Another act is set to unfold in the drama of the occupation of the Hindu Gymkhana, a heritage site that the president ordered the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) to evacuate on Monday.
“The notices have been issued under the directives of the president to evacuate the Hindu Gymkhana,” said Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah. He declared this while addressing a large number of representatives of the Hindu community, traders and businessmen at a dinner hosted in his honour by Special Assistant to Chief Minister Pahlaj Mal at a hotel on Sunday night.
“The government is focusing on preserving and renovating religious places belonging to minorities. We will not let anyone to occupy Hindu places of worship,” he added.
This announcement comes at a time when the government has come under fire for failing to protect the rights of Hindus in Sindh who face the threat of forced conversions and kidnappings across the province.
It appeared, however, that Napa was not aware of this development. “We don’t know anything about any such notifications or directives,” said Arshad Mehmud, who is the director of programmes and administration at Napa. “We will only be able to share our plan of action when we receive any sort of a notification,” he told The Express Tribune on Monday evening.
The history of the conflict
In 2005, according to directives of the then president Pervez Musharraf, Hindu Gymkhana was rented out to Zia Mohyeddin as the head of the academy for 30 years to establish Napa. An agreement was signed between the academy and Sindh culture department to rent out the Hindu Gymkhana building for Rs50,000 per month.
In 2006 Napa began building a state-of-the-art theatre hall on the premises which according to them would have been first of its kind. The Hindu Gymkhana was, however, declared a protected heritage site under the Cultural Heritage Act 1994 which meant no alteration or construction in the building could be allowed without approval from an advisory committee for cultural heritage. However, Napa acquired an NoC from the building control authority instead. This led to a violation of the contract that was signed between the academy and the government of Sindh in 2005.
Napa challenged the case in the high court and since then nothing substantial has happened. The fact of the matter is that since the first notice was issued, Napa has sent out three batches of artists into the fields of theatre arts, music and script writing. The academy held its first-ever performing arts festival in April 2012. All the performances took place in the much-disputed hall that is under construction but still attracted back-to-back full houses.
At the dinner, the chief minister announced a few special packages for Hindus and other minorities. Special funds will be allocated for the repair and renovation of the temples which were damaged last year during the floods and rains. For example, Rs400 million has been earmarked for Sadh Belo in Sukkur, which got Rs25 million last year that was not used.
The chief minister said that laws were needed to protect the rights of minorities and suggested their legislators and lawyers prepare a draft which could be presented in the Sindh and National assemblies.
A Rs10 million grant for the All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat Forum was also announced along with an endowment fund for free treatment of deserving Hindus at government hospitals. An estimated 3.5 million people could benefit.
Sindh Assembly Speaker Nisar Khuhro and Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Khusheed Shah spoke out against the forced conversions and supported legislation that protected minorities.
(With additional input by rafay mahmood)
Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2012.