Making of the Sindhi identity: From Shah Latif to GM Syed to Bhutto

Published September 10, 2015
Mohammad Ayub  Khuhro (L), Shaikh Abdul Majeed Sindhi (C) and G. M. Syed.
Mohammad Ayub Khuhro (L), Shaikh Abdul Majeed Sindhi (C) and G. M. Syed.

In a nutshell, between the 1930s and mid-2000s, the existential narrative that furnished the Sindhi identity in Pakistan was this: Sindhis 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 were suspicious of those who were stripping Islam of its spiritual essence, while replacing it with a creed based on a rigid worldview and an obsession with rituals.

This narrative was essential for Sindhis because it helped them find an anchor for their ethnic identity and sense of history; especially in a country where (according to them) the state was attempting to bypass centuries-old identities based on ethnicity, on the back of a largely cosmetic ideology based on a myopic 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 as a land dotted by numerous shrines of Sufi saints; frequented in large numbers, by both the Muslim, as well as the 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.

Birth of the existential Sindhi identity

When Punjab was being ripped apart by violent and gruesome clashes between the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Sindh remained peaceful.

In Interpreting the Sindh World, 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 such as Ibrahim Joyo and GM Syed began to shape a meta-narrative of Sindhi identity, because to them, the departing Hindus were first Sindhis, then Hindus; and their departure weakened Sindh’s demography and economy.

After the creation of Pakistan (and then the demise of its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah), the Pakistani state began in earnest its long-drawn project to cut through the country’s ethnic complexities by constructing and then imposing a monolithic narrative of Pakistani nationhood.

This attracted the scorn of the country’s various ethnicities, who dismissed and rejected the state’s idea of nationhood. They believed it contradicted the notions of nationhood and faith enshrined in the historical DNA of their respective ethnicities.

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 then went on to publish a number of important papers and books that helped form the doctrinal and ideological basis of modern Sindhi nationalism.

G.M. Syed.
G.M. Syed.

This nationalism explained the Sindhis to be descendants of the natives of the Indus Valley Civilisation, whose social, political and religious consciousness was influenced by various religions and cultures that had arrived and established themselves in the region in the last 5000 years.

It added that this aspect of Sindh’s history, along with the 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.

Syed’s works gave Sindhi identity a historical and religious context 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.

Bhutto steps in

Though Syed failed to transform his scholarly impact into political mileage (for himself), another Sindhi, ZA Bhutto, who was accused by Syed of being a stooge of the ‘establishment’, recognised the impact Syed had had on the Sindhi mindset.

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.

In 1972, Syed’s Sindhi ethnic party, the Jeeay Sindh (JS), had demanded the separation of Sindh from Pakistan 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.

It was during the 1975 conference that Syed’s idea of Sindh historically being ‘the land of the Sufis’ was first recognised and promoted by the state. It was then turned into an official narrative (through state-owned media), but only after stripping the Sindhi nationalist/separatist aspect that Syed had attached to this narrative.

Thus, it was after 1975 that the expression ‘Sindh is a land of Sufis’ was given official currency.

Z.A. Bhutto.
Z.A. Bhutto.

Dutch author and expert on Sindh, Oskar Verkaaik, suggests (in his 2010 paper The Sufi Saints of Sindhi Nationalism) that Bhutto, besides trying to neutralise Syed’s political impact in the province, used the conference to further beef up his (Bhutto’s) concept of the 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, Syed commented that the ‘the (Punjabi-dominated) establishment doesn’t realise that today, it hanged its most loyal servant.’

Yet, most of the movements and protests against the Zia dictatorship took place in Sindh. And rather ironically, during perhaps the largest such movement (the 1983 MRD uprising in the interior of Sindh), Syed did not take any part.

When he was asked why his party had decided not to take part in a movement that was being brutally crushed by the ‘establishment’, Syed said: ‘Zia is making our job easier by leading the break-up of Pakistan.’

