Royal visit to Dewan Gandhi’s opening in Sg Petani brings good feel to town’s folks  

by Dato’ Syed Ahmad Idid

When their royal highnesses, the Sultan and Sultanah of Kedah, visited Sungai Petani sometime back, the town folks felt they were blessed.

Pak Man recalled the royal visit because he followed the entourage when it got into the town area and saw the royal couple at close range.

Pak Man is a farmer. Little did Pak Man and many residents of the town of Sungai Petani and District of Kuala Muda knew then about the importance of that visit for the Indian community there.

His Royal Highness (HRH), Al Aminul Karim Sultan Sallehuddin ibni Almarhum Sultan Badlishah, was in Sungai Petani to launch the Dewan Gandhi. And HRH Sultanah Maliha binti Almarhum Tengku Ariff made a splendid couple for the people of the town to watch with joy and respect as the royal entourage made its way to Jalan Sekerat. Here is where Dewan Gandhi with Gandhi’s statue stands proud.

But few know the hardships the members of the respective committees had to endure before the current building was successfully completed.

An earlier building was “opened” on Nov 9,1955 and stood its ground until it was demolished on Sept 4, 2009.

Way back in 1955 (before Merdeka) the then Minister for Labour, (later Tun) V. T. Sambanthan wrote a message: “I am glad to hear that the Indian community of Kedah has erected a building in honour of Mahatma Gandhi and that His Royal Highness the Sultan of Kedah will be declaring it open. It is gratifying to hear that the building will be of use to all communities.”

At the AGM in 2006, then chairman Mr Balan Nair proposed a new committee be formed to work on a new building following the earlier building’s demolition. The idea had been mooted since 2002.

Fund raising was slow and painful. According to Mr Sham S Ratnani, the New Gandhi Hall Building Committee chairman, there were lottery sales, house-to-house donation collections , donation boxes placed in restaurants, appeals sent to companies and individuals, charity dinners and musical nights. Response, however, was discouraging.

Due to a shortage of funds, progress was slow. It came to sixth year and still the new hall was nowhere to be seen. The Building Committee of 30 members shrank to a handful.

But gradually a ground-breaking ceremony was held led by the then Menteri Besar of Kedah and this was followed by a laying foundation ceremony on April 25, 2009.

Then “with divine intervention” some funds came from the federal government. By the end of 2017, the Committee needed RM2 million. By early 2018, the committee “received a substantial sum from a government-backed NGO and from the Indian government” (to quote Mr Sham S. Ratnani).

By late 2018, a revised plan included a ground floor car park, restaurant and two mini-offices. The first floor has the main hall, a VIP waiting room, stage and toilets. There is also an auditorium on the 2nd floor plus office spaces to be rented out.

For the record, the Pegawai Daerah Kuala Muda, Encik Ilias bin Shuib, was also supportive of the project.

So, now the Gandhi Hall stands “majestically tall” in Sungai Petani. It is open not only to Indians but to others who wish to rent and/or participate in the activities organised by the various committees.

I attended the opening ceremony on the kind invitation of Dr K.J. John, a retired senior PTD officer, now resident in Kuala Lumpur but grew up in Sungai Petani in the 1960s. He is an Old Boy of Ibrahim School and an Old Putra. His father, Dato K. John Kuruvilla, resident in Sungai Petani, assisted in the early committees.

When HRH Sultan was departing after he had officiated at the ceremony, I was fortunate to be in line where HRH saw me and quipped “Ah, Dato Hakim Mahkamah”. HRH Sultanah also graciously smiled. That made my day.

We all probably recalled our previous meeting when we had lunch with durians, rambutans and mangosteens at a mutual friend’s orchard in Selangor!

And no wonder the population of Sungai Petani stand in awe of our Royal Couple. Daulat Tuanku!

The writer, Dato’ Syed Ahmad Idid, is 2nd from the right with other guests at the opening ceremony