A Life of Resistance: Activist-Historian Gul Hassan Kalmati

Gul Hassan Kalmati (1957-2023) leaves behind a formidable legacy of public scholarship and political struggle for the people, ecologies, and indigenous communities of Sindh.

This is a translation of the originally Published in Urdu version.

A few years ago, an event was held at the Karachi Arts Council, titled “Sassui’s Journey.” Gul Hassan Kalmati was among the speakers. According to Sindhi journalist Dodo Chandio, Kalmati highlighted that the Sindhi folk heroine, Sassui, travelled from Bhambhor through Malir and ended up in Karachi—today, he said, this area is called Bahria Town. When the hosts expressed their disapproval at the mention of Bahria Town (a real estate development project owned by powerful property tycoon Malik Riaz), Kalmati replied with a laugh, “Why don’t we construct a bridge over Bahria Town and I can ask Sassui to take that on her way to Makran?”

Many writers and historians past have wielded their pens to awaken the people’s consciousness. Yet only a few intellectuals hold the distinction of being equally engaged in political struggle. Renowned activist and historian Gul Hassan Kalmati was one such intellectual. Besides tirelessly marshalling his pen as political resistance, he was deeply involved in leading a popular struggle against the dispossession effected by Malik Riaz and Bahria Town.

Over the past year, Kalmati battled against cancer. He passed away in May 2023. At his demise, the Sindh Government paid tribute to his remarkable life in the provincial assembly—ironically the same government had lodged police cases against him two years ago on account of treason and terrorism. In reality, this government and its ministers are committing treason against the people of Malir by colluding with Malik Riaz. Perhaps they are unaware that the person they are celebrating was himself a resident of Malir, one who long fought for the rights of his people.

Political Journey

Gul Hassan Kalmati was born on July 5, 1957 in a small village named Arzi Baloch in Gadap. At the time, Gadap was located in district Thatta. During General Ayub’s regime, several union councils alongside Gadap were absorbed into Karachi. He studied at S.M. Arts College, going on to complete a Masters degree in Journalism at Karachi University. Soon after, he also studied for an M.A. in Sindhi Literature. He began writing early during his student days, and founded a Sindhi literary circle at college dedicated to social critique and transformation. He wrote about Sindhi literature in the college magazine, and slowly, his essays began appearing in notable dailies published in the city.

Kalmati’s political journey began at Karachi University in 1979. General Zia ul Haq had enforced martial law in the country. Scores of political organisers were imprisoned and a regime of torture and repression was unleashed. While many were driven into hiding, Kalmati emerged as a fiery activist for student rights in the National Student Federation (NSF).

In 1983, Kalmati parted ways with the NSF and joined the Baloch Student Organisation (BSO). However, disagreements developed between Kalmati and the BSO, and he left the organization to work as a sympathizer with veteran Sindhi progressive leader Rasul Bux Palejo’s Awami Tehrik [People’s Movement]. Palejo spent 11 years in jail, including time during the Zia era. A respected leader, he boldly presented Sindh’s case from a Marxist lens. Kalmati is believed to have left BSO as the latter were solely focused on Balochistan, rather than engaging in active politics on Sindh’s issues. Later, still during the Zia era, Kalmati joined Jiye Sindh Mahaz (Long Live Sindh Front), which was led by Abdul Wahid Aaresar. Aaresar worked closely with respected Sindhi nationalist leader G.M. Syed and they both published several writings together.

Under G.M. Syed, Jiye Sindh Mahaz declared their struggle for an independent Sindhi state (Sindhu Desh). Since then, a sovereign Sindh has been their key political demand. Kalmati joined the Mahaz at a point when it had not yet splintered into various groups. However, he soon departed to join the Sindh Taraqqi-Pasand Party (STP, Sindh Progressive Party). STP is a nationalist party that separated from Jiye Sindh Mahaz under the leadership of Qadir Magsi. They advocate for Sindhi self-determination and greater rights through the electoral route (rather than the struggle for separation). Kalmati worked to strengthen STP in Karachi’s peripheries. He organised in Gadap, Malir, Jokhio Goth, Sachal and other Sindhi-majority areas, bringing people together to fight for land rights and other local issues.

