Karachi's Polo Ground: Digging into history

Published June 10, 2014
'Polo Ground' was once the site of military parades, with soldiers marching and the air ringing with patriotic slogans. -Photo by author
'Polo Ground' was once the site of military parades, with soldiers marching and the air ringing with patriotic slogans. -Photo by author

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.

On the map of the south district, you will easily spot the Bagh-i-Quaid-i-Azam (Garden of the Great Leader). But if you actually try and locate the spot or ask around for it, not many would be able to help you.

On the other hand, ask anyone for directions to the Polo Ground and millions will shoot up, pointing the way.

The great leader’s garden, if I may call it that, or the Polo Ground, has now been subsumed into the red-zone because of its proximity to the Governor House and two five-star hotels. If you are on your way to the Polo Ground and notice a couple of passers-by giving you strange looks, do not be alarmed. These poor men are only performing their duty.

How did the Polo Ground get its not-so-new name?

My friend Razzaq Abro quite adorably clarifies the catch, saying, “Brother, it must have been the ground where they played polo, why else would it be called the Polo Ground?”

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An office bearer of a Hindu social organisation told me on promise of anonymity that the Polo Ground was actually part of the Hindu Gymkhana. After the partition, as the Hindu Gymkhana was no longer reserved for Hindus, the Polo Ground, too, slipped out of their hands.

I searched to get a source to confirm this, but simply couldn’t find one. A researcher friend of mine, Aqeel Abbas Jafri says that after Partition, when Karachi became the capital of the newly formed Pakistan, the independence military parade would always be held here at the Polo Ground.

According to Jafri, weapons seized from the Indian army personnel during the 1965 Indo-Pak war were also put on display in this ground. The exhibition included an enemy tank which had the name Fakhr-i-Hindustan (Pride of India) written on it. Perhaps, by then, India had not switched to its completely Sanskrit version of Hindi and the common tongue was the Hindi more influenced by Urdu. Today, our weapons are named after Muslim victors from History such as Ghouri and Ghaznavi, while the Indians name theirs as Trishul and Agni, etc.

Another figure I met while on the 'Polo Ground Quest' was Baba Ghayas, an over 80 years-old social and political activist from Karachi. When I asked him what he knew and remembered of the place, Baba Ghayas burst out into a huge fit of laughter, exposing to view the few teeth he had left. When he had had enough of it, he told me:

“Yes, I, too, used to go to the Polo Ground to watch the military parades. Soldiers would march alert to the tunes of the martial orchestra, displaying their skills of warfare every now and then.

"Ironically, in the spirit of marching on, soldiers would hit a peak toward the end of the parade when the orchestra would play Indian singer Mukesh’s song Main Raahi Bhatakne Wala Hoon, Koee Kia Jaaney Anjaan Hoon (I am a lost traveller, who knows I am a stranger).

"The air would come alive with slogans of long live Pakistan and long live Islam.”

After finishing his story, Baba Ghayas probably went back to reminiscing the parades of old as he fell into another long fit of laughter.

I thought the Director of Parks may know something about the garden. So, I headed off to his office at the Frere Hall. There, the Director’s personal assistant went inside his boss’s office, told him I was here, and returned only to tell me his boss knew nothing about the Polo Ground except that its new name is Bagh-i-Quaid-i-Azam.

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Disappointed, I strode off to the Polo Ground itself, hoping there was something to be learnt at the location itself. At the gates, I met the gatekeeper. When I asked him about the ground, he responded in a Balochi-accented Urdu:

“Perhaps, the officer people know about it. Ask me only about the ground.”

So I asked him how many people visited the park every day? He replied, “Used to be a lot of visitors previously. People would come here for a walk, couples would come here to spend some quality time. But not much anymore.”

He believes that the damaged walking track and absence of drinking water are reasons behind walkers not returning to the park anymore.

About the drop in couples visiting the place, he says: “I am usually here all day and get no time to sit in front of the telly, but them boys once told me that some news television channel aired a programme about parks one day.

"The programme’s host was a woman who went to parks disturbing couples, asking them if they had told their parents about their visit to the park and all. What can I say! After that not many couples come this way.”

I pointed to some couples sitting in the park. He said, “I know them. These are married people. They come here daily.”

I then entered the park. I could see a few men and women on the walking track, briskly walking off their weight as it seemed.

Most of the park was occupied by children and adults engaged in sports like cricket and football. I was fascinated to see that most players wore prayer caps while playing football but were skilful enough to execute good headers without the cap falling off.

Looking at these people, I could not help but admit that the Pakhtun leaders’ claim that Karachi hosts Pakistan’s largest Pakhtun population, was completely authentic.

My respected teacher, benefactor and one of Pakistan’s most seasoned journalists, Hussain Naqi Sahib, told me that Field Marshal Ayub Khan organised the first gathering of his Convention League at the Polo Ground in 1962.

During those days, in order to stop students from anti-state activities, Ayub Khan had promulgated the University Ordinance. This ordinance gave the vice chancellors of the universities the authority to terminate admission and cancel the academic degree of any student found involved in unpleasing political activities.

The National Students’ Federation decided that it would agitate against the ordinance from within the Convention League’s gathering. Miraj Muhammad Khan, a known political leader, was handed over the responsibility of leading this protest.

