THE FORGOTTEN LIFE OF HEMU KALANI
This article seeks to present and understand the life and impact of the Sindhi Hindu freedom-fighter Hemu Kalani, known later as the “Bhagat Singh of Sindh”. Hemu has been honoured in India and was posthumously praised by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, but has largely been forgotten in his birthplace of Sindh in Pakistan.
Based on Sindhi, Indian and British historical sources and the memoirs of his contemporaries, this article will trace the early life of Hemu, how the War of Independence and other movements influenced his ideology and beliefs, his defiance when confronted by the British and why his legacy should not be forgotten.
Who was Hemu Kalani?
Hemu’s full name was Hemandas Kalani and he was the son of Pesumal Kalani, a contractor, and Jethi Bai. He was lovingly called ‘Hemu’ by his family. However, given the nature of manual record-keeping at the time, there exist some discrepancies with regards to Hemu’s date of birth.
A few references state that Hemu was born on March 11, 1923, whereas Mumtaz Bukhari, a Sukkur-based journalist, says that Hemu’s date of birth in the admission register of the Government Municipal High School is listed as February 22, 1922. This school was previously called Mules School and Kalani appeared in his Matriculation exam from here.
Contrary to these accounts, Jetho Lalwani’s book on Hemu, “Azadi Ka Parwana Shaheed Hemu Kalani” [The Lover of Freedom: The Martyr Hemu Kalani] — recently translated by Mohan Gehlani into English — mentions Hemu’s birthday to be March 23, 1923. Hence, going by Lalwani’s book, the current month and year marks the birth centenary of Hemu.
The exploits of the anti-colonial freedom fighter and his contribution to the resistance movement against British rule in Sindh should be a staple chapter in every history textbook. Yet, his name and legacy have somehow been erased in Pakistan while being honoured in India
While some sources note that Hemu was a good student, it is unanimously agreed upon that his true strength as a youngster lay in the sports arena. Known for his strength and well-built physique, Hemu would often enter the wrestling pit (akhaarra) and had also taken admission at the Krishan Mandal Akhaarra. Alongside this, a few of Hemu’s friends also wrote that he was an expert swimmer and would regularly swim across the banks of the Indus River.
According to a booklet issued by the Indian parliament in 2003, Hemu’s political leanings were greatly influenced by his paternal uncle, Dr Mangaram Kalani, who was heavily involved in the anti-colonial struggle and was regarded as a famous Congress elder in Sukkur.
Mangaram was also strongly affiliated with the student organisation Swaraj Sena. Fatumal Tekchandani wrote in his article “Veer Mata ka Bahadur Beta” [The Brave Son of the Heroic Mother] in 1981 that high school and college students from the ages of 19 to 25 participated in this organisation, and its objective was to awaken the spirit of patriotism and revolution within the youth.
The Spark Of Revolution
Hemu’s desire to fight against the British occupation of India needs to be viewed within the context of the continuous struggle for freedom that had been taking place in Sindh for more than eight decades.
In fact, Maulai Shedai, who has written extensively about the history of Sukkur, argues that all movements and uprisings which were launched in India during the time of British rule greatly impacted Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur. This was because Karachi was comparatively near to Bombay whereas Sukkur was, at the time, considered to fall within the sphere of influence of Lahore. Sindh too remained a part of the Bombay Presidency from 1843 to 1936.
Professor Muhammad Laiq Zardari, the author of Tehreek-e-Pakistan Mein Sindh Jo Hisso [The Role of Sindh in the Pakistan Movement] writes that when the War of Independence began in 1857, its impact was felt in the big cities of Sindh such as Karachi, Hyderabad and Shikarpur, and Jacobabad as well.
On September 14, 1857, 24 local soldiers who had planned to attack the General Commanding Commissioner and other officers in Karachi were captured by the British. Fourteen of them were hanged and four were blown up with a cannon. Professor Zardari writes that the rebels had made a plan to capture the citadel so that an agitation, like the one which occurred at the Red Fort in Delhi earlier in the year, could help ignite a rebellion across Jacobabad, Sukkur and Shikarpur. Although this attempt proved to be unsuccessful, it did lay the groundwork for many revolutionaries who would emerge from Sindh in the years to come.
