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Lal-Kurti: walk down colonial path

By: Adeel Raza
DAWN, 5-11-2002

Situated in the heart of Cantt, about 7kms off Saddar, is a locality, known by the name of Lal-Kurti, where the remnants of colonial rule can still be seen.

Another aspect which makes this locality quite different from other areas of Rawalpindi is the fact that the multi-ethnic texture of the society-reminiscent of the pre-partition days-can still be felt here. The locality has a history that stretches to mare than 150 years. But has anyone ever wondered how did this area get the name Lal-Kurti?

According to Brig Siddiqui (retired), an expert on Cantt area in general and Lal-Kurti in particular, the area had been inhabited by the British troops in the middle of the 19th century.

The soldiers used to wear a red tunic as part of their uniform. Since these troops were stationed in this area, the locals started calling it Lal-Kurti, meaning "red tunic" in the local language. He said the area consisted of Lal-Kurti proper and Dheri Hassanabad up till Tahli Mori.

- He said the RA Bazaar meant Royal Artillery bazaar, whereas B.I. Bazaar stood for British infantry. There is also the famous Regimental Masjid.

Brig Siddiqui, whose family has been living in Lal-Kurti for the last 150 years, said such Lal-Kurtis were located in most of the cantonments throughout the country.

Giving a brief history about the area, Mr. Siddiqui aid Rawalpindi, like most parts of Punjab, was under the rule of Sikhs. 1n March 1849, there was a battle between the Sikhs and the British which ended with the defeat of the former at a place now known as B.I. Bazaar, popularly Mamoojee Road.

After their victory, the British decided to set up their headquarters in the area. As a result, a plan was prepared and plotting carried out.

According to the Imperial Gazetteer the British in order to inhabit the area invited      the locals and offered them land. These lands were offered under three different categories, free hold; lease and bazaar area.

Under the free hold, the lands were offered on the condition that the Britlshers could take it back whenever they wanted without any compensation.

Whereas, under lease, land was given to the locals on lease for a period of 99 years. These people were asked to build bungalows on 20 kanals and rent them out to British families.

These locals were paid a monthly rent of Rs120, which continued till the partition of the sub continent.

The oldest building. according to Brig Siddiqui is the Christ Church, situated behind Pearl Continental, which was built in 1852.

Talking about the condition of lease, Mr. Siddiqui said a family had a bungalow, where today the Punjab House is situated, The then owner of the house, unaware of the leasing contract, received a notice, under which he was supposed to vacate the residence as the leasing period had ended. The bungalow was then demolished and Punjab House built in its place.

Mr. Siddiqui said the building where NUST is situated today was once a gymnasium built for the British soldiers. After partition, the GHQ took over the gymnasium. In the 1960s, President Ayub Khan turned it into the National Assembly.

Afterwards when the National Assembly was shifted to Islamabad, the building housed National Defense College and later National University for Science and Technology.

The building where Fatima Jinnah Women University is located was originally owned by two Sikh brothers-Soan Singh and Moan Singh-and was called 'Bachan Niwas'.

Mr. Siddiqui said according to late Gen Shafiqur Rahman ‘Bachan Niwas' was built in 1911 for the then prince of Wales who was on a visit to India.

Later it was converted into the presidency during Gen Zia-ul Haq's rule and then to Sindh House.

Brig Siddiqui said the 'Chowk' where today a cannon was placed, once had the statue of Queen Victoria, popularly known as Malka ka Buth'.

This statue had a globe in one hand and a baton in the other, which symbolized that 'Britain ruled the whole world with a baton'.

The statue was disfigured after partition and in order to avoid further damage to it- it was shifted to MES Store.

Today, it is located at the premises of the British High Commission in Islamabad. What made the statue quite different was that in those days, most of the statues of Queen Victoria showed her in her old age. This was. the only one which showed her in her younger years.

Brig Siddiqui said the land where Cantt Library and Odeon Cinema were situated was donated by Soan Singh- and Moan Singh in 1891.

About the Mall, he said, initially, it was a single road with a track, known as the Mule Track, running parallel to it. This track was meant only for black-skin people who were not allowed to use. The people of the city were not allowed to enter the Cantt area after a certain time.

Brig Siddiqui said there used to be mint rooms' at the railway station with sign boards saying "dogs and Indians not allowed". According to Bntishers, the Cantt area was meant only for those associated with the royal army. They considered this area as "Camp area" not a 'settled' area.

When asked how did so my Urdu-speaking people settled in this are Mr. Siddiqui said people from different parts of India working for the British army settled in this area. Besides, Urdu had been made the standard language in the area and even the Britishers were supposed to speak in Urdu.

For this purpose, special people known as Mir Munshis were recruited to teach Urdu to the Englishmen, who also had to pass exams in the language.

The Britishers had also made their own arrangement of distributing water to the Cantonment area. They had built a 5m1 reservoir near Bhara Kahu from where they brought water to Topi Park, now known as Ayub National Park. (This park had many Buddhist stupas that was why it was called Topi Park).

It was from here that the Bristishers further distributed water to different areas of the Cantonment. There was also a bungalow in Sarwar Park, known as the 'Gas House' where gas was produced in a special way and provided to lamp-posts.

There are many important buildings in Lal -Kurti like the COD, 501 and 502 workshops which remind us of toe British era.

The site where the GHQ is situated today used to be the winter headquarters of the British army's Northern Command.

Other remnants from the British times are the three Christian graveyard the British War Cemetery being the most famous. Popularly known as the Gora Kabristan and has been visited by Queen Elizabeth II and late Diana Princess of Wales. The cemetery is now looked after by the British High Commission.

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