• Book Extract: from The Making of Exile

    May 16, 2016

    Nandita Bhavnani

    In this book extract, Bhavnani explores the syncretic Sindhi culture which was forcefully torn apart during the Partition of India and Pakistan. When we are constantly told to take pride in a told of a monolithic nationalism, Bhavnani, through a meticulous study of Sindhis Hindus, shows us that cultures live in hybrid forms, not in monoliths.    


    The story of Partition is one of great irony. Millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims sought to wall off the ‘other’, thinking that this was the solution to communal conflict. Refugees – whether they came from India or Pakistan – crossed the border hoping to find a haven, but instead discovered new difficulties in their adopted countries. In the arduous process of starting a new life in a new land, they often faced a variety of problems from the very people they viewed as their ‘own’: a government that could be unfeeling and local coreligionists who could be unsympathetic, if not hostile.

    Embedded in the saga of Partition is the sordid story of a ruthless contest for real estate. This was the subtext for many conflicts between not only different religious communities, but also refugees and locals belonging to the same religion. In several instances, property was the motivation for communal violence against minorities and their subsequent expulsion. Just as Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab ousted Muslims from their homes in Delhi, muhajirs ousted Hindus in Karachi and Sindhi Hindus ousted Muslims in Gujarat. While some Hindus of Mewat coveted the agricultural property of the Meos, some Sindhi Muslims eyed the lands of Sindhi Hindus. In Pakistan, Sindhi Muslims clashed with muhajirs and later Punjabis, and Sindhi waderos clashed with Sindhi haaris – all for Hindu property. A similar situation prevailed in India, with Sindhi Hindus vying with Gujarati Hindus for Muslim property. This violent lust for land was common across all religions, ethnicities and classes.

    Yet, the Sindhi Hindu experience of Partition – although deeply stained by various kinds of violence – is also coloured by inspiring creativity and courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties. We see this in the stories of Nari Hingorani – surreptitiously marking his family’s luggage with chalk, or Navalrai Bachani – rubbing dirt onto a brand new carpet in order to circumvent the customs officials. We see this in the narrative of Ramkrishin Advani – seeking to explain the initials on his shirt as ‘Rahimbaksh Hyderbaksh’ while standing outside a bus on the verge of being attacked. We see this in the account of Mohan Makhijani – who, on impulse, stayed on board a ship he was supposed to see off, to escape the shackles of the restricted list. We see this too in the chronicle of S. K. Kirpalani – personally lugging dusty furniture into an empty office room in order to launch the ministry of relief and rehabilitation. The spirit of these refugees is exemplified by the professors of D.J. Sind College – who transplanted their institution in Bombay within four months flat, rechristening it Jai Hind College; or by Dr Narayan ‘Bharati’ Paryani, struggling to overcome obstacle after daunting obstacle to become head of the Sindhi department at the University of Mumbai.

    During Partition, human beings all over South Asia were often given help and sympathy from the ‘other’, much-vilified community. Ramkrishin Advani recalls being saved by a Muslim taxi driver, only to go home and discover that one of his relatives had stolen his family’s savings. Mohan Makhijani felt that he had been betrayed by his boss and friend, Iqbal Qureshi, yet it was in Qureshi’s home that he took refuge during the Karachi pogrom of 6 January. Sindhi Hindus, Sindhi Muslims, muhajirs, the Sindh government, the Indian government and Hindus in India: All the principal actors in this story of Partition are etched in various shades of grey. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn says:

    If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?1

    An Endless Partition

    Partition continues to impinge on the lives of Sindhis on both sides of the border, going far beyond the generation of Sindhi Hindus that lived through it, and who still must cope with their traumatic memories. The historian Ranabir Samaddar remarks:

    We live in partitioned times; it is within our post-colonial being, in our agony, pessimism, and strivings. One can of course write, when writing of Partition, of its prelude, or of the imperial process of divide and quit, or its residue, or the trauma, the violence, the human sufferings, and the catharsis. But this history is lost in the quagmire of the present that does not allow Partition to become a thing of the historical past. Partition’s history is thus an incomplete one. At once an event of the past and a sign of the present time, Partition lives on in post-colonial times…2

