A cry from Akbar’s birthplace
Five years ago, Dr Mehdi Kazmi left his successful neuro-psych practice in New York to return to his native Karachi and set up a health insurance company for low-income bread-earners. He wants Asia Care to become a successful, sustainable economic model, not a charity organization.
Mehdi’s grandfather, Dr Mahmud-ul Hasan Rizvi, was Karachi’s first Civil Surgeon following Partition, after the family moved there from Agra. Mehdi’s uncle, Dr Mohammad Hasan Rizvi, superintendent of the Spencer Eye Hospital, Karachi, often conducted free eye-camps in Karachi and in the great Thardesert of Sindh.
The younger Dr Rizvi was instrumental in getting the area declared a conservation site – the Kirthar National Park. The family were passionate hunters and would spend holidays camping there to hunt quail, partridge and deer. They built a hut at the campsite, then a house with an eye hospital nearby – both buildings now lying abandoned.
Mehdi points in their direction as we drive through Kirthar National Park on a warm Friday morning in July to visit his family friend, Rana Hameer Singh of Amarkot (Umerkot).
The town is famous as the birthplace of the Mughal emperor, Akbar, whose father, Humayun, was protected by Rana Prasad, the Hindu Sodha Rajput ruler of Amarkot after he fled Delhi, routed by Sher Shah Suri. Otherwise, says the Rana, there would be no Mughal empire. (Amarkot was later renamed after Umer, king of the Soomro dynasty and of Umer-Marvi folktale fame.)
The Sodha Rajputs again controlled Umerkot by the time the British intruders came, whom they fought. The British captured and executed Rana Rattan Singh in his fort (circa 1853), on gallows erected atop a high platform constructed especially to make the hanging visible for miles around. Rana Rattan’s last wish was to give a last defiant twist (tao) to his magnificent moustache. His sacrifice is immortalised in the Sindhi folk song, ‘Mor tor tillay Rana’.
Amarkot Fort now lies in ruins except for one restored outer wall. Within it lies the British-built Circuit House and a modest museum with ancient artefacts and books, including a Persian translation of the Mahabharat. The Sodhas retained land nearby at Ranajagir, 12 km from Umerkot, where they built a sprawling, single-storey rawla.
The current Rana’s father, the legendary Rana Chander Singh, started his political career at age 16 following the death of his father, Rana Arjun Singh. Rana Arjun had just won the decisive 1946 elections on a Muslim League platform and opted for Pakistan, much to the chagrin of the Congress.
Rana Chander played an important role in Pakistani politics until his death in 2009. His area, Tharparkar (now divided into four districts), has the largest concentration of Hindus in Pakistan, estimated at around 40 percent, despite current pressures and migration patterns.
Rana Hameer, his wife, Rani Nalini (of the Jodhpur Rathors), and their son, Karni, a law student in Karachi, are gracious hosts. Besides a wealth of information, they ply us with an astounding variety of Thari cuisine – green masalaroti, saagpuri, dal, vegetable dishes, and barbequed chicken.
The syncretic nature of Thari culture is evident in the Muslims’ and Hindus’ mutual, traditional respect for each other. During Ramzan, fasting Muslims offer food and drink to Hindu visitors (who decline politely); here, Muslims don’t slaughter cows and Hindus don’t cook wild boar.
The strict purdah-observing Rani Nalini never gives public statements. But on the issue of India-Pakistan relations, she wants to speak out. The Indian government, she says, must end the requirement for Pakistani visa applicants to obtain a ‘sponsorship certificate’ signed and stamped by a First Class Gazetted Officer in India – almost impossible to obtain.
“The Hindus of Pakistan particularly suffer because of these policies,” she says. “Sometimes, there’s an emergency. Where can we in Pakistan find a Grade 17 officer in India?”
The restrictions particularly hurt Pakistan’s Hindu Rajput families who have to marry across the border as they are forbidden to marry within their own family.
Pakistanis and Indians converge on the Wagah border each year on August 14 and 15 to jointly celebrate their Independence Days and urge the lifting of visa restrictions. This year, for the first time, such an event is planned at the Khokhrapar-Munabao border between Sindh and Rajasthan.
Here’s hoping Rani Nalini’s dream for easy visas for Indians and Pakistanis is fulfilled in her lifetime.