After working in STP for a few years, Kalmati withdrew from formal membership in any political organization, choosing to dedicate his time to intellectual work and the writing of history. Yet Kalmati could not tear himself away from politics completely—over the past ten years he has supported the broad left Awami Workers Party in their struggle.

Karachi: The Marvi of Sindh

Kalmati’s biggest legacy is his impeccable body of research on the history of Sindh, and particularly of Karachi. Sassui—the legendary heroine in the Sufi saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s Risalo—leaves her home in Bambhore and treks across treacherous paths over mountains and deserts in search of her lover Punnoo. Kalmati himself traced Sassui’s path as part of his research, travelling the same routes across Sindh and Balochistan.

The journalist Dodo Chandio writes: “Despite spending millions of rupees, state institutions could not document a comprehensive history of this land and its people, stretching from Kohistan to Lasbela. This entire history has been preserved by this dervish figure, Gul Hassan Kalmati, painstakingly traveling on foot.” Kalmati travelled all over Karachi, and along Sindh’s entire coastal belt. He travelled from Hinglaj to Sassui’s fabled resting point and even to coastal islands where Soreh Badshah, who led an armed rebellion against the British, is said to be buried.

Kalmati dubbed Karachi the “Marvi of Sindh” after another iconic character from Bhitai’s Risalo, Marvi, who had her own undying story of love for the land. He walked every street and corner of the city to piece together a people’s history of Karachi that had never been written before. He compiled this history into an authoritative account that has been published as a series of books. These books preserve the histories of Karachi’s prominent cultural sites, historical buildings, ports, routes, as well as key figures who played a major role in building the city. He used to lament that these real pioneers of the city, many of whom were Hindus, Parsis, Muslims, and people of other faiths, are seldom celebrated. He highlighted the histories of several individuals including Harchand Rai, G.M. Syed, Jamshed Nusserwanji, Hashim Gazdar, Mir Chakar, Mir Ayub Aliani and Maulana Muhammad Sadiq.

The book Karachi Sindh Ji Marvi (Karachi: The Marvi of Sindh), written in Sindhi, contains the essence of Kalmati’s lifelong historical work. It narrates the history of Karachi’s beginning from its rural settlements, including the lives of its indigenous inhabitants, while also chronicling historical sites and areas in the city. The book has been translated and published in Urdu and English and has won several awards, including the Najam Abbasi Award, the Sojhro Adbi Award and the National Bank of Pakistan Award for Excellence in Literature (Sindhi).

Narrating the history of Karachi’s landmark Empress Market in the book, Kalmati writes that until 1870, the area was just a large open field. In 1849, the British established a military camp nearby. Soon, a Saddar Bazaar was established, known officially as Saddar Quarters, to meet the needs of the growing British cantonment. Here, they built a community hall, a library, a gymkhana, a church, bars and billiard rooms, as well as Parsi community centres.

When the British crushed the 1857 Indian War of Independence, they unleashed a reign of brutality against the insurgent Indian soldiers. Today, the Empress Market stands at the same spot where revolutionary fighters were tied up and blown from cannons on the night of December 13th and 14th, 1857. The British also built gallows at this spot where many soldiers were hanged. The blood of these martyrs ran through the streets. In the aftermath, hundreds of people began visiting this spot to pay their respects to the fallen revolutionaries. This is why, according to Kalmati, the British built the Empress Market here, as a way to prevent the natives from creating their own monument or memorial. Sadly, despite the formal end of the empire in 1947, these heroes and their struggle remains unsung in Pakistan while the history of the market is all but forgotten.

Political Struggle

Kalmati’s outstanding contribution lies in his commitment to bridging his intellectual work with political action. He not only documented the history of Karachi’s ancient settlements, but also threw himself into organizing their residents against land grabbing and dispossession. This is one reason why these communities have been able to put up extraordinary resistance against encroachments by powerful real estate developers and mafias. The movements to protect Karachi’s goths (settlements) and prevent the dispossession of local inhabitants are prominent examples of Kalmati’s untiring work.

