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Sunday April 14, 2024

The voice of Sindh

By Mubarak Ali
November 12, 2018

There are two forms of history writing that can help us understand a nation and its character. The first is dominated by the interests of the ruling classes and historians who have based their accounts on state documents, manuscripts, and the government’s legal and social announcements.

Such historical narratives reflect the activities of the ruling classes and highlight their role in building social and cultural values and traditions. The second form of history writing relies on the work of intellectuals who aren’t part of state institutions. Many of these intellectuals focus on the people and provide details of their hard work, contribution to the arts, and public festivals.

There is a difference between both historical accounts. The first represents the narrative of the upper class while the second depicts the role of the rest of society in shaping and building history.

We must understand and analyse the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai on the basis of the second genre of historical narratives. First, we have to understand the history of Sindh from a political perspective that is closely related to social and cultural processes.

The history of Sindh begins with the publication of the Chach Nama or the Fatehnama Sindh, which is written from the Arab point of view, when Sindh lost its independence and became a province of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires. The second most important aspect was Sindh’s conquest by the Mughals during the rule of Emperor Akbar. Although Akbar was a great ruler, Sindhis viewed him as an imperialist whose forces occupied Sindh and made it part of the Mughal Empire.

In his book ‘Tarikh-e-Mazhar-e-Shahjahani’, Yousaf Mirak offers details of how Sindh’s population was subjected to injustices and exploitation. This shows how Sindh suffered politically, socially and economically during the Mughal era.

During the fall of the Mughal Empire, the bureaucracy could not control Sindh’s affairs and handed the territory over to the Kalhoras in 1701, a local tribe that, in the absence of any authority, proceeded to fight against landlords and occupied their landed property. Soon after, the Kalhoras assumed power and became the ruling dynasty. That was the period when a peasants’ rebellion led by