Dozens of Sindhis lost their lives in the 1983 movement against Zia.

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 far-left Awami Tehreek – a Sindhi nationalist party that was not associated with GM Syed. A number of journalist unions and women’s organisations also took an active part.

A jail cell in Nawabshah, Sindh, packed with MRD activists in 1983.
A jail cell in Nawabshah, Sindh, packed with MRD activists in 1983.

When the violence increased and the number of civilian deaths rose, Syed’s Jeeay Sindh broke into two factions. One faction (the Jeeay Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party) decided to go against Syed’s decision to sit out the movement.

Zia was killed in August 1988 when (allegedly) a bomb went off on the C130 plane he was traveling on. 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, by then, had become a fractured and fragmented lot.

Jeeay Sindh had broken into various factions and many Sindhi nationalists had also joined Murtaza Bhutto’s urban guerrilla outfit, the Al-Zulfikar (AZO).

The AZO was formed by Bhutto’s sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz 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 and Murtaza (1979).
Shahnawaz and Murtaza (1979).

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 study in Sindh in 1989-90, came across shops that had portraits of ZA Bhutto hanging on the walls right beside those of GM Syed.

Sindh’s existential disposition shaped by the likes of GM Syed and then pragmatically adopted and reengineered by Bhutto had survived Zia’s reactionary ideological onslaught.

A narrative in crisis

But if (thanks to the social and political outcome of 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, attacks on Hindu places of worship and on men who had allegedly committed ‘heresy’, have been reported from the ‘land of the Sufis.’

Though the number of such incidents in Sindh is far lower still when compared to those taking place in, say, the Punjab and KP, the incidents seem to generate more debate because they took place in Sindh.

Though Sindh’s sprawling cosmopolitan capital, Karachi, is a staggering melting-pot of various ethnicities, religions, sects and sub-sects; and remains to hold its general pluralistic disposition, its darker sides, boiling with ethnic tensions, street crime, violent gangs and administrational chaos, continues to get darkened still.

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.

But the rest of Sindh, till only a few years ago, was being explained as being perhaps, the country’s last major bastion of sectarian and religious harmony, still holding its reputation of being an epicentre of ‘indigenous Sufism-inspired tolerance.’

So what happened?

Three views have recently cropped up to explain the rising incidents of religious bigotry in Sindh.

1. Many Sindhi nationalists have accused the state of using extreme groups in Sindh to neutralise Sindhi nationalism.

2. The second view suggests that when Sindh suffered serious damage from the devastating 2011 floods in the province, some well-organised militant faith-based organisations set-up ‘relief camps’ in the flood-hit areas. But when the floods receded, these organisations stayed back and began to build madrassahs, from where, they are indoctrinating young Sindhis coming from poverty-stricken backgrounds.

3. 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, which are making many poor young Sindhis fall into the trap laid down by extremist organisations.

However, there are also those who believe that bad economics is not the main issue (at least in this regard).

Just before the 2013 election, Faiz Qureshi, a retired Sindhi civil servant told a local news channel: ‘Sindhis are not fools to keep voting for the PPP in spite of that party leaving them hungry and desperate.’ He then added: ‘this (the gradual rise of religious discord) is a completely new phenomenon in Sindh. The PPP just doesn’t know how to tackle it.’

Syed’s retreat

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. He suggests, ‘the PPP remains to be their (the Sindhis') main link with Islamabad.’

Some three years ago, author and columnist, Ayesha Siddiqua, explained in an article how she had witnessed the emergence of madrassahs 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 ominous than just bad economics.

See: The madressa mix: Genesis and growth

The interior of the Sindh province has had the fewest number of madrassahs, 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.

Many have now also turned against their former mentors (in state institutions) who had molded 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 at the Sindhi 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 pluralistic 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.’

He went on: ‘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!’

