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ULHASNAGAR – A Glance down History from Shambles to a Settlement

Author: Rtn. Gangaram S. Purswani

The township of Ulhasnagar, situated to the north of Mumbai and a part of Thane district is considered by many in the community and others, as one of the prime Sindhi residential pockets not only in Independent India, but also in the whole world. This township has over the years become synonymous with the Sindhi community who have contributed more than the proverbial sweat in building the Ulhasnagar of today. During the past 52 years of its existence, the Sindhi community, despite the adverse conditions has reshaped this set of villages into a proper urban town with their exemplary will power and determination.

The story of this Sindhi settlement begins way back in the year 1947. The joy of Independence put behind them, the Sindhis had to battle a lot of initial hardships as the unfortunate circumstances of communal tensions that engulfed Sindh, forced them to leave their homeland. Leaving behind their property and golden memories, the Hindu community of Sindh, left their homeland carrying with them the hope of a better tomorrow. The heavy influx of refugees from the newly formed state of Pakistan, and their subsequent rehabilitation was a huge responsibility on the Government of India. It was natural for most Sindhi Hindus once away from their homeland, to take shelter in Bombay, as Sindh once belonged to the erstwhile Bombay Presidency. Thus, a fairly high percentage of these Sindhi Hindus came to this part of the country and were asked to take refuge initially in places, such as Matunga, Sion, Thane and in the military camps situated in the district of Kalyan, which were used by the Italian soldiers during the Second World War. About 60,000 refugees were asked to take shelter in the five military camps of Kalyan, which later evolved into the Ulhasnagar of today.

Dayal Asha, former educationist and now renowned Social worker, while reminiscing his early days in the city of Bombay, says, “After the rising tensions in Sindh, my family had to leave the shores of Karachi as we were transported by ship to the port of Bombay. For the initial few days we were asked to live in makeshift tents on the seaside at the port itself. The authorities provided us with rice bhath (rice mixture) twice a day. Then, nearly after a week, the authorities informed us that the arrangements for our living had been made.” The authorities had arranged from special trucks and buses to transport the refugees. Hardas Makhija, current mayor of Ulhasnagar says, “Little would have the refugees realised what was in store for them. In the hope of being provided with reasonable housing, they were stunned on being offloaded in the barren lands of Kalyan. Most of the refugees exclaimed, ‘God, where have you sent us?’ They were taken to the military camps, and were asked to take refuge in the huge dormitory type halls and barracks.”

Dayal Asha further continues, “The Ulhasnagar of today comprises of five military camps that were set up for the rehabilitation of Sindhi refugees. They later developed into being recognized as Ulhasnagar 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Since my family was among the first to take refuge in this area, we were allotted small barracks, whereas majority of the refugees were made to take refuge in the huge halls, where at any given point of time not less than 12 – 15 families resided with makeshift curtains being used for partition and privacy.

He further says, “The place reminded one of a jungle. There were no signs of transport, no buses at all. The authorities provided us with free ration supplies. We were given wheat, but there was not even a single flourmill in the area. People had to walk all the way to the nearest railway station to grind the wheat.” Hardas Makhija informs, “The nearest railway station to Ulhasnagar is Vithalwadi, which was earlier known as ‘James Siding’ and received its name after a military officer. There were no roads or streetlights. Basic amenities such as water were a problem too with the few water taps being positioned at distant corners. The place was also infested with snakes and scorpions. People did not dare to venture out of their homes after sunset.”

The township of Ulhasnagar was formed on the 8th August 1949 with the inauguration ceremony being performed by C. Rajagopalachari, then Governor General of India. Mayor Hardas Makhija tells us, “The Township received its name because it is situated on the banks of the river Ulhas.” He continues, “During the day of the inauguration ceremony, there was a huge agitation for renaming the place as ‘Sindhunagar’”. Mr. Anand Bijlani in his book on Ulhasnagar writes, “It was then assured by none less than the Governor General that when the local body came into existence, the township could be renamed Sindhunagar.” Unfortunately for the community till date this remains only a dream.

Hardas states, “In those days to make ends meet, people used to sell confectionaries, cloth, etc. in the local trains. The women used to make and sell Papads. It was a matter of their very survival. Despite receiving no support from the government and authorities, the community grew by dint of sheer hard work and determination. Gradually, after the 50’s the community, which has a considerable understanding of business, ventured into setting up industries in the region.”

