History is replete with instances of small events giving birth to mammoth change. One such event in the history of Sindh was the Manzilgah communal riots of 1939, which proved to be the parting of ways between the Hindu and Muslim communities of Sindh, who had lived together in peace and harmony for centuries.

It was in the aftermath of this event that the demand for a separate homeland for the Muslims in the Subcontinent took root in Sindh.

But, before we move further, let us briefly outline three major geographical entities around which this issue revolved: Sukkur, Manzilgah and Sadh Belo.

Sukkur

Sukkur is located on the right bank of River Indus, some 500km from Karachi. Situated just opposite is the town of Rohri, on the other side of the Indus. The river is very wide here and there are a few islands in the river. One of the bigger islands is Bukkur, which contains a historic fort.

During the 1930s, Sukkur was a thriving centre of trade and commerce in northern Sindh. One distinction that Sukkur held in

the olden days was that, while Muslims constituted a majority in the rest of Sindh — comprising about 75 percent of the population — the demography in Sukkur was entirely different. Here Hindus constituted a majority — out of a total population of 70,000, approximately 40,000 were Hindus at the time the riots of 1939 took place. Accordingly, they controlled the municipality and other local bodies.

Manzilgah

Manzilgah was a place a little outside Sukkur town, on the riverbank, where the trade caravans coming from various parts of Asia historically stayed. As per tradition, during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar, his governor in Sindh, Syed Masoom Shah, had constructed a complex of two buildings at this place in 1598. Both these buildings had domes and were quite ornamented, and were believed to be a mosque and an inn for travellers.

In public parlance, the complex was known as ‘Masjid Manzilgah’. The famous Menara or minaret of Masoom Shah in Sukkur is named after him.

When Sindh was conquered by the British in 1843, the buildings were used as government offices for a while; the British loved domed structures. However, these buildings were later abandoned and decayed with the passage of time, due to want of repair.

The Manzilgah communal riots of 1939 began with a dispute over a long-abandoned mosque in Sukkur. But they ended up playing a part in the creation of Pakistan

Sadhu Belo

Directly opposite Masjid Manzilgah was a lush green island, which was the chosen abode of a Nepalese sadhu, named Baba Bankhandi Maharaj. More than two centuries after the construction of the mosque at Manzilgah, in the 1820s, he founded a temple there, which was revered by the Hindus. They named the place after him: it was called ‘Sadhu Belo’, meaning the ‘Forest of the Sadhu’ in Sindhi.

The Issue

The basic issue was that the Muslims of Sindh demanded the restoration and revival of Masjid Manzilgah, as per historical traditions, while the Hindus felt apprehensive about the presence of a mosque in such close proximity to their revered temple. Hence, they opposed the move with full force. In this situation, the British officers preferred to maintain a status quo, which meant keeping the Manzilgah complex closed and under government control.

The temple of Sadhu Belo, named after a Nepalese sadhu, was constructed in the 1820s
The temple of Sadhu Belo, named after a Nepalese sadhu, was constructed in the 1820s

A Change in Political Dynamics

Political dynamics changed a bit in 1936 when Sindh was declared an autonomous province under the British Raj. Before the conquest of Sindh by Sir Charles Napier in 1843, political power in Sindh had invariably remained with the Muslims. However, this power was lost to the British colonial forces, which made Sindh subordinate to the Bombay Presidency. Granting Sindh the status of an autonomous province meant that the Muslims reacquired some political power through elections to the Sindh Legislative Assembly.

The Sindh Assembly elections of 1937 brought about a cabinet headed by Premier (as the provincial chief ministers used to be called then) Sir Ghulam Hussain Hidayatullah. With the formation of a government headed by a Muslim, the demand for the restoration of Masjid Manzilgah on the part of the majority community reverberated with full force. However, Hidayatullah was clever enough to avoid taking a decision on this highly divisive issue.

Though Muslims had acquired political power under the new arrangement, their power had limits, as Hindus also had a formidable presence in the newly elected Sindh Assembly. With better education, a much better economic position, a very vibrant press and unity amongst them, the Hindus of Sindh enjoyed far more influence on the politics of the province than their numerical strength. On the other hand, the Muslims in the provincial assembly stood divided in four groups, making each group dependent on Hindu votes.

Though Muslims had acquired political power under the new arrangement, their power had limits, as Hindus also had a formidable presence in the newly elected Sindh Assembly. With better education, a much better economic position, a very vibrant press and unity amongst them, the Hindus of Sindh enjoyed far more influence on the politics of the province than their numerical strength.

After about a year in office, in 1938, Sir Hidayatullah’s government was replaced with that of Khan Bahadur Allah Bakhsh Soomro. The same Manzilgah demand was raised before him as well. In March 1939, a delegation from a local Muslim organisation, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Sindh, called on him and asked for the restoration of the mosque. What transpired in the meeting is anybody’s guess. However, the delegates who called on the premier were so enthusiastic after it that they went to Sukkur and publicly announced that the mosque would shortly be handed over to them.

