It goes without saying that an organization’s vision determines its activities, objectives and programmes. Likewise, leadership traits and experiences set goals and strategies. All of this applies just as much to Om Mandli – in terms of how Dada Lekhraj’s spiritual experiences and different visions conditioned Om Mandli’s organizational culture and programmes.
In 1931, Dada Lekhraj had some visions in Benares. These events pushed him into deeper spiritual matters. Prior to it, already, he was already inclined to charity and other religious activities. Now these unusual spiritual experiences helped him come up with a purpose of life. To pursue this, he prematurely retired from his business of jewellery and diamonds in 1932. He began to devote himself to meditation. Later on, his guru suggested that he start Satsangs (religious gatherings). Initially, these were arranged at a small place that belonged to his uncle Bherumal Kirpalani aka Vishwa Kishore. Gradually, the number grew and Satsangs moved to Jashoda Nivas – a building named after his wife. It was located on Khatuband Lane situated in the centre of town. As the number of Satsang attendees grew, the gatherings were shifted to Lakha Bhawan. Later, it was named Om Mandli.
There are different versions about Om Mandli’s starting year. But a comparison of various primary documents shows that Om Mandli got its name in 1935. It was called so because the Satsang ended with chanting of the ‘Om’ word. It became popular among attendees and non-attendees alike. Gradually, Om Mandli attracted a large number women and young girls. There may be more than one reason, but I am of the view that Om Mandli’s culture played important role in its popularity. It introduced a new culture: the name of attendees, irrespective of their age and sex, was prefixed with the word ‘Om’. This addition created a sense of equality, and encouraged a new feeling of dignity and empowerment among the women. Perhaps today it might sound inconsequential, but in the 1930s, especially in the self-contained culture of Bhaiband women, it was a revolutionary step.
The Om Mandli culture broke ‘Lokik’ or worldly identity and relationships. Therefore, no one was referred to as ‘mother’, ‘aunty’, ‘father’ or ‘uncle’. In a subsequent period, even their personal names were replaced with numbers. In addition to that, Dada Lekhraj gave unmarried girls interesting titles. Some of the given titles were Mast Faqir, Thakur, All-Rounder, Bahurupi, Surya and Dhru-tapaswi. Psychologically, these titles appear to have conveyed to women that they are important and equal to their male counterparts. After all, originally most of these titles were linguistically used for men. Therefore, this type of labelling and titling boosted women’s morale.
Dada Lekhraj gave unmarried girls interesting titles. Some of the given titles were Mast Faqir, Thakur, All-Rounder, Bahurupi, Surya and Dhru-tapaswi. Psychologically, these titles appear to have conveyed to women that they are important and equal to their male counterparts
In 1936, Dada Lekhraj went to Kashmir and lingered on his stay for three months. In the meantime, Om Radhe and her team managed the affairs of Om Mandlitill 1937. During these years, the membership of Om Mandli reached up to 500. It represented different age groups: the youngest member’s age was 5 years, and the oldest one was 65 years old. Almost all Bhaiaband families were associated with Om Mandli. Some families had one or more family members who became members of Om Mandli. The number of such families was 57. There were also families from which all family members, including children, were members. The number of such families was 17.
A common devotional songs sung at Satsang gatherings was: “Mother of Om Mandli
Mother of Om Mandli.
Your lap is loving
Your nectar is so unique.”
Another popular religious song was:
“A spider creates its own web
Makes its own household
And gets trapped in it
So how can it free others?”
In the same year, construction of Om Nivas was started. It was initiated because several parents who were members of Om Mandli expressed that their children should get education in line with the ideas of the burgeoning movement.
Apparently, Om Mandli was winning hearts and minds of people. But at a deep emotional level, an enmity against Dada Lekhraj and Om Mandli was already simmering around them. It flared up in April 1935, when three women of the Bhaiband community declined to render ‘conjugal rights’ to their husbands namely Nathiram Manghram, Bhagwandas Melwani and Sandhuram Punjabi. Mangharam approached the Panchyat that in such a situation, he should be allowed to marry another woman. The permission was sought because Hindu religion and culture generally did not approve of having another marriage when the first wife was alive. Dada Lekharaj was approached to mediate, but he stated that it was a matter between two individuals. Gradually, rumours spread at a whirlwind speed:
“Dada Lekhraj has Bengali magic, therefore young girls and women become his subjects”
“Dada has special Surma, so his gaze captivates girls and women,”
“Dada has sorcery mantras, so women lose their senses”
“Nivas has luxurious items which captivate people and they do not want to return to their homes.”