    Partition continues to separate thousands of families on both sides of the border, even today. The harshness of the mutual visa regimes of the two countries has prevented common Indians and Pakistanis from visiting the other country, ensuring that each becomes a ‘mysterious and inaccessible’ place,3 open to fascination on the one hand and demonisation on the other. This visa regime also ensures that there are children who grow up knowing their relatives across the border only through photographs, phone calls and Skype. Partition has also had an impact on the Shaikhs, that is, those Hindus who had converted to Islam well before Partition; they too are separated from their Hindu relatives who are now settled in India.

    Apart from divided families, some Sindhi Hindus living in India are separated from their temples and Hindu shrines in Sindh, as well as from the Sufi pirs they follow, such as Sachal Sarmast of Daraza, Rohal Faqir of Kandri and Noor Saiin of Hyderabad. These pirs have consequently been obliged to make trips to India, albeit infrequently, to visit their followers. Similarly, Sindhi Hindus living in Pakistan are separated from the Hindu congregations that have shifted to India. For example, Hindu pilgrims from Pakistan must now visit the relocated Kambar Darbar in Bombay.

    Sindhi Hindus living in Pakistan are impacted by Partition on a day-to-day basis. Today they compose approximately 1.5% of Pakistan’s population: an invisible and negligible minority, easy to ignore, or worse, easy to discriminate against in every walk of life. Discrimination and violence against them has spiked in recent years. There have been forced abductions and conversions of young girls, kidnappings for ransom, looting of shops and also murders of Hindus. Rare are the stories of Sindhi Hindus like Sobho Gianchandani or Rochi Ram who actively chose to stay on in Pakistan and work as social activists in order to make a difference. Most Sindhi Hindus in Pakistan prefer to maintain a low profile. The trickle of migration of Sindhi Hindus to India, which has continued for decades after Partition, has only recently received some degree of public attention in both countries. There are also Sindhi Hindus who, after spending most of their lives in Pakistan, migrate to India and find themselves unable to adjust to Indian culture and ways of life: These Sindhi Hindus feel compelled to return to their homes in Pakistan.

    There are other smaller, less visible communities, with less visible dilemmas. There are semi-nomadic communities who live in the Thar desert region – in both India and Pakistan – in Southern Sindh, Kutch and Western Rajasthan. These communities – Sindhi Muslim maaldharis, Bhils, Kolis, Meghwals, Rabaris, Bagdis and others – are mainly engaged in pastoralism and limited agriculture, leather work, weaving and embroidery, and have been crossing the Thar between Sindh, Kutch and Rajasthan for centuries. They continued to traverse the Thar post-1947, but their crossings were brought to an abrupt halt by the promulgation of the Indo-Pak border in 1965, thus separating them from their relatives on the other side. As Rita Kothari observes, ‘The tragic effect of Partition upon the people of Banni [in Kutch] was manifested not in movement [as in migration], but in the fact that their movements were arrested.’4 Tharparkar district in Southern Sindh was an area traditionally administered by Sodhas, Rajput Thakurs, a large number of whom migrated to India during and after the Indo-Pak war of 1971. The departure of the Sodhas, and the increasing presence and dominance of the Pakistani army in this area transformed the fabric of life for the pastoral communities that live there.

    Another case is that of Gujarati Dalits, originally from Kathiawar, who live in Karachi today. They too have been separated by Partition from their villages of origin, their relatives and their places of worship in India. Today in Sindh, they are largely ignored by both the predominantly Muslim population of Pakistan, as well as by the small Hindu minority, who perceive them as outsiders: both Gujarati and ‘untouchable’. When they come to India, either to visit or to resettle, they find that Indian Hindus, especially in Gujarat, also treat them as ‘untouchables’, a phenomenon that they do not experience with as much intensity living among Muslims in Pakistan.

