartfelt and pure way of life and belief which is hard to duplicate in a fast-changing India.


    In Bhopal, too, of course, the Hindu Sindhi hospitality is a given. Our meeting was joined by an ever-expanding circle of Khubchandani’s extended family—sons, grandsons and great-grandsons, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law. They plied us with thick, sweet, milky tea and snacks concocted by Sindhi entrepreneurs—chickpea or besan murmula, Sindhi chikki sweets and peanuts. Later we met the matriarch around whom the family revolves, including seven daughters-in-law. All live together in the sprawling, renovated barracks which now house their businesses too—fabric stores, grocery stores and other small retail businesses. On the apex of the building is a sculpture of Lord Krishna.


    The family told me of Khubchandani’s great devotion to cows and his one favorite cow that he called Amma or Mother. All 14 of his children were nurtured on her milk. He feels his cows have kept him fit over the years as he has looked after them personally and milked them all. When his beloved Amma cow died, he built a memorial to her, and on every death anniversary they hold prayers for her.




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    Marks of success: Eye examination at the Sewa Sadan Eye Hospital established by the Sindhi community in Bhopal




    The Sindhi community showed me a few other barracks which have survived. In one, the sole occupant is a 90-year-old woman. We did not meet her, as she was traveling to see relatives. Her family have done well in government jobs, but she refuses to move in with them, so independent and attached is she to her dilapidated barracks home.


    After 72 years, she still does not have possession of this home. The family is fighting the case. Khubchandani, too, has no papers to his home, and he, too, is waiting for reparation from the government, 72 years after Partition. Many refugees have died, still waiting to get justice and the title deeds for the property in exchange for all the land and property they had to abandon when they left Pakistan. Yet, it is a positive community which moves on and is involved in the present, not the past.


    We next visited Gobindram Kewlani, who at 90 is more articulate than many of us and heads the Sindhi Panchayat, which works with the local government in seeing to the welfare of the Sindhi community. He also collects and donates wedding attire, jewelry and home products to help young Hindu girls from needy families get married. He is known to the whole town as Mama or Uncle because he continues to look to the interests of the community. When we met him, the elections were around the corner, and he was busy organizing the Sindhis for a Congress rally so the community would get their rights. As we left, the aroma of hot fried samosas was in the air. Crowds swirled and loudspeakers blared out the life of current-day India—and 90-year-old Mama Kewlani was a cheerful, vibrant participant.


    Hindu Sindhis are part and parcel of Bhopal and have greatly enhanced its economy. Starting from scratch, they have given life to Bhopal’s famous Market of Utensils and Market of Fabrics. The earliest refugees rolled papads, made pickles and sorted spices in the camps, and the manufacturing of food products became a practical way of making a living. This enterprising and quick-witted community sells everything from street food to packaged goods.


    Few restaurants offer Sindhi food, but one Sindhi entrepreneur has started a chain called Manohar Restaurant—three famous restaurants with vegetarian food and special mithai sweets. Now the third generation is getting into white-collar jobs, with many holding government jobs.


    A local stalwart, Mr. Babani, says that today there is no city in India where Sindhis are not present or have not made an impact. They have become doctors, engineers and are also in public service. The Sindhis have organized panchayats, grassroots organizations across Bhopal so that they can have a say in the political and civic life.




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    Benefitting Bhopal: King Bhoja founded the city in the 11th century;




    With the Bhopal Sindhis every Hindu festival and holy day is celebrated boldly, joyfully, the most natural thing to do—a hard-won right for these devotees who trudged across the deserts, lost their ancestral land but never gave up their faith or their God. Unfortunately, many younger Sindhis have gradually lost their language, which is not taught in the mainstream schools. Language is often lost by migrants as they try to assimilate into a new culture. Vigilant parents have tried to keep it alive at home, and activists try to inculcate the language and writing skills in the young people both in India and the diaspora.


    In the busy marketplace I met Raj Kumar Mangtani, a Sindhi entrepreneur whose grandparents were refugees from Sindh. Along with his father and brothers, he presides over a bustling three-floored shoe emporium. He said that in spite of their business success, for the last decade their interest has primarily focused on the education of their children and ensuring that they succeed in whichever profession they choose.


    The work of JSS has continued through the years, aided by an unheralded army of supporters—successful Sindhi Indian entrepreneurs who had sought their livelihoods in far-off countries and are now ready to give back. Many of these Sindhi benefactors are themselves refugees or the children of 1947 refugees, and with their financial help JSS has built several institutions for the poor and middle-class people in Bhopal.


    Over the years JSS has built a large campus with seven schools, five colleges and an eye hospital, all created by donations from Indians of the diaspora, from Hong Kong to the US, Singapore and Dubai. Every institution has a temple and celebrates the values of the Hindu faith.


    Due to the enterprising efforts of this small Sindhi community, the town once known as Barrackpore has come to be known as Sant Hirdaram Nagar. Today Hridaram’s successor, Hotchand Dhanwani, named Siddh Bhau by his guru, runs this massive network of hospitals, schools and colleges. Siddh Bhau is the spiritual and social champion of the Sindhi community who continues the legacy of Sant Hirdaram through JSS. He is assisted by Mahesh Dayaramani, who is the catalyst who connects overseas donors to the projects and makes things happen.




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    Benefitting Bhopal: Preparing for exams at one of the JSS colleges;




    The majority of the local Sindhi children are graduates of the schools and colleges founded and created by Jeev Sewa Sansthan, where Hindu Sindhi spiritual teachings are a part of the education. A large number of local non-Sindhi children also attend. Respect for elders is part of the curriculum, and touching the feet of teachers every day is part of the routine. Every school has a small Hindu temple. The morning begins with a 20-minute assembly with prayers and the national anthem, followed by classes including everything from science to computer education.


    On our final day we visited Siddh Bhau. He lives in a simple cottage in the shadow of a Hindu temple dedicated to the saint who gave Bhopal Jeev Seva Sansthan. At that moment it was crystal clear that the Sindhi community in Bhopal had prospered due to the spiritual strength and moral fiber offered by JSS. The network of schools, colleges and hospitals as well as the familial caring for widows and children had set the moral compass of the community.


    Far from Home, But Holding Strong


    The name of Sindh is sung in the national anthem, Jana Gana Mana, but Sindh is no longer part of India. The Indus River itself—source of the words Hindu and India—was partitioned from India. The Sindhis are the only people in India without their own state. Their beloved homeland may be thousands and thousands of miles away in an alien country, but the heartbeat of the Sindhi ethos and culture remains strong in these migrant people. They have internalized Sindhyat, the distinctive features of the Sindhi community, and all that it stands for. Image


     



     



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