Last week newspapers reported a series of bomb attacks on railway tracks in the Sindh province. The attacks were owned by an obscure organisation called the Sindhudesh Liberation Front. The name took a lot of non-Sindhis by surprise. Why would there be an angry Sindhi movement when there have already been two Sindhi prime ministers and, what’s more, a Sindhi president is currently at the helm of the federation?
However, according to Sindhi nationalists, the original architect of Sindhi nationalism, the late G M Syed, is back in vogue amongst the new generation of Sindhi nationalists. Back in the 1960s, G M Syed, an accomplished scholar and politician, painstakingly constructed an elaborate historical narrative of Sindh and its people. It presented Sindh as an ancient land whose people have always been one of the most pluralistic and secular under both Hindu as well as Muslim rule.
The narrative goes on to suggest that during the long Muslim rule in the region, Sindh's pluralistic tradition was carried on by a number of Muslim mystics (Sufi saints) and have continued to demonstrate a passionate attachment to these mystics. Syed's narratives on Sindh may now have become common knowledge to most Pakistanis, but this was not always the case.
In fact, just like Pashtun nationalist, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and many Baloch nationalist thinkers, Syed too was constantly put on the spot by the state for preaching 'unpatriotic' and 'anti-Islam' ideas. Syed was a magnet for all sorts of ironies. During the Pakistan Movement he steadfastly stood with Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. But soon after independence, he became one of the first prominent men to decry the hegemony of the 'Punjab-dominated elite' over other provinces.
Another irony that Syed could never reconcile his politics with was the Bhutto phenomenon. Z A Bhutto, a Sindhi, and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), experienced a sudden, meteoric rise (in the late 1960s) when Syed's narrative had begun to take hold among Sindhi youth. Syed did not applaud Bhutto's rise in spite of the fact that Bhutto was a Sindhi and a declared progressive.
Bhutto's leftist but nationalistic rhetoric did not sit well with Syed. To Syed if one brushed off Bhutto's leftist notions from the surface, underneath was a man willfully doing the bidding for the 'Punjabi ruling elite’. Syed's analysis had deemed Pakistan to be a state that was destined to fragment. And just like his Baloch, Pashtun and Bengali nationalist contemporaries, Syed too blamed the myopic view of the ruling elite for this.
He accused the civil and military members of the elite for undermining the cultural histories and traditions of the many ethnicities that resided in Pakistan. He accused them of undemocratically imposing upon the 'oppressed ethnicities' a cosmetic version of nationhood. Syed's suspicion of Bhutto turned hostile when Bhutto used a constitutional process to reinforce the kind of nationhood and faith Syed had accused the establishment of imposing.
To Bhutto it was the dictatorial way that this concept of nationhood had been imposed that made East Pakistan break away and repulsed the non-Punjabi ethnicities. Syed disagreed. To him Bhutto was merely giving 'Punjabi hegemony' a constitutional sheen. In 1973 he finally called for an independent Sindh (Sindhudesh).
In April 1979 when, through a sham trial, the Ziaul Haq dictatorship sent Bhutto to the gallows, Syed termed Bhutto's tragic demise as a great loss to the establishment. Mocking the establishment's arrogance Syed remarked 'today they (the establishment) have killed their own, best man.'
With Bhutto out of the way and a reactionary Punjabi general ruling the roost, did Syed finally make Sindhis rise for Sindhudesh?
No. Even though Sindhis did rise, especially during the 1983 MRD movement in which hundreds were killed and whole villages were razed to the ground by army tanks, Syed did not support the uprising.
This time another Bhutto had appeared, Benazir. To Syed here was another popular Sindhi who was willing to clean up yet another mess created by the establishment so the federation could be saved; a federation Syed had no hope in. Recently a young Sindhi (and PPP voter) told me that the 'establishment' has started playing a game in Sindh which even the PPP won't be able to check.
On further inquiry he explained that some sections of the intelligence agencies believe that they can subdue Sindhi nationalism the way they did Pashtun nationalism and the way they are trying to suppress Baloch nationalism, i.e. by crudely injecting a puritanical strain of Islam into what are almost entirely secular nationalisms.
'Look what has happened in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa', said the young Sindhi. 'Look how sectarian organisations are roaming freely in Balochistan. They (the 'agencies') are now helping fanatics to build madressas in Sindh as well so that Syed Sain's legacy and those of the Sufis in Sindh can be replaced by mullahs and extremists’. Or in other words, by those who are ideological and political 'allies of the military-establishment’.
To the young Sindhi, Syed’s Sindhudesh Liberation Movement was a reaction to this.