When talking about the history of Sindh, Seth Naomal Hotchand is a name which simply cannot be left out.
Sindh's is an ancient history, one that countless historians have played a part in documenting. Where there are the remains and relics of Moenjodaro — an ancient civilisation dating back to 3000 BCE — there are also the archaeological treasures of Kaaujodaro, which could not survive the tides of time in the same way as the former have so miraculously done.
Some other day, I'll write more about the old Kaaujodaro in Mirpurkhas, in the southern parts of Sindh. For now, let's get back to Seth Naomal.
History has it that Seth Naomal helped British usurpers in their attempt at conquering Sindh.
Now why would he do that? For financial gain, or maybe a British title?
Or to perhaps avenge what his father had been put through by the 'Mirs' of Sindh?
Also read: 'Muhammad Bin Qasim: Predator or preacher?'
Before going any further, keep in mind that it was only after Mir's dynasty rule had ended, and when the British had started ruling Sindh, that the Sindh of today became possible. The new Sindh — with urban centres, road networks, electricity, hospitals and schools, railway, modern irrigation and what not — was never possible under the Mir dynasty, when the region was alien to the idea of change for modernity.
Some history buffs are of the view that the irrigation system was established by the British to generate more revenue from the region, while the railway network was to serve the purpose of a transit system for the British troops in Afghanistan. About schools and hospitals, they say, it was all for the brown sahibs (the bureaucratic slaves to the foreigner sahib).
Seeing the British contribute to the infrastructure and services here, Hindus and Parsis followed suit, establishing welfare organisations and so on. Some of this infected the Muslims too, and thus began the story of welfare work in the Sindhi society.
But now I'm rambling again, so, let's return to the subject of Seth Naomal Hotchand.
Seth Naomal Hotchand's background
Muhammad Usman Damohi writes about Hoatchand in the 2013 edition of his book Karachi: Taareekh Kay Aaenay Main:
"The man’s lust for wealth and status robbed Sindhi nationalist Muslims and Hindus of their freedom, forcing them to live under tyranny and endure the pains of slavery... This man helped the British defeat the Mir rulers of Sindh."
About his family background, Damohi writes:
Naomal was born in Kharadar — one of the oldest areas of Karachi — in 1804. He was the great grandson of renowned Hindu trader Bhojomal, who laid the foundation for the city of Karachi in 1729. Naomal's father Hotchand was also a very successful merchant, with a business reach extending all across India, Afghanistan, Iran and Muscat. This was one of those powerful families who loaned money to the Mirs of Sindh, and even had contacts inside the royal court of Hyderabad.
All this information begs the question, even more - what would such a rich and powerful man be aiming for in helping the British conquer Sindh?
The 'blasphemy' accusations
We turn to "Memoirs of Seth Naomul Hotchand of Karachi", where he writes on page 89 (third edition, printed by the Sindhi Literary Board in 1996 and translated into English in 1915):
"It was somewhere between 1831 and '32. In Nasarpur (near Mirpurkhas, southern parts of Sindh), a young boy — the son of a Hindu peasant, and upset at his teacher for, perhaps, giving him a beating — went up to the gates of a local mosque and stood there.
When a group of Muslims spotted him, they took the boy inside the mosque. This angered the Hindu community and triggered reactions like Hindu shopkeepers refusing to sell goods to Muslims, with Muslims retaliating by throwing litter into the well in Lyari, where many Hindus got their drinking water from.
"The next day, a man named Nooral Shah, and a 'Syed' by lineage, came to our neighbourhood, cursing Hindus. My younger brother, Pursuram, who was standing at the outer gate of the neighbourhood, asked Nooral Shah to refrain from it, but things heated up. In rage, Nooral Shah began claiming that Pursuram had insulted the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and a huge Muslim crowd gathered to agitate.
