Excursions into the land of Sufis
During the 1980s, many young college students like me used to take a bus anywhere into Sindh’s interior whenever we were harassed by the Ziaul Haq regime.
Cities and towns of Sindh beyond its two largest cities, Karachi and Hyderabad, always seemed to be more accommodating to a lifestyle that was at odds with what the state began to enforce in the name of faith in Pakistan during the Zia dictatorship.
Though I came from a Punjabi family, which had originated in the northern areas of Punjab and had moved to Karachi in the 1950s, that didn’t stop me from appreciating the welcome and (more so) the sense of security granted to me by various Sindhis during my several escapades to the ‘land of the Sufis.’
During my many stays there, I had come into contact with Sindhi nationalists and common Sindhis whose sympathy towards young men like me, squarely depended upon the fact that I too had been rebelling against a dictatorship that I believed was enforcing a particular brand of Islam and patriotism that were largely emerging from the economic and political interests of the ‘Punjabi elite.’
Sindhis have always prided themselves to be a pluralistic, tolerant and easy-going people in matters of the faith, and they have a unique way of describing their worldly tendencies.
For example, when I used to be traveling from town to town in the interior of Sindh in the 1980s, I used to strike a number of conversations with Sindhis who were peasants, labourers, shopkeepers, small farmers, businessmen, students, etc.
Unlike the Sindhi nationalists and members of the student-wing of the PPP, the common Sindhis that I met never used the word secularism to define their pluralistic disposition.
|British author, traveller and Orientalist, Sir Richard Burton shown here in a cloak in the town of Thatta in Sindh (1859)|
Their narrative was simple: They were of a land and society that was largely shaped by the deeds of hundreds of Sufi saints (especially Shah Abdul Latif) who preached tolerance and co-existence and was suspicious of those who were stripping the spiritual essence of Islam, and replacing it with a creed based on an obsession with rituals and a blinkered worldview.
I quickly realised that this narrative was essential for the Sindhis because it helped them anchor their ethnic identity and sense of history; especially in a country where the state was hell-bent on wiping out centuries-old identities based on ethnicity with a largely convoluted and cosmetic national/religious ideology based on a rather myopic and reactive understanding of the ethnic, religious and sectarian complexities of Pakistan.
The 19th Century British traveller, Richard Burton, in his prolific accounts of Sindh, described the province to be one of the calmest regions of British India, with its own unique blends of faith.
Writing in the mid-1800s, Burton described Sindh to a land dotted by numerous shrines of Sufi saints that were frequented in large numbers by both the Muslim as well as Hindu inhabitants of the region.
He described Sindhi Muslims to be somewhat different (in their beliefs and rituals) from the Muslims of the rest of India.
According to Burton, even the Hindus of Sindh were different because their Hinduism was more influenced by Buddhism that had survived in Sindh after it had begun to retreat elsewhere in India from the 5th Century CE.
|A photograph of a Sindhi woman (1870).|
When Punjab was being ripped apart by violent and gruesome clashes between the Hindus and Muslims after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Sindh remained peaceful.
In ‘Interpreting the Sindh World’ (Oxford, 2012), Vazira Fazila writes that Sindh’s British Governor, Francis Mudie, reported that the Hindus of Sindh were likely to stay behind (in Pakistan) because there was no chance of communal violence in the province that had exhibited ‘great communal harmony’.
However, after some Hindu places of worship were attacked in Karachi in 1948, Hindu Sindhis began to leave in droves.
This is when Sindhi intellectuals and political thinkers like Ibrahim Joyo and GM Syed began to mould Sindh’s pluralistic history into a meta-narrative of Sindhi identity because to them the departing Hindus were first Sindhis, then Hindus and their departure would weaken Sindh’s demography and economy.
After the creation of Pakistan (and then death of its founder, Jinnah), the Pakistani state began in earnest its long-drawn project to cut through the country’s ethnic complexities by convoluting and imposing a monolithic meta-narrative of faith and Pakistani nationhood.
