In the pre-Partition days, Om Mandli provided alternative spiritual education and social services to the women of Hyderabad, Sindh. It infused a spirit into the otherwise stagnant life of Bhaiband women. At that time, there were more than one culture operating in Hyderabad. The Amils and Bhaibands, for instance, lived adjacent to each other but socially they operated in different micro-cultures. The difference was quite noticeable in education and hobbies. Amils were better educated and of scholarly aptitude. But Bhaibands preferred some ability to read and write in Sindhi and English. Majority of Bhaibands believed that if someone intended to become rich, then they should not spend much of their time in education. Therefore, a majority of Bhaiband boys finished their education around grade four, and few passed grade seven. Likewise, education among Bhaiband women in comparison to Amil women was not robust. However, both communities – Amils and Bhaibands – practised and perpetuated the social evil known as ‘Deti-Leti’ – i.e. a young girl could not be married until her parents offered a handsome amount to the groom. The offered amount was based on the groom’s qualifications and type of employment. Perhaps one Sindhi proverb best sets the context and explains this social evil. It says: “Peeu Gasi, Dheu Wasi” (“The father’s hard-earned money secures a peaceful home for the daughter”). In those times, a considerable number of marriageable girls waited for grooms. The process was frustrating for the poor parents who passed through mental agony if they had more than one girl. Another issue was that of widows: some of whom could be of young age. They were living in the worst possible conditions: with no assurance to get a share from their husbands’ businesses; depending on the mother-in-law in all social affairs, muted presence in social-cultural-religious gatherings and facing total disgrace if returned to their parents.
In such a situation, Om Mandli became a consoling space for women. It could be said that the years 1935, 1936 and 1937 were peaceful ones in the life of Om Mandli. However, a group of Bhaibands was still bitter against Dada Lekhraj, Om Radhe, Om Mandli and Om Nivas. They managed to shatter the image of Om Mandli in newspapers. It was portrayed as a “colony of free-love,” “den of magic,” and “satanic house.”
Om Mandli became a consoling space for women
The continuous propaganda instigated some people, who were also encouraged and supported by the fiercely anti-Om Mandli organization known as the “Om Mandli Bhaiband Committee.” As a result, on the 21stof June 1938, a mob gathered in front of Om Mandli’s Lakha Bhawan, (Khatuband Lane). They tried to enter the building and attempted to burn it. But women and young girls resisted their attack. A leading Sindhologist, Pir Ali Muhammad Rashidi, in the second volume of his classic book Uhay Deenhan Uhay Sheenhan (Those were the days, those were the times) has vividly described the scene of how the inmates of Om Mandli dispersed the furious men. He has added that Om Mandli women and young girls were equipped with long (wooden) spoons, purposefully wrapped chillies and hot water buckets. Needless to say, the attackers fled. Om Radhe (President of Om Mandli and Om Nivas) and around 110 signatories informed the Collector and Magistrate (U. M. Mirchandani) through a letter dated the 22nd of June 1938, about the assault of the previous day. However, propaganda continued that Om Mandli and Om Nivas were an “abode of Krishna and Gopis.” On the other hand, Miran Muhammad Shah (Speaker of Sindh Assembly) and Professor S. N. Pherwani (a leading educationist of Sindh) visited Om Nivas. The Professor called it “a modern Gurukul for girls.” However, the press and other forums continued spreading malicious gossip and rumours – and there was a very thin line between ‘street talk’ and ‘reporting’. Therefore, on the 25th of June 1938, Om Radhe wrote to the Collector of Hyderabad that the prevailing situation had compelled the management to close down Om Mandli and Om Nivas School. In the same letter, an impartial enquiry was also requested.
Rumours, assumptions and biased media reporting compelled people to disallow their girls and women to attend Satsangs and the Om Nivas School. Meanwhile, the District Collector Mirchandani emerged as an important stakeholder, and a trail of letters was exchanged between him and Om Radhe. Just imagine the tension in that span of less than two weeks (from the 22nd of June to the 15th of August) – we find that 29 letters were exchanged, including a memorandum and notice addressed to Dada Lekhraj. Om Radhe wrote 14 letters: some of them were responses to the letters received. Likewise, Mirchandani wrote 13 letters. A content analysis of Om Radhe’s letters reveals that the Om Mandli management was requesting for protection, some sort of way to halt the fake news and an impartial enquiry. On the other hand, the language of the District Collector and Magistrate was bureaucratic and, at times, hasty and threatening. One of Mirchandani’s letters dated the 2nd of July, addressed to Om Radhe, demanded a “satisfactory” reply by noon on the 4th of July 1938. The letter indicated that in case of failure, the law could take its due course.