I asked him whether the Sindh Festival (organised by the PPP-led Sindh government and organised by Benazir’s son, Bilawal Bhutto in 2014) was the PPP’s way of revitalising views about Sindh’s Sufi heritage among the new generation of young Sindhis.

‘As an idea, it made sense,’ he replied. ‘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 sacrilege!’

The same year (2014), a Hindu place of worship was torched in Bhutto’s hometown of Larkana. The majority of Sindhis I managed to talk to after the Larkana incident exhibited a genuine concern. Most were of the view that something of the scale of Syed’s narrative 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.

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 the PPP’s next foray should be an intellectual one. It should provide a platform that would work out a narrative based on the modern-day understanding of Sindh’s harmonious heritage and then circulated among the young people of Sindh (of all ethnicities and classes).

Meanwhile in Karachi …

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 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 in 1947.

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.

Socially, the Mohajirs of Sindh were urbane, but politically they sided with the country’s two major religious parties, the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP).

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, Baloch and Pakhtuns already had dedicated constituencies in the new country based on their 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 and mold 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 started to see the Mohajirs as cultural and political invaders who wanted to sideline the Sindhis in their own land.

But with 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 of Pakistani economy and politics.

Celebrated Marxist academic, Professor Jamal Naqvi, in his 2014 biography, Leaving the Left Behind, claims that Pakhtun nationalist leaders such as 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, ZA 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 anti-Bhutto PNA movement.

PNA’s main driving force were the country’s three main religious parties: JI, JUP and Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), 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 third Martial Law (General Ziaul Haq).

But taking part in the PNA movement did not see the Mohajirs finding their way back into the fold of 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.

Altaf Hussain with Azeem Ahmad Tariq (right) in 1979.
Altaf Hussain with Azeem Ahmad Tariq (right) in 1979.

For this, they felt the need to break away from the Mohajir community’s tradition of being politically allied to the religious parties, and politicise the Mohajirs’ more pluralistic 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 reinventing the Mohajirs of Sindh as a distinct ethnic group.

By 1992, the MQM had become Sindh’s second largest political party. Its rise created severe cleavages in Karachi’s traditional political landscape, that had been largely dominated by parties such as the PPP, the JI and JUP.

As 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, whose members, 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.

Between 1992 and 1999, the MQM faced three full-fledged operations from the military, police and para-military forces.

The operations and the violence did not fragment the party because the Mohajir nationalism that it had molded remained intact among the Mohajirs. But the experience did lead 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 (1999-2008).

Musharraf had posed himself as a liberal, and it was 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.

MQM embraces Shah Latif
MQM embraces Shah Latif

This was MQM’s way of resolving the Mohajirs’ early failures to fully adopt Sindhi culture. Sindhi nationalists saw it as just another political move.

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 a modern reworking of the ‘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 pluralism based on the teachings and histories of Sufi saints, Mohajir nationalism began to express its pluralism as a modern reworking of the ‘rational and scientific Islam ‘of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, which sees spiritual growth as a consequence of material progress (derived from modern economics, art and the de-politicisation of faith). However, it still didn’t dent the party’s tendency to use militant tactics when needed.

A new Sindh?

In 2014, PPP co-chairperson, Bilwal Bhutto, organised a Sindh Festival on the site of Sindh’s oldest known civilisation, the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Using the popular perception that Sindhi culture was historically pluralistic, tolerant and deeply rooted in the traditions of Sufism, Bilawal used this acuity and its many artistic, literary, and social expressions to explain what (he thought) could be used as a cultural model (across Pakistan) to overwhelm the extremist mindset that has been ravaging the country for so many years now.

But unlike famous Sindhi nationalist and scholar, GM Syed, Bilawal was not just talking about an inherent and ‘indigenous pluralism,’ that is part of the Sindhi culture.

Syed’s ‘indigenous pluralism’ had meant a society that was spiritually close to God but politically materialistic; and thus, whose economic, political and social interests were best served by keeping its religious beliefs within the confines of the mosque and/or the Sufi shrine.

