It is believed that Sindh, since it’s always been ‘the land of Sufis’, has shown the most resilience to the advent of various events over the decades that have turned Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa into becoming hotbeds of radical, exhibitionistic Islam. This is a very convincing thesis and if one travels across this province one cannot but help notice rather earthly, folk strains of liberalism among the majority of its people.
Yes, but whereas we are told that this is due to Sindh’s tolerant, Sufi past, very few remember that this historical narrative (about Sindhi history and culture) was not exactly constructed hundreds of years ago. Instead, this narrative, that today has kept much of Sindh at bay from puritan forms of the faith, was actually built by a controversial man who was also labelled by the establishment and the religious parties as a ‘traitor’. His name was G M Syed.
In the late 1950s, Syed was a leading part of the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP), a political expression of Sindhi, Baloch, Pashtun and Bengali nationalists opposed to the conservative West Pakistan dominated ruling elite. NAP was banned by the Ayub Khan dictatorship in 1959, and till its revival in 1962, Syed decided to lead a cultural Sindhi nationalist movement. In 1966 when he was released from jail, he did not rejoin NAP and instead formed a cultural organisation called Bazm-i-Sufia-i-Sindh.
The Bazm also boasted some other famous Sindhi scholars, who set out to create an elaborate historical, intellectual and political narrative of Sindhi culture and history, presenting it as distinct, yet based on pluralistic values. This definition ran counter to what had officially been propagated by Pakistan’s military-civilian elite as ‘Pakistani culture’.
The Bazm also tried to prove that the Islam practised by Sindhis was very different from the version that was being ‘enforced by the Pakistani state and the ruling elite’. Bazm scholars maintained that Sindh had always been the land of mystics (Sufis) and Sindhis have had a history of being extremely tolerant of Hindus and other faiths. The Bazm and Syed were clearly proposing that Sindh and the Sindhis could not be integrated by the state of Pakistan due to the stark cultural differences that they had with what became known as ‘Pakistan ideology’ (a term first used by the Jamat-i-Islami in 1967).
The Bazm went a step further when it published a controversial study in late 1966 which stated that Raja Dahir (the 8th century Hindu ruler of pre-Islamic Sindh) was actually a hero to many Sindhis and that Muhammad bin Qasim (the Arab Muslim commander who defeated Dahir and conquered Sindh) was regarded as a usurper. The ruling establishment (being dominated at the time by the Ayub led military regime) and the religious parties at once denounced Syed and the Bazm as traitors.
But this did not stop Syed. He asked the Bazm to create a student wing, the Sindhi Students Cultural Council, that held seminars and lectures across Sindh and imparted the Bazm’s radically revisionist history of Sindh amongst young Sindhis. At the start of the students and workers movement against the Ayub dictatorship in late 1967, the Bazm become part of the Sindh United Front (SUF) — an organisation of Sindhi nationalists that wanted to step in and play their role in the movement. Syed wanted to use the chaos resulting from the movement to bid for Sindh’s separation from Pakistan.
But since by 1968 the movement was revolving around Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (a Sindhi) and his Pakistan People’s Party, G M Syed advised the SUF to incorporate in its ranks those who were not only against Ayub but also against Bhutto. Syed feared that Bhutto would become the biggest hindrance to Sindhi separatism. He was right. Though the Bazm withered away in the early 1970s, its works and ideas have continued to inspire various Sindhi nationalist organisations and the youth.
It is ironic that from 1972 under Bhutto’s rule, his regime heavily borrowed the more moderate aspects of Syed and the Bazm’s Sindhi nationalist thesis and it was during Bhutto’s regime (1972-77) that Sindh began being (officially) called the ‘land of Sufis.’
In another twist of irony, not only is it still called that in Pakistan’s history text books, but is accepted as that by none other than Altaf Hussain’s Mohajir-centric, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and many Punjabi politicians. Also, it is this (once denounced) narrative and its widespread proliferation across the decades in Sindh that has kept the province relatively safe from the kind of puritan radicalisation that Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkha have been witnessing ever since the Zia dictatorship, from the 1980s onwards.
One is not sure what the Sindhis thought about Dahir or Qasim before the 1960s, but it is true that ever since the 1970s, Muhammad Bin Qasim is not so hot as a historical entity in Sindh as he is elsewhere in Pakistan — a fact that, for example, greatly tormented the pro-Jamat-i-Islami ‘historical novelist’ Naseem Hijazi, who had spend a good part of his career turning various Arab commanders into pious supermen.