In July 1972, the Sindhi Language Bill was introduced by the Sindh Assembly. Since then, there have been sporadic efforts to politically and culturally assert Sindhi nationalism.

In the last 10 years there has been a steady assertion of Sindhi nationalism, particularly in Karachi and in other non-Sindhi speaking parts of the province. The latest manifestation of this is evident from an order issued by the Directorate of Schools Education on August 17, 2018, making the ajrak part of the school uniform for girls in all government secondary and higher secondary schools.

Ajrak is a prominent symbol of Sindhi culture and it is commonly worn by Sindhis and non-Sindhis alike. Traditionally hand-dyed, the shawl is also presented to guests on various occasions as a token of Sindhi culture and hospitality. Enforcing a particular cultural symbol as part of the dress code in government schools, however, is intriguing and a source of controversy.

Is the enforcement of the ajrak as a part of school uniform in Sindh simply an attempt to promote Sindhi traditions?

It is not for the first time that the Sindh government has made an effort to introduce the ajrak in schools. In January 2012, the deputy commissioner of Larkana distributed 3,700 ajraks among high schools students in Ratodero district, saying that ajrak has been made part of the school uniform of girls of classes nine and 10. In February 2012, Ayaz Soomro, then provincial law minister, while talking to journalists in Larkana hinted at the possibility of introducing a bill in the Sindh Assembly for adopting ajrak as a ‘scarf’ which would be part of the school uniform. But following that no major initiative was taken to adopt the ajrak as a uniform for schoolgirls, until August 2018 when it was made mandatory across the province.

The assertion of Sindhi culture and nationalism can be divided into three phases. The first phase was from 1972-73 when the Sindhi Language Bill was introduced in the provincial assembly, triggering a period of ethnic polarisation and violence in Sindh between the Sindhi and non-Sindhi population. It culminated in an agreement between the PPP government and the Urdu-speaking community to protect the interests of both Sindhi- and Urdu-speaking populations of the province. This was to such an extent that if the chief minister were Sindhi-speaking, the governor would be Urdu speaking. But, the quota system — a major source of conflict in Sindh — was not abolished and remains intact.

The second wave was during the two tenures of Benazir Bhutto. Benazir’s first term was particularly violent in terms of clashes between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which adhered to the notion of Mohajir nationalism, and PPP, which portrayed itself as the guardian of the rights of native Sindhis.

The third wave began in 2008 when the PPP government was formed in Sindh and brought a new zeal to strengthen the Sindhi Cultural Day, along with the introduction of ajrak in girl’s schools.

For Sindhi nationalists, whether they are in PPP or any other party, the process of ‘Sindhiisation’ will be incomplete until Karachi, which is theoretically the capital of Sindh, comes under their cultural control. As long as MQM was a force to reckon with, it was difficult for Sindhi nationalists to establish their tutelage over the metropolis. The marginalisation of MQM and the status of its founder Altaf Hussain brought to nought, has given the PPP and Sindhi nationalist groups an impetus and an enormous space to establish their hold over Karachi.

The gradual assertion of Sindhi cultural nationalism in Karachi and in other urban areas with a large concentration of non-Sindhi speaking population is because of three main reasons. Firstly, in Karachi, the Sindhi-speaking population makes up only 10 percent of the population. The rest of the ethnic and lingual groups are Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto and Balochi-speaking. There is no other provincial capital in Pakistan where the majority of population does not speak the language of the province. For example, in Lahore the majority of people living there speak Punjabi and, similarly, in Peshawar, the majority of population speaks Pashto. Quetta, as the provincial capital of Balochistan, is roughly divided between Pakhtuns and the Baloch but Balochi is spoken widely there. But Karachi is a different case, where Sindhi language is spoken by a thin segment of the population. It is perhaps the feeling of culturally not controlling Karachi which may have prompted the Sindh government to introduce ajrak in girl schools of Sindh.

The majority of students in Karachi and Hyderabad schools are non-Sindhis and wearing the ajrak will provide a semblance of assimilation into Sindhi culture. This raises the question: why has the government not made the ajrak ma­ndatory regardless of gender? Perhaps, the Sindh government has calculated that the initial phase of introducing ajrak in girl’s schools will meet little resistance by the non-Sindhi students as compared to boy’s schools where the chances of defiance might be more.

