Who is a Sindhi?

 By Bina Shah

 

‘You are not you and I am not I

What are you and what am I?’

I HAVE been reading the poetry of Shaikh Ayaz, who, the writer and critic Asif Farrukhi says, is for Sindh what Garcia Lorca is to Spain, Pablo Neruda is to Latin America, and Nazim Hikmet to Turkey.

As I perused Farrukhi’s excellent translation of Shaikh Ayaz’s work, I came across the couplet which resonated with a question I’ve been asking myself for a long time now: who, exactly, is a Sindhi?

When I was young, the only marker of Sindhi nationality I was aware of was that one had to speak Sindhi. Having grown up in America, I returned to Pakistan still quite young and was always asked by curious relatives: can’t you speak Sindhi? Their shock and horror when I replied in the negative (in English no less) has always stayed with me, and most Sindhis today take it as a point of pride that they should speak, understand, and promote their own language. So at the very basic level, a Sindhi is someone who can speak Sindhi.

Then we come to issues of ancestry and bloodline: if you, your parents, and so on, are natives of the interior of Sindh, then you can count yourself as a Sindhi. This is clear-cut for those of us who have ties to the villages and towns of rural Sindh.

Pakistan is a very tribal society, for all its aspersions to modernity, so it becomes vital to know who your people were a hundred years ago, along with all the accompanying associations, friendships and enmities. Sindhis participate in this mindset with pride, asking each other with gleeful curiosity: what is your caste? I must admit the first time I came across this question I was very confused; because I’d been taught that caste was a marker of the Hindu religion, and as Muslims we had thrown off the shackles of the rigid caste system. I can only look back on this and think how naïve I used to be.

The issue becomes slightly murkier considering that Sindh is a province in which there has always been mass immigration and integration: Balochis and Pathans and Punjabis have settled in Sindh generations back, flowing into the province like the waters of the River Indus, and have put down roots, raised children, been born and lived and died in this province. Their descendants speak better Sindhi than I do: so, can we call these people Sindhis? Some achieve compromise by calling them Sindhi-Pathans, Balochi-Sindhis, and so on, while others are happy to call them Sindhis, seeing that they have integrated into the province, have no problem marrying their children to people in the greater Sindhi community, and have thrown their lot in with the province of Sindh. So far so good. But now we come to the trickiest question of all: what about those people settled in Sindh who can neither speak Sindhi nor have any association with the interior? Are these people Sindhis? Are we unpatriotic to Sindh if we regard them as such? Are we unpatriotic to our country if we don’t?

I don’t wish to stir up any controversy by going into the history of Partition or the racial and ethnic tensions that have torn this province apart since 1947. Nor do I wish any reader to assume that this group consists solely of Mohajirs, because Sindh is made up of a mosaic of Pathans, Afghans, Punjabis, Memons, Parsis, Christians and other ethnic groups who live and thrive in the province but still regard themselves as non-Sindhi (That I regard Karachi as an intrinsic part of Sindh is best left to another column). The question still remains, though: who is a Sindhi?

I received a wonderful letter from Zaheer Kidvai, an immigrant from India whose parents settled in Karachi on deciding that it was the cleanest city in India, and who I have been friends with for over 10 years now. He states: “Just as the personal plural pronoun ‘us’ does not take away from the individuality of its components, ‘you’ and ‘I’, only if the term Sindhi could be broadened to encompass all the people settled in the province — regardless of their origins. A purely ethnic usage of the term (though acceptable in specific contexts) will continue to divide its people and make it easy to exploit the differences by parties only concerned with their own benefits at the cost of a great loss to our province.”

Mr Kidvai’s letter reminds me of the Pledge of Allegiance which all children in America learn to make when they start going to school. It’s an oath of loyalty to the country that goes: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

From the very beginning of their lives, no matter what country their parents or they came from, what colour, religion, or ethnicity they hold, they are taught that their first priority is America. That doesn’t mean that they forget their cultural heritage, or the country of their ancestors, and they are free to celebrate that in any way they choose, as long as it does not impinge upon their loyalty to the country in which they now live.

Perhaps we can learn something from the sentiments of so many people settled in this province, no matter where their parents came from, who wish to live in Sindh in peace and prosperity. In that sense, I would love to see the definition of a Sindhi to be broadened: to encompass all people who live and die in Sindh and work for its betterment. In that case, I would want our oath of allegiance to be the following verse from Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai: ‘Oh God! May ever You on Sindh bestow abundance rare;

Beloved! All the world let share

Thy grace, and fruitful be.’

The writer is a Pakistani novelist.

One thought on “Who is a Sindhi?

  1. The appropriate analogy between current immigrants who impose their own language and culture (including interpretations of religion and values) on Sindhis is that between European immigrants and Native Americans. My experience living in Karachi was that the bulk of the Urdu speakers, like early European immigrants to the Americas, had nothing but contempt for the syncretic Sindhi religious values, Sindhi language.

    I was there during the language riots when 80% of Sindh Assembly voted to restore Sindhi as the official language of Sindh. The Urdii political leaders and newspapers, one and all, egged on the rioters as they attacked Sindhis, their homes and even Sindhi libraries in Hyderabad.

    It was not the first time. In 1948, my mother was in peaceful Karachi when over 1200 Sindhis were murdered and countless raped in pogroms by Urdu speakers, supported by Urdu speaking politicians down from the PM Liaqat Ali, who spoke with contempt about Sindhi culture as the culture of “donkey and camel cart” drivers.

    The contrast in the humanistic behavior of Sindhis who attacked trains in the aftermath of Ms. Bhutto’s assassination could not be starker: while disgusted by Pakistan (chanting the slogan, “We don’t want Pakistan”, and by all the immigrants to Sindh, they not only evacuated the Punjabi and Urdu speakers from the trains before burning, they allowed the aliens to take their luggage, and fed and sheltered them for four days.

    Simply saying everyone should be called Sindhi is meaningless. Being Sindhi represents certain values and culture.. and yes, language is a vehicle for thought encapsulating hundreds of years of cultural history.

    Colonialists impose their own language to destroy native languages by confining their spheres of use, imposing a foreign language through government, schools and the media. The natives’ language suffer infiltration, erosion of grammar and vocabulary, as well as attrition in the number of speakers, until it goes extinct. This is a process well documented by socio-linguists and scientific studies (including Bughio’s PhD thesis) show Sindhi is now undergoing the same downward spiral.

    Simply asserting everyone living in Sindh should be called Sindhi is as meaningless as saying everyone in Hawaii should be considered native Hawaiian.

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