Amajority of political analysts and journalists, especially those based outside the Sindh province, continue to sound rather presumptuous while commenting on the politics of Sindh. Much of this is due to certain sticky myths that have been constructed over the years by various state security institutions, political parties, media outfits and even political elements operating within Sindh itself.
One such myth is that Sindhi nationalism has never manifested itself as a widespread movement/insurgency (like the Baloch and Bengali movements).
Sindhi nationalism in Pakistan’s context emerged almost about the same time Pushtun, Baloch and Bengali nationalisms had begun to flex their respective muscles — i.e. soon after the state and government of Pakistan introduced the ‘One Unit’ in 1954.
‘One Unit’ was a controversial project launched by the federal government of Pakistan to merge the four provinces of West Pakistan into one unit. Sindhi, Baloch and Pushtun nationalists saw the move as an attack (by the ruling elite) on their cultural autonomy and democratic right to retain their ethnic identities.
Sindhi nationalism was not separatist; or at least not as much as Bengali and Baloch nationalist movements. Sindhi nationalism was/is largely based on the writings and thoughts of GM Syed, even though over the decades (and especially after Syed’s death), Sindhi nationalism has continued to fragment into various tendencies across classes and between anti-feudal and non-feudal strains.
A scholar and a politician, Syed, through a series of books between the 1950s and early 1970s, painstakingly constructed an elaborate historical narrative of Sindh and its people. His expansive thesis presented Sindh as an ancient land whose people have always been one of the most pluralistic and secular under both Hindu as well as Muslim regimes. He suggested that Sindh’s pluralistic tradition was carried on by a number of Sufi saints after Sindh came under Muslim rule.
In 1966 Syed formed a cultural organization called the Bazm-e-Sufian-i-Sindh. Driven by a number of Sindhi intellectuals, the Bazm proposed that Sindhis could not be integrated by the state of Pakistan due to the stark cultural differences that they had with what became known as ‘Pakistan ideology’ (a term first used by the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami in 1967).
The Bazm then went a step further when it published a controversial study in late 1966 that stated that Raja Dahir (the 8th century Hindu ruler of pre-Islamic Sindh) was actually a hero to many Sindhis and that it was Muhammad bin Qasim (the Arab Muslim commander who defeated Dahir and conquered Sindh) who was the actual usurper!
Ironically, apart from the Pakistani state, Syed could also not reconcile his politics with a fellow Sindhi, Z A. Bhutto. Bhutto and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), experienced a meteoric rise (in the late 1960s) when Syed’s narrative had begun to take hold among Sindhi youth. Syed did not applaud Bhutto’s rise in spite of the fact that Bhutto was a declared progressive; to Syed, if one brushed off Bhutto’s leftist notions from the surface, underneath was a man wilfully doing the bidding for the ‘Punjabi ruling elite’.
Syed’s analysis had deemed Pakistan to be a state that was destined to fragment. But it wasn’t until 1972 that Syed openly called for the separation of Sindh. Though Sindhi nationalism, popularised and intellectualised by Syed, did not express itself violently (as Baloch nationalism/separatism), it finally did culminate into an insurgency of sorts against the state of Pakistan in 1983.
Some historians believe that what history records as the 1983 MRD movement was actually an armed uprising of Sindhi nationalists.
MRD (Movement for the Restoration of Democracy) was a PPP-led anti-Ziaul Haq initiative. But parts of it in Sindh (especially in 1983) took the shape of a Sindhi nationalist movement participated by youth wings of the PPP and various Sindhi nationalist organisations.
Many of the nationalists had understood the execution of a Sindhi prime minister (Bhutto) by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship (in 1977) as a show of ‘Punjabi chauvinism and arrogance.’ But in an ironic twist, the main political and intellectual architect of modern Sindhi nationalism, GM Syed, did not take part in the movement.
In fact, at the expense of annoying a number of his supporters, Syed saw the MRD movement as yet another PPP-led initiative to ‘exploit Sindhi sentiments and keep them attached to the federation.’ Also, perhaps he did not feel that the movement was the true representation of the kind of Sindhi nationalism that he was advocating.
Hundreds of Sindhis were killed by the military-led operation and some Sindhi nationalist leaders also claimed that whole villages were razed during the movement. To some, Sindhi nationalism (during the MRD movement) had exhibited its first expression of an armed insurgency.
Another myth associated with Sindh’s political history is that the MQM was created by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship.
Academics specialising in the politics of Sindh, such as Amir Ali Chandio and Dr Tanvir Tahir, trace the formation of Mohajir ethnicity way back to the 1960s. From the 1960s onwards, when the Mohajirs had begun to be dislodged from the Punjabi-dominated military-bureaucratic elite, a number of movements emerged calling for a Mohajir province. In fact, one of the first to do so was Syed Haider Kazmi’s faction of the left-wing, National Students Federation (NSF) in 1969.
Then Mohajir nationalism again reared its head during the language riots in Karachi in 1972, but the fact is few Mohajirs took the notion seriously, as they were still firmly embedded in the concept of federalism, and (like the Punjabis) repulsed by ethnic nationalism — until the 1978 formation of All Pakistan Mohajir Students Federation (APMSO) by Altaf Hussain.
The much overlooked reason behind APMSO’s process of giving birth to MQM (in 1984) is largely an economic one. It has little to do with Zia encouraging the formation of a Mohajir nationalist party to subdue the PPP and Sindhi nationalism, even though he might have tried to do so after MQM’s creation.
According to famous Sindhi scholar, Ibrahim Joyo, ‘Punjabi economic hegemony’ increased immensely in Sindh during the dictatorship of Ziaul Haq. This situation had a negative impact on the interests of Karachi’s leading business communities (Memons, Gujaratis and other non-Punjabis). The concern saw some leading business members of these communities form an organisation called the Maha Sindh (MS) in 1983.
It was an organisation set up to protect the interests of Karachi’s Memon, Gujarati, Sindhi and Mohajir businessmen and traders from — as one Mohajir businessman termed at the time — ‘the invasion of Zia-backed carpetbaggers from Punjab.’
Celebrated Sindhi intellectual, Khaliq Junejo, suggests that Maha Sindh encouraged the formation of a ‘street-strong’ Karachi-based party. It can be argued that it is this aspect of the MQM’s formation that sometimes gets mistaken into meaning that the party came about with the help of the Zia regime. This is so because the business communities in Karachi (stung by Bhutto’s nationalisation policies) were anti-Bhutto and had hailed his overthrow by Zia in 1977.
But by the early 1980s, however, they had been deluded by Zia’s supposedly ‘pro-Punjabi’ economic manoeuvres in Sindh and felt the need to have their own political outfit. It was then that Maha Sindh was further financed by Karachi’s Mohajir, Gujrati and Memon business communities (as a pressure group) , and by 1984 the group eventually became the MQM.