NON-FICTION: DISSECTING SINDHI NATIONALISM

Published October 10, 2021
Karachi’s famous landmark Teen Talwar [Three Swords] draped in Sindhi Ajrak | Dawn file photo
Karachi’s famous landmark Teen Talwar [Three Swords] draped in Sindhi Ajrak | Dawn file photo

Researching the current and exotic has become the norm. Another popular pathway is doing empirical work. Quantitative analysis holds ground on its own. What about studying the political narrative, movements and electoral trends within Pakistan?

Asma Faiz, who teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, researched such trends for her PhD thesis in France and has now published her work as In Search of Lost Glory: Sindhi Nationalism in Pakistan. Being Punjabi herself, the author manages to dissect Sindhi nationalism and electoral politics with detached flair.

The book begins by looking at Sindh during the pre-Partition era, moves to Partition and migration into Sindh, analyses the emergence of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), focuses on Sindhi nationalists and ends by examining the three-way relationship extant from 1988 to 2020 between the PPP, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Sindhi nationalists.

Written as it is in the tradition of political science, the book does not offer a robust analysis of political economy, but it does look at the question of settlers moving into Sindh, the quota issue for rural and urban Sindh transforming Mohajir activism, and the misgivings of Sindhi nationalists over the water distribution issue.

One strength of the book, based on qualitative fieldwork done in the region, is that it attempts to cover all sides of Sindh’s politics. It takes into account the Mohajir perspective while discussing Sindhi nationalism, situates its discussion of the rise of the PPP in the nationalist politics of Sindh, and investigates the relationship of cooperation as well as conflict between the PPP, the MQM and Sindhi nationalists. Through this approach, it gives a feel of wholesome analysis.

A valuable addition to political science literature on ethnic studies attempts to cover all sides of Sindh’s politics

Another strength is that the book offers as much analytical grounding as possible within the tradition of political science discourse. It refers to established literature on the subject from time to time and introduces terms such as “ethnic entrepreneurs” while referring to Sindhi nationalists, the PPP and the MQM.

It also uses other categories such as “ethnic outbidding” while discussing a complex relationship between the PPP and Sindhi nationalists. In the electoral arena, it employs concepts such as “ethnic voting.” This consideration for being analytical while examining the political developments in Sindh gives the book a good structure.

The yardstick of nationalist resistance refers to a “presumed” state of Sindh in pre-colonial times. While zooming in on Sindh before Partition, there is discussion on how the political movement for the separation of Sindh from Bombay [now Mumbai] during colonial rule shaped the Sindhi consciousness and politics up to 1947.

The author looks at several varying elements, from the evolution of the Sindhi language and script to massive hydraulic projects in the province, and from pre-colonial Hindu-Muslim tensions — the 1937 elections held against this backdrop led to “unstable coalition governments” — to the introduction of modern bureaucracy.

Faiz’s analysis of Partition looks at migration and population upheaval in the area in detail. Partition introduced a “monumental change” in Sindh because of the change in the region’s demographic make-up: from 1947 to 1951, the country’s citizenry increased by 10 percent. The migrants, or Mohajirs, comprised 55 percent of the population in post-Partition Karachi and the number of Hindus, who had made up 51 percent of the province’s population in 1947, shrank to only two percent by 1951. The political economy of evacuee property was also an important element to consider.

There was a struggle for provincial autonomy in the face of a centralised state during Pakistan’s formative years. The Muslim League leadership, bureaucracy and army were the three important pillars of the centralised state and there was over-representation of Punjab in state institutions. The One Unit Scheme, whereby the four provinces of then West Pakistan were merged into a single entity, was considered problematic and Sindhi nationalists such as G.M. Syed were bitterly opposed to it. The nationalists subsequently turned to resistance politics; the Sindh Hari Movement was one expression of the struggle.

The chapter on the PPP highlights the evolution of the political party as the “new” ethnic entrepreneurs, with the nationalists being the old. Here, the author also analyses the “dual” role of the PPP as the main ethnic party in Sindh, as well as being a federal party in the centre and the rest of Pakistan. Faiz attributes the rise of the PPP to the nationalists’ groundwork for raising Sindhi consciousness in the pre-PPP period. The PPP won the 1970 general elections and gained seats not only in Sindh, but also in Punjab.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a populist leader who reaped the benefits of the people’s dissatisfaction over massive inequality during the preceding authoritarian government. Student groups and trade unions provided the platform for the PPP’s politics and Bhutto used the ‘roti, kapra, makaan’ [food, clothing, shelter] slogan to rule through his ‘Islamic socialism’.

