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Connections: The earlier, better Advanis

September 01, 2013


Hiranand Showkiram Advani, popularly known as Sadhu Hiranand, born in Hyderabad, Sindh, lived only for 30 years (1863 to 1893), but played a crucial role in bringing the fruits of reform and modernisation movements of Bengal to his native land.

For a number of historical reasons, Sindh was home to a softer, more humanistic version of the Hindu religion. Having been greatly influenced by the Bhakti and Sufi traditions and latterly by the Sikh movement of Guru Nanak, the land was peopled by a number of hybrid religious communities that found it difficult and inadequate to attach themselves to a single divine discipline. And, importantly, their emphasis was more on peaceful coexistence in a Muslim majority region than a rigidly defined religious identity.

It is interesting to note that Guru Nanak had a large number of followers in Sindh. Diwan Dayaram Gidumal Shahani, another noted personality from Sindh and a biographer of Hiranand, writes that in the 1891 census Sikhism was introduced as a separate choice in the column of religion but, unlike Punjab, this choice was not available to those living in the Bombay Presidency. Therefore, Hiranand’s elders, Showkiram and Nandiram, had no option but to declare themselves Hindus. Gidumal further says that Keshab Chandra Sen’s Brahmo followers in Bengal had refrained from calling themselves Hindus.

Another significant characteristic feature, it is said, was a more relaxed caste situation in Sindh compared to some other parts of India. There were, however, a number of undesirable practices in the lived Hindu religion that called for reform.

Sindh had been captured by the British in 1839. They moved its capital from Hyderabad to Karachi and made it a part of the Bombay Presidency in 1847. Modern education was introduced in Sindh when the new rulers opened the so-called ‘Normal Practising Schools’ in Hyderabad, Karachi and Shikarpur. However, many in Sindh felt that there was a lot to be done in the field of education, especially female education, not to mention other areas of social and religious reform.

Therefore, Sindh was potentially a fertile ground for the propagation of the reform movements that originated in Bengal in early 19th century, chief among them being the Brahmo Samaj, founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in 1830. Hiranand’s elder brother, Nawalrai Showkiram, 15 years his senior, had already been making efforts to eradicate some of the social ills from Sindh’s Hindu community. He had been working on the same lines as was being done in Bengal by founding here the Sikh Sabha, later renamed as Sindh Sabha and finally took the shape of the Sindh’s Brahmo Samaj. He had come to know of the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal and met one of its leaders Keshab Chandra Sen in Calcutta in 1873. Nawalrai had been instrumental in building the Brahmo Nav-vidhan Mandir in Hyderabad, with a large beautiful garden in its courtyard, which was opened in September 1875 by Satendranath Tagore, son of Maharishi Devendranath Tagore, who was the sessions judge in Hyderabad in those days.

Hiranand went to the Normal Practising School in Hyderabad and was later, in 1880, sent by his brother Nawalrai to Calcutta where he remained for four years and did his matriculation and attended and graduated from the Presidency College. Initially he stayed with Keshab Chandra Sen as a member of his family, and had the opportunity to meet and get influenced by people such as Ram Krishan Paramhans and make many friends.

On returning to Sindh in 1884, Hiranand started editing two newspapers: Sindh Sudhar (Sindhi) and Sindh Times (English) from Karachi. But he soon found out that he would rather work in the field of social reform, so he came back to Hyderabad where in 1888 he and Nawalrai founded the Union Academy for modern education. They opened the first girls’ school in Hyderabad where on their request two Ghosh sisters came from Lucknow to teach. However, Hiranand continued to work in journalism as well and edited Saraswati and Sudhar Patrika — the two periodicals launched by the Hindu Social Reform Association, Hyderabad, around 1890.

His other social work included the establishment of a centre for the treatment of leprosy at Manghopir, Karachi, and an orphanage in Shikarpur. Female education was very close to Hiranand’s heart, so he wanted his own daughters, Lakshmi and Rami, to get the best education available at that time in India. He took them in 1893 to Bankipur to admit them to Prakash Chandra Roy’s Aghor Kamini Girls’ School. The three of them, accompanied by his friend Promotho Lal Sen, or P.L. Sen the priest, went through Sukkur, Lahore and Lucknow to arrive in Bankipur, where, unfortunately, Hiranand fell ill with cholera and died on July 11, 1893. His elder brother, Nawalrai, passed away four months later. Union Academy was renamed Nawalrai Hiranand (or NH) Academy after them. (The website of the Indian Institute of Sindhology tells us that the honour of this name was kept alive when 104 years later, in 1992, an institute was established under the name Sadhu Hiranand Nawalrai Academy at Adipur-Gandhidham in the Kutch area of the Indian state of Gujarat.)

Valiram Vallabh, a renowned Sindhi scholar, writer and translator, originally from the desert district of Thar and based in Hyderabad, informs us about the fate of the Brahmo Nav-vidhan Mandir, where the Samadhis of Hiranand and Nawalrai were built in 1893. The mandir was declared evacuee property after partition and was allotted to a refugee colonel. During the 1970s, the structure was brought down and replaced with a multi-storeyed building, Husain Square by name, which had a market, called Liberty Market, at the ground floor and flats on the three floors above that.

The NH Academy's building at Risala Road now houses the Government High School No.1, Fatima Girls’ High School and Sindh Law College. Vallabh went to see the building in September 2005 and met the newly appointed principal of the high school, Noor Mohammad Talpur, who had little idea of the building’s past. However, an old teacher, Abdul Karim Rajput, took him to show around. The building still looked impressive despite its old, worn out floors and ceilings, decaying walls and staircases and rusted railings. Vallabh found the names of the two brothers inscribed in white marble plaques on the two pillars of the main veranda which looked as if they had been installed not long ago. The old teacher informed him that not only had the plaques been put but the entire building had received a long-overdue facelift the previous month.

And what made it happen? In August 2005, it turned out, the Hindu fundamentalist BJP leader Lal Krishan Advani was visiting from India and his hosts and minders thought that he might want to visit the old NH Academy. Advani earned notoriety for the destructive Rath Yatra which he led in 1990 from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in UP and which achieved its initial objective when in 1992 Babri Masjid was demolished by his followers. Never before had Pakistani authorities thought of honouring the great reformers of the country’s history. Nor has it occurred to them ever since. It’s telling, however, that the politician from across the border showed no interest in the valuable work done by the earlier, better Advanis.