From the communes of Jhok

In rural Sindh, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

As a second-generation immigrant from an Urdu-speaking family based in Karachi, I thought that we had left our caste shackles behind when we left rural Bihar, first for Calcutta and Dhaka and then Karachi. I also mistakenly believed that caste was an issue only among Hindus. Rural Sindh proved me wrong, though, where the first question that one typically gets asked is about one's caste – the answer to which can immediately define your social, political, economic and even spiritual standing.

The first few times I was asked about my caste, I was perplexed. Then I decided to try an experiment. At one house in a village near Mirpur Bathoro, in Thatta district a few hours' drive northeast of Karachi, one of the children had proudly announced that he knew Urdu, and was thus promptly put to work as a translator between myself and the women of the household. 'Ask her about her caste,' said one of the matriarchs in her 50s. 'I'm a Bheel,' I lied, and my response was promptly relayed to the rest of the room. The children looked on, their mouths little O's of shock, while some of the women gasped audibly. Bheels are scheduled-caste Hindus, while my hosts were Muslims. The difference was so real that it felt a living, breathing creature, which had suddenly sucked the warmth out of the room.

This infatuation with caste pervades rural Sindh as a whole, and is not restricted to any particular social or economic stratum. Once, I stayed in Thatta city with the wife of a local political leader. She was a quiet, urbane woman in her mid-20s; a schoolteacher by profession, who spoke perfect Urdu, watched Bollywood movies and loved soap operas. But after 20 minutes of talking about inflation and the prices of meat and vegetables came the inevitable question: my caste. Her reaction to my response ('I'm Jatoi') was dramatically different from the reaction I got when I told the other family that I was Bheel. Many Jatois are, after all, large landowners, and are considered a privileged caste – and they're Muslim. If I had really wanted the woman to swoon, I could have told her that I was a Syed – a direct descendent of Muhammad, and a caste held in extremely high esteem in rural Sindh.

Despite the seeming deep-rootedness of caste shackles, as economics takes over rural customs, barriers of caste are wearing thin. Some say that they are still not thin enough though, because Dalits continue to be relegated to the lowest social rung. But more often though, today it is one's social standing within a caste that defines one's level of privilege. Not all Bhuttos, for instance, can afford mansions in Surrey or send their children to Oxford and Harvard. Similarly, not all Jatois are large-scale landowners, and many men from these clans take on menial jobs outside the biraderi in order to supplement earnings from moderate landholdings.

An example is a truck driver who once decided to regale me with stories of his wife, his job and life in general. 'Usually, we use this truck to transport flowers from Hyderabad to Teen-Hatti in Karachi,' he said. 'We're given two hours to complete the entire journey, because flowers wilt fast – and if they have drooped by the time we arrive not only are we not paid for the journey, we have to actually pay for the flowers.' He continued: 'I can't afford to pay these fines, so I drive as fast as I can.'

Then he asked me why Haider Bux Jatoi's picture adorned posters on a nearby wall. I told him that Haider Bux was the founder of the contemporary peasant movement of Sindh; he was the head of the Sindh Hari Committee and was considered Baba-e-Sindh, the father of Sindh. 'I'm a Jatoi too,' the driver said. 'Haider Bux Jatoi was a zamindar in our village. How can a landowner fight for the rights of the haris [landless peasants]?' We spoke about the concept of class traitors, who give up the interests of their own class to fight for the working class. 'But Haider Bux Jatoi's children and his relatives don't fight for haris,' the driver said. 'Haider Bux must have been a great man to fight on our behalf.'

As such, while caste once defined profession, it has now largely been relegated to identifying one's clan and that clan's overall standing in society. In this way, rural Sindh, with a largely agrarian economy, has become an interesting amalgamation – that of a semi-feudal, semi-tribal society on its way to industrialisation. In order to ensure a smooth transition towards both industrialisation and a more efficient agrarian economy, however, the government needs to pay close attention to the needs of the tillers, instead of focusing merely on feudal and tribal chieftains whose influence lands them close to the corridors of power.

Blessed zamindar
Today, much of the agricultural heartland of Sindh has been destroyed by the floods that ravaged the province since early August. While the water has begun to recede slowly, some if it is entering minor rivers and tributaries, causing massive overflows in the surrounding region, forcing more areas to be evacuated every day. Millions in the province, which was the hardest hit by the floods of 2010, have been rendered homeless; yet even as those who can slowly trickle back to their homes, the government will need to make massive investments in cleaning out agricultural land and making it arable in time for the autumn wheat planting. Moreover, writing off taxes for landowners in the aftermath of the floods is not nearly enough in a province where most agricultural work is done by sharecroppers, tenant farmers or bonded peasants. Decisions to write-off taxes might provide relief to large landowners, but this is not going to trickle down to those who actually work the fields.