Bhutto also introduced a number of Sindh-specific interventions to please his ethnic support base. One such measure was the Sindhi Language Bill of 1972, which made teaching Sindhi compulsory from classes four to 12. Another measure was dividing the Sindh quota into rural and urban categories, in order to bring rural Sindhis to the front as Mohajirs were over-represented in the bureaucracy in Pakistan’s earlier decades.

The author also sees Bhutto’s nationalisation of industries and banking in ethnic terms, as it adversely affected Mohajir industrialists, but did not have a visible impact on the rural Sindhi elite. The discrimination that Mohajirs felt as a result of Bhutto’s policies led to the Mohajir identity consciousness.

A major contribution of the Bhutto government was the 1973 Constitution that gave Pakistan a federal structure. The Council of Common Interests and the National Finance Commission Award were introduced to make federalism stronger. However, Sindhi nationalists were not happy with the Constitution, as they wanted more rights for Sindh.

The Bhutto government suppressed ethnic politics in other provinces through its crackdown on the National Awami Party (NAP) and Baloch nationalists. With Bhutto’s execution, the grievances of Sindhis increased versus Punjab and the establishment and hence Sindh played a leading role in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in the 1980s.

The triumvirate of G.M. Syed, Shaikh Ayaz and Ibrahim Joyo was the leading light of the Sindhi nationalist narrative. Sindhi nationalists engaged in “ethnic outbidding” and tried to outsmart the PPP, yet their demands for the rights of the people of Sindh — whether it is the water issue, opposition to the Kalabagh Dam, or assertion of Sindhi culture — helped cement Sindhi consciousness. The nationalist parties are bitterly divided along personality-driven politics and have never been able to win electorally.

There is also “everyday primordialism” in Sindh where Sindhi consciousness manifests through culture and everyday course of life. Cultural events such as Ayaz Mela are significant, and the author spent some time at Café Khanabadosh in Hyderabad, discussing Sindhi nationalism with members of the Women’s Action Forum. This is the only part in the book where readers get to read about women’s voices directly.

Towards the end, the book takes into account a relationship marked by the “unstable equilibrium” between the PPP, MQM and Sindhi nationalists from 1988 to 2020. There was a pattern of both conflict and cooperation in this period. The PPP and MQM signed the Karachi Declaration after the first Benazir Bhutto government in the late 1980s, but this cooperation did not last. This period is also marked by the rise of the MQM, before its weakening and splintering from 2016 onwards.

Benazir’s assassination, like her father’s execution, left a deep feeling of persecution among Sindhis. The MQM also has a narrative of victimhood. The 18th Amendment is the biggest contribution of the PPP government post-Benazir, for prioritising provincial autonomy, abolishment of the Concurrent List of the Constitution and by shifting 40 subjects from the centre to the provinces.

The PPP and MQM have opposing visions about the local government structure and functions in Sindh, yet there has been some accommodation of each other’s political needs. Sindhi nationalists often portray the PPP as a “sell out” and agent of “Punjabi imperialism”, but in all elections from 1988 to 2013 (barring 1993) the PPP and MQM combined got more than 50 percent of the popular vote in Sindh, being representatives of two large ethnic groups.

In Search of Lost Glory is a valuable addition to political science literature on ethnic studies. Future research can flesh out the aspects of political economy, such as the contestation over development, provincial autonomy, water issues and the local government structure, in more detail. There is also a need to rigorously study the sub-ethnic dynamics within the larger nationalist politics. Until then, this book sets a good precedent to probe the political aspects of the nationalist discourse.

The reviewer is an Islamabad-based social scientist. She can be contacted at fskcolumns@gmail.com

In Search of Lost Glory: Sindhi
Nationalism in Pakistan
By Asma Faiz
Hurst and Co., UK
ISBN: 978-1787383234
277pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 10th, 2021

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