Scarred lives

The Partition experience of Sindhi Hindus as explored by Nandita Bhavnani

A host of unrelated episodes from the past found a way into my consciousness upon reading Nandita Bhavnani's The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and the Partition of India. For instance, her reference to an increase in dowry practices among Sindhi Hindus after Partition triggered an unpleasant story of greed that I thought I had forgotten. A relative of mine, a Shikarpuri Sindhi, had made a thriving business out of selling electronic and sundry items during her annual trips from Hong Kong to India. Rado watches, vanity boxes with eyeliners and lipsticks, the ubiquitous Charlie perfumes, all would be rolled out of her bags and sold at murderous profit to her poor relations living in not-so-posh parts of Bombay and the refugee camps around. The greed extended to unrealistic demands of dowry from the parents of a middle-class Sindhi girl whom her son married, in the process driving the bride's family to near-total penury. Bhavnani mentions:

Dowry had long been a social evil among Sindhi Hindus, despite efforts to eradicate it as early as the late 19th century. Now, in India in a context of economic strain, instead of asking for less dowry, families of marriageable boys began to ask for even higher amounts of dowry than before.

If works such as The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750-1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama (2008) by Claude Markovits, and Cosmopolitan Connections: The Sindhi Diaspora 1860-2000 (2004) by Mark-Anthony Falzon put into perspective the history of multiple locations in the lives of the Sindhis, Sindhi Diaspora in Manila, Hong Kong and Jakarta (2002) by Anita Raina Thapan illuminated Sindhi Hindu patriarchal practices in the diaspora. Bhavnani's research hits upon the unfortunate deterioration of the moral fabric after Partition. Thanks to robust and emerging scholarship, it is becoming possible to locate smaller and apparently isolated narratives in the wider context of transnational networks and the changing sociology of the Sindhis after Partition.

Remembrance of things past
Spurred by her desire to pursue research on her own community, Bhavnani's inquiry began at least 15 years ago. This, therefore, is a highly-anticipated book among those who follow Sindhi scholarship. Battling with silence – so common among Partition communities – like many Southasians, Bhavnani grew up knowing of rather than about Partition. She says:
I cannot remember when I first became aware of Partition. Perhaps I had known from an early age that, as Sindhis, both my parents had been born in another, inaccessible land, where they spent their childhood years. I cannot remember when they first told me about it.

Partition narratives in different languages and from different regions are replete with references to food. Mixing memory with desire, Partition migrants often remembered sweeter mangoes, and cheaper and more nutritious vegetables in their pre-Partition lives. In forms of evocation akin to utopic creations of a never-never land, better and cheaper food is a recurring motif, particularly significant because it constituted the everyday sphere of memory in houses in which Partition was not consciously remembered. Then there were those who underwent the historical experience of Partition, without naming it so. For instance, listening to women who crossed borders during and around 1947, I have often found them recalling fear and anxiety with greater specificity than the names of ships, exact dates or locations; often, the word 'Partition' escapes their narration. Among Sindhis, it was more common to refer to Partition through a long phrase: "jadhain Hindustan-Pakistan thiyo, when Hindustan and Pakistan happened," which also has the subtextual meaning of "when Hindustan became Pakistan," implying that a familiar land had become alien. From the more literary and community-conscious Sindhis, words such as ladpalayan (migration/exodus) or virhango (separation) have become more common. Besides the mundaneness and inadequacy of vocabulary, the ineffability of the Partition experience has added to the silence of communities that wished to forget and move on.

Bhavnani quotes Motilal Jotwani: "Can the entire truth about how we lived our lives in the purusharthi camps of Deolali and Kumar Nagar Dhulia be described?" As things stand now, the question may not only be about how to describe, but also with which language (in non-metaphoric terms) to describe. The Sindhi language, the sole identifier of the group, has begun to wane from the lives of urban, second and third-generation Sindhis. Should they or their progeny need to know the past, sources like Bhavnani's book are where they would have to turn. For Sindhi Hindus who migrated to India during Partition, the trauma lay not only in being wrenched from a homeland, but also from living as stateless and regionless citizens in India. Sindh was not divided like Punjab, but went entirely to Pakistan. Sindhi Hindu refugees had to live with the loss of region, which in the following years had ramifications on language and other forms of historical continuity that territories provide. In the absence of region – and increasingly the waning use of the Sindhi language – a glaring question before the community is what it means to be a Sindhi. The question needs to be addressed, or at least confronted, and this will be returned to later.

