THE casualness with which the transformation of Karachi’s Mitharam Hostel into a prison has been dismissed by the rulers and the country’s emaciated intelligentsia alike has exposed a fault line that is bound to cost Pakistan dear.
Throughout the first quarter of the 20th century, Muslims in many parts of the world, including our subcontinent, spent a great deal of time on rebutting the charge that the Arabs had, when they occupied Egypt, burnt down the famous library of Alexandria. Nothing was decided and the accusers and the accused both moved on to new issues in the East-West confrontation. One wonders what those defenders of Muslims’ love of knowledge would have said about Pakistan’s record in this respect.
Let us recall an incident that happened in the early years of independence.
Kewalram Shahani, who was known a couple of decades ago as an upright Sindhi Pakistani, pushed back his tears when, on a visit to Hyderabad after the partition riots, he saw statues of Hindu deities for sale on a footpath — statues that had been looted from his haveli. The house always reminded him of the days when Ghulam Mohammad Bhurgari had established a centre for the political awakening of the youth where there was no discrimination on the basis of belief. Kewalram quietly bought back the murtis, though he felt sorry for those who had made him do that.
The scion of a family that had built many educational institutions in Sindh, including the D.J. College in Karachi also held back his tears when the authorities told him to vacate his house in the Old Clifton area because the government was trying to find residential accommodation for the diplomatic corps.
There is no record of the way scores of libraries in the cities and towns of Pakistan were ravaged.
But it was not possible to control his emotions when Kewalram learnt that the books in his public library in Pakistan Chowk had been thrown out because the premises were needed to house a police station.
This was an early indication that the custodians of power in Pakistan put more value on a policeman’s baton as a means of building a great nation than on equipping the youth with knowledge.
There is no record of the way scores of libraries in the cities and towns of Pakistan, such as the one at Karachi’s Khaliqdina Hall, were ravaged by auctioneers of old books, or private hoarders, but by all accounts the loss was huge. Books kept losing out to a variety of substitutes. For instance, a house of books in Lahore became a house of kebabs.
Then we saw the most mind-boggling attacks on knowledge during the Ziaul Haq regime when students were told to avoid reading several classics and J.S. Mills’ On Liberty was prominent among the books set alight at Lahore’s Punjab University. The Faisalabad University of Agriculture went a step further and prohibited any reference to Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein on the campus.
The turning of the Mitharam Hostel into a jail is a manifestation of the same mindset that persuades the authorities to justify the destruction of libraries and archives. They have no time to listen to Dr Noman Ahmed, of the NED University’s architecture department, who rates the Mitharam hostel as a heritage building. Nor do they concede the heritage lovers’ plea for reclaiming the old hostel culture of Karachi as represented by the Mitharam and Seva Kunj hostels and the Jinnah Courts.
These hostels represented the community’s resolve to provide low-cost facilities for the young ones, especially those coming from rural backgrounds and the economically weaker sections of society, to find means of realising themselves. Even in its best period Jinnah Courts was a modest hostel where students enrolled at colleges located nearby could dream of making it good in life through learning. These hostels served students from the various parts of Sindh as they had no colleges near their homes and quite a few similarly disadvantaged young men from Balochistan also benefited from them.
It might be said that hostels like Mitharam are no longer needed as now there are colleges all over Sindh. This may be true of the general body of students from the Sindh interior but there must still be a large number of students who are obliged to look beyond their home districts for study in special disciplines.
There have been reports that the hostels were handed over to the Rangers as they had become dens of criminals, which only means punishing the students for the government’s failure to maintain order. Criminals have been found in hostels of educational institutions in all parts of the country. Have all of these hostels been given to the police or Rangers?
The Rangers are not a disadvantaged lot. Unlike the cash-strapped police that have established police stations in forcibly seized houses and shops, the Rangers apparently enjoy the freedom of the entire country. They have vast residential colonies in several cities, notably Lahore and Hyderabad, and they can surely build offices and residences in Karachi of the standard they consider necessary for their status.
Karachi’s old hostels must be repaired and restored to their original design as a mark of gratitude to their builders and also as symbols of the community’s will to raise a better informed generation than the past and the present ones.
Perhaps we need a few Kewalrams to keep reminding us that if we do not care for the young students there will be nothing for the Rangers or anybody else to protect.
Tailpiece: A banner at a roadside eatery in Lahore says: “A plate of lentils for Rs50, bread free.” A common notice at such footpath dhabas in 1948-1949 was “Bread for one anna (1/16th of the rupee) and dal free.” An important indicator of change for all those whose ambition is restricted to securing dal and roti.
Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2015