"Later, Nooral Shah went to various cities of Sindh with a Quran held up to his chest, inciting Muslims [to act against the Hindus]. Somehow, my brother managed to slip out of city and go to Jaisalmer. Meanwhile, the matter was taken to the court of the ruler of Sindh, Mir Murad Ali Talpur. It was a sensitive matter, with a lot of pressure being generated by Muslim groups. Mir sahib sent for my father to send Pursuram to Hyderabad. Since Pursuram was not in Karachi, Mir sahib ordered my father to appear at his court. "
"When my father reached Hyderabad, Mir sahib referred him to the Qazi (religious judge) of Nasarpur, which is a small city not far from Hyderabad. The Qazi refused to hear the case. Then all of a sudden, Muslims attacked my father and kidnapped him. He was taken hostage for 10-12 days."
"At first, they wanted to turn him into a Muslim (meaning, circumcise him). However, my father was over 50 years old, not to mention such an act was against Islamic prescriptions as well. Along with that, the Muslims feared that the act would cause too big a reaction, so they changed their mind. Later, Mir Murad Ali regretted the incident and ordered that my father be set free at once. That's when he was finally let go."
Nevertheless, the more common understanding in Sindh remained that Hotchand had been circumcised. The incident has been described in detail in Seth Naomal's memoirs.
On the lower social status of minorities
Before Partition, the Hindu community of Sindh was among the wealthiest in the region. Not just the landlords but the very rulers of Sindh were often in debt toward the Hindus for large sums of money. Yet, Hindus struggled to achieve the same social status that Muslims enjoyed.
Sharing what he saw during his days in the region, James Burns notes:
"Hindus in Sindh are banned from riding horses. That is why even the wealthiest of Hindus are seen riding donkeys instead. It is also a custom for Hindus to respectfully give way to any Muslim rider while on the road."
Renowned intellectual and historian Dr Mubarak Ali writes in his book Sindh Khaamoshee Kee Awaz that Seth Hotchand’s was one of the most respectable families of Sindh. That is why the whole episode… left a huge impact on the Hindu community of Sindh.
This surely acted as a catalyst for the sense of insecurity that Naomal and his likes felt in his times.
It must have been a huge blow to Naomal’s ego. It seems this was the episode that became the prologue to the tale of his treason. However, it is unjust to claim that only Naomal was responsible for the end of the Mir dynasty’s rule over Sindh.
The rulers, who controlled the three regions of Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas and Khairpur, were always indebted to Hindus for even basic state machinery, meaning they never had enough resources. On top of that, the Mirs did not have a well-trained army. This allowed the British to easily overcome the once-mighty dynasty of rulers and their supporters in order to conquer the Mehran Valley.
The British acknowledged Naomal’s services to the crown by awarding him with a title. Khudadad Khan, a servant of the British Raj, writes in his book Taareekh-e-Sindh (first published in 1900, reprinted in 2009 by the Sindhi Literary Board):
"The badge for the CIE title was awarded to Seth Naomal Hotchand in a grand event in his honour, held at Frere Hall. The Briton who had handed over the badge spoke of how grateful the British government was for the immense help Naomal's information and recommendations provided in securing Sindh in the 1843. He said the Great Queen (Victoria of Great Britain) was proud to award him with the title of CIE (Companion of the Most Exalted Order of Staff of Indian Empire). It was also announced that property and pension both are awarded to Naomal henceforth."
Dr Mubarak Ali writes in his essay titled ‘Kia Naomal Ghadaar Thaa?’ (Was Naomal a Traitor?):
"The role minorities play in a society is a highly sensitive one. The more financially well-off the minority is, the more enemies it creates. More often than not, members of the minority communities are pronounced traitors or national enemies. In such cases, society falls prey to schisms and minorities become disconnected from any kind of national spirit. In the annexation of Sindh and India to the British, the insecurity which the minorities lived in had a huge role to play."
Naomal died aged 73 on September 16, 1878 in Karachi. His memoirs were published by the Oxford University Press in 1986.
The translation begins with a note terming him a traitor.
Translated from the original piece in Urdu by Ayaz Laghari