Discovering Sindh’s Past: Selections from the Journals of The Sind [sic] Historical Society, 1934-1948 is a compilation of articles that provide a comprehensive insight into Sindh during the precolonial and colonial eras.

The editors of the book — Michel Boivin, Matthew A. Cook and Julien Levesque — are renowned scholars of South Asian and Sindhi history. Boivin is a French historian specialising in the Muslim world and teaches at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, France. Cook is a professor at North Carolina Central University, US, and his research is focused on Sindh and colonialism in South Asia. Levesque, meanwhile, is the head of politics and the society division at the Centre of Social Science and History, India.

Granted, the 13 pieces that comprise the book are not new; they are reprints of articles that originally appeared in a periodical published by the Sind [sic] Historical Society. However, as the magazine ceased publication in 1948 and as “so few libraries in Pakistan … [have] copies of the Journal”, it would have been difficult for scholars, students or anyone with an interest in Sindhi history to access the writings. This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that, as the editors point out, there “are no reprints of these articles in any other book, nor has anyone reprinted them in their entirety since the 1930s and 1940s.” As such, the book may serve as a valuable source of some of the early writings on the region.

A selection of articles on Sindh printed in the last days of British colonial rule provide a useful tool for students, academics and general readers

The contributing writers include names such as A.B. Advani (‘Crime and Punishment in the Days of the Talpur Rulers of Sind’ [sic] and biographical sketches of Diwan Gidumal and Naomal Hotchand), H.T. Lambrick (discourses on battles fought in the region between locals and the colonials as well as observations on Baloch poetry), General John Jacob (notes on the Napier administration), Patrick Cadell (letters written between General John Jacob and Sir Bartle Frere), A.J. Narsain (‘Historical and Racial Background of the Amils of Hyderabad, Sind [sic]’), Ramjee Gunnoojee (an account of five days in February 1843 when he was deputed to “quell the disturbance among the Beloochees [sic]”) and N.M. Billimoria (folk legends in one piece and in the second, a comparison of the census reports of 1931 and 1941).

While anyone can do a quick internet search to discover exactly who these writers are, it would have made sense for Boivin, Cook and Levesque to perhaps give short introductions that would have allowed readers not entrenched in Sindhi history to become familiar with these names.

The original articles, as can be seen from the citations provided towards the end of the book, appeared variously throughout the years that the Journal was functional. Boivin, Cook and Levesque have arranged them in historical chronological order to allow for a better understanding of history as it unfolded.

Thus, readers begin at the beginning, with the advent of the Kalhoras who initiated their rule under the leadership of Mian Yar Muhammad Kalhora, who went by the title Khuda Yar Khan. On the royal decree of the Mughals, he received grants from Emperor Aurangzeb and became the governor first of Sindh, then of Sui, and built a new city which was named Khudabad. Through sagacious and astute leadership, he extended his rule to far-flung areas such as Sehwan and Bukhar, excluding Thatta which was directly controlled by the Mughals. Besides MianYar Muhammad, there were three most important valiant rulers of this dynasty who rendered great services. They were Mian Nasir Muhammad, Mian Noor Muhammad and Mian Ghulam Shah Kalhora.

The Talpurs, descendants of Mir Tala Khan, enjoyed cordial relations with the Kalhoras initially, but differences developed and the Talpurs waged war. The Battle of Halani in 1783 AD proved fatal for the Kalhora dynasty and the reins of power were taken up by the Talpurs. In his second piece, Advani provides some very graphic and detailed information about the manner in which the Talpurs dealt with criminals, from public shaming to physical torture to mental torture.

The book then segues into a detailed account of the British invasion of Sindh. As the colonials reached farther and farther across the subcontinent, the occupation of Sindh became one of the last confrontations between the colonials and the locals. Two articles by Lambrick analyse the state of battle affairs in 1839 and 1843. The invasion successful, we then move to bureaucracy as controlled by the British, and then to administration by the locals, or Amils.

The last part of the book deals with the legends of Sindh. The history of Sindh is inextricably bound with its folktales and, as such, the editors have included a piece by Billimoria that briefly recaps some of the (now) more well-known ones detailed by Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. However, Billimoria’s article comparing the census reports of two different decades is much more informative. He notes figures on the percentage division of men and women, Muslims and Hindus, and follows up with a breakdown of tribal communities — Bheels, Kohlis, Baloch, Makranis, Brahuis and Jats — that resided in the districts of Dadu, Hyderabad, Karachi, Larkana, Nawabshah, Sukkur, Tharparkar and Upper Sindh Frontier. There is even a chart on the percentage of people afflicted with ‘infirmities’ — leprosy, blindness, insanity, deafness/mutism — during the decades from 1911 to 1931.

Sir William Napier says, “This memorable battle, fought 35 days after Meeanee, and within a few miles from that field, bears three names, Dubba, Naraja and Hyderabad: the first from the village, the second from the plain, the third from the city near which it was fought. The last is the one by which it must be known.” ... Sir Charles wrote, “We don’t like to call our battle Dubba because the skins of grease in this country are called dubbas. All the boys were horrified at the name and McMurdo rode about, bleeding like a pig from his wound, after the battle, to find another village to call after: Lord Ellenborough has settled it for us — Hyderabad.” — Excerpt from the book

As such, given that this book brings together some very early articles written about the region and puts them in a coherent timeline, it would serve well as a tool for students, academics, researchers as well as the general reader. The editors have aimed to give a comprehensive overview of Sindhi history; the articles cover a large time period and connect numerous historical missing links, but the book misses out in that there is no personal input from the editors. Had they incorporated their own interpretations on history or even on the articles themselves, it would have made for much more useful reading.

The reviewer is assistant professor and Incharge Chairman, Department of General History, University of Sindh, Jamshoro

Discovering Sindh’s Past: Selections from
the Journals of The Sind Historical Society,
1934-1948
Edited by Michel Boivin, Matthew A. Cook
and Julien Levesque
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199407804
320pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 19th, 2018

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