jaisalmer - thar desert - india ; Flickr / nevil zaveri
jaisalmer - thar desert - india ; Flickr / nevil zaveri

Partition on the sand

A new book on the people of Banni, a desert region in a corner of Gujarat, examines them as a distinct cultural unit.
jaisalmer – thar desert – india ; Flickr / nevil zaveri
jaisalmer – thar desert – india ; Flickr / nevil zaveri
Memories and Movements: Borders and Communities in Banni, Kutch, Gujarat
Rita Kothari
Orient Black Swan, 2013
In late January 2014, Nido Taniam, a young college student from Arunachal Pradesh, was beaten to death in Delhi for protesting against racism. Unfortunately, his death only served to highlight the brutal discrimination faced by many people from India's Northeast who live outside their home states. Communities living on the periphery – literally and metaphorically – of mainstream Indian society often find that there is no cultural space for their 'differentness'. In this context, Rita Kothari's Memories and Movements: Borders and Communities in Banni, Kutch, Gujarat makes a valuable contribution to our ongoing understanding of the numerous regions and peoples that together make up the mosaic that is India.
Memories and Movements is the story of Banni, a desert region in the northwestern corner of India, and its peoples. Once made up of grassy pastures but now mostly an arid desert, Banni lies on the Indo-Pak border, to the west of Kutch – the largest district of Gujarat. If Kutch is culturally distinct from Gujarat, Banni is also, in many respects, very different from the rest of Kutch. This is one place that Kothari's work departs from the conventional, interrupting the idea of Gujarat as a "linguistically, culturally and politically cohesive territory with bounded citizenship." The Sindhi-speaking communities inhabiting Banni are several: Muslim maaldharis or semi-nomadic herdsmen; the Dalit Meghwals; and the Wadhas, an even more marginalised community, who have lived for centuries on the edges of both Hinduism and Islam. These communities are different from the "urban, modernizing, entrepreneurial drive" of predominantly Hindu Gujarat in several respects. They are pastoral and semi-nomadic Muslim and Dalit communities that claim greater cultural sustenance from Sindh, now in the 'enemy country' Pakistan, than from their 'home state' of Gujarat.
Paradoxical region
An anthropological study of Banni and its peoples, Memories and Movements has been crafted out of Kothari's interviews and interactions with its peoples over several years, as well as primary and secondary literature in English, Hindi, Gujarati and Sindhi. Kothari's work introduces the reader to a different way of looking at this region: not as a part of the larger state of Gujarat, but as a cultural extension of what could possibly be termed the Thar Desert region, including the Rann of Kutch and Banni. Although the desert is conventionally viewed as a 'natural' border area in both India and Pakistan, or even an empty 'wasteland', the Thar Desert – covering parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan in India, and Sindh and Punjab in Pakistan – is a cultural region in and of itself. As Kothari points out:
Among the regions of Kutch, Saurashtra, Rajasthan (in western India) and Sindh (in Pakistan), there exists a civilizational unity that expresses itself in several ways, one of which is language. This shared culture precedes and supersedes the formation of the international boundary between India and Pakistan, as well as the subsequent linguistic division between Rajasthan and Gujarat.
The Thari culture expresses itself in myriad ways, from textiles, embroideries and leatherwork; to specific architectural styles (bhungas, or round mud huts); to languages such as Sindhi, Kutchi, Thari, Saraiki which blend into each other. This region has been the site of movements of peoples from one part of the Thar Desert to another who retain collective memories of these migrations. The Sindhi Muslims of Banni trace their ancestry to Sindh, while the Meghwals claim to have migrated from Rajasthan. Similarly, the Tharparkar district of Sindh in Pakistan is also home to Muslim Wadhas and other communities, who claim antecedents from the Indian side of the border.

Although the desert is conventionally viewed as a 'natural' border area in both India and Pakistan, or even an empty 'wasteland', the Thar Desert – covering parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan in India, and Sindh and Punjab in Pakistan – is a cultural region in and of itself.

