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Demolition of Shree Mari Mata Mandir in Karachi spotlights plight of Pakistan’s Tamil community

The Mari Mata Mandir in Karachi

On 14th July 2023, the demolition of the 150-year-old Shree Mari Mata Mandir, Karachi caused havoc in Pakistan with its video being widely circulated over social media and its ripple effects were even felt in India where the media took notice of it and highlighted the issue. The issue was so damaging that the highest corridors of Pakistan took notice of the issue and released a notice for any kind of activities to be halted immediately.

The Mandir had been located in Soldier Bazaar, Karachi and was under the management of Pakistan Madras Hindu Panchayat. Initially, it was considered a communal issue but the matter at hand is very complicated, and is mostly based on deceit and corruption.

The Mandir is currently under the guardianship of Rekha Hiralal Sonawati alias Nagin Bai, daughter of Pujari Hiralal Sonawati who was looking after the Mandir and after his death Rekha took charge. Rekha has alleged that after she objected to his neighbour’s construction, her neighbour did the same as revenge and circulated the video of construction on the land which is her personal property but no harm was done to the Mandir.

The Tamil community has alleged that she is trying to usurp the Mandir land with the help of her husband Imran Shamsi. The community stated that the original Mandir was big and slowly Rekha shifted the Mandir to the corner of the plot which was originally a nullah and even stopped us from praying and doing annual rituals at the Mandir. The community has even accused Rekha of selling the plot for Pakistani rupees 7 crores.

The older generation of the area who have witnessed changes to the Mandir have spoken in favour of the community. Even Rekha’s sister Mangla Hiralal Sonawati has stated that she was aware of Rekha’s intentions for a long and she is trying to take over the Mandir land for 10 years categorically stated that their father was only a pujari and Mandir cannot be their property as they are Suryavanshi Rajput and Mandir is dedicated to Shree Mari Mata, which is the native deity of Tamil community.

Among this furore over the Mandir destruction, a key point was missed that there is a vibrant Tamil community living in Karachi which is astonishing considering Tamil Nadu is the southern-most state of India and they had to travel across the country which was a difficult journey in those days.

Coincidently, while I am researching and writing this article I happen to be in Tamil Nadu and talking to Vikram Swami, a Pakistani Tamil based in UAE.

Vikram is a third-generation Tamil in Karachi whose grandparents migrated to the city around the 1940s to find work. Vikram has relatives in Mangalampeth, Tamil Nadu but he has never visited family due to personal and visa issues between the two countries. He, like his mother, went into the nursing profession and is currently working in UAE.

Explaining the Tamil community, Vikram states Tamils came to Karachi for job opportunities during pre-partition and found employment in Jinnah Hospital (then British General Hospital).  Vikram says being employed in the hospital; the community got residential land behind Jinnah Hospital, other than that community can be found in Korangi, Saddar, Drigh Road and Nasir Colony. There are 1000 Tamil families living in Karachi.

The Tamil community celebrates 2 major festivals; one is for their Kul-Devi Mari Mata and Panguni Uthiran of Lord Kartikeya or Murugan. Mari Mata is worshipped for bringing rain and curing any kinds of diseases, poxes etc. and is equivalent to Hindu Goddess Sheetala Mata in North India.

Most marriages happen within the community only and the same holds for Vikram as well. A generation before inter-border Tamil marriages happened but nowadays there is hardly any due to rising tension between countries and visa norms. The older generation is very well versed in Tamil but the newer generation is losing the touch and adopting Urdu.

Hanuman Temple Karachi

Vikram says his maternal-grandfather Mayavan Kullavittiyan was the first president of Pakistan Madras Hindu Panchayat. The panchayat was responsible for handling any community work including mandirs. There are two main mandirs of the community – the Mariamman Mandir and the Hanuman Mandir which they have been seeking to renovate for long, but have  been  unable to do due to lack of funds considering the Tamil community is not prosperous and trying to make ends meet by doing menial jobs.

While the dispute on Mari Mata Mandir was related to the Tamil community in particular, other Hindus were initially reluctant to protest or enter into the conflict as Rekha alleges to be a Hindu. But as the issue triggered people from across the border as well, now Pakistani Hindus from all walks of life including Pakistani Muslims have come forward to support the Tamil community. Recently, Mahant Ramnath Maharaj of the Hanuman Mandir of Karachi has lent his support to the Tamil community and is helping the community to fight a legal battle and get the truth out.

Pakistan celebrated National Minority Day on 11 August and the first ever Minority Rights March 2023 was organised in Karachi and raised issues of forced conversions, blasphemy and reservations. The reality is not one political party has been able to bring in an anti-forced conversion law  now. In 2019, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) tried to bring the law in Sindh but was cornered by Islamists and they had to bend. As recently as in 2021, the Parliamentary Panel rejected the anti-forced conversion bill citing that  bringing the law will create more problems for minorities, thereby making them more vulnerable.

This is a golden chance for Pakistan to straighten its image and no Islamists are poking their noses either. It is a property dispute,  and if Pakistan gets justice done, this will surely give out a positive message to the minorities in Pakistan that their future is secure in the country and to the world that the Pakistan Judicial System is fair to all its citizens.