Decades later, when Mahatma Gandhi began his Quit India Movement in 1942, he travelled to Karachi to address a gathering. Hemu’s classmate Lachhmandas Keswani writes in his memoirs that, upon learning of Gandhi’s visit, he and his friend Hashoo Santani travelled to Karachi in the hope of meeting Gandhi.
Hemu Kalani was of the opinion that simple demonstrations and protests would not be enough to drive the British out of the Indian Subcontinent. He believed that his cohort needed to take more dramatic and extreme steps if they truly wished to get rid of the British once and for all.
Upon reaching the venue, they were met with a large, boisterous crowd of onlookers who had turned up to listen to Gandhi. Keswani soon realised that Master Rangmal, whom he knew in Sukkur, was fanning the respected guests and speakers with a hand fan. Keswani made his way up to Master Rangmal and implored to be given a chance to fan Gandhi. According to him:
“I said to him, ‘Saeen [sir] you must be tired, give me a chance to be of service’… I reached near Mahatma Gandhi while moving the fan. He had just completed his speech. I asked him to please give me the chance to serve the country, after which he asked me what I do. I told him that I am a student. He told me to prepare the people against the British government and keep protesting for freedom.”
Enthused, Keswani returned home to tell his friends about this encounter. Upon hearing his friend’s story, Hemu decided to join the revolutionary activities which were gripping the region. There was no turning back now.
A Revolutionary Is Born
Upon joining the Swaraj Sena due to the influence of his uncle Mangaram, Hemu was chosen as the organisation’s figurehead. The 19-year-old quickly began spearheading gatherings in his area aimed at drawing the youth towards the anti-colonial movement.
However, Hemu was of the opinion that simple demonstrations and protests would not be enough to drive the British out of the Indian Subcontinent. He believed that his cohort needed to take more dramatic and extreme steps if they truly wished to get rid of the British once and for all.
Keswani admits in his memoirs that Hemu and he committed more than five crimes. According to him, the first ‘crime’ was replacing the Union Jack with the tricolour Congress flag in the office of the chief collector of Sukkur. As Keswani notes:
“There was quite a lot of debate over this action of ours and people wondered where these revolutionaries had emerged from. Hemu told his paternal uncle Mangaram Kalani about his incident, after which he asked to meet the comrades.”
Following this, the nascent band of revolutionaries (which comprised of Hemu, Keswani, Hashoo, Hari Lilani and Tikam Bhatia) decided to explode a bomb at an old police outpost which lay on the way to the railway station of Sukkur. As for how they acquired the bomb, Keswani reveals: “Mangaram brought us the bombs. We inquired as to where these bombs were obtained from. Upon hearing our inquiry, Manga said that there was no need for us to know this. He would bring us a bomb whenever we needed one.”
In addition to the police outpost at the railway station, Hemu and Keswani also exploded bombs at the Gharibabad police outpost and at the Bandar Road police station in Sukkur. After a few days, all those who had participated in this undertaking gathered at Mangaram’s house. Here it was decided that they would place a bomb within the premises of a local court. This attempt, however, proved to be unsuccessful. Although the bomb was placed in the court inside a bag, it was discovered by a clerk and promptly defused by the police.
Unperturbed by this failure, Mangaram plotted his next move. On October 22, 1942, Keswani and other members of the group had gone to watch a film at Prabhat Talkies. During the intermission, Hemu met them outside the cinema and informed them of Mangaram’s latest plan. A British military train loaded with ammunition was soon due to depart from Sukkur station, and Mangaram wanted them to loot this train.
As Keswani recalls in his memoirs, the five young men arrived at the railway tracks and immediately got to work:
“We began to unfasten the bolts from the fishplates of the track situated at some distance from the old gate of Sukkur. All five of us had just loosened the bolts with all our force and after great difficulty when an officer shining a bright light called out to us and said, ‘Who are you?’ Four of us — Hari, Hashoo, Tikam and me — immediately escaped. But Hemu stopped for some reason unbeknownst to me. As a result, he was caught by the police.”
Lalwani writes that the sound of the repeated hammering on the railway tracks had been heard by a guard at a nearby biscuit factory, who had in turn informed the police about the suspicious-sounding noise coming from the tracks.