He thought this was vital because religious orthodoxy when used as a political and social tool becomes a weapon in the hands of forces that try to seize and neutralise a pluralistic society (like Sindh) by imposing a cosmetic homogeneity through monolithic concepts of society, culture and faith.

For example, to Syed and his contemporaries in Sindh’s intellectual circles, the kind of faith that was being advocated in Pakistan was alien to the Islam that has been practiced by Sindhi Muslims of the region for over a thousand years.

Syed’s indigenous pluralism was also suspicious of Western capitalism, but not in an intransigent manner.

He suggested addressing the onslaught of ‘soulless modern materialism’ on a social level with the help of Sindh’s traditional disposition and its inherent pluralistic and esoteric psyche.

But today, Sindh is changing. The Sindhi-speaking middle-class has expanded in the last three decades. Syed is still revered in the province, but he is not as relevant as he was till about the early 1980s. But the PPP still is.

Apart from being popular among Sindhi peasants and working-classes, the PPP offers the emerging Sindhi-speaking middle and lower middle-classes opportunities to attempt fulfilling their upwardly mobile ambitions.

Sindhis still see the PPP as the only nationwide party that is not only close to their ethnic roots, but is their best mode to keep in touch with the economics, sociology and politics tied to federal-level politics. Thus, voting for the PPP (by the Sindhis) is now more of a pragmatic move than an ideological one.

The Sindhi middle-class has grown rapidly in the last two decades.
The Sindhi middle-class has grown rapidly in the last two decades.

But the emergence of a larger Sindhi-speaking middle-class has also triggered social strife in the province. The youth among this section of the Sindhi-speakers see the PPP as a dinosaur associated with the politics of their parents.

However, there is no effective alternative. The PPP has continued to neutralise the Sindhi nationalists who have little or nothing substantial to offer anymore to the new Sindhi-speaking youth in terms of this youth’s more universal ideas of upward mobility.

Other parties, such as the PML-N and the PTI are still largely seen in Sindh as squarely peddling the interests of non-Sindhi businessmen and bourgeoisie.

But even though religious parties have remained to be weak in the province, certain social and economic fissures being caused by the rapid emergence of Sindhi-speaking middle-classes has also witnessed a very non-Sindhi phenomenon of religious radicalisation creeping in.

This is still a new phenomenon among Sindhi speakers. But one can relate it to the way Punjab’s middle and trader classes became overtly conservative from the late 1970s onwards, due to their growing exposure and engagement with conservative oil-rich Arab societies in the Middle East, and due to the economic benefits that they enjoyed during General Ziaul Haq dictatorship in the 1980s.

Of course, the Sindhis (from any class) did not enjoy much economic benefits from Zia. But a series of PPP provincial regimes in Sindh ever since the 1970s have helped shape the Sindhi middle-classes, and make them become more influential in impacting the electoral and economic dynamics of Sindh.

Conscious of this, Bilawal’s Sindh Festival was planned as a two-pronged strategy: First, to furnish Bilawal’s idea of a ‘progressive Pakistan’, and second, to address the trend of urbanisation in Sindh from going the way urbanisation went in the Punjab.

Bilawal Bhutto.
Bilawal Bhutto.

The cultural activities that were on display during the Sindh Festival suggest an understanding (or need) on Bilawal’s part of an urbanisation trend that should produce a progressive workforce and an economic, political and religious culture based on a healthy respect for diversity; instead of a culture based on economics tied to the politics of faith and sects.

Of course, many aspects of Bilawal’s thinking have a lot to do with youthful optimism and (for want of a better word) well-intentioned social engineering.

But PPP’s rejuvenation can now only be convincingly cemented if the party’s next step is steeped in an ideology that, though futuristic, is still rooted in the party’s past of being a large, all-encompassing progressive entity; and not on the amoral Machiavellian machine that it has become.




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