The region is replete with paradoxes. Kothari shows us how Muslims, who are otherwise peripheral in Hindu-dominated Gujarat, are the leaders of Banni society. The area is devoid of upper-caste Hindus, but the Muslims practice social discrimination against the 'untouchable' Meghwals. In turn, the Meghwals, as well as the Muslims, maintain their distance from the Wadhas, who are at the very bottom of Banni's social hierarchy. The latter community, with a cultural heritage that is both Hindu and Muslim, has of late been seeking a more homogenous religious identity, with some converting to Islam and others to Hinduism.
Focusing on the border region, Memories and Movements explores several dimensions of citizenship: the local communities' cultural affiliation with Sindh, just across the border; the fact that they are proscribed from owning the land on which they have lived for centuries, as it has been classified 'protected forest' land; and the history of their travels to Sindh. For centuries, the pastoral communities of Banni have travelled back and forth from Sindh, connected by strong family, trade and religious ties. Moreover, these communities have historically shared grazing pastures in present-day India and Pakistan with their counterparts across the border. Since the primary language of these Muslim communities is Sindhi, they constantly refer to Sindh – and especially the idea of Sindh – as the source of their asli shafaqat, their original culture. Interestingly, in contrast to their present-day idealised, constructed imagination of Sindh, Kothari touches upon their relationship with the reality of Sindh, a land that these Indian Muslims perceive as backward and lacking in security and freedom. Kothari's critical and nuanced approach opens the door for the interrogation of many categories generally taken for granted, such as nationality, caste, religion and language.
The free flow of travel between Banni and Sindh was brought to a rude halt in 1965. With the demarcation of the Indo-Pak border in this area, the natural movement of the people to and from Sindh was disrupted, severing them from their relatives, as well as restricting trade and the access to grazing lands. Adding a critical new dimension to Partition violence and migration, Kothari observes that the structural violence of Partition and the creation of the border manifested here not in migration, as happened elsewhere in the Subcontinent, but in the limitations placed on the movements of the people of Banni.
Throughout Kothari's book, and through many of her conversations and interviews, there are references to Sindh. Almost all Sindhi Muslim communities of Banni having origins in Sindh, many of Kothari's Banni respondents have friends and family in Pakistan; the same seems to apply to the communities of the Tharparkar region of Sindh who have friends and relatives on the Banni side. There too live Sammas and Soomras, Meghwals and Jats, semi-nomadic pastoral communities, separated from their kith and kin in India. Sindhi is spoken on both sides and the verses of Shah Latif sung, too. The reader might note the absence of voices in Kothari's book from across the border in Pakistan, but this has to do with India-Pakistan relations which make it difficult for a researcher to study the people of a cross-border region as a whole.

The free flow of travel between Banni and Sindh was brought to a rude halt in 1965. With the demarcation of the Indo-Pak border in this area, the natural movement of the people to and from Sindh was disrupted, severing them from their relatives, as well as restricting trade and the access to grazing lands.