Prem Tolani, former member of Ulhasnagar Municipal Council and currently editor of the fortnightly Sindhi tabloid, ‘Sandesh Bharat’ say, “The cottage industry set up by the community flourished in quick time. Their policy of large turnovers and minimum profits reaped them rich awards. Thus, without compromising on quality the community with its sharp business acumen established itself in the industrial arena.” He further states, “Today, Ulhasnagar is as cosmopolitan as any other part of Mumbai (Bombay), and the entire town has prospered primarily because of the Sindhi community’s efforts, who comprise about only 50% of the population.” Dayal Asha adds, “Even the locals prospered because of the Sindhis. The Sindhi community has set up business houses, provided locals with employment opportunities and established educational institutes and hospitals. Sindhis have set up nearly seventy five percent of the educational institutes in Ulhasnagar. But even today there are about 50% of the Sindhi population who live below the poverty line.”

The Mayor adds, “The Ulhasnagar Municipal Council was initially formed in the year 1960, but despite the fact that Ulhasnagar started its life in 1949, the first development plan for the region was assigned in 1974. By then, haphazard and unplanned development of the city had already begun.”

When asked on the backward appearance of the township, the mayor answers, “Because of the heavy influx of outsiders, there has been a strain on the local township and a rise in infrastructure problems. The township is spread over 13 Sq. Kms. And has an official population of about five lacs, though it is said that there are about seven lacs residents in Ulhasnagar. In comparisons to New Bombay, which has a population of about 12 lacs spread over a distance of 350 Sq. Kms, Ulhasnagar certainly seems to be a gas chamber. Due to the scarcity of land, and considering the rising population, the growth of the region has not been horizontal but vertical. There has been heavy violation of FSI rules and many unauthorized buildings have sprung over the years.”

Hardas Makhija states, “The Municipal authorities have somewhat successfully managed to put an end to the haphazard development of the previous years. The township now is heading towards achieving the right levels of improvement. Ulhasnagar and its people have emerged successful despite the hardships, and are heading towards being one of the proud localities of not just Sindhis, but also the whole of India. Exuding an equal amount of confidence and optimism, many Sindhis of Ulhasnagar state that at the current hour of cultural crisis, Sindhiyat shall be better preserved in Ulhasnagar than in any other Sindhi pocket. Are the Sindhis from other pocket listening?

The making of Bombay’s mini Sindh

Many of the Hindu Sindhi refugees who fled to India post Partition succeeded in rebuilding their lives afresh, their native entrepreneurial spirit enabling them to rise up from the destitution that displacement caused. Ulhasnagar, Thane district, which was a refugee camp 70 years ago, is a microcosm of how the community rehabilitated itself–with the help of a well dispersed and generous Sindhi trading network

Ulhasnagar, a township in Thane district, Mumbai Metropolitan Region, located 58 km to the north west of Mumbai city, was once a Hindu Sindhi refugee camp. Today, it’s a concentration of low-slung dwellings and unplanned high-rises, spread over 13 sq km and bursting at the seams with 8 lakh people, of which less than half are Sindhis today.

Remnants of the military barracks, used during the Second World War and then converted into dormitory-style shelters for the refugees who arrived by sea in 1947-48, are still visible and many continue to live where they were born in Ulhasnagar’s Sectors 1 to 5, such as Hardas Makhijaa, a former mayor of Ulhasnagar. He was four months old when he came to what was earlier known as the Kalyan Camp, from Kumbar Taluka (Larkana District), and now has his office in the very place he grew up: Camp 2, Nehru Chowk. His late father, Sanmukh Duromal Makhija, a freedom fighter, was the founder of the Sindhi newspaper, Azaadi, in 1942, and among the few who visited the Camp before bringing his family to settle there.

 The foundation stone of Ulhasnagar township. Formerly known as Kalyan Camp, it was transformed into a township for Sindhi refugees on 8 August 1949

The most attractive aspect of the Kalyan Camp (renamed as the new township of Ulhasnagar by Governor General C. Rajagopalachari on 8 August 1949), was its proximity to Bombay—even if it had no roads, water taps, flour mills, electricity or sanitation facilities, recalls Hardas Makhijaa. Other camps, like the one in Pune, to which refugees arriving at Bombay port were also sent, were considered too far away for the city’s business and employment opportunities.

 Former Mayor of Ulhasnagar, Hardas Makhijaa at Kuchoomal Mithaiwala, whose owner (standing behind the counter) also originally hails from Larkana District, Sindh

Sarla Kripalani, author of the book, Aaya Pir, Bhagga Mir and Other Sindhi Proverbs (2012), remembers her father-in-law’s nieces living in a refugee camp beyond the Kalyan Camp. “We visited them often. He told them he could help them, but he was being pragmatic when he also said that they should not depend on him entirely,” she adds. “These girls were so good at embroidery work, making achaar (pickle), papads, and mithai (sweetmeats) at home, that the younger sister would call on well-to-do Sindhi families, like the Advanis of Blue Star in the city, to sell their wares.”