Later on, such idle gossip circulated until more and more people began to think that it was actually true. If a Bhaiband woman discouraged ‘special advances’ of her husband due to any reason, the husband used to suspect that his wife might have become Dada Lekhraj’s Gopi.
Nevertheless, the movement persisted.
In October 1937, the initial committee was upgraded to the status of a Managing Committee. Om Radhe was made its president and ten more members were included. The members were divided into two categories: one was of the Grahasti (housewives) and the second was Kumari (unmarried girls). The management committee comprised 11 Grahastis and 8 Kumaris. In the same year, Om Nivas was inaugurated. Dada Lekhraj, with the consultation of his family members, wrote a will on the 17th of February 1938, and became an advisor of Om Mandli’s management committee. Therefore, Om Radhe became the official leader of Om Mandli. However, rumours continued against Om Mandli, and almost all newspapers catalyzed anti- Om Mandli sentiment. Consequently, the Om Mandli Bhaiband Committee (which was later known as the Anti-Om Mandli Committee or Anti-Party) was formed in May 1938. Its most active members were Mukhi Mangharam, Bhai Jeramdas, Hassomal Thakurdas, Doultram Hundarmal and Javhermal Nirmaldas.
An enmity against Dada Lekhraj and Om Mandli was already simmering around them. It flared up in April 1935, when three women of the Bhaiband community declined to render ‘conjugal rights’ to their husbands
Roughly 30 Sadhus, Gurus and Bavas representing various Darbars, Ashrams, Asthans, Tikans Talhas, Amshrams and Bungas became bitter against Om Mandli. Moreover, a majority of Indian National Congress workers, prominent journalists and social activists supported the Om Mandli Bhaiband Committee which continued propaganda that Dada Lekhraj hypnotizes women. As a result, some parents and guardians beat up, tortured and sprinkled holy water upon the heads of women and young girls to “break the magic.” It was also propagated that the Om Nivas’s syllabus has dismantled the fabric of ancient Hindu society. It was alleged that the girls were brainwashed that men were cunning and pregnancy was a painful experience. Along with these rumours and allegations, the most effective tool used by the Om Mandli Bhaiband Committee was the threat to the community members that they would be expelled from joint business ventures and community if they joined Om Mandli or Om Nivas,. The threat worked. Therefore, the Om Mandli Management Committee asked all intended attendees to get a chitti (permission slip) from their guardians stating that they were allowing their daughter or daughter-in-law to go to Om Mandli.
In such a volatile situation, around 100-115 people obstructed passage outside Om Mandli when women were coming out after completion of an evening Satsang on the 21st of June 1938. Women were harassed and taunted, and warned of bad consequences if they attended Om Mandli in future. The mob entered the premises and caused damage to it; and also tried to set fire to the building. Consequently, Om Mandli’s activities were shifted to the recently inaugurated Om Nivas school.
A residential school was started for boys and girls in order to impart spiritual and secular education. Considering the motives, it was a purpose-built three-storey building. The ground and first floors had 12 rooms each, and the second floor contained dormitories. The first floor was reserved for young boys and girls. Out of 12 rooms, five or six were used as classrooms. The building was constructed for 70,000 rupees. Dada Lekheraj bore the cost.
Om Nivas was close to Nava Vidyala School (now Dr. N.A. Baloch Model School, Old Campus, Hyderabad). It imparted conceptual as well as vocational education, and provided healthy food, a clean environment and facilities for exercise and outings. However, more attention was given to girls’ teaching. It included music, sewing, embroidery, cooking and ideas about a clean home. There were no textbooks, but teachers gave students lessons from various books. Common subjects were English, Hindi, Sindhi and arithmetic. In some ways, its teaching method was similar to Shanti Niketan in Bengal. The total number of teachers was five, and all of them were young women. The total number of students was 51. Om Nivas was closed on Friday (for Muslims), Wednesday (general holiday) and Sunday (for Christians).
However, the opposition continued. So Om Radhe represented and defended Om Mandli before the press, the judiciary and the Om Mandli Bhaiband Committee.
(to be continued)
Dr. Zaffar Junejo has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Malaya. His areas of interest are postcolonial history, social history, and peasants’ history. Presently, he is associated with Sohail University and the Institute of Historical and Social Research, Karachi