One of the consequences of the Partition of India has also been the partition of research. As Md. Mahbubar Rahman and Willem Van Schendel observe, "[…] another academic gap has hampered the development of new insights. This is the partitioning of academic communities between the study of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh." The 'partitioning of academic communities' has made it difficult, if not impossible at times, for most Southasians to study peoples and regions across the border. Unfortunately, this is also true in the case of the peoples of Banni and the Thar.
Pervasive discriminations
The Gujarat state administration's blindness to the specific needs of Banni is reflected in the Gujarati-medium schools which have been set up in this area. Gujarati being an alien language for the locals, they mostly shun these schools and opt instead for privately-run madrasas where the children are taught the Quran as well as other subjects in Sindhi. However, the presence of these madrasas (mostly run by the Ahl-i-Hadis sect) and their leaning towards a rightwing variety of Islam has also resulted in a change in religiosity in this region, with a corresponding decline in Sufism. It remains to be seen what direction this hardening of religion takes in the coming years.
The pervasive nature of the caste system in the Subcontinent continues to affect even those marginalised castes that have, over the centuries, chosen to convert to other religions, such as Islam or Christianity. The Sindhi Muslim pastoralists of Banni practice untouchability and other forms of social discrimination against their Dalit Meghwal neighbours. Although Kothari depicts the social discrimination meted out to the Meghwals by the Muslims as unique, their situation is akin to the Muslim 'castes' of Uttar Pradesh and the Christian 'castes' of Kerala, which technically lie outside of the Hindu caste system, but retain hierarchies of sub-communities, with their internal prejudices and inequities.
Kothari describes how, over the last few decades, the Meghwals' urge to shun the stigmatised practice of skinning dead animals, their effort to escape social exclusion and discrimination, and their desire for upward mobility (in the form of education, better houses, televisions, cell phones and so on) have all meant that they have been more open to change than the local Sindhi Muslims. They have been far ahead of the latter in their shrewd harnessing of tourist markets, and have begun to economically overtake the Sindhi Muslims. Like other communities and castes relatively lower in the caste hierarchy who seek upward mobility and greater acceptance in mainstream Hindu society, the Meghwals are undergoing Sanskritisation and a corresponding shedding of Islamic practices. To a certain extent, the recent improvement in their economic status has translated into a change in their social status.
Turning her attention to the women of Banni, Kothari delves into their secluded world, exploring the concepts of parhez (abstinence/temperance), and gairat (contact with outsiders). Although the women are not in purdah, and do not veil themselves in front of their male relatives, they are shielded from the eyes of outsiders. Restrictions have been placed upon their personal gaze as well, as they are prohibited from watching television or using cell phones. As Kothari puts it, "women are rendered invisible, except through their embroidery". Although it is their labour that produces the embroidery that Kutch is famous for, more often than not, the women have little say in disposal of the income this industry generates. Another effect of Partition on this community has been the denial of access to certain textiles, traditionally used for embroidery, from across the border.
The chapter on the women of Banni is rather slender and could have done with greater detail. Kothari suggests that Muslim women in Banni are "beyond the access of ethnographers". It is true that gaining direct access to the lives of Muslim women – a world often cloistered and carefully guarded – is often difficult compared to interviewing or researching other communities and groups. However, the works of Lila Abu-Lughod, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and other researchers writing on Muslim women have shown that this is not impossible, whether or not the researcher is viewed as an outsider. Another example is Michael Hardy (quoted by Kothari), who has researched the Mutwa women of Banni.
In Kothari's words, "while the Muslims occupy Banni's social ground, and the Meghwals its economic sphere, the Wadhas are left out of all processes of change". The Wadhas, carpenters by traditional occupation, are a liminal group, simultaneously Hindu and Muslim. At the very bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid, and owing to their traditional closeness to the jungle and their practice of eating the meat of any animal (lizards, jackals, dogs, etc), they are socially ostracised in Banni. Ironically, this discrimination comes even from the Meghwals, themselves Dalits who are in turn at the receiving end of discrimination from the Sindhi Muslim pastoralists. Over recent decades, given the ecological degradation of Banni, the Wadhas have been unable to practice their traditional occupation of carpentry and lacquerwork, and have turned to menial labour or illegally producing charcoal in order to make ends meet. The Wadhas' low self-esteem arises from both their low social status as well as the neglible demand for their traditional wooden handicrafts, which are not highly sought after like the local Kutchi embroidery. Keen to gain acceptance from any one religious community, many have chosen to shed their hybrid identity and be either Hindu or Muslim.
Kothari's chapter on Wadha people, the slimmest in the book, raises many more questions: in what respects were some Wadhas simultaneously Hindu and Muslim? How did religiosity manifest itself and why? What makes some veer towards the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and others towards the Tablighi movement? What access to education do their children have? What is the status of women among the Wadhas?
Kothari's style is highly articulate, often poetic, and she also refers to the folktales of this region: Bijal-Rai Diyach, Umar-Marui and Moomal-Rano. However, greater attention could have been paid to the transliteration of Sindhi while quoting the respondents. Her use of personal anecdotes is somewhat uneven: sometimes these add a human dimension or provide an illuminating insight; at other times, they appear superfluous. There are a few omissions and anomalies as well. For one, while there are maps of the western Subcontinent (Gujarat, Rajasthan and Sindh), there is no map of Banni, the very area of Kothari's research. Also, considering the main occupation and source of identity for the Sindhi Muslim pastoralists who are called maaldharis, 'the owner of the wealth [of livestock]', there is little focus on the important role that livestock and dairy farming play in the lives of this community. Kothari only mentions in passing the emigration of people from Banni to other parts of Kutch and Gujarat due to drought or the earthquake of 2001. Also, she accepts the 'data' offered by one of her respondents that "at the time of Partition, 70% of the population of Tharparkar district consisted of Hindus", even though the actual non-Muslim population of this district in 1947 has been the subject of controversy.
If the people of Banni are a minority within a minority, if they have been overlooked as a Sindhi Muslim minority in a Kutchi district of a Gujarati Hindu-majority state, they have also been marginalised by mainstream Sindhi Hindus of India. This marginalisation has a long history, with myriad manifestations. In Sindh, the Thar Desert and its nomadic, pastoral peoples – Hindu, Muslim or tribal – have been at the periphery, literally and metaphorically, of mainstream Sindhi society for centuries. (A rare exception is the folk heroine Marui, who has been valorised for her 'patriotism' over the last few decades, especially by Sindhi nationalists.) This was mirrored by the British, who first explored Sindh, and who mentioned the Thar, if at all, in their writings on Sindh, mainly in the context of the difficulties encountered in traversing the desert. At the time of Partition, mainstream Sindhi Hindus migrating from Pakistan were not keen to claim a part of the Tharparkar district for India, as they were not inspired to resettle in a remote desert region. In Pakistan, this area is viewed as a border region, meant to be controlled, or as a storehouse of natural resources – oil and natural gas, coal and other minerals – meant to be mined. The people of this district have not been given adequate educational facilities, healthcare or infrastructure. An appalling manifestation of this neglect was the spike in the child mortality rate in this area in the winter of 2013-2014, partly due to drought.
On the Indian side of the border, the refusal by most urban Sindhi Hindus to accept the pastoral Sindhi Muslim communities of Banni as part of mainstream Indian Sindhi society has continued in the decades since Partition, and the attitude is very much alive today. When Sindhi artists began performing on All India Radio in the 1950s and 1960s, Sindhi musicians from all over India were invited to perform, but the Sindhi Muslim musicians from Banni – the custodians of perhaps one of the most authentic musical traditions of Sindh – were overlooked. This 'forgetting' of the 'invisible', marginalised desert peoples by mainstream Sindhis, whether Hindu or Muslim, whether Indian or Pakistani, is only mentioned in passing by Kothari.
Memories and Movements is a remarkable study of a border region of Southasia and its atypical communities, and Kothari's approach to critiquing existing theoretical concepts is refreshingly original. At a time when the majority of India's elected representatives in the Lok Sabha are overwhelmingly Hindu, male and from a rightwing party, the significance of narratives like Memories and Movements, that still enable voices from the margins to be heard, cannot be understated.
~Nandita Bhavnani has done extensive research on Sindhi history and culture. She is the author of The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and the Partition of India.
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