This attracted the scorn of the country’s various non-Punjabi ethnicities that dismissed and rejected the state’s idea of nationhood and Islam that they believed contradicted the notions of nationhood and faith enshrined in the historical DNA of their respective ethnicities.
|A painting of 18th century Sufi saint and Sindhi poet, Shah Abdul Latif. GM Syed popularised him as the ‘patron saint of Sindh.’|
Between 1958 and the early 1970s, GM Syed immersed himself in the study of the religious, social and political histories of Sindh. In 1966, he created Bazm-e-Sufian-e-Sindh, an intellectual initiative that also included a number of other Sindhi scholars.
Syed and these scholars would then go on to publish a number of important papers and books that helped form the doctrinal and ideological basis of modern Sindhi nationalism.
This nationalism explained the Sindhis to be decedents of the natives of the Indus Valley Civilization whose social, political and religious consciousness had evolved and was influenced by various religions and cultures that had arrived and established themselves in the region in the last five thousand years.
It added that this aspect of Sindh’s history, along with the large number of Muslim Sufi saints, who began to arrive and settle in Sindh after the 8th Century CE, helped shape the Sindhi society in becoming inherently tolerant and pluralistic and repulsed by those strands of the faith that eschewed tolerance to impose a more stringent and myopic view of Islam.
Syed’s works gave Sindhi identity a historical and religious context and anchor that also helped shield the Sindhi society from being affected by the disastrous sectarian and extremist fall-outs of the various religious experiments conducted by the state and governments of Pakistan.
Though Syed failed to transform his scholarly impact into political mileage (for himself), another Sindhi, Z A. Bhutto, who was accused by Syed of being a stooge of the Punjabi establishment, recognised the impact Syed hah had on the Sindhi mind-set.
In 1975 when his party, the left-liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), was in power and he was ruling as the country’s first elected prime minister, Bhutto appropriated Syed’s narrative by organising a large government-backed conference on Sindh (in Karachi) in which Sindhi scholars were invited to officially adopt what Syed had already initiated.
|Sindhi scholar, historian and nationalist, GM Syed.|
Syed’s Sindhi ethnic party, the Jeeay Sindh, had demanded the separation of Sindh from Pakistan (in 1972) and Syed had been arrested. Bhutto wanted to neutralise separatist feelings in his home province by tying Syed’s enormous thesis and narrative of Sindh’s religious and cultural history to that of the Pakistani state’s.
The 1975 conference recognised Syed’s idea of Sindh (i.e. Sindh historically being ‘the land of the Sufis’) and then turned it into an official narrative (through state-owned media) but only after stripping the Sindhi nationalist/separatist aspect that Syed had attached to this narrative.
It is thus after 1975 that the expression ‘Sindh is a land of Sufis’ was given official currency.
Dutch author and expert on Sindh, Oskar Verkaaik, suggests (in his 2010 paper ‘The Sufi Saints of Sindhi Nationalism’), that Bhutto, apart from trying to neutralise Syed’s political impact in the province, used the conference to further fatten his (Bhutto’s) concept of populist ‘Third World Socialism’ by combining it with Syed’s thesis on Sindhi Sufism.
Bhutto’s regime was toppled in a reactionary military coup by General Ziaul Haq (July 1977) and in 1979 he was executed through a sham trial.
On the day Bhutto was hanged (on trumped-up murder charges), Syed commented that the ‘Punjabi establishment doesn’t realise that today they have hanged its most loyal servant.’
|Z A. Bhutto|
Yet, most of the movements and protests against the Zia dictatorship would take place in Sindh, and (ironically), during perhaps the largest such movement (The 1983 MRD uprising in the interior of Sindh), Syed would not take any part.
|MRD Movement 1983: A protester lies dead in a village near Dadu, killed and thrown there by the security forces.|
When he was asked why his party had decided not to take part in a movement that was being brutally crushed by the ‘Punjabi establishment’, Syed said: ‘Zia is making our job easier by leading the break-up of Pakistan.’
Hundreds of Sindhis lost their lives in the 1983 movement against Zia in which the dictator used tanks and there were also reports that jets were used to bombard villages near Dadu and Moro.
The MRD (Movement for the Restoration of Democracy) was a PPP-led alliance that also included some small far-left parties and one religious party, the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) that was the only mainstream religious outfit that was opposing Zia.
