Harchand Rai Vishan Das: Karachi's beheaded benefactor

Published March 24, 2014
The beheaded statue of the first president of the Karachi Municipality (1911-1922), who brought electricity to the city, Harchand Rai Vishandas. –Photo by Akhtar Balouch
The beheaded statue of the first president of the Karachi Municipality (1911-1922), who brought electricity to the city, Harchand Rai Vishandas. –Photo by Akhtar Balouch

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.

Karachi is called the ‘city of lights’. For the past three decades or so, rulers that have come and gone have been claiming that it will be them who will give this city its lights back. Sadly, they have only remained claims.

Some time ago when political parties made such claims, they would mean to bring the old peaceful days back for Karachi. However, for the past decade, power outages have become just another reason for the darkness that the city endures.

The pre-partition Karachi was not known for being a developed city. The city of lights, as it is so heartedly called, was once host to thousands of kerosene lamps and gas lamps. It was only during 1911 to 1921 when Harchand Rai Vishandas became the president of the Karachi Municipality.

The Journal of the Members of Karachi Municipality, in its 1980 edition, mentions that Harchand Rai Vishandas was the first local resident to become an elected president of the municipality.

With the installation of the first power plant, Karachi came to be known as a modern city. The periodical also says that Harchand Rai’s family belonged to Bombay. However, certain references have proved that he was a local of Sindh. In fact, evidence suggests that his birthplace was a village near the town of Kotri. Not only was he an active social leader, but was also an ideological political worker.

Pir Ali Muhammad Shah Rashidi writes in his book Uhay Ddeenh Uhay Sheenh (Sindhi) that Seth Harchand Rai and his friend Dost Ghulam Muhammad Khan Bhurgri were famous Sindhi citizens. He further writes that it was them who raised the slogan of Sindhi nationalism in front of the British bureaucracy; that there was no shame in being a Sindhi. In fact, that it was a reason of pride.

Rashidi goes on to say,

These were times when any feudal lord visiting any British officer would be asked by the gatekeepers to wait outside, and would only be let in once they removed their footwear.

Commissioner Lucas in those days would sarcastically ask whether they were hooligans. The landlords would reply, “Yes, sir. We are; right from our ancestors to these times.

The weary landlords would fear the wrath of the sahibs, afraid they might be legally charged with something if they said no to anything the sahibs asked.

During his tenure as president of the Karachi municipality, Seth Harchand Rai Vishanchand took many a developmental initiatives. From 1846 to 1884, the Karachi Municipality was a bureaucratic state of the officers and workers. So much so that even the nominated members would not be as powerful as the officers there.

These nominated members would always do as told by the officers. The year 1885 saw the first batch of elected members being indicted into the authority along with the nominated members. It was Harchand Rai’s tireless efforts that turned the Karachi Municipality into a public body.

Gul Hassan Kalmati, a renowned historian, writes in his book on the history of Sindh, especially Karachi, Karachi Jaa Laafani Kirdaar (Sindhi - The immortal figures of Karachi):

Harchand Rai also helped the community organisations representing the various communities of Karachi quite a lot.These organisations were awarded free pieces of land by the municipality so that they could work in a better manner.

These organisations included the Sant Dharam Mandal, the Dosa Kaniya Patshala, the Khwaja Ismaili Council, the Mission Girls School Lohana Wadya Mandal, the Lohana Industrial and Technical Institute and an educational institute affiliated with the Sindhi Madrassa.

Harchand Rai was a Councillor at the municipality when Karachi was struck by a plague during the years 1896 and 1897. To help deal with the situation in the city, Harchand Rai and his cousin set up a temporary medical facility, for which the complete responsibility was also taken by them personally.

Harchand Rai worked day and night with his team. There were reports of theft and looting at the homes of the sick when they were at the hospitals for treatment, Harchand Rai ensured the security of their homes with the help of the law enforcement agencies and the British army.

Before Harchand Rai’s time, there was hardly any road network in Karachi. Footpaths had not even been introduced yet. The construction of roads and footpaths was also one of the many gifts that Harchand Rai bestowed Karachi with.

Asghar Azad, a journalist with immense knowledge of the history and literature of Sindh, tells me that Harchand Rai’s services to the city of Karachi cannot all be mentioned in a single blog. One of them, for instance, is that he did a huge favour to the people of Karachi by changing the course of the Lyari River.

Moti Ram Satram Das talks about the matter of the Lyari River on page 101 of his book Ratan Jot:

The Lyari River used to flow right in the centre of the city. People living near its banks were always at risk. Not only did it pose a threat of a disaster at times, but hazards such as mosquitoes and insects causing diseases such malaria were also present.

