8 to 1: Karachi’s shrinking Hindu Gymkhana

In the past 100 years, several government departments have been allotted the Hindu Gymkhana's land.

In the past 100 years, several government departments have been allotted the Hindu Gymkhana’s land.

Akhtar Balouch, also known as the Kiranchi Wala, ventures out to bring back to Dawn.com’s readers the long forgotten heritage of Karachi. Stay tuned to this space for his weekly fascinating findings.

Back in 1921, at least 47,000 square yards of land were leased to the Hindu Gymkhana for a 100 years in Karachi; that’s almost 8 acres. The lease ends in the year 2020.

I often frequent the gymkhana for various events. On one such occasion, I was there with my friend Ashraf Solangi who also happens to be a landowner. As we stood there looking around, I told him that I didn’t quite think the gymkhana land amounted to eight acres; it just did not seem possible.

To my surprise, he stated the gymkhana stood on not more than an acre.

This was later confirmed by my friend, famous vocalist and sitar player, Nafees Khan sahib as well. He teaches music at the National Institute of Performing Arts (Napa), which is hosted by the Hindu Gymkhana.

So, where had the remaining seven acres or so of land gone?

Also read: Temple run: Searching for the lost Guru Mandar

The construction of the gymkhana was completed in 1925. Back in the day, it was named Seth Ramgopal Goverdhandas Mohatta Hindu Gymkhana. There is also currently a Goverdhandas Market on Bandar Road in Karachi.

Mostly forgotten, the gymkhana became news once again when General Pervez Musharraf handed the building over to Napa in 2005. This proved to be nothing short of a fortunate turn of fate for the gymkhana.

The Hindu Gymkhana proceeded to become a centre of fine arts in Karachi. The once desolately vacant rooms inside the gymkhana now echoed with Nafees Khan’s sitar chords and the thump and tap of Bashir Khan’s tabla.

Here stand Rahat Kazmi and Talat Hussain teaching young students to act.

Here stands Zia Mohiuddin correcting students’ pronunciation and presentation. The annual International Music Conference is an added attraction.

Interestingly, however, almost nine out of 10 students and visitors to the place are non-Hindus. The spiritual importance given to music and dance and other forms of arts in the Hindu religion is not an unknown fact. Yet, even all the teachers here are non-Hindus.

Also read: In Karachi: Bombay, not Mumbai, meri jaan

After its inception in 2005, Napa transitioned into a stable institution. In 2009, however, things took a turn after Napa was asked by the Government of Sindh to vacate and return the possession of the Hindu Gymkhana.

It was all said in a letter (dated September 3, 2008) to the Chairman of Napa, Zia Mohiuddin. The reason stated was that Napa had violated the lease agreement from 2005 by illegally commencing the construction of an auditorium on the gymkhana premises. This, as the letter stated, was a clear violation of the Sindh Cultural Heritage Preservation Act, 1994.

Arshad Mehmood, a famous vocalist and a representative of Napa said that the lease agreement was never violated. He claims that the gymkhana is still intact, in its original state as was handed over to Napa and that the eviction notice by the government carried no legal weightage.

The writer with Arshad Mehmood and Nafees Khan.
The writer with Arshad Mehmood and Nafees Khan.
Rumour, confusion and provocation


That’s what news channels appear to have as their philosophy, it seems. As soon as they discovered about the correspondence between Napa and the provincial government, headlines depicting Napa’s bleak future were inevitable.

Today, we’re in the month of April 2015 and Napa still exists. The address too is still the Hindu Gymkhana, Karachi.

According to a news report in 2009 by Riaz Sohail, a journalist friend, Sassi Palijo, Sindh’s Culture Minister in those days, said,

“The building is the property of the Hindu community and they have no place in the city to celebrate occasions and festivals. General Musharraf had acted on his relatives’ advice and gotten the gymkhana vacated forcefully, handing it over to Napa. The Pakistan People’s Party had opposed the move on the house floor.”

She also said that fragile historical objects were carelessly handled while being transferred to the Hyderabad Museum. She claimed it was not a political comeback only because Musharraf was involved since the PPP did not believe in payback politics. “The building will be reserved for activities of the Hindu community,” Palijo said.

