Time Travel through Sindh and Social Reform in the 1930s

Time Travel through Sindh and Social Reform in the 1930s
If we search the internet with ‘Om Mandli’ or ‘Brahma Kumaris’ through Google and other search engines, we find links to various webpages related to those keywords in a fraction of a second. The most common titles of the webpages would be ‘The History of Om Mandli,’ ‘Jasoda Nivas, Hyderabad,’ ‘Om Nivas, Hyderabad’ and ‘Om Nivas Karachi,’ and ‘Brahma Kumaris, Mount Abu, Rajasthan’. On the other hand, a Google Scholar search would only show a few dozen academic articles – some authored by scholars who have earned Ph.Ds on several aspects of Om Mandli. If we somehow get a time machine and travel back to the 1930s of Hyderabad, Sindh, then this imaginary travel would be helpful in unpacking Om Mandli’s perspective which is the focus of the first article. In forthcoming articles, I will discuss the activities of Om Mandli in Hyderabad, Karachi and Mount Abu, Rajasthan.

What would we see and hear in this journey through the time-machine?  Allow me to give you some ideas. There would be newly constructed houses designed in Gothic-Sindhi architecture; local stores with bottles of Cognac brandy, and Bordeaux and Burgundy wines on their display racks; business stationery in bulk mentioning head offices in Hyderabad and branch offices in Zanzibar, London, Jakarta, Japan, Bombay, Calcutta, Moscow and Colombo. We would also witness evening walks of Amil and Bhaiband ladies in the cool breeze of the town. Another activity, practised religiously, might be the Victorian horse-drawn buggy’s rhythmic clip-clop heading towards Giddu Bandar, an Indus port over the shoulder of Indus River facing Kotri town.

We might hear some conversations of a Gumashta (business representatives) and a Seth (business owners) about post-World War I business opportunities in Europe, opening of new ports in Africa and Asia, separation of Sindh from Bombay and its consequences, politics of the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League, Gandhi and Jinnah’s strategies, the number of Amils in the Imperial Civil Services, and who won the latest contracts for public works. Perhaps in old lanes, we might get to hear some whispers about dowries, suffering of widows, gossip about the wives of Sindhworkies (members of Sindh’s merchant diaspora), and rumours about the irreligious lives of Sindhworkies themselves in foreign lands.

Amidst all this, the time machine might help us to notice a new topic in the social circles of Hyderabad: and that would be ‘Om Mandli.’ There would have been gossip about its Satsangs, Dada Lekhraj, Om Radhe and Jashoda Nivas. On going through Swatantantra, Desh Mitra and Daily Sind newspapers, one would find lots of news, readers’ letters, and stories about Om Mandli. The content would invariably state that Om Mandli was shaking the foundations of the society, and it was destroying family peace.
Let us start with the foundations of Om Mandli, and explore why it attracted women and young girls. And this will help us see why it created insecurity amongst men

But what was this phenomenon?

Let us start with the foundations of Om Mandli, and explore why it attracted women and young girls. And this will help us see why it created insecurity amongst men, and what was women’s situation in the 1930s. The last point – the situation of women – is important. It is true that the situation of Sindhi women was not better than in other Indian states. Hyderabadi women’s situation couldn’t be better described than by Dayaram Gidumal, who held that society had committed sins against girls. He listed seven sins and a few were: girls were not permitted to play; not allowed to be admitted in schools; and were married at an early age without considering their emotional maturity. It is a fact that these words were uttered in the late 1800s. But, these adequately describe the suffering of Hyderabad’s women even in the 1930s. In fact, these words were the true portrayal of Bhaiband women.  Amil women were getting relatively more exposure. The lead instruments were Indian National Congresses’ gatherings, education institutes’ functions and their extra-curricular activities. On the contrary, Bhaiband women were not in a position to get such exposure. The main causes were lower educational attainment, early marriages, joint families (in some case, the family size was more than 50), the long absence of their husbands (often Sindhworkies), social segregation (even within a family), financial insecurity, and pressure of dowries. On the other hand, a long-absentee husband’s concern was the wife’s loyalty. These prevailing conditions compelled Bhaibands to encourage their women to take part in religious activities. Therefore, in those times, one could find that having a Guru or a Murshid was a common trend among Bhaiband men and women. It suited both husbands and wives. The males wanted traditional loyalty from their wives, and thought that the Gurus, Sadhus and Murshids could inculcate the image of Bhart Nari among their wives. Likewise, women through these religio-social excursions got more space and exposure. Therefore, these religious festivals and Satsangs generated a lot of topics for women to chat about in their leisure time or evening walks.

A jeweller's shop in Hyderabad, Sindh, 1928

According to the 1931 population census, the population of Hyderabad was 96,021 persons. One of the leading causes of death was respiratory diseases. The infant mortality rate per 1,000 births in 1936 was 162. It was the second highest number in a total of eleven collectorates/districts of Sindh. The Bhit Shah fair was attended by 12,000 people in 1936. On the other hand, the out-station contracts of Sindhworkies ended around 1930s, and majority of them returned to Sindh after spending three years or more in foreign lands. Among them, a considerable number was from Hyderabad. These Seths, Gumashtas, agents, and official representatives came back with quite different experiences. One of the big changes was their perception about women. Subconsciously, they always compared their wives  to European and Far Eastern women. Some complained that in their own land, women were “passive or docile in sexual affairs.” However, they forgot that these traits were not chosen; the society had conditioned women to behave in a certain way. At that time, Hyderabad had two distinct features: it was one of the fashionable towns in India, and it was struggling with the issues of widows, child marriages and Deti-Leti.

In this sociopolitical milieu, Dada Lekhraj Kirplani established Om Mandli in Hyderabad, Sindh. He was born on the 15th of December 1884 in Hyderabad.  He initiated his career as a carpet salesman. Later he entered the diamond and jewellery trade along with Sevakram Koobchand Daswani. They started a business under the title of ‘Lakhi Raj, Sevak Ram and Sons’. Their business address was Surnana Mansion, 7-1, Lindsay Street, Opposite Sir Stuart Hogg Market, Calcutta. Later, that area was shortened to be called Hogg Market (till now, the Bengalis call it Hogg Shaheber Bajaar). However, both of them maintained family homes in Hyderabad, Sindh.

(to be continued)

Dr. Zaffar Junejo has a Ph.D in History from the University of Malaya. His areas of interest are post-colonial history, social history and peasants’ history. He may be reached at junejozi@gmail.com