The next day, a newspaper at the time published the following news: “Attempt to derail Quetta-bound train unsuccessful, one rebel was arrested.”
Following the incident, Hari and Tikam found shelter in the environs of Old Sukkur, while Keswani and Hashoo escaped to Shikarpur. All four were nervous about whether or not Hemu would reveal their names to the police. However, despite repeated torture, Hemu refused to tell the police who the other participants were in the blighted robbery attempt. Hemu continued to insist that he had acted alone.
Hemu’s case was met with a special ferocity because it came on the footsteps of a similar incident earlier in the year. On May 16, 1942, a train on its way to Lahore was looted in Sanghar. This robbery, and other guerrilla actions of a similar nature, had been carried out by members of the Hur Movement, as retaliation against the arrest of their spiritual leader Pir Sibghatullah Shah Rashdi. This resulted in the British imposing martial law in the region.
Hemu’s case was filed in a special tribunal and lawyers including Abdul Sattar Pirzada (the father of Abdul Hafeez Pirzada — the “father of the Pakistani constitution”), Nandiram Wadhwani and Saduram Kalani represented him. Lalwani writes in the essay titled ‘The Bravery and Spirit of Hemu’ that the lawyers advised Hemu to not plead guilty in court.
Contrary to their advice, when Hemu was presented in court bound in chains, he proudly stated that he had committed the act he was accused of and that he had no regrets about his actions. In a desperate attempt to save his life, Hemu’s lawyers requested the court to be lenient with their verdict since he was still a young man who had made a ‘mistake’.
The tribunal sentenced Hemu to 10 years in prison and the papers of the case were sent to the Sindh Headquarters located in Hyderabad. When Martial Law Administrator Major-General Richardson received the case papers at the Sindh Headquarters, he changed the verdict to a death sentence. Later, Major-General Richardson would also go on to sentence Pir Sibghatullah Shah Rashdi to death, which was acted upon on March 20, 1943.
Many dignitaries, including the then mayor of Karachi, Jamshed Mehta, the head-priest of Sadhu Bela Swami Harnamdas, educationist Sadhu TL Vaswani and former Assistant Public Prosecutor Sukkur, Abdul Sattar Pirzada, appealed to the viceroy and the martial law administrator to reconsider the death sentence. However, Hemu himself did not endorse any such appeals.
Hemu’s brother Tekchand Kalani later said in an interview that their mother, Jethi Bai, during her meetings with Hemu, had repeatedly tried to get him to sign the appeals for mercy and had also asked him to reveal the names of the men with whom he had tried to damage the railway tracks on that fateful day. Hemu simply refused both of his mother’s requests.
On January 20, 1943, Tekchand received a telegram informing him that his brother would be hanged the next day. As Hemu’s family members gathered to meet with him for one last time, Tekchand recalls his brother saying, “Why are you crying? Give me your blessings so that I may quickly obtain a second life so that I can finish this task.”
As his relatives and loved ones tearfully bid him farewell, Hemu extended his arms through the iron bars of his prison cell towards his brother and said, “I am going to be leaving a task incomplete. You complete it.”
On the day of his hanging, Hemu was asked if he had any last wish, to which he replied that he wanted to ascend the stairs of the gallows while chanting slogans and also wanted the government officials present to shout their replies to these slogans. Accounts by Lalwani and Hemu’s brother say that Hemu chanted the slogans “Inquilaab Zindabad” [Long Live the Revolution], Union Jack Murdabad [Down with the Union Jack] and Vande Mataram [I Praise Thee, Mother] as he made his way up to the hangman’s noose.
The Legacy of Hemu Kalani
When writer Amir Abbas Soomro, a resident of Shikarpur, travelled to India several years ago, he met with Hemu’s brother. In his travelogue, while referring to this meeting, Soomro writes that, after Hemu’s hanging, a security fee of 1,000 rupees was demanded for the recovery of the corpse. Since his family could not afford to pay this amount, a dignitary covered the payment of this fee to recover the corpse. Hemu was hanged on the morning of January 21, 1943 and his corpse was handed over to his family at 4:30pm later that day.