In writing about strawberry farming in the US, journalist Eric Schlosser refers to historian Cletus E Daniel's use of the term 'the search for a peasantry' to depict the initial phase of large-scale agriculture in California. In Sindh today, much like Daniel's descriptions, monopolistic patterns of land ownership established under colonial rule ensure that hired farm workers can almost never be socially mobile; and where the landowning class itself is loathe to perform manual labour, the only way to acquire workers is by force and subjugation. Problems also arise with the unequal distribution of agricultural produce: those who own land and resources (and even labour, in the case of bonded workers) take the lion's share of such produce, leaving the tillers to scrape by on whatever is left. Although Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did make attempts at land reform, these were thwarted by none other than the Federal Shariat Court – a parallel, president-appointed oversight body. The judges stated that Bhutto's moves were 'un-Islamic', and that Islam gives citizens the right to own private property, including land, without hindrance.

Eventually, however, the time comes when those enslaved realise that they are being wronged, and decide to act to try to change the situation. In the history of Sindh such times have come at least thrice, but it all started during the 18th century. At that time, a Railways Workers Union leader named Qazi Naimatullah once told me, a Sufi saint by the name of Shah Inayat Shaheed came up with a slogan, 'Jeko kherey, so khaey' (The tiller has the right to the produce). This led to the establishment of what came to be known as the Jhok communes – 'long before the French communes were even an idea,' Naimatullah smiled.

The eminent historian Ahmad Salim has expanded a bit more on Shah Inayat's famous slogan. According to Salim, Shah Inayat attempted to convert the feudal set-up at the time into an egalitarian agrarian society by declaring first that land belonged to god, and that its produce belonged to the tiller. His popularity peaked when he distributed his family's land (and land granted by the rulers to his dargah in Miranpur, later called Jhok Sharif) among landless peasants without seeking any compensation or share in the yield. Poor and maltreated peasants subsequently left the lands of other landlords in droves to work on Shah Inayat's communes, and the population of Miranpur increased.

Seeing this as a major threat to the status quo, the neighbouring landlords, the Sayyeds, and the Kalhora rulers of the area hatched a conspiracy, in connivance with local religious leaders. Shah Inayat and his disciples were labelled infidels, and a message was sent to the Mughal king, Farrukh Ser, alleging that Shah Inayat was planning a revolt against him. King Farrukh ordered a crackdown, and Miranpur was besieged for several months even as the peasants gave stiff resistance. Finally, a copy of the Quran was sent to Shah Inayat as an assurance of his safety and he was asked to come to the rulers' chambers for negotiation. When Shah Inayat reached the chambers, however, he was arrested, charged with treason. He was put to death by beheading.

Standing up to the wadera
Several thousand of the 'Socialist Sufi's' followers were martyred in the battle of Miranpur, and all those killed, regardless of religion, were buried at Shah Inayat's shrine in Jhok Sharif. The mausoleum itself is awe-inspiring in its simplicity, where a curious calm pervades. During a visit in February 2009, I saw almost equal numbers of Hindus and Muslims come to pay homage to Shah Inayat. Much to my surprise, no one – not even the caretakers of the mausoleum – asked me to cover my head when I entered. Inside, I was introduced to a few peasant women, part of a group of around 50 people who had walked 25 kilometres to Jhok Sharif from their village. Only one of them, 25-year-old Shambu Kohli, spoke some Urdu and thus told me his story.

Today, the people of Shambu's tribe beg for a living, though for 20 years they were bonded to their wadera (landowner), a man named Leghari. Two years earlier, they had mobilised against their landlord and, afraid of legal action, Leghari had told them that they were 'free to go'. Shambu and his relatives, however, made history: instead of fleeing to a refugee camp like other 'freed' agriculture labourers had done before them, they stayed put and demanded that they be paid for the labour of two decades on Leghari's lands.

Shambu said that the 80-year-old Leghari tried to scare them, by lodging [allegedly] false FIRs at the local police station against many of Shambu's male relatives. Low-caste Hindus, at the lowest possible rung of the social ladder, the Kohlis cut a helpless figure, but nonetheless decided to fight back. They sought the services of a lawyer, and proceeded to sue Leghari for violating the Abolition of Bonded Labour Act of 1992. While legal proceedings were still underway at the time, Shambu and his family were hopeful that their actions would give strength to others who had been similarly enslaved and later told to 'get lost' without payment. Thus, Shah Inayat's slogan has endured for almost three centuries – continuing even today to drive peasant movements in Sindh, for the simple reason that modes of production here have yet to change substantially.

Land-and-labour laws, such as the Bonded Labour Abolition Act of 1992 and the Sindh Tenancy Act of 1950, mean little without proper implementation. But this is not possible as long as landholdings – and, with them, the political and social influence of landowners – continue to go unchecked. Revisions to the Tenancy Act have been pending for more than a year, while Sindh Assembly Deputy Speaker Shehla Raza has promised thousands of landless peasants who had marched to Karachi that the amendments suggested by them would be incorporated soon. A committee was formed to formulate the legal aspects of the amendments; a verdict was passed, approving these amendments, but since then, things seem to have come to a standstill. The first Sindh Tenancy Act was approved when 15,000 landless peasants, under Haider Bux Jatoi's Sindh Hari Committee besieged the Sindh Assembly in Karachi, forcing the parliamentarians' hands. It would be advisable for those in power at the moment to not force a repetition of the siege of 1950.

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