Much of the protesting and fighting was done by activists belonging to the PPP and its student-wing, the PSF, and by the members of the Awami Tehreek, a leftist Sindhi nationalist party that was not associated with GM Syed. A number of journalists unions and women’s organisations also took an active part.
When the violence increased and the number of civilian deaths rose, Syed’s Jeeay Sindh broke up into two factions. One faction (the Jeeay Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party) decided to go against Syed’s decision to sit out the movement and joined the agitation.
|Women take out a procession against Zia’s reactionary laws during the 1983 Movement.|
Zia was killed in August 1988 when (allegedly) a bomb went off on the C130 plane he was traveling on. By then the federalist PPP (now led by Bhutto’s young daughter, Benazir Bhutto), had managed to retain its influence and popularity in Sindh whereas the Sindhi nationalists became a fractured and fragmented lot.
Jeeay Sindh had broken into various factions and many Sindhi nationalists had also joined Murtaza Bhutto’s Al-Zulfikar (AZO).
AZO was a left-wing urban guerrilla outfit formed by Bhutto’s sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz Bhutto in 1979. It had been an ethnically diverse group having in its ranks many young Punjabis, Mohajirs (Urdu-speakers), Pakhtuns and Sindhis.
However, in 1985, it changed colour and largely became a militant Sindhi nationalist outfit before it was folded (in 1990) by Murtaza.
|Shahnawaz Bhutto (left) with Murtaza in 1979. Shanawaz was allegedly assassinated by Zia’s agents in 1985 and Murtaza was killed in 1996 in a controversial police raid on his motorcade.|
Despite the fact that the PPP had managed to dominate the political proceedings in Sindh, GM Syed continued to be revered as a sage by the Sindhis.
Dutch academic, Oskar Verkaaik, during his field work in Sindh in 1989-90 came across shops that had portraits of Z A. Bhutto hanging on the walls right beside those of GM Syed!
When I made my last major excursion in to the interior of Sindh in 1989, I still found Sufi shrines packed with young Sindhi nationalists chanting slogans for GM Syed; college unions dominated by the student-wings of both the PPP and those of Sindhi nationalist groups; and a number of Sindhi Hindus mingling with Sindhi Muslims at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Shewan Sharif.
Sindh’s cultural disposition had survived Zia’s reactionary ideological onslaught.
|Passionate devotees do the ‘dhamal’ at the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shabaz Qalandar at Shewan Sharif (Sindh).|
Sin in Sindh
But if (thanks to Syed’s narrative) Sindh managed to withstand the many waves of religious extremism and radicalisation in the last three decades in Pakistan, why, all of a sudden, are we now witnessing episodes of religious bigotry and violence in the interior of the province?
In the last five years or so, cases of men being attacked for (allegedly) committing ‘blasphemy’ and Hindu places of worship being attacked have been reported from the area.
Though the number of such incidents in Sindh is far lower when compared to those taking place in Punjab and KP, the incidents seem to generate more debate because they took place in Sindh – ‘the land of the Sufis.’
|Recently a small mob set fire to a Hindu mandir in Larkana.|
Though Sindh’s sprawling and cosmopolitan capital, Karachi, is a staggering melting-pot of various ethnicities, religions, sects and sub-sects; and remains to hold its general liberal disposition, its darker sides boiling with ethnic tensions, street crime, violent gangs and administrational chaos continues to darken.
What’s more, entering the chaos now are various groups of militant sectarian and extremist organisations that have taken over many congested swaths of the city in the brimming metropolis.
But the rest of Sindh, till only a few years ago, was being explained as being perhaps the country’s large bastion of sectarian and religious harmony, still holding its reputation of being a centre of ‘indigenous Sufi secularism.’
So what happened?
Three views have recently cropped up to explain the rising incidents of religious bigotry here.
Many young Sindhi nationalists have accused state agencies of using sectarian and extreme religious groups in Sindh to neutralise Sindhi nationalism in the province. They allege these agencies did the same in Balochistan (to tackle Baloch nationalism) and are now doing the same in Sindh.
The second view suggests that when Sindh suffered serious damage from the devastating 2011 floods in the province, some well-organised militant sectarian organisations set-up ‘relief camps’ in the flood-hit areas.
