The presumably 125 years old Bagai Mahal is facing extinction because of lack of enlightenment and political will
Bagai Mahal, a landmark site in Mohallah Dr Fazal Reh, an old neighbourhood of Dera Ismail Khan, would soon be history. The building, which dates back to the late 1800s, was the private residence of the Bagais, a family of landowners and businessmen, who are believed to have moved to DI Khan over 150 years ago. They based themselves in a fortress-like place which they called the Bagai Ashram. It was later converted into their residential place. Rai Sahib Das Ram Bagai was born here in 1879.
Das Ram was a renowned philanthropist of his time — he built many schools and colleges and set up free dispensaries as well as tuberculosis wards in local hospitals. His grandson, Atul Das Bagai, recalls: “Apart from his charity work, [Das Ram] helped to acquire funds from the Viceroy’s Council to build embankments on the River Indus, and thus saved the city from floods. If it wasn’t for his efforts, the town would have been decimated.”
Hindu-Muslim riots forced the Bagais to quit Pakistan, but they left behind all their land and wealth. Sadly, the current owner of Bagai Mahal, Suhail Rajput, a local politician and real-estate giant, believes he is justified in razing the historical building to the ground. “It was owned by a Hindu,” he said, in an interview with a TV channel recently. He added, “I want to show the Hindu sympathisers that this is now my property. Period.”
Now settled in India, the Bagai family has expressed their deep concern over the dismantling of their private residence. Reportedly, they have requested Prime Minister Imran Khan to intervene.
Members of civil society have also been actively pursuing the cause of conservation. They contacted Dr Abdul Samad, the head of Directorate of Archaeology and Museums in KPK government, but the latter excused himself by saying that the building was 92 years old and hence the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Antiquities Act, 2016, did not protect it. (The rights activists maintain that the building is at least 125 years old, and is therefore protected under the law.)
Both the district and provincial administrations seem helpless before the powerful real-estate barons. MPA Faisal Amin Khan, whose social media account is flooded with tweets on the promotion of local tourism and environment protection, is also silent on the matter.
Dr Abdul Samad, the head of Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, excused himself by saying that the building was 92 years old and hence the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Antiquities Act, 2016, did not protect it. (The rights activists maintain that Bagai Mahal is at least 125 years old and, therefore, protected under the law.)
To quote Ehsan Ullah Lashari, a local fiction writer who has voiced his opinion on the matter, “Das Ram loved our city, and contributed to the welfare of its common people, especially in education and health sectors. Demolishing the building means you are denying his services for Dera.”
Tourism is another angle to be considered. As Shueyb Gandapur, an internationally acclaimed travel writer who hails from Dera, says: “Heritage architecture gives identity and character to a place.
“During my travels abroad, I witnessed the tremendous efforts made by governments for the preservation and restoration of classic architecture and the historic character of old cities. It is through these old buildings, houses and streets that we can tell our stories to the coming generations,” he tells TNS.
Award-winning local writer Habib Mohana puts it even more succinctly: “Bagai Mahal is an asset for Dera. It should be converted into a museum or an arts academy, without destroying the building. But we may have lost the chance to do so.”
Bagai Mahal isn’t the only historical building in DI Khan that has been ravaged mercilessly. Jesa Ram Lota Hospital, also known as the TB Hospital, in Commissionery Bazaar, was recently sold at a paltry price (allegedly to some land grabbers) and notified to evacuate.
To sum up, lack of awareness and political will is leading the historical sites of DI Khan to the altar of commercialisation and, in the case of Bagai Mahal, to destruction of heritage, thanks to a bigoted conservative mindset. Except for a few enlightened locals, no one has come forward and raised their voice against the real estate mafia. The Amin brothers, the MPA and the MNA, have shown no interest in the issue.
Dera Ismail Khan boasts a rich history. Its many historical places and buildings including Kafir Kot, Ram Dheri and Lal Mahra Hinderay, are lying in utter neglect. If no steps are taken to conserve these places, there will be no saving local history from being decimated.
The writer is a freelance graphic designer and a rights activist. He tweets @Ehteysham1