Besieged by unending issues, yet aspiring to build a ‘New Pakistan’, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did not have a smooth sailing from the very beginning. Even provincial matters that should not have stretched beyond provincial barriers drew him into difficult positions — sometimes embarrassing for his political agenda. This may have been due to centralisation of powers and lack of coordination among various departments. Yet, it dragged Bhutto into several unwanted wrangles.
In July 1972, Sindh — one of the two bastions of PPP — saw a difficult and tragic situation, in the shape of language riots that set Sindh ablaze. The frenzy claimed hundreds of innocent lives, destroyed property worth millions of rupees and created hatred that had never been seen in the history of Sindh for thousands of years.
In the historical backdrop this was very painful in a land of love, peace and hope. After Independence, hundreds of thousands of refugees migrated to Sindh who were not only welcomed here but were also given everything that the uprooted needed. New settlements sprung up, and social services were provided by the government and the people alike. New political and social groups emerged to help the deprived people without discriminating on the basis of cultural or linguistic backgrounds.
For long Sindh had remained a centre of culture and languages. After 1852 the English administration made Sindhi an official language; however, for official correspondence, as it happens today, English was used. The promotions of English officers were linked to the passing of an exam in Sindhi language. This did not hamper the use and promotion of other languages. There are a number of Sindhi poets who composed poetry in Urdu much before Independence. Even the great poet Sachal Sarmast (1739-1829) composed poetry in Urdu, as well as a large number of such scholars in the recent past. Scholars Pir Hussamudin Rashdi and Syed Suleman Nadvi claim that Sindh is the birthplace of Urdu.
After the establishment of provincial government in Sindh, like in other provinces in April 1972, and the passage of the interim constitution, Mumtaz Bhutto was made in charge minister (equivalent to chief minister). Some members moved a bill in Sindh Assembly titled “The Sind Teaching, Promotion and Use of Sindhi Language Bill, 1972” on July 3, 1972, which said:
“Whereas Article 267 of the Interim Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan provides that without prejudice to the status of national languages, provincial legislature may, by law, prescribe measures for teaching, promotion and the use of a provincial language in addition to a national language.”
The bill’s paragraph titled “Statement of objects and reasons” concludes with the sentence: “… This would naturally be without prejudice to the use of Urdu.”
The bill was passed by the Sindh Assembly on July 7, 1972, with 50 votes in a House of 62, assented by the Sindh Governor on July 16, 1972, making it an Act.
President Bhutto, who had returned from Simla where he had gone for negotiations with India for the return of over 93,000 POWs and occupied land, was taken aback when he got the news of the violence that had taken over the whole province. A newspaper from Karachi had displayed the news item as its first lead story covering the whole front page with a thick black rule all around on which in white it was repeatedly written Urdu ka janaza hai zara dhoom se nikle (It is the funeral of Urdu thus should be a flaunting one).
As the newspaper reached the hands of readers, miscreants played with the emotions of the people, attacked every house they wished, torched transport vehicles and killed innocent people wherever they could. Karachi being the biggest city saw great loss but worst hit were Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas, Nawabshah, Larkana, Sukkur where bloodthirsty elements hacked those people who were in search of shelter. It became so ghastly that a large number of people had to shift to other places for safety, and whosoever did not have any shelter had to stay at railway stations — in sheer fear and disgust. Saner elements were calling for peace, but everybody seemed helpless to stop the violence. It appeared that the government was unable to bring back normality. No political leader could gather enough courage to restore peace. All the lessons of brotherhood and fraternity were torn apart.
In Hyderabad and other towns army assistance was sought; curfew was clamped but whenever it was relaxed anarchy returned. Arsonists, looters and barbarians would turn their eyes on innocent people without any mercy. For many days it appeared as if the people were held hostage at the hands of a handful of killers and looters. Even the outstation bus passengers were not spared. It was the most callous period one could witness. The birth of new towns of Qasimabad, Nasimnagar, Bhitaibad, Sajjadnagar in the suburbs of Hyderabad, and similar in Karachi is the outcome of that tragic violence.