The Province of Sindh (now a state in Pakistan) is bordered on the east by the Thar Desert in India, and on the west by the mountains of Balochistan. It contains Karachi and the remains of the Indus Valley civilisation. Tracing its origin to the Indus Valley settlements of Mohenjodaro (a Sindhi word meaning the gate/hillock of the dead), Sindh belonged to various Hindu kingdoms until 712 AD, when Mohammed bin Kasim conquered it and initiated Muslim rule in the region, which lasted undisturbed until 1843. At this point, the British decided that it was strategically important to conquer the region. Colonial land and education policies unsettled the economic and social balance, so that in the 19th century, the Hindu minority – who had been wealthy but unobtrusive – came to dominate powerful positions, evoking the feeling among Sindhi Muslim leaders that they had not got what they deserved.

Bhavnani’s prologue provides a quick snapshot of such themes, drawing from existing scholarship, but also adding details that had fallen by the wayside in previous scholarship. This sets the stage for understanding Partition. Bhavnani’s unease over the archetypal ‘proselytising Muslim’ underlying a particular strand of history-making among Sindhi Hindus is evident in herview that:

bin Qasim and his army did not convert the bulk of the Sindhi people by the sword. Most of Sindh’s Muslims converted gradually over the centuries, with the lower classes – the haaris or peasants, craftsmen and labourers seeking to escape the harshness of the Hindu caste hierarchy by embracing Islam. Most of these conversions were the work of missionaries, first the Syeds from Arabia, then the Ismailis, and finally, the Sufis.
While empirical observation of Sindhi Hindus shows an absence of peasants and large artisan groups, it is difficult to know for certain whether conversions did or did not happen by the sword, the enormous influence of the pirs in Sindh notwithstanding. Bhavnani’s unequivocal and unsubstantiated claim comes as a surprise early on, especially as in a subsequent discussion she mentions that apart from the restrictions that Sindhi Hindus experienced under Muslim rule, their “greatest fear… was that of forcible conversion to Islam, although this does not appear to have been very common”. Why would fear linger, if experience does not support it? And how do we understand ‘conversion’, as agency as well as imposition of change, never entirely complete, but an interstice that seeks a different narrative? Bhavnani mentions how Hindus said with contempt: “Shaikh putta Shaitan jo, na Hindu-a jo, na Musulman jo, Shaikh is the son of the devil, he belongs neither to Hindu nor to Muslim.” Were in-between identities considered diabolic, and disloyal in a society where affiliation to an authority mattered a great deal? Conversion appears as a recurring and untheorised theme, but this review is hardly the best place to resolve the conundrum that Bhavnani faces. The prologue is largely a useful lead into the book, as it interweaves pre-colonial and colonial Sindh, locating in the latter the “reversal of the power equation – with the once-restrained Hindus now enjoying power out of proportion to their small numbers, and the Muslims, who had ruled the province for centuries, now on the back foot”.

Later, Bhavnani transports us to the eve of Partition. Prior to 26 June 1947, when Sindh voted to join Pakistan, a series of events played a definitive role in interreligious relationships and economic transactions. For instance, from the establishment of colonial rule, new inequalities triggered by education and land policies arose. Some of the resentment that Sindhi Muslims felt over the increasing prosperity of Sindhi Hindus led to a demand for a Sindh region separate from the Bombay Presidency. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the communalisation of politics and the rise of extreme ideological voices marked a period of immense political turmoil in urban centres like Karachi and Hyderabad. From some accounts it would appear that at Partition, many Sindhi Muslims were “exhilarated by the prospects of both independence from the British and a new social order free from Hindu domination”. Yet, Bhavnani also demonstrates how Sindh remained relatively free of communal violence for most of the Partition period.

Thus, Sindh marks a significant departure from the Punjab experience of Partition in that it was relatively free of physical violence. Violence has remained central to all literary and political discussion of Partition. Print and visual narratives of Partition in India generally evoke archetypal images of mass violence and mob frenzy. A productive way of understanding violence in Sindh is to see it beyond forms of physicality – a sense of foreboding, insecurity and terror occasionally peppered with instances of stray violence. Bhavnani’s use of oral testimonies reflects the palpable sense of foreboding experienced by well-to-do urban Sindhi Hindus who felt that their self-respect, property and families could be in danger from Sindhi Muslims who resented their prosperity, or eyed their women.

