Sindh, the “homeland” of the eponymous ethnic group, is in what is now Pakistan. In India, Sindhis often call themselves the Jews of India because they do not have a territory of their own, especially in a nation that is internally organized around linguistic ethnicities. Their request for things that other linguistic communities enjoy, such as having a government-owned Sindhi language channel, largely go ignored. Time and again, they are questioned for their loyalty: sometimes for naming their local businesses after Karachi, and sometimes for the removal of the word “Sindh/Sindhu” from India’s national anthem. But it’s not that a defined territory would guarantee political success for the Sindhis in Sindh are not doing very well either, politically, economically, and culturally. A look at Asma Faiz’s book In Search of Lost Glory: Sindhi Nationalism in Pakistan confirms this by showing that Sindhis in Sindh have also been struggling to assert their identity.
Faiz begins by looking at the region from the colonial times and ends with the regional elections of 2018 in modern day Sindh. Her coverage reveals that Sindh has been plagued by an identity crisis for a very long time. Once it was annexed by the East India Company in 1843, it was merged with the Bombay Presidency, a move that turned the Muslim majority in Sindh into a minority in the larger province of Bombay and Sind. Then, an influx of Punjabi migrants—encouraged by the British rulers for development projects like the construction of the Jamrao Canal at the tail end of the 19th century —began to significantly alter the demographics of the region. Later, the debate around the script to be chosen for promotion of the language created more tensions. The Persian script gave the Sindhis a distinct identity but triggered a Hindu-Muslim (Devanagiri-Persian script) divide, very much similar to that of Hindi and Urdu. In 1935, the separation of Sindh from Bombay worsened Hindu-Muslim relations. One might assume that with the exodus of the Hindus at the time of the Partition, the situation would be calmer. However, just as the Hindus left the state, the coming of the refugees, the Urdu-speaking Muhajirs, from India gave rise to another conflict that continues to afflict the state and national politics till date. The presence of this trajectory of long-standing struggle around defining Sindhi identity makes Faiz note:
Sindhi nationalism is one of the longest running ethnic movements in Pakistan. However, its comparatively low volatility and lower degree of violence have prevented it from making headlines – in sharp contrast with Muhajir nationalism.
Muhajirs have been able to organize themselves—the numbers have been on their side. Perhaps the greatest indicator of change in Sindh is a look at the demographics of Karachi in an historical context. The population of Karachi rose drastically between 1947 (the year of India’s Partition) and 1951 but the percentage of people speaking Sindhi fell from 61 percent to 8.6 percent and the presence of Hindus shrank from 51% to 2% in the same time frame. Sindh was turned into a case of “one province, two communities”:
Partition thus had a monumental effect on Sindh by changing the ethno-religious composition of the province’s population. In absolute terms, the magnitude and scope of migration to Sindh was small in comparison with Punjab. But the absence of any cultural linkages and socio-economic differences between the two sides made this relationship extremely difficult. Partition thus produced a monumental change in the make-up of the Sindhi middle class as Hindus were replaced by Muhajirs. Within the first year after Partition the stage was set for a massive confrontation between the two ethnic groups.
With time, the Muhajirs were able to “de-Sindhi-ise” the province, create a sense of Muhajir superiority by stereotyping Sindhis as “inefficient, lazy, and dishonest”, and ask for better jobs from the governing authorities. Sindhis continue to be marginalized because the national administration at the centre overlooks its demands despite the fact that Sindh has produced Prime Ministers in the past—Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto. Any pro-Sindhi reforms by their governments were resented as appeasement tactics by the other linguistic groups, especially the Muhajirs.
The book details a number of specific episodes in the history of politics in Sindh including the presence of “Sufi saints of Sindhi nationalism”—G M Syed, Ibrahim Joyo and Shaikh Ayaz whose writings fostered a sense of Sindhi pride —and the observation that Sindhis supported the creation of Pakistan on the condition that they would be given autonomy as Sindhu Desh.
Moving closer to the present day, Faiz notes that the province faces another major influx: that of Pakhtuns and Afghans escaping the Pakistan-Taliban tensions since 2009. One expects things to get worse with Sindhi presence in Sindh fast diminishing or, at least, struggling to remain visible.
Faiz’s comprehensive study will be of immense interest to those studying South Asian nationalism and ethnic conflicts. Apart from contributing to academic studies, Faiz combines the historical approach with anthropological work:
Observing life in a divided and polarised city was also an eye-opener. Individual and collective life in Sindh is shaped by local battles over signboard language, the Sindh cap, and the ajrak (the traditional Sindhi shawl). Micro-level interactions showed me a world that was a curious mixture of pride, pain, and Sindhi resistance, a domain in which disillusionment is a regular phenomenon which finds expression in everyday lived experience.
Concise yet detailed, In Search of Lost Glory is an informative read about a community under-represented even where it seems to be in majority. It is an insightful introduction to the community’s “fear of demographic death”, in its own territory thanks to the privileging of ethno-linguistic identity over the religious one.