According to Kripalani, Sindhi girls began working after their migration to India, and only because their families were in dire financial straits. In Sindh, most Hindu families belonged to the urban middle class, while the wealthy few were zamindars (landowners), well established merchants and bankers, or employed in key positions in the British colonial government.

In spite of displacement from their homeland in 1947-48, there were two reasons why the success of this community was almost a certainty. The Shikarpuri Sindhis from the land-bound city of Shikarpur, Sindh, in particular, had a pre-colonial global trading and financial network that extended from Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea to the Straits of Malacca. It was this community of merchants and bankers who introduced and popularised the promissory note, known as the Hundi.

According to Sindhi anthropologist and author Nandita Bhavnani, “This network was dealt a blow by the Great Game (late 19th C) in Central Asia by the competing powers of Imperial Russia and Great Britain, jostling for influence. And ultimately by the Russian Revolution when many Shikarpuris were ruined, as they had large holdings of Russian roubles.”

Sindhis classify themselves by their city of origin, being a mostly urban community, such as the Amils and Bhaibands from Hyderabad, Sindh; the Shikarpuris; or the Thattai Bhatia merchants (from the city of Thatta, a former capital of Southern Sindh). Sometimes, they had more generic names, like Uttaradi (a resident of Northern Sindh).

The Bhaibands (lit. ‘brothers in arms’) were traders, and it wasn’t long before they built new business networks, connecting colonial port cities. Initially, with the Central Asian markets disrupted by political instability in the late 19th century, and native kingdoms impoverished by British rule, they began selling ‘Sindh work’ (ivory, wood and enamel carving, lacquer work, textiles and embroidery made by Sindhi Muslim artisans) to British soldiers, who turned out to be a ready market: they called them the Sindhworkis.

These Sindhworkis began travelling abroad from the late 1850s and early 1860s, eastwards to Canton (Guangzhou), Hong Kong, Japan, and westwards to Cairo, Malta, Gibraltar, and the Caribbean islands. What is interesting is that before Partition the men travelled for two or three years, leaving their families home. Often, there was a sethia (boss), who set out with a group of young men from his family and an extended friends’ circle. They traded across the seas, meeting not just the demand for Sindh work, but selling Malta lace in Japan, and vice versa: Japanese curios in Malta.

A Biluchi Soldier and Hindu Trader of Sindh

It was this bedrock of relatives abroad, along with home-grown success stories from the camps themselves (like the owners of the Colaba-headquartered Kailash Parbhat Restaurants, who once lived in the Kalyan Camp), who donated towards educational, social, business and community infrastructure within the camps.

Many of the young men left the camps to seek their fortunes abroad, only returning to collect their families. However, many have flourished in the numerous home, cottage, small, and medium scale manufacturing units, and trading businesses in Ulhasnagar that now service the Indian market. The Goods manufactured in Ulhasnagar are usually labelled “Made by U.S.A.” (Really  meant as Made by Ulahasnagar Sindhi Association). 

The Sindhi influence in Bombay

Most old-timers in the city vividly remember young Sindhi boys hawking knick-knacks, trinkets, and eatables made in Ulhasnagar, on trains running between Ambarnath and V.T. Stations (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). Much before Chinese goods came to be manufactured at cheap rates, the Sindhis at Ulhasnagar were making just about anything at less than half the market price.

Although, these goods were pejoratively referred to as “Made in USA” (lit. Ulhasnagar Sindhi Association), they met the demands of a vast price-sensitive Indian market–and do so even today. Trade in jeans, confectionery, pre-fabricated furniture, paper and textiles are some goods over which this township still has an edge.

The Sindhis are also attributed with popularising the concept of the co-operative housing society in Bombay. According to Bhavnani, in 1914, Bombay got its first residential co-operative society at Gamdevi pioneered by Rao Bahadur S. S. Talmaki, a Maharashtrian, but Sindhi housing societies, like Navjivan Society, and Nanik Nivas and Shyam Nivas at Warden Road , which were all built during the 1950s, set up a new paradigm for community housing. Bombay had been dominated until then by the tenancy model.

It is in the spheres of philanthropy and education in Bombay that the contribution of this community is noteworthy. Much after the imprint left by 19th and early 20th-century merchants, such as Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and the Tatas, and prior to the corporate philanthropy practised today, was the establishment from the 1950s to 1980s of Sindhi hospitals, like Jaslok and Hinduja, and educational institutions, such as Jaihind, Kishinchand Chellaram, and National Colleges.

Ulhasnagar, and the parent city of Mumbai, are rightfully called ‘mini Sindh’ because this city is today the headquarters of a community with a worldwide presence.


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