The leadership vacuum that Sindhis felt at this time would have far-reaching consequences for India: it was out of the space left hollow by the Congress that Sindhi alliances with Hindu majoritarianism grew. Bhavnani mentions that isolated acts of violence began in northern Sindh, although even then it was difficult to distinguish where criminal opportunism targeted at rich Sindhi Hindus ended and violence driven by religious differences began. The continued attacks and abductions of rich Hindus in present-day Sindh evoke similar ambiguity today. Meanwhile, Bhavnani traces the ripple-effects of violence within Sindh, the role of Muhajir-Sikh hostility, and the complex face of ‘law’ that seemed to apparently support the minorities but also sometimes contributed to their misery. In fact, memories and archives on both sides of the border show a similar ambiguity of the Pakistani and Indian states – the police and other law enforcers were involved in spurring violence, and sometimes controlling it.

Inclusive citizenship?
In a moving and political short story called ‘Boycott’ (by Gordhan Bharti, in Unbordered Memories, ed. Rita Kothari, 2009), we are told that the small village of Aarazi in Northern Sindh shrank following the migration of Hindus during Partition. However, about 20 Hindu trader families did not migrate, maintaining a stronghold on business in the village. The self-professed custodians of the Islamic nation, alongside Sindh’s traditional feudal lords, manipulate a Dalit Koli named Jaman into starting a shop and taking business away from the Hindus, so that the Hindus would leave – in effect, a boycott of Hindus. The story recounts the unfolding of Jaman’s exploitation and inadvertent participation in an agenda that he had nothing to do with. He was not a rich Hindu, nor a powerful Sindhi Muslim reaping benefits of the newly formed Islamic nation. A poor, low-caste man, Jaman was a pariah to both Hindus and Muslims. Terrorised by the feudal lords, he starts a sweet shop like the Hindus, but fails miserably at running a business. He loses money, and upon asking to be repaid, he is laughed out of court, physically thrown out, boycotted from the house of the wadero (feudal lord). The term ‘boycott’ – which Jaman thought was used for Sindhi Hindus – was now applicable to him. It occurs to him that while the term and its target Sindhi Hindus were new, as a Dalit he was never included in the idea of Pakistan, so that in a sense his being ostracised preceded the Hindu and Muslim differences. This is important to remember because caste discrimination in a frontier region like Sindh was not as intense as in other parts of India, yet the Dalit predicament of belonging neither here nor there is evident even in Sindh. The memory of this story was triggered by Bhavnani’s section on Dalits in Sindh.

Although Partition experience of the Dalits finds place in Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence (2000), and subsequently other scholars like Ravinder Kaur have addressed it, Partition scholarship particular to Sindh has addressed the Dalit predicament in Suchitra Balasubramanyam’s pioneering essay, ‘Partition and Gujarat: The Tangled Web of Religious, Caste, Community and Gender Identities’ (2011). Bhavnani’s research breathes more life into this area of study, and demonstrates the poignancy of the ambivalent social citizenship of Dalits, who fully belonged neither to Pakistan nor India. Bhavnani informs us that by some estimates, around 200,000 Dalits lived in Sindh in 1947-48, although subsequent years have seen significant migration in the Thar Parkar region in Sindh, Pakistan. A view that Dalits would be treated better by Muslims in Pakistan than by caste Hindus in India took hold of a section of the Dalit leadership at the time of Partition. However, the living conditions of Dalits did not reflect – nor do they today – any signs of inclusive citizenship. Fearing the loss of ‘essential services’ when Dalits began migrating to India, the Pakistan government patrolled Dalit movement and prohibited their departure. Indian refugee networks, on the other hand, reduced them to sweepers and cleaners in the service of rich Sindhi Hindus.

Similar concern for such liminal spaces and Partition are reflected in Bhavnani’s section on the Sikhs, especially the Labana Sikhs, who generally hail from a poor strata of society, making a living from manual and agricultural labour. Bhavnani’s twin sections on Dalits and Sikhs are an important intervention in Partition scholarship, as they help expand the strait-jacketed, binary opposition of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ perspectives on Partition. They also illuminate how suffering and the legitimacy of dignity – two recurring themes of Partition – carried different meanings and intensity for the minorities. Bhavnani concludes that by the middle of June 1948, one million Hindus had been able to migrate to India, while 400,000 more remained in Sindh. It must be noted that migration from Sindh has continued even to this day. In 2014, newspapers in Gujarat reported that “a Sindhi couple hailing from Pakistan” was arrested for overstaying and forging papers to buy property and “prove their Indian citizenship”. The business of Partition is unfinished as far as Sindhi Hindus are concerned. Yet there is one part of the story that took a different, sometimes more painful, form: when Sindhi Hindus arrived in India.