In particular, Kalmati led a historic struggle in Sindh against the property development conglomerate, Bahria Town. In 2015, the plan to destroy scores of historical goths to pave the way for a Bahria Town project was set in motion. Kalmati could not stand by silently. Fuelled by a renewed passion against the colonization of the goths, he co-founded the Sindh Indigenous Rights Alliance to organize a people’s struggle. The movement aimed to protect indigenous goths, and associated cultural and historical sites, against the rampant dispossession and environmental and ecological destruction wrought by real estate schemes like Bahria Town. In many essays, events, and speeches, Kalmati openly criticized Bahria Town. He remained a part of the Alliance till he breathed his last.

Other founders of the Alliance included Comrades Yusuf Masti Khan, Khuda Dino Shah and Hafeez Baloch. Baloch narrates an incident when the Bahria Town authorities were violently clearing the goths and dispossessing their residents. Kalmati went to each and every individual affected and assured them that the Alliance stood with them in their fight. He vowed that they would fight this injustice together.

Similarly, Kalmati was at the forefront of the struggle waged by workers at the Aquafina company plant on Super Highway near Karachi. Comrade Yusuf Masti Khan, Usman Baloch, Hafeez Baloch, and Kalmati organized many protests against the company, and lodged a legal petition after which, at last, the court gave a decision in favour of the workers. At this time, Masti Khan was himself severely ill and breathed his last breath a short while later.

The Aquafina plant is located in the Malir area, which used to be a rich agricultural zone with lush green fields. The encroachment of first the Aquafina company, then Bahria Town, and finally, the Malir Expressway, has robbed the verdant green Malir of its character, displaced its residents, and caused severe environmental degradation. The Sindh Indigenous Rights Alliance has battled these encroachments since its inception, with Kalmati a crucial part of their movement.

Journalism and Literary Work

In addition to politics and research, Kalmati cultivated a lifelong involvement in journalism. He started by writing for the Sindhi daily Awami Awaaz (People’s Voice). He has reported widely on Sindh’s coastal islands, and his book on the subject is considered authoritative. The book details the lives of the islands’ fishing communities, with in-depth insights on their settlements, their land, and the political and social issues they face, especially with respect to health and education. It also covers key debates on ecology and environmental change in the ocean.

Kalmati writes that Dangi and Bhandaar are among the over 350 islands that dot Sindh’s delta. These islands are now being targeted in a mega ‘development’ project to build a modern ‘Safe City’. The launch of this scheme will further pave the path for other islands across the delta to be expropriated. As a result, Sindh’s fishing communities will not only lose their ownership rights to the land, but the coast will face further environmental degradation and the sea routes used historically by fisherfolk will be blocked.

In addition, Kalmati is the only scholar who has studied Buddhist remains in Sindh and has identified the ‘takiya aaraam gah,’ the final resting place of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. He wrote how these important sites have been buried under Bahria Town constructions. He also identified historical rock carvings in the hills of Gadap in Karachi.

Kalmati was like Bhitai’s character Khahori. Khahori was indifferent to the heat and the cold, and no matter how many obstacles arose in his path, he would continue to strive towards his destination. Kalmati travelled from Sindh to Balochistan, traversing the length and breadth of Pakistan from the mountains of Kalash to the islands of Sindh, all in service of a people’s history that he has excavated and narrated in dozens of books and essays.

His unique contribution lay in combining intellectual labour with political struggle for the land and its people. He was fiercely loyal to his land, and no less than a living encyclopedia of Karachi. Kalmati was Karachi’s true lover—he had a fire in him to fight, to write a new chapter in history, and he did all of this in his short life. This year, on May 17th, Kalmati departed the world after a brief illness. He leaves behind a treasure trove of knowledge that remains unparalleled in Sindh.

Laal Salam, comrade!


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