Secondly, the celebration of Sindhi Culture Day in the first week of December every year, under the patronage of Sindh government, received an impetus when the PPP established its government in Sindh in 2008. There is certainly no harm in promoting one’s culture particularly when a sense of insecurity looms large. In the case of Sindh, Sindhis fear that if migration, particularly to Karachi from upcountry and elsewhere, continues, they will become a minority in the province.

Before 2008, the Benazir Bhutto governments (1988-1990) and (1993-1996) faced serious challenges from MQM, particularly during the Pukka Qila operation in Hyderabad, in May 1990, and the crackdown on MQM by the rangers. It took the PPP provincial government several years to strengthen their cultural control over Sindh, particularly Karachi. Back to back events such as the split in MQM, emergence of the Pak Sarzameen Party as another contender for Mohajir votes, and the exclusion of Altaf Hussain after his controversial speech of August 2016, prompted the PPP leadership to proceed with its agenda of ‘Sindhiisation.’

For Sindhi nationalists the predicament is that Karachi was never a Sindhi-speaking city. Even before Partition in August 1947, non-Muslim communities such as Christians, Hindus and Parsis constituted the majority of Karachi’s population. The influx of migrants from India after Partition changed the demographic make-up of Karachi as its population surged from 300,000 to three million within a span of 20 years.

To the detriment of Sindhi nationalists, the cities of Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur and Mirpurkhas were taken over by Urdu-speaking migrants from India. The concept of Sindhi-dominated rural Sindh emerged, which posed a big challenge to Sindhi nationalists who felt insecure as in urban areas the majority of people neither shared their language, culture nor way of life.

Thirdly, Sindhi political leaders and intellectuals understand that any attempt to impose Sindhi culture and language on non-Sindhis will be counter-productive among a culturally disparate population. The earlier attempts failed to materialise when the Sindh Assembly passed the Sindhi Language Bill in July 1972, as it led to large-scale violence, ethnic riots and migration. The last ethnic clashes between Sindhi and Urdu-speaking groups took place in May 1990 after the Pukka Qila operation in Hyderabad and, since then, peace has largely prevailed between the two communities.

Sindh is the most vulnerable province of Pakistan in terms of ethnic diversity and nationalistic feelings. The PPP, which is termed as a federal party, has lost its vote bank in Punjab and KP and, even in Sindh it has been reduced to the rural areas. Since the rupture of its alliance with MQM six years ago, the PPP has been unable to secure the support of the Urdu-speaking population in electoral politics. The last time it managed to bag Urdu-speaking votes in any substantial way was the first general elections in December 1970. When the majority of ministers and bureaucracy is Sindhi-speaking, a sense of alienation is bound to deepen among non-Sindhis. According to critics, any aggressive attempts to take cultural control of non-Sindhi areas may further augment ethnic polarisation in the province.

It is up to the Sindhi nationalists to seize the opportunity which exists in urban Sindh after the marginalisation of MQM in 2018 general elections. Starting with small measures such as enforcing ajrak in girl’s schools, the Sindh government hopes to further expand its agenda of “Sindhiisaton”. The demography of Sindh cannot be transformed immediately because of a high growth rate of Urdu-speaking population, but by following a step-by-step approach, the PPP hopes to make use of its majority in the Sindh assembly for augmenting the assimilation process in the province. Will the Urdu-speaking community of Sindh support this assimilation of culture or see it as losing their cultural and linguistic identity?

Hard to break will be the perception in the Urdu-speaking community that Sindhi culture, despite being rich and old, nevertheless reflects a feudal and rural landscape. The Urdu-speaking community is relatively educated and belongs to the middle-class unlike the Sindhi community which is still perceived by most Urdu-speakers as steeped in feudalism. The emergence of a strong Sindhi middle-class will certainly make a difference in terms of breaking the feudal/wadera culture and providing an enlightened outlook of Sindhi culture. In that case, there will be no need on the part of the Sindh government to take measures such as introducing the ajrak in girl’s schools to preserve Sindhi culture.

The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi.
Email: amoonis@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 2nd, 2018