In another paragraph of the same letter, Mirchandani asked for a list of Om Mandli members and that of guardians of Om Nivas students. On the same date, Dada Lekhraj also received an official memorandum. However, its format and language was interesting. The memorandum intimated Dada Lekhraj that there were “several complaints” against him. Dada Lekhraj responded that he needed copies of those “several complaints” to prepare his statement. Interestingly, on the 4th of July 1938, Mirchandani responded that neither a charge sheet could be served, nor a statement be recorded then. On the other hand, Om Radhe kept writing to the District Collector and Magistrate – updating them that some newspapers were creating confusion and were misleading common people.
The settlement document contained nine points. However, two points were very relevant to women’s lives: and its text confirmed the attitudes of Om Mandli’s opponents towards women in general
The situation became worse for Om Mandli members, because Mirchandani had shared the list of Om Mandli members and guardians of Om Nivas students with the opponents of Om Mandli. Therefore, parents and guardians confined women and girls in their homes. Gradually, the situation became worse, and Om Radhe appraised Mirchandani on the 19th of July 1938 that women members of Om Mandli were tied up, tortured and beaten. In the same letter she quoted the case of Ms. Gopi Porkadas Mahbubani – that on the night of the 18th of July 1938, at 10:00 pm, she was beaten violently had been denied food and drink. The letter prayed for protection. All this while, opposition to Om Mandli continued through Bavas, and the anti-Om Mandli party catalyzed the outrage. The adverse situation compelled Om Radhe to intimate Mirchandani on the 27th of June 1938 through an urgent letter that Om Mandli was being closed till an opportune time. The letter added that Mukhi Mangharam and the anti-Om Mandli party had interfered in the personal affairs of people. In a subsequent letter dated the 28th of June 1938, Om Radhe told Mirchandani about the nefarious role of some newspapers and reiterated the demand for an inquiry. Interestingly, Mirchandani avoided the topic of “impartial enquiry” and instead asked for a meeting in his office. However, he added some conditions as advice: that ladies’ Satsang should be carried on in Om Mandli’s premises in Khatuband lane; that the Om Nivas School should exist in a separate portion of the Om Nivas building; and that the residential portion should be separated from the school building.
Six weeks after the Lakha Bhawan incident, the picketing again started on the 7th of August 1938, in front of the Om Nivas School gates. The Collector and District Magistrate were instantly informed. Surprisingly, on the 8th of August 1938, Mirchandani responded that his advice was not followed in spirit. Therefore, he would not interfere in the affairs as long as the picketing was peaceful and there was no threat to public peace. Later on the 12th of August 1938, Mirchandani wrote to Om Radhe that he had understood from Mukhi Mangharam’s conversation that some members of Om Mandli management and some members of the anti-Om Mandli party were desirous of meeting him together for a general discussion. Om Radhe asked as to how the Om Mandli people could meet when their building was picketed. Finally, a meeting was held on the 14th of August 1938 and the parties reached a settlement.
The settlement document contained nine points. However, two points were very relevant to women’s lives: and its text confirmed the attitudes of Om Mandli’s opponents towards women in general. Point number 4 stated that “no girl or lady will be able to go to either Om Nivas or Om Mandli without a written permission of her guardian” and point number 6 stated that “the time for Om Mandli Satsang will be made so convenient that it would not interfere with the household work or duties of those who attended.”
Apparently, this settlement was acceptable to both parties.
But the truce couldn’t be sustained for a long period. In an important document titled “Is This Justice?” Om Radhe has mentioned as to how District Collector and Magistrate Mirchandani aligned his sympathies with the anti-Om Mandli party, thus the agreement became nothing but a piece of paper. It lost any potentiality and value that it might have otherwise had.
(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