    Sindhi Muslims in Pakistan

    The domination of Sindhis in their own homeland gave birth to the Jiye Sindh nationalist movement in 1967.5 Literary organisations and student outfits coalesced, and jointly protested against One Unit and muhajir hegemony in Sindh. The Sindhi-dominated Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), launched in 1983, also gave a fillip to the Sindhi nationalist struggle. Although G. M. Syed, the ‘grand old man of Sindhi nationalism’,6 stayed aloof from the MRD, he was clearly the pre-eminent leader of the Jiye Sindh movement. This movement gave an impetus to Sindhi nationalism and ethnic pride among Sindhi Muslims. It also gave birth to deep-rooted antipathy towards the stateas well as towards Punjabis and muhajirs, who dominated the Pakistani bureaucracy, military and economy. Inspired by the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, the Jiye Sindh movement called for the creation of an autonomous Sindhudesh. The movement remained strong through the 1980s and the mid-1990s, until the death of G. M. Syed in 1995.

    The muhajirs, on the other hand, also began to experience some degree of marginalisation by Punjabis by the late 1950s. Over the years, they began organising themselves and agitating for their own rights, and ultimately formed the Muhajir (later Muttahida) Qaumi Movement (MQM) in 1984. The clash between the MQM and Jiye Sindh nationalist movement turned extremely radical and violent, starting with the riots that erupted when Sindhi was made the official language of the province in 1972. This violence peaked in the 1980s, with carnage in Karachi and Hyderabad, and continued till the mid-1990s.

    Sindhis and their language and culture continue to be marginalised in Sindh, and the average Sindhi Muslim considers himself to be a second class citizen in Pakistan. Sindhis remain extremely underrepresented in business, the military and the bureaucracy. Large tracts of agricultural land in Sindh have been allotted to Punjabis, Pathans and muhajirs, mostly absentee landlords who prefer importing agricultural labour from other Pakistani provinces rather than employing Sindhi haaris to till the soil. Sindh’s natural resources, such as oil and gas, have been exploited by the Pakistan central government, but the people of Sindh have not received any compensation for this, nor benefited from any development. The 1945 Sindh-Punjab Water Agreement has been honoured more in the breach than the observance. The influx of Pathans, Punjabis and, more lately, Afghans into Sindh has only contributed to making Sindhis more of a minority in their homeland. According to the historian Iftikhar Malik, there are more Baluchis in Sindh than in Baluchistan, more Pashtuns than in Peshawar, and Karachi has become the sixth largest Punjabi city in Pakistan.7

    The burgeoning nationalism in Sindh has also brought about a new relationship between a section of Sindhi Muslims and Sindhi Hindus . Since muhajirs and Punjabis have become the ‘other’, these Sindhi Muslims have come to view Sindhi Hindus as part of the larger Sindhi nation. These Sindhi Muslims, although few in number, have spoken out against the discrimination of Hindus in Sindh. For them, Dahir, the last Hindu king of Sindh, is an icon – not the non-Sindhi Muslim invader, Muhammad bin Qasim, who defeated him. They also pay homage to other Sindhi Hindu historical figures such as Bhagat Kanwar Ram, the assassinated Sufi saint, and Hemu Kalani, who was hanged by the British for his participation in the freedom struggle.

    Today, the Sindhi nationalist movement remains disorganised and splintered, and has not had any significant success at the polls, with most Sindhis voting for the pro-establishment Pakistan People’s Party. Although the MQM has also witnessed factionalism and in-fighting, it is still politically dominant in urban Sindh. Over the years, there have been various efforts at rapprochement and compromise between muhajirs and Sindhis but these have had only limited success. There is also a clear recognition that real power in Sindh and Pakistan lies in Punjabi hands.

    Given the Sindhi Muslims’ preference for a more eclectic form of Islam, and given their agitation for an autonomous Sindh, Sindhi nationalism has been criticised by the Taliban as ‘an anti-Islamic force seeking to undermine the Islamic unity of Pakistan by dividing Muslims along ethnic lines’.8 Sindh (barring the city of Karachi) remains the one province in Pakistan where the Taliban has the least presence, but Taliban-run madrasas are growing. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban or a version of Islam coloured by Sufism will ultimately dominate Sindh.

