It is hard for 60-year-old Bani Wishram and her family to witness the demolition of the temple again. Back then, it was religious hatred. Today, they allege it is a sinister mixture of corporate greed and a discriminatory caste system.
Whatever remains of the Shri Laxmi Narain Mandir, the 200-year-old Hindu temple below the Native Jetty Bridge, after it was desecrated in 1993 during the backlash to the demolition of the Babri Mosque in India, is home to the handful of “scheduled caste” Hindu families living in its premises for several decades. Now the seven low-caste families are being forced to leave by certain Hindu leaders in the name of the renovation of the temple.
“They want us to leave the place where my family settled before 1947,” said Kailash Wishram, Bani’s son, who filed a petition against “an illegal plan being implemented under the garb of renovating the temple by some influential Hindu leaders”. The court has issued a restraining order.
In the petition, Wishram named the state, the Karachi Port Trust, Port Grand Limited and the SHO of the area as respondents.
Wishram submitted that Port Grand, which has been given a contract for the construction of an entertainment complex at Native Jetty, intended to encroach upon the temple courtyard land and the road next to it as well as the staircase for recreational activities.
He said the respondents in connivance with the KPT was trying to dispossess the inhabitants of the residential quarters and deprive the Hindu community of their right to practise and profess their religion at the temple.
The Shri Laxmi Narain Mandir is one the oldest functioning temples in the city, and the only one located at the bank of a creek, making it more special as all the major Hindu rituals, from Navratri and Ganesh Chaturthi to funeral rites, require access to water.
“We are poor and cannot afford to go to the Ganges to perform our funeral rites. This is the only temple next to a water inlet that we have in the city; it is not only important to the families living here, but to all the Hindus of Karachi,” said Kalidas Khandara, president of the Scheduled Caste Federation Sindh.
The families living on the premises of the temple allege that Mukesh Kumar Chawla, provincial minister for excise and taxation, is supervising the “renovation”.
Much to the surprise of the residents, the first thing that was done while carrying out the “reconstruction work” was to close off the bank of the water for the worshippers, as foundation pillars were laid down on the stairs – blocking their access to the creek.
“These leaders suddenly had the thought of renovating the temple when it is not required. Back in 1993, when the temple was badly damaged after the riot, nobody came to repair it,” said Bani.
She claimed that the families living in the neighbourhood and other regular visitors made donations for the temple’s renovation work without any help from the government.
Historically, several Hindu temples have been silently encroached by the government and private parties, when they were abandoned by the Hindu community.
“It is crucial that some Hindu families, who have an emotional bond with the temple, live around the place,” said Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani of the Pakistan Hindu Council.
Snubbing claims of caste discrimination, Vakvani, an upper-caste Hindu, said their temples in the city were all equally respected and there was no caste prejudice among his community in the country.
“My family visits the Laxmi Narain Mandir every other day and I also go there every week.”
There are eight major Hindu Panchayats active in the city, with no central order, claimed a Hindu social worker on the condition of anonymity.
“The lines between the Panchayats are not clearly drawn. Each claims to represent the majority of the Hindus and all of them are more or less active, so you cannot really seek the approval of a Panchayat and say you have the go-ahead signal from the whole community regarding the reconstruction work of a religious site.”
On the other hand, the Karachi Port Trust, the legal owners of the property, claimed that the organisation had sent no eviction notice to the people living in the premises of the temple. “The Karachi Port Trust has not sent any notice to the people living on the temple’s premises. We are not party no any such ‘renovation’ work,” said Shafiq Faridi, the spokesperson for the Karachi Port Trust.
In the same vein, Shahid Firoz, the managing director of the Grand Leisure Corporation, the firm that manages Port Grand Limited, said he had no idea why his company was included as a respondent in the petition. “I think it’s the proximity of the Port Grand Complex to the temple, which has caused this. The issue is very much an internal issue of the Hindu community.”
The News tried to contact Chawla on his cell phone several times, but he did not respond to the calls.