Also read: Karachi’s ‘Yahoodi Masjid’

The records of the Sindh Assembly sessions can prove whether Ms Palijo was right in claiming that her party had opposed it on the house floor. It is a tedious task to go through all that jibber jabber of politicians indulged in a make-believe democracy in an elitist house, claimant champions of the representation of the will of the common people. Three lines in and one is already reminded of clichés and jargon.

Eleven years later, on February 17, 2014, the All Pakistan Hindu Panchaet wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of Pakistan on the subject of the problems faced by the Hindu community. The letter asks His Honour to take a suo moto on the Hindu Gymkhana issue.

I can never understand why people like the Hindu Panchaet would ask the CJ to jump in for a gymkhana when all else that has even a fragment of Hindu culture in its identity is in danger in the republic of the pure. My friend Wusatullah Khan wrote well about it:

“Sindh Government says the historical Hindu Gymkhana is to be vacated by Napa and handed over to the Hindu community for their activities. This, certainly, is a praiseworthy deed. What sweet bliss would it be if the said government, in continuity of the sympathy and concern for the minorities that it shows, begin trying to know what happened of the 400 something temples, dozens of guruduwaras and one lonely synagogue that existed in Karachi in 1947? Did the Gods residing in these places of worship migrate along with the sacred buildings to countries where their religion was held a majority?

Each of the few remaining temples that still stand in the city is an interesting site. The Narayana Temple is now a storage area for some Qureshi businessmen. The Naag Naath Temple is a soap factory now. The temple by the Preedy Police Station is turned into a little den for the land-grabbers’ that occupy it. The Darya Lal Temple is now the office of a successful goods transport company. The Bhaag Naari Temple is occupied by a transport and courier company. Last but not the least, the Pinjra Pol Temple was sold by its trustees.”

Also read: Gandhi’s exile

Sassi Palijo’s ministry administration referring to the Sindh Cultural Heritage Preservation Act, 1994 can put the PPP in a very dangerous position. If we take it as is, since it is the law, no additional construction is legal within the premises of any historical site. The matter has the potential of escalating to heights of communal madness.

You see, some of the ‘additional construction’ already done at many other such sites is not so easy to bring down, in accordance with the law. For example, inside the premises of the Victoria Museum building, currently hosting the Supreme Court of Pakistan in Sindh, a remarkable mosque was constructed only recently.

Similarly, in the backyard of the Khaliq Dina Hall, there are government offices and public residential quarters. The Sindh Assembly, a historical monument in itself, has recently witnessed both a construction of a mosque and whole new Sindh Assembly building in its premises. I could go on…

The Hindu Gymkhana, plot RB1/5, held a total of 47,000 square yards of land in 1925. In 1978, almost 60 per cent of its land was given to the Police Department. In the same year, another 6000 something square yards were given to the Federal Public Service Commission. Almost 3,500 square yards were given to the Ali Garh Muslim University for which the University paid a sum of 173,050 rupees. A gentleman by the name of Abdul Majeed Khan received almost 400 square yards of land as an allotment. Deduct all those square yards and the gymkhana is left with a measly 4,500 square yards of land to itself; literally 10 times smaller than what it originally was.

The section of the Hindu Gymkhana's land which has been allotted to the Aligarh Muslim University.
The section of the Hindu Gymkhana’s land which has been allotted to the Aligarh Muslim University.
The Civil Lines police station also stands on the Hindu Gymkhana land.
The Civil Lines police station also stands on the Hindu Gymkhana land.
The Artillery Maidan on the Hindu Gymkhana's land.
The Artillery Maidan on the Hindu Gymkhana’s land.

According to Advocate Michael Saleem, there are at least 17 cases relating to the Hindu Gymkhana pending in various courts in the country.

Everyone fighting to own the Hindu Gymkhana should at least have the sense to not just try to get back the 4,500 square yards that it is currently left with. Instead, they should fight for the entire 47,000 square yards. That ought to clarify who gives a darn tuppence about heritage in the government.

—Photos by Akbar Balouch

Source: Dawn