However, before receiving the corpse, Hemu’s parents had to sign a written document, which stated that if any disturbance occurred in the city after their son’s dead body was handed over to them, they would be held responsible.
Hemu’s corpse was recovered from a military truck in Sukkur Jail and was accompanied by British army officers as it made its way to the cremation ground in Old Sukkur. His dead body was covered in flower petals and only his face was visible to the onlookers. Following his death, students boycotted educational institutions and people gathered in the streets in the thousands to catch one last glimpse of the revolutionary.
After the death of Hemu, there were protests across Sindh. Black flags were waved in the Shri Swaminarayan Temple in Karachi and a portrait of Hemu was hung in Sadhu Belo. On January 26, 1943, Jawaharlal Nehru said the following about Hemu:
“My mind travelled to Sindh, where a few days ago a young boy, Hemu, aged 20 was sent to the scaffolds by a martial law court for the offence of tampering, or attempting to tamper, with railway lines. He was a college student, recently matriculated. Whether his offence was properly proved or not — little proof is needed by a military tribunal functioning under martial law — I do not know. But this execution struck me as something which will have far-reaching consequences all over India, especially among the young.”
In 1943, when Nehru came to Karachi, he specially visited Sukkur and condoled with Hemu’s mother. Captain Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon of Subhas Chandar Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj [Indian National Army] gave Jethi Bai a gold medal to honour and acknowledge her son’s sacrifice. Given the impact of his death, Hemu came to be known as the “Bhagat Singh of Sindh”.
After Partition, much of Sindh’s Hindu population moved across the border to India. Hemu’s family also left the soil for which their son had offered his life. Today, Hemu is still remembered and honoured in India, while hardly anyone knows his name in Pakistan, despite his invaluable struggle against the British Raj in Sindh. He cemented himself as a figure and symbol of resistance and defiance for all of Sindh. Yet, the land where he was born and for which he paid the ultimate price barely remembers his sacrifice today.
Hemu’s family settled in Delhi after 1947, prompting the Indian state to regularly acknowledge and commemorate his enduring legacy. In 1983, to mark his 60th birthday and 40 years since his hanging in Sukkur, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had a Hemu Kalani memorial stamp issued.
In the ceremony, during which the stamp was unveiled, Hemu’s mother Jethi Bai was seated alongside Bhagat Singh’s mother, which proved to be a very poignant interaction between the mothers of two revolutionaries. Newspapers in India published a photograph of the two women with the caption, “Sindh Mata [mother] and Punjab Mata.” According to Soomro’s conversation with Hemu’s brother, Bhagat Singh’s mother told Jethi Bai, “Your son is even greater than my son because he sacrificed his tender youth for the motherland.”
On 21 August, 2003, a 12-feet high statue of Hemu was erected in the Indian parliament and was unveiled at a ceremony which was attended by the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Congress President Sonia Gandhi, thus symbolising the widespread and continued acknowledgment of Hemu’s contribution to the independence struggle.
The Hemu Kalani Yadgar Mandal was established in Delhi and today serves as a college for women. Additionally, a public square (Venus Chowk) was named after Hemu in Ulhasnagar and more than a dozen roads and educational institutions in various Indian cities carry his name.
But he remains missing from public acknowledgment in his own birthplace.
When studying the history of their land, Pakistanis are not taught about the exploits of Hemu Kalani and his contribution to the resistance movement against British rule in Sindh. This historical exclusion also represents an eagerness to erase certain elements of our collective past. This tendency was perfectly represented recently when the Hemu Kalani Park, located on the banks of the Indus in Sukkur, was renamed Muhammad bin Qasim Park, after the Arab conqueror.
However, it is not too late to rectify this national ignorance with regards to the contributions of Hemu in the fight against the British Raj. Hemu’s birth centenary this year offers us all a chance to ensure a vital correction in our selective amnesia towards one of the most distinguished sons Sindh has produced.
This is a translation of an Urdu piece carried on the BBCUrdu website in August 2020. The writer is Riaz Sohail, a senior journalist with BBC based in Karachi.
Eos regrets that the writer originally credited with the piece made false claims about his authorship of the piece. He is now permanently blacklisted from writing for Dawn.
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 26th, 2023
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