    The Sindhi Hindu Diaspora

    According to the 2001 Census, the Sindhi diaspora in India has not only retained, but has solidified its original geographical spread, and approximately 92% of the Sindhis in India are concentrated in the present day states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Almost a third of India’s Sindhis are located in Maharashtra, in or near the city of Bombay, their original destination. Erstwhile refugee camps such as Kalyan (now Ulhasnagar) and Kubernagar (in Ahmedabad), as well as new townships like Adipur (in Gandhidham) continue to be Sindhi-dominated neighbourhoods, where Sindhi is still spoken by shopkeepers, and by children playing on the road. In such neighbourhoods, it is still possible to find shops with names like Sadoromal & Sons or Parsram Pasari.

    Sindhi Hindus are one of India’s most urbanised communities. Yet, Sindhis form barely 0.17% of the total population of India.9 Despite their negligible numbers, Sindhi Hindus have continued their tradition of being a wealthy, influential and prominent minority.

    Unfortunately, in the process, Sindhi Hindus have paid the heavy price of their ethnic identity, language and culture. After Partition, Sindhi Hindus fanned out across the globe, and communities of Sindhi businessmen, small or large, are found in almost every country. The Sindhi Hindu diaspora, however, is in exile not only from its homeland, but also from the very notion of a homeland. Most Sindhi Hindus are divorced from their roots. The generation that migrated turned its back on Sindh and the painful memories of Partition; in any case, this generation is now fading. The subsequent generations know little about the place of birth of their parents and grandparents. For most Sindhi Hindus, Sindh has become a land of the past, with little or no relevance in the present or future. Not having their own homeland has had grave repercussions on their culture, language and identity. Shah Latif speaks through Marui, longing for her native land of Malir:

    If trees are uprooted and cut,
    What will the dry wood remember of the rains that arose in Malir?10

    Hardened Cultures

    The writers Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow observe, ‘Civilizations are marvelous hybrids: they have never been pure, self-consistent entities. Historically, they have evolved through exchange and synthesis through the encounter of different races, religions and philosophies.’11 According to them, the lifeblood of culture is confluence, the mingling of dissimilar and even contrary elements. One of the most significant fall-outs of Partition – the antithesis of confluence – is the partitioning of a rare convergence of cultures. Over the centuries, Sindhi culture emerged from the marriage of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism; from the mingling of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian; from cultural borrowings, owing to the invasions from the north and west, as well as through trade with various parts of the world. While it is true that in Sindh such hybridism led to a degree of communal animosity in the decades before Partition, its loss still deserves to be mourned.

    Shah Abdul Latif, to date Sindh’s pre-eminent poet, epitomises Sindh’s penchant for blending and harmonising cultures. Latif spent three years being initiated into spirituality during his travels with Hindu jogis, or mendicants, despite coming from a noble Syed family that claimed direct descent from Imam Ali. If in one verse he mentions Diwali, in another he cites Muharram. Similarly, he speaks of Shiva and Ganga as well as of Hasan and Hussain, of Dwarka and Medina, of Delhi and the Deccan, of Kabul and Kandahar as well as Jaisalmer and Lanka. He refers to the worship of the divine as ardaas (the Sikh word for prayer) in one verse, while invoking the Sufi mystic Mansoor al-Hallaj in another. (The first Sindhis to write authoritatively on Shah Latif’s poetry were not Muslims but Hindus: Hotchand Gurbuxani and Kalyan Advani.) Shah Latif’s philosophy was that of humanism, and it was his spiritual successor, the Sufi poet-saint Sachal Sarmast, who proudly proclaimed, ‘Neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, I am what I am.’