This caused a ruckus in the Hindu press as well as among Hindu politicians. As Soomro’s government rested on the crucial support of Hindu members, he chose to keep the matter in abeyance. But for the Muslims of Sindh, the matter had become one of religious prestige. It turned into the most popular cause across all sections of Muslim society of Sindh. The five most important leaders for this cause were Sir Abdullah Haroon, G.M. Syed, Muhammad Ayub Khuhro, Hashim Gazdar and Pir Ali Muhammad Rashdi.

Masjid Manzilgah on the banks of the Indus river
Masjid Manzilgah on the banks of the Indus river

Under this leadership, ‘Manzilgah Day’ was observed on August 18, 1939 wherein rallies were held across Sindh, demanding the restoration of the mosque. When this did not bear any fruit, it was decided to organise a prolonged but peaceful agitation under the title of ‘Satyagraha’, starting from October 1. The term Satyagraha was originally coined by Mahatma Gandhi to denote passive resistance, and was borrowed by the Muslims of Sindh to denote their protest.

On October 1, a large number of Muslim volunteers from all over Sindh assembled at the Eidgah maidan of Sukkur, from where they started moving in small groups to the site of Masjid Manzilgah, chanting slogans in favour of their demands. After reaching the place in a peaceful manner, they offered up arrests, each one of them identifying himself as a “Musalman, son of a Musalman.”

On the first day, 339 persons offered their arrests. On the second day, the number rose to 550 and, on the third day, to over 1,000. In addition to them, thousands others were waiting in the wings to leave for Sukkur from all parts of Sindh to participate in the agitation.

As the jails were filled beyond their capacity and there seemed to be no let down in the movement, the administration became unnerved. In a sudden move, the district administration released all the arrested persons, allowing them to remain around the mosque. The Muslims felt jubilant, but demanded the issuance of a formal notification of the revival of the mosque before dispersing.

This sudden move on part of the government baffled the Hindu community, who vehemently opposed it. This put the government into paralysis.

As Soomro’s government rested on the crucial support of Hindu members, he chose to keep the matter in abeyance. But for the Muslims of Sindh, the matter had become one of religious prestige. It turned into the most popular cause across all sections of Muslim society of Sindh.

Enter the Hindu Mahasabha

In these charged times, a pan-India organisation known as the Hindu Mahasabha called a conference at Sukkur, in which they invited Dr B.S. Moonje from Bombay — known for his extremist views — as the guest speaker. Moonje had left the Congress on account of his differences over Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence.

The conference, which was attended by sitting Hindu ministers of Sindh, strongly demanded the immediate removal of Muslims from the Manzilgah mosque, failing which the Hindu ministers and assembly members announced they would withdraw their support to the government. It was sort of a death threat for a government that depended on support from Hindu members for its survival.

In these circumstances, the government ordered the evacuation of the masjid, through a crackdown on the Muslims there. The administration employed extremely violent means to take over the possession of the complex, which was finally secured at a very high cost.

The reaction of the two communities to the action was diametrically opposed. While the Hindu press was jubilant at this turn of events, Muslims felt deeply hurt, angered and frustrated.

When the dispersed Muslims reached their hometowns, they narrated tales, some real and some made up, of the highhandedness meted out to them by the government as well as the Hindu community. This resulted in an eruption of communal violence all across the province. Where Hindus were in a majority, as in Sukkur, Muslims were targeted and vice versa. This resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries on both sides.

The Consequences

In the aftermath of the riots, the Soomro government could not survive for long. But, the most important aspect of the event was that it made the Muslims of Sindh realise their vulnerability, and the strength of the Hindus in the body politic of Sindh despite their being a minority.

Soon afterwards, the Muslim stalwarts of the Masjid Manzilgah movement, such as G.M. Syed, Sir Haroon, Ayub Khuhro and others, took up the cause of a separate homeland for Muslims of the Subcontinent. It was against this backdrop that G.M. Syed presented the famous resolution in the Sindh Assembly in March 1943, formally proclaiming that Hindus and Muslims of India were separate nations and therefore should have separate states!

Despite opposition from the Hindu members, the Pakistan Resolution was passed by the majority Muslim members. This made history — Sindh became the first province to have adopted such a resolution, setting the stage for the creation of Pakistan.

In retrospect, it seems that the biggest casualty of the Manzilgah event was the centuries-long trust between the Hindus and Muslims of Sindh. Although the Hindus of Sindh succeeded in keeping the mosque closed in the short-term, they lost the majority community’s centuries-long goodwill for them.

The writer is former vice chancellor of Sindh Madressatul Islam University and a former faculty-fellow at American University, Washington DC

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 13th, 2021

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