Bhavnani’s discussion on the vicissitudes of arrival of Sindhi Hindus in India sparked a memory of another episode, from the highly-acclaimed 1973 film Garam Hawa, by M S Sathyu. Garam Hawa is based on the life of Muslims after Partition in Lucknow. The Muslim protagonist Mirza – battling suspicion and distrust extended to him by moneylenders and banks – finds it difficult to conduct business in a society that suddenly considers him an outsider. While this forms the main thread, a related sub plot is also relevant to the present discussion. Lucknow experiences an influx of Sindhi Hindus. A Sindhi businessman rises to prosperity while Mirza loses ground to him. This interaction and competing claims made by exiled citizens and refugees changed the social and economic contours of certain cities in India and Pakistan. Bhavnani shows the competing claims over property and city spaces in both India and Pakistan after 1947. The rise of the Sindhi refugee to prosperity is particularly significant. A combination of perseverance, inventiveness and, at times, compromised ethics took Sindhis to new levels of enterprise and success after Partition. The rise of cottage industries such as making papads, pickles, pen tubes, bottle caps and so on in Ulhasnagar (Maharashtra); the inventive entrepreneurial (what would be called jugaadu in colloquial language today) duplication of ‘foreign’ labels; of subletting pavements and renting railway passes – all of these form a part of Sindhi lore, repeated by the community and sometimes by others, with grudging admiration.

This metanarrative, however true, masks the trials that a well-heeled community suffered by having to start again while dispersed across different states in India. Unlike Punjabis and Bengalis, Sindhis were not coming to ‘their’ state, but were unwanted, bewildered immigrants throughout India. Bhavnani points to the changing demography and Sindhi landscape in places such as Bombay, Kutch and Rajasthan, the competing self-definition and descriptions of labels such as sharnarthi (refugee) and purusharthi (hard-working, effort-making) that Sindhis battled with. The question of whether Sindhis were refugees – homeless people at the mercy of a host population and refugee officers – or rightful citizens of a newly created nation persisted all the way through the 1950s and ‘60s, as they struggled for homes and loans. When some dust had settled and initial survival needs had been taken care of, Sindhis also struggled for cultural recognition. For instance, there was a campaign to include Sindhi as one of the official languages in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

Bhavnani demonstrates how, in settling into their new circumstances, rich landowners often became shopkeepers, and educated people unused to business tried their hands at buying and selling things. Bhavnani mentions how Partition blurred the once-clear distinction between those who did business overseas (such as the Bhaibands), and the educated elite who worked in Muslim courts, and then the British administration (such as the Amils). The demands of survival did not allow the luxury of considering what type of livelihood suited one’s traditional status and skill. And yet what remained more or less constant among Sindhi Hindus in different states was sheer aversion to labour, a historical phenomenon evident in idioms such as naukri aa tokri (to serve somebody is to carry excreta).

Disavowing the past
Partition blurred many other distinctions between right and wrong, giving rise to a perception shared by some Gujaratis: “Saalo Sindhi game te karshe, the bloody Sindhi wouldn’t stop at anything.” Whether such stereotypes are justified, and how Sindhis internalise or rationalise them, would be difficult to establish. However, the negative perceptions of Sindhi Hindus (not entirely absent in pre-Partition Sindh) has affected Sindhi self-perception in profound ways. This may have some parallels across the border in the Mohajjir experience: for instance, Qurrutalain Hyder’s novella ‘The Housing Society’ (in Seasons of Betrayal, 1999; originally 1963), hints at a similar blurring of social and ethical boundaries among those who attempted a hasty economic mobility in the post-Partition period.

Meanwhile, the fearful circumstances under which the Sindhi Hindus left, the embarrassment of living in refugee camps and struggles to reestablish themselves made the ‘past’ recede from conscious memory. A tiny section led by Bhai Pratap Dialdas in Adipur, Kutch, attempted to create a region where Sindhis could find cultural continuity and economic opportunities. However, by the time those possibilities could come to fruition, Sindhis were dispersed across different regions and had too many concerns to uproot themselves once again and make Kutch their home. With the receding of connections with the past, and in the absence of collective living, migrant children often did not get much opportunity to speak their language. All that remained of the old Sindh for many was silence and indifference.