To rid the people of Karachi of this problem, Seth Harchand Rai prepared a plan with consultation from experts and engineers. A bund was built on the river at Gandhi Bagh (Karachi Zoo) and the course of the river was changed. Not only did this plan solve a number of problems, but cleared a huge amount of land for another quarter colony to be constructed for residential purposes.

A huge number of people wanted these quarters to be named after Harchand Rai sahib. However, the man candidly disallowed any such thing, stating that until he is responsible for the municipality, he will take no such credit. This alone shows how disciplined a man was he.

Harchand Rai was a progressive man who believed in religious tolerance. In his personal life, as well as the social life he led, he always proved to be exemplifying the ideal that religion is everybody’s personal matter.

Harchand Rai Vishandas with Mahatma Gandhi. –Photo courtesy of Khadim Hussain Soomro
Harchand Rai Vishandas with Mahatma Gandhi. –Photo courtesy of Khadim Hussain Soomro

Muhammad Usman Damohi writes on page 514 of his book, Karachi Taareekh Kay Aaenay Main:

Some Hindus did not favour the movement to separate Sindh from the Bombay Presidency. However, he [Harchand Rai sahib] participated in the movement, heart and soul, without worrying about the disappointment of his fellow Hindu people.

When Hindu extremists began the Shudhi movement in Karachi, Harchand Rai went public against the initiative (we will talk about the Shudhi movement some other time). Harchand Rai also participated in the boycott of the Simon Commission. In short, he was a selfless social leader.

Dr Mubarak Ali Khan, a renowned historian, told me about the boycott of the Simon Commission. Both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League of India (led by M. A. Jinnah in those days) were equally participating in the boycott. However, there was another Muslim League in Punjab which was being led by the Sir Muhammad Shafi. This Punjab-based party had welcomed the Simon Commission with arms wide open. Congress and Muslim League claimed that since there is no Indian in the commission, it cannot be recognised.

The Indian legislative assembly was called upon by the Viceroy of India to hold in-house polls on the matter of recognition of the Simon Commission. Harchand Rai, a member of the assembly then, was in Karachi due to bad health.However, when he heard that votes were to be casted he decided he will cast his vote, too. In his book, Ratan Jot, Moti Ram Satram Das writes:

On February 14, he started his journey to Lahore from Karachi aboard the Lahore Mail. By the time the train reached Samasatta, Harchand Rai was so unwell that he was vomiting blood due to the cold weather. He was told to abort travel and get proper medical attention, but he would not change his mind.

On the morning of February 16, he reached Delhi in a miserable state of health. He was on a wheelchair when he was being brought from the train to the receiving car.Everyone around him wanted to take him to the hospital, but the stubborn man would not go anywhere but the assembly hall. On his way to the house, his condition kept deteriorating. He breathed his last as he reached the entrance of the assembly. Such was the man’s ideological consistence. His last rites were performed with utmost respect.

Pandit Madan Mohan Malvia, Pundit Moti Lal Nehru, Vithal Bai Patel and many other renowned figures were there at his funeral. His body was cremated by the Yamuna River.

Harchand Rai was never very fond of conspicuousness. After his death, a public gathering was organised in his memoriam at the Khaliq Dina Hall on February 28, 1928. According to Moti Ram Satram Das, it was decided in this gathering that a memorial in the name of the late Seth. For this, a committee, too, was set up.

Six years later, February 16, 1934 was the inauguration day of Harchand Rai’s statue which was erected in the Karachi Municipality compound. Sixteen thousand rupees were spent on this statue. It was all paid by the people of Karachi. A Mr Tom was the one who sculptured it.

The editor of the Karachi Municipality Members’ Journal, Manazir Siddiqui writes in his editorial:

The city of Karachi owes a lot to the late Harchand Rai Vishan Das. In remembrance of his services to the city, a statue of the man was installed in Karachi which was removed after the partition.

The ungratefulness did not end on the removal of the statue. A road in Karachi which was named after Harchand Rai sahib was later renamed after another head of the municipality. One cannot imagine what drove the authorities towards such an act.

If it was only to appreciate the services rendered by Siddique Wahab sahib (the name which replaced Harchand Rai’s name for the mentioned road), then another new road or street could have been named after him.

The statue of Harchand Rai Vishandas in its original form [right] and how it is now [left]. –Photo courtesy of Khadim Hussain Soomro
The statue of Harchand Rai Vishandas in its original form [right] and how it is now [left]. –Photo courtesy of Khadim Hussain Soomro

I came to know that the removed statue of Harchand Rai sits somewhere in storage that comes under the municipality’s authority. I searched all such places but could not find the memorial statue. Khadim Hussain Soomro, the author of a book written on Harchand Rai sahib, told me that the statue can be found at the Mohatta Palace. I went there to see the statue for myself, it was a beheaded. Quite certainly, the work of some ‘iconoclast’ in all of his righteousness.

Translated by Ayaz Laghari

Read this blog in Urdu here.



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