    It was Sindh where it was perfectly normal to have the Bhagavad Gita and the Guru Granth Sahib in the same shrine, both texts written in the Perso-Arabic script; for Muslims to flock to the performances of the Hindu bhagats; for Sindhi Hindus to give their sons names derived from Persian, such as Khanchand and Khubchand, Sakhawatrai and Salamatrai.

    It was Sindh that gave birth to Dayaram Gidumal Shahani, one of its foremost reformers and judges. He studied Sanskrit to publish the first Sindhi translation of the Bhagavad Gita; he learnt Gurmukhi to translate the Guru Granth Sahib into Sindhi; and mastered Arabic in order to make a deep study of the Quran. This tradition was carried forward, a few decades later, by writers like Jethmal Parsram and Lalchand Amardinomal. They drew freely from the confluence of diverse religious, literary, cultural and philosophical traditions that they had inherited and, in turn, enriched the literature and culture of Sindh. Later, in India, the professor, writer and performer, Ram Panjwani penned the book Paarn Pachchaarn [Know Thyself], in which he spoke of Sufism by weaving together the stories of pundits and dervishes, faqirs and sadhus, by relating the tales of Luqman Hakim the Arabian sage, Krishna the Hindu god, and Lala Rukh the Persian fairy. Today, this rich and hybrid culture – which had developed sophisticated traditions of humanism and of receptivity to other cultures and religions, and which maintained a high degree of individual freedom in such matters – is fast getting relegated to history books.

    Hoskote and Trojanow write, ‘When you push the Other into a ghetto, you push yourself into a corresponding ghetto too, even if yours is as large as a nation or a continent.’12 Although there have been new confluences of cultures in India and Pakistan after Partition, this shared culture has been partitioned, thanks to Muslim fanaticism on the one hand and Hindu extremism on the other. But pushing Sindhis into the narrowed and divided categories of Indians and Pakistanis, into ‘ghettos of their own minds’, has come at a steep price, and we are all the poorer for it. As the poet Prabhu ‘Wafa’ Chhugani writes:

    One limb is separated from the other,
    Like a line from half a verse
    Separated from the other line,
    Two poems forced to part company.
    One limb is separated from the other.13


    1. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956.
    2. Ranabir Samaddar, ‘The Last Hurrah that Continues’, in Ghislaine Glasson Deschaumes and Rada Iveković, eds,  Divided Countries, Separated Cities, OUP, New Delhi, 2003, p 21.
    3. Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, Yale University Press, London, 2007, p 192.
    4. Rita Kothari, Memories and Movements: Borders and Communities in Banni, Kutch, Gujarat, Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2013, p 24.
    5. The Sindh United Front, founded in 1967, was renamed Jiye Sindh Mahaaz in 1972.
    6. Hamza Alavi, ‘Nationhood and the Nationalities in Pakistan’, in Economic and Political Weekly, 8 July 1989, p 1532.
    7.Iftikhar Malik, ‘Ethno-Nationalism in Pakistan: A Commentary on Muhajir Qaumi Mahaz (MQM) in Sindh’, in South Asia, Vol XVIII, No 2 (1995), p 58 and p 72.
    8. S. Sathananthan, ‘Sindhi Nationalism and Islamic Revolution in Pakistan’, , in International Studies, 37, 3 (2000), p 241.
    9. Census of India 2001. This does not include speakers of Kutchi.
    10. Shah Abdul Latif, Sur Marui, Dastaan 10, Bait 2. My translation.
    11. Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow, Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West, Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2012, p 190.
    12. Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow, ibid, p 175.
    13. As quoted in Motilal Jotwani, Atamkatha Je Naale Mein [Something Like an Autobiography], Sampark Prakashan, New Delhi, 1997, p 60. My translation.

    Nandita Bhavnani has an MA in anthropology. She is currently compiling and translating an anthology of writings on the relationship of Sindhis with the city of Mumbai.

    From The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and the Partition of India, Nandita Bhavnani, Tranquebar Press, 2014. We also thank the Centre for Studies in Violence, Memory and Trauma, Department of English, University of Delhi, for facilitating this.


    Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.