Miraj Muhammad Khan shares the prelude and more regarding that protest:

“Political activities were banned in Ayub’s days. The graduate degree course duration was also increased from two years to three years. Along with that, academic fees were raised and the University Ordinance was also brought in effect. There was unrest among students.

“The real problem was getting access to the Polo Ground. In order to ensure no disturbance of any kind and to avoid any unlikely incidents, the authorities had acquired the services of Sheru Dadal of Lyari. The man was literally feared in the whole city. Daad Muhammad aka Dadal was the father of the late leader of the Lyari Aman Committee, Rehman Balouch.

“Balouch students were asked to establish contact with Sheru Dadal. A day before the league’s gathering at the ground, a delegation of students met with Sheru Dadal. Initially, he completely denied helping the students with anything, but when the students fell to his feet, Sheru Dadal agreed to help them. He told them, “You will have only 15 minutes. After that, you will stop everything.” Hearing this, we breathed a sigh of relief. We were about to leave when he asked, “Boys, all else is alright, but how will you enter the ground?” None of us had a reply to that.

“He ordered his men in Balochi. A while later, his men appeared with some posters with pictures of Ayub Khan, some badges and some banners.

“Dadal told us to use these badges and posters to enter the premises of the gathering. The next day, we did what he had advised and were able to enter the ground without any problems, chanting slogans of long live Ayub Khan. I was accompanied by Ali Mukhtar Rizvi, Syed Saeed Hassan and Fatah Yab Khan when we stormed the stage.

“Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was there, too. There was even a little brawl between him and Syed Saeed Hassan. From the stage, we students passed resolutions against fee hike, degree course tenure and the University Ordinance. The whole gathering was turned into a controversial affair.

"The next day we were all exiled and banned from Karachi.”

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Hussan Naqi sahib says Sheru Dadal had given us a total of 30 minutes for the entire activity. We had accomplished what we were there for in that time. However, some of our comrades had not stopped their activities even after the given time limit had expired.

“Right then, a man stopped them, telling them that their time was up. One of the comrades angrily asked, “Who do you think you are to stop us? Sheru Dadal or something?” The man replied, “Yes, sir. I am him.”

After that, comrades made a run for it and came straight to me. They described the whole incident to me in stutters. I consoled them and told them it was alright, and that they need not fear anything. They just could not shake it off. For days, they would not come out of their homes out of fear. We even heard they woke up calling for help several times.”

Miraj Muhammad Khan tells me that renowned revolutionary poet Habib Jalib even wrote a quartet about the whole episode:

Fiza main jis nay bhee apna lahoo uchhaal diya
Situmgaron nay usay sheher say nikaal diya
Hum say rafeeqaan-i-shab ko shikwa hai
Ke hum nay sub’h ke rustay pe khud ko daal diya

(Translation: Whosoever dared to speak out in the open, the tyrants made sure they were not in the city anymore; the dears of the night have a grievance from us, that we put ourselves in the way of the morn.)

Aqeeb Abbas Jafri writes about the banishing of students from Karachi on page 205 of his book the Pakistan Chronicle:

“On September 12, 1962, the Governor of West Pakistan, Malik Ameer Ahmed Khan (Nawab of Kalabagh), under the umbrella of the West Pakistan Public Safety Ordinance, issued orders of banishing 12 students from the district of Karachi. The reason given was that these students were continuously involved in activities that disrupted public peace and were damaging the academic discipline.

“The students whose names were in this order were as follows: Fatah Yab Ali Khan, Hussain Naqi, Syed Saeed Hassan, Miraj Muhammad Khan, Khurram Mirza, Nawaz Batt, Wahid Bashir, Johar Hussain, Ali Mukhtar Rizwi, Aghaz Jafri, Nafees Siddiqui and Ameer Hyder Kazmi.

"After being expelled from Karachi, these students were also banned from entering Lahore, Hyderabad, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Multan. They then resorted to stay in Sukkur for some time.

"A month later, on October 15, 1962, the order was withdrawn. A few days later these students boarded the Tezru (a train from Lahore to Karachi) to reach Karachi.”

Upon reaching Karachi, these students received a warm welcome from the people of the city. They were taken to their homes by scores of supporters. Aqeel Abbas Jafri quotes a few lines written by the renowned Urdu poet Raees Amrohi (date of publication unavailable):

Tum nay saabit kiya azm-o-aml say apnay
Zindagani hai hayaat-i-amli zindabad
Tum ho eesaar-o-sadaaqat ka har aw’wal dasta
Taalibaat-o-talaba! Zinda-o-tabindabad

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The Polo Ground is under renovation these days. It’s disappointing for me, though, to have been unable to discover the date of its origin.

One of my journalist friends Naymat told me that the name Polo Ground was renamed to Sherpao Garden after the renowned political leader Hayat Sherpao, who was a major political figure from the Pakistan People’s Party in the frontier province (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa). He was killed in a bomb blast.

After Bhutto’s rule came to an end, Ziaul-Haq renamed the ground as Bagh-i-Quaid-i-Azam. However, when was it established and to whom Karachi owes the credit is something no one’s been able to confirm. There is either no public record for it or our dear public servants are not interested in digging out any relevant information in this regard.

It may have become the Sherpao Garden or the Bagh-i-Quaid-i-Azam or whatever else now, but as for the people of Karachi, they still remember the Polo Ground as just that – ‘Polo Ground’. Try asking around if you don’t believe me.

-Photos by Akhtar Balouch -Translated by Ayaz Laghari



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