Through this period, it was particularly significant that help came to Sindhis from Hindu majoritarian groups, once again consolidating the perception that Congress had let them down. Bhavnani discusses the anti-Congress sentiment, and how that brought about a significant shift in future voting patterns: Sindhis started voting in large numbers for other parties, such as the Jan Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha and Praja Socialist Party. There is continuity with the present, seen in Sindhi support for the Bharatiya Janata Party. In tandem with physical distance from Sindhi Muslims (whom many Sindhi Hindus would remember fondly) and a psychological distance from the past that generated misery and stereotypes, Sindhis also began a systematic de-Islamicisation of their mixed and syncretic legacies. For instance, the practice of visiting pirs (Sufi priests) and dargahs (Sufi shrines), common among Sindhi Hindus, quickly waned after Partition. In places such as Gujarat, where non-vegetarianism is associated with Muslims, the Sindhis began to turn vegetarian.

Although this has been commented on in previous scholarship, Bhavnani also documents Sindhi efforts to transplant religious and educational institutions to the Indian landscape. While she has a grip on the detailed history of educational institutions, Bhavnani does not attempt to see the conceptual difference or link between ‘transplanted’ and ‘redefined’ religion. It may be worth knowing at this point what Bhavnani says about the Partition experience of Sindhi Hindus. Recognising the difficulty of generalising, Bhavnani delineates the divergent contexts of class, region, means of travel, destination and chance, all of which played a role in the Partition experience of Sindhi Hindus. Age was a significant factor in the Partition experience, too: younger refugees were often able to rehabilitate themselves with greater ease than the elderly. While Bhavnani’s overall observations of the Partition experience of Sindhi Hindus adds little to existing scholarship, her illustration of each context through meticulous research is commendable.

Similar detailing characterises the discussion on Sindhi Hindus who stayed back in what became Pakistan. The story of Hari Dilgir, a well-known Sindhi-language poet, is a moving episode provided by Bhavnani. Dilgir was also a public intellectual and freedom fighter. His determination not to leave the land of his ancestors, which he was finally made to do, and the admiration he evoked among Pakistani Sindhi writers, is a telling example of the psychological violence and exile that Sindhi Hindus underwent.

It is to Bhavnani’s credit that at no point does she lose sight of the simultaneity of the Partition experience in India and Pakistan, and Sindhis remain a transborder community in this historical account. The concluding section takes a panoramic view of Sindhis across India, Pakistan and other parts of the world, constructing and remaking identities across divided histories, rejoining and redefining through social media and conferences. The final section contextualises the Partition of Sindh in the larger story of the Subcontinent and its divisions in the wake of colonialism. Conceived as a ‘solution’, a way of walling off the ‘other’, Partition generated hopes of land and safety. The irony of havens bringing fresh misery was compounded by the fact that the source of new misery was often not the so-called enemy, but a combination of historical circumstances. Sindhi Hindus remember their indignation at their refugee status with far more pain than imaginary or real interreligious tensions. Bhavnani also foregrounds the role of property – what she calls a “violent lust for land” – as a strong motivation for communal violence against minorities (both in India and Pakistan) as well as against Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

Bhavnani chronicles the story of Sindhi Hindus and their Partition experience across regions and times, providing us with ‘mainstream’ perspectives as well as views from the sidelines. This chronicle is built upon archival work, interviews, memoirs, secondary material and numerous visits to different parts of India and Pakistan. Its breadth and commitment, canvas and detail, macro and micro details are impressively complete. What it lacks – as many books do – is what a reviewer wants the book to be, which is perhaps unattainable. Bhavnani’s attention to the nuances of language – things she hears, words she misses, subtexts that remain undiscussed – and attention to memory and narrative-making tendencies among her respondents is unsatisfactory, if not absent. For instance, the word dyat (a pejorative term used for Muslims by Sindhi Hindus and, at times, even Sindhi Muslims themselves) is used interchangeably with jat, a specific community. Her use of the folk stories ‘Sasui-Punhu Umar-Marui’ – iconic narratives of undying love and Hindu-Muslim relationships – hang as appendages, rather than interwoven into analysis. The relation between the spoken and written word, the juxtaposition of past and present, and how these often get constructed in particular ways, the engendering of testimonies, all these remain unnoticed and untheorised. This makes the reading of The Making of Exile extremely direct and accessible, but it fails to provide a conceptual fibre to a richly detailed history. That maps do not mention a source and an index is missing can only be explained as an oversight. In most other respects, Bhavnani’s study is a benchmark in scholarship on Sindh, and it achieves what it does for being, more than anything else, a labour of love.

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