But when the floods retreated, these organisations stayed back and began to build madressas from where they are indoctrinating young Sindhis coming from poor backgrounds.
The third view sees the PPP – the party that has been sweeping elections in Sindh for over 40 years now – of being unable to detect the intensity of the problem, and now suffering from extreme complacency.
Those holding this view also blame the failed economic policies of the PPP governments here that are making many poor young Sindhis fall into the traps laid down by the extremist organisations.
However, there are also those who believe that bad economics is not the main issue (at least in this regard).
“Sindhis are not fools to keep voting for the PPP in spite of that party leaving them hungry and desperate,” said Fiaz Qureshi, a retired Sindhi civil servant from Nawabshah (but now settled in Karachi).
“This (the gradual rise of religious discord) is a completely new phenomenon in Sindh. The PPP just doesn’t know how to tackle it.”
Some economists have credited the many PPP governments in Sindh for helping shape the province’s growing middle-classes.
Political economist Asad Sayeed claims that to most Sindhis, the PPP remains to be the only party that helps them keep pace with the economics related to federal-level politics.
Some three years ago, author and columnist, Ayesha Siddiqua, told me how she had witnessed the emergence of madressas in upper Sindh.
To her, the sudden growth of madressas in the province is not a coincidence. She believes they are being set up for reasons that are far more sinister than just bad economics.
The interior of the Sindh province has had the fewest number of madressas, especially the kind that sprang up in Punjab and KP from the 1980s onwards and were used as indoctrination centres for young men willing to fight ‘infidels’ in Afghanistan, Kashmir and now within Pakistan (against ‘heretical’ sects and sub-sects).
Many have now also turned against their former mentors (in state institutions) who had moulded them to do their bidding (and fighting) in Afghanistan.
But Sindhis were never part of any jihad (state-sponsored or otherwise). So, who is joining these seminaries?
A TV host of the Sindhi news TV channel Awaaz recently told me:
“It’s confusing. Most Sindhis are still PPP voters and followers of Syed Sain (GM Syed). Most of them are still secular and visit Sufi shrines like they always did. The problem is that the new generation of Sindhis have lost its bearings.”
When I asked him to elaborate, he added: “Till even a decade ago, most young Sindhis used to either join the student-wings of the PPP or that of a Sindhi nationalist party. But the generation today has become anarchist (sic). One really doesn’t know where they stand.
“The PPP has grown lazy. It keeps its voters happy with certain economic schemes but fails to understand so many complexities that have cropped up in the Sindhi society. Many young Sindhis today are not being educated about their people’s history the way they used to. Look at the Sindhi nationalists. They’ve split into a thousand factions!”
Returning to the civil servant, I asked him whether the recently held Sindh Festival (organised by the PPP-led Sindh government) was the PPP’s way of revitalising Z A. Bhutto’s and GM Syed’s views about Sindh’s liberal and Sufi heritage among the new generation of Sindhis.
“As an idea it made sense,” he said. “But it won’t do much. Because some Sindhis have learned from the rest of Pakistan that land and other petty disputes can now be solved by accusing ones opponent of blasphemy!”
The majority of Sindhis I managed to talk to after the Larkana incident exhibited genuine concerns. Most were of the view that something of the scale of Syed would be required to once again shield Sindh from the scrooge of sectarianism and extremism that has ravaged Pakistani society and polity for decades now.
|The Sindh Festival organised in early 2014 to celebrate the pluralistic culture of Sindh.|
They believe Syed’s works should be popularised among the new generation of young Sindhis. But since the PPP is still the largest party in the province, they think that after the cultural aspect (Sindh Festival), the current chairman of the PPP, Bilawal Bhutto’s next major foray in this respect should be an intellectual event; and/or a platform that would work out a narrative based on the modern-day understanding of Sindh’s harmonious and liberal heritage and then circulated among the young people of Sindh (of all ethnicities and classes).
Mohajirs (Urdu-speakers) constitute the second largest ethnic community in Sindh. They are sprinkled across the province but are a majority in the province’s capital, Karachi (48 per cent according to the 1998 consensus); and a large Mohajir population can also be found in Sindh’s second largest city, Hyderabad.
