I HAVE been reading Alice Albinia’s excellent Empires of the Indus, which is compelling although she veers too often from a balanced, objective view of Pakistan’s history and culture into the worst of wide-eyed European orientalism.
Chapter One, ‘Ramzan in Karachi’, takes an unflinching look at the position of lower-caste Hindus in Karachi, consigned to clean our sewers and toilets for what seems like all of eternity. Albinia’s judgment of this social class system is severe, and asks an unspoken question: why don’t we feel like cleaning out our own muck, literally as well as figuratively?
Even more compelling was Albinia’s description of what happened after Partition to many of the Hindus in the city. After Muslim refugees stoned and set a Sikh temple on fire in retaliation for violence visited on Muslims in the Punjab riots, spontaneous rioting erupted all throughout the city.
“Hindus — hitherto secure in their homes and mixed-faith neighbourhoods — now took refuge in their temples…. Sindh had been championed as a paradigm of inter-faith harmony. Following the riots, the government estimated that three thousand Hindus a day were taking their belongings down to the docks, and purchasing a passage to India.”
The riots were not as bad as those in Punjab, Bengal or Uttar Pradesh, but Sindhi Hindus saw the signs and many took the decision to leave before things got any worse for them.
Sindhi friends in London tell me that the exodus from Sindh did not occur overnight; many Sindhi Hindu businessmen had emigrated for economic reasons to Hong Kong, Africa, Bombay, long before Partition. Those who left sold their houses for reasonable prices, others stayed on through the 1950s and 60s, leaving only when Zia arrived on the scene. Their migration was to North America rather than India. Not all in Sindh were sorry to see the Hindus go, as exploitative Hindu moneylenders were thought to have a stranglehold on Sindh’s economy. But there was plenty of sympathy for most of the emigres, and Muslims could be seen helping their poor Hindu neighbours load up camel carts with meagre luggage before setting off for India.
After “Sindh’s famously rich and ‘venturesome’ Hindu mercantile class left for India”, where did they go? How did they rebuild their lives after leaving Sindh? How are they keeping in touch with their Sindhi culture and traditions, and how are forthcoming generations going to do the same? And finally, what do they think of Sindh today, as it exists in Pakistan?
Dr Shivkumar Israni, a Sindhi Hindu living in Mumbai, wrote to me, “We are no more connected to the land of our forefathers; some of us who were born there and are still alive today, for them also Sindh is but a fading album of black and white pictures that has the capacity to bring tears to the eyes.”
This is a familiar lament from any population that has been dispossessed and forced out of its homeland, which has led to the creation of art, music and poetry that expresses the soul’s desire to go back. Even Benazir Bhutto wrote poetry inspired by Shah Abdul Latif’s tale of Marvi when she lived in exile, away from the land that nurtured her and in which she is now buried; perhaps she could have identified with Sindhi Hindus similarly cut off from the land of Sindhu.
According to Lavina Melwani in an article for Hinduism Today, the Hindu Sindhis are “a people who overcame adversity to become one of the most affluent communities in India, and perhaps the world. Disclosed and traumatized by the partition of India in which their beloved homeland of Sindh was swallowed up in the newly created Islamic country of Pakistan, the Hindu Sindhis were turned into world-wandering refugees. They fled with their lives and just a few belongings from the bloodshed and religious persecution. With few resources beyond guts and creativity they sailed to the far corners of the world, to seek their fortunes.”
The Sindhi Hindus made it their business to survive, and relied on their sharp business instincts and trading skills to truly thrive wherever they went. And money isn’t the only thing on their minds: they have established schools, temples, institutes of Sindhology, magazines and newspapers, all in the name of preserving the culture that they left behind in 1947.
They hold cultural programmes, celebrate their births and marriages with the traditional Sindhi-Hindu rites, and engage in philanthropy unrivalled by any other South Asian expatriate community. They worry that their children won’t be able to speak Sindhi; they worry about the plight of their Hindu brothers left behind in Sindh, subject to discrimination and insecurity as minorities in a land that is growing more strictly Muslim day by day. And they worry about Sindh itself, which they see as suffering greatly under leader after leader, regime after regime, none of whom care much for the fortunes of Sindh or the Sindhis.
There is resentment about the loss these Sindhis had to endure, and their feelings towards Pakistan are not exactly friendly or forgiving. They see Sindh as an endangered land, oppressed by ethnic forces that are alien to the culture that spawned the civilisation of Moenjodaro and the Indus Valley. Their websites are full of anti-Pakistan rhetoric; they accuse the government of erasing the pre-Muslim parts of Sindhi history from the textbooks.
The bitterness felt by those who left Pakistan in 1947 is felt by their sons and daughters and will be felt by future generations, who have no good memories of living in Sindh to counteract the anger they feel at having had to give up their heritage and start all over again in India and elsewhere. Many Hindus who migrated to India immediately joined Hindu nationalist parties like the RSS — L.K. Advani being the most well-known example.
Rather than glean all my information from the Internet and books, I wanted to speak to members of the Sindhi Hindu community in other parts of the world for their views. I was given the name of a prominent Sindhi Hindu businessman, and I wrote to him with this aim in mind, asking him to write back soon so that I could include his views in this column. He never replied. Perhaps he was busy, or perhaps he never received my email. Still, I can’t help but think that his silence is symbolic of the vast gulf that lies between the Sindhis in Sindh and the Sindhi Hindus abroad.
Will anyone ever be able to bridge that gap? Or have all the bridges between the Sindhi Hindus and Sindh been burnt forever?
The writer is a novelist.