Unlike the country’s other major ethnic groups, Mohajirs are not ‘people of the soil’ and/or they have roots in areas that are outside of what today, is Pakistan.
A majority of them arrived from various Indian villages, towns and cities (especially from North India).
Mohajir in Urdu means refugee and that’s what they were called when they migrated to Pakistan after the British colonialists partitioned India to create the Muslim-majority state of Pakistan.
Most of them were Urdu-speakers but also included Gujrati-speakers. A bulk of them settled in Karachi and by the early 1950s they had become a vital part of the otherwise Punjabi-dominated ruling elite of Pakistan – mainly due to the high rate of education found in the Mohajir community, its urbane complexion and the required expertise in running the new country’s nascent bureaucracy and (urban) economy.
|Liaquat Ali Khan (right) with founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Ali, a Mohajir, became Pakistan’s first Prime Minister.|
Socially, the Mohajirs of Sindh were always urbane and liberal, but politically they sided with the country’s two major religious parties, the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) – whose founder, Abul Ala Maududi, was one of the most prominent originators of ‘Political Islam’ – and the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP) – a party of petty-bourgeoisie Barelvis (a Sunni sub-sect that is opposed to and is opposed by the more conservative Deobandi Sunni school of thought).
The dichotomy between the Mohajirs’ social and political dispositions was a result of the community’s sense of insecurity that it felt in a country where the majority of its inhabitants were ‘sons of the soil.’
The Punjabis, Bengalis, Sindhis, Balochis and Pakhtuns already had dedicated large constituencies in the new country based on ethnic histories and languages.
The Mohajirs didn’t. They were refugees. So, out of this sense of anxiety, on the one hand, they excelled in the building and running of the nascent country’s state and government institutions (except the military that was dominated by the Punjabis), and on the other hand, they politically allied themselves with religious parties and the state of Pakistan that wanted to eschew and undermine the ethnic diversity of the country to be able to mould a more monolithic concept of Pakistani nationhood.
This curtailed any chance of the Mohajirs to earnestly integrate and adopt the ways of the Sindhi-speaking majority of Sindh. Also, since the Mohajir community had risen to become part of the country’s early ruling elite, the Sindhis (who, along with Bengali, Baloch and Pakhtun nationalists), had begun to oppose the state’s idea of Pakistani nationhood, started to see the Mohajirs as cultural and political invaders who wanted to sideline the Sindhis in their own land.
But by the arrival of the country’s first military rule in 1958 (Field Martial Ayub Khan), the Mohajirs had already begun to lose their influence in the ruling elite.
With the Baloch, Bengali and Sindhi nationalists radically distancing themselves from the state’s narratives of nationhood (and remaining well outside of the ruling elite), Ayub (who hailed from Khyber Pakhtunkha, slowly began to pull in the Pakhtuns into the mainstream areas of the economy and politics.
Celebrated Marxist academic and communist leader, Professor Jamal Naqvi, in his 2014 biography (‘Leaving the Left Behind’), claims that Pakhtun nationalist leaders like Wali Khan too decided to ‘bargain with the establishment after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle’ and this also facilitated the gradual entry of the Pakhtuns into the ruling and economic elite of the country.
Though by the late 1960s, the Mohajirs had decisively lost their place in the ruling elite, they were still an economic force (especially in urban Sindh).
When a Sindhi Z A. Bhutto became the country’s prime minister in 1972, the Mohajirs feared that they would be further sidelined, this time by the economic and political resurgence of Sindhis under Bhutto.
In response to this apprehension, the Mohajirs participated in droves against the Bhutto regime during the 1977 PNA movement.
|PNA (Pakistan National Alliance) had emerged in late 1976 as an electoral alliance formed to challenge the powerful PPP.|
PNA’s main driving force were the country’s three main religious parties, the JI, the JUP and the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), even though it also had in its fold Pir Pagara’s conservative Muslim League and Asghar Khan’s centrist Tehreek-e-Istaqlal.
PNA accused Bhutto of rigging the 1977 election and the violent movement that it initiated made way for the country’s second Martial Law (General Ziaul Haq).
PNA leaders with Z A. Bhutto in May 1977.
But taking part in the PNA movement did not see the Mohajirs finding their way back into the ruling elite, even though the JI became an important player in Ziaul Haq’s first cabinet.
Disillusioned by the results of the movement, some Mohajir politicians came to the conclusion that the Mohajirs had been exploited by religious parties, and it was the shoulders of the Mohajirs that these parties had used to climb into the corridors of power.
It was this feeling that triggered the formation of the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (in 1978) and then the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) in 1984.
Its founders led by Altaf Hussain and Azim Ahmed Tariq decided to organise the Mohajir community into a coherent ethnic whole.
For this, they found the need to break away from the community’s tradition of being politically allied to the religious parties, and politicise the Mohajirs’ more secular social dynamics and disposition.
The Mohajir dichotomy between social liberalism and political conservatism was dissolved and replaced with a new identity-narrative concentrating on the formation of Mohajir ethnic nationalism pitched against the ‘Punjabi establishment’ as a whole and against the political muscle of the religious parties in urban Sindh.
The MQM eventually broke the electoral hold of the religious parties in Karachi and succeeded in organising and inventing the Mohajirs of Sindh as a distinct ethnic group.
|Azim Ahmed Tariq and Altaf Hussain were the main architects of post-70s Mohajir nationalist identity.|
By 1992, the MQM had become Sindh’s second largest political party. Its rise created grave cleavages in Karachi’s traditional political epicentres that had been largely dominated by parties such as the PPP, the JI and JUP.
As the Karachi’s economics and resources continued to come under stress due to the increasing migration to the city from within Sindh, KP and the Punjab, corruption in the police and other government institutions operating in Karachi grew two-fold.
The need to use muscle to tilt the political and economic aspects of the city towards a community’s interests became prominent.
Thus emerged the so-called militant wings in the city’s prominent political groups, which even by the early 1990s had begun to moonlight as fraudsters and violent criminals.
These cleavages saw the MQM ghettoising large swaths of the city’s Mohajirs in areas where it ruled supreme.
The results were disastrous. It replaced the pluralistic and enterprising disposition of the Mohajirs with a besieged mentality that expressed itself in an awkwardly violent manner attracting the concern and then the wrath of the state and two governments.
Also read: MQM: From revolt to redemption
Between 1992 and 1999, the MQM faced three full-fledged operations from the military, police and para-military forces.
The operations and the violence during it did not fragment the party because the Mohajir nationalism that it had moulded remained intact among the Mohajirs.
But the experience led the MQM leadership to further elaborate and define the Mohajir nationalist narrative.
In 2002, MQM began to regenerate itself when it decided to end hostilities with the state by allying itself with the General Musharraf dictatorship.
|A 2010 poster showing Altaf Hussain in Sindhi Sufi garb.|
Musharraf had posed himself as a liberal, and it is during the time that the MQM operated as a partner of his regime that it began to expand the concept of Mohajir identity and nationalism.
The party had already weaned away the Mohajir community from the concept of Pakistani nationhood propagated by the religious parties. Now, it added two more dimensions to Mohajir nationalism that worked side-by-side.
It began to explain the Mohajirs as Urdu-speaking Sindhis who were connected to the Sindhi-speakers of the province in a spiritual bond emerging from the teachings of Sindh’s ‘patron saint’, Shah Abdul Latif.
This was MQM’s way of resolving the Mohajirs’ early failures to fully adopt Sindhi culture.
The other dimension that emerged during this period among the Mohajir community (through the MQM), was to address the disposition of Mohajir identity in the Mohajir-majority areas of Sindh.
This dimension saw MQM make Mohajir nationalism and identity (regarding Islam) to be understood as modern reworking of the ‘rationalist/modernist Islam’ of 19th century Muslim scholar, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and his Aligarh School of Thought (that most urban middle-class Urdu-speaking Muslims of India had belonged to before partition).
So, whereas Sindhi nationalism had formulated a secularism based on the pluralistic teachings and histories of Sufi saints, Mohajir nationalism began to express its secularism as a modern reworking of ‘rational and scientific Islam ‘of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan that sees spiritual growth as a consequence of material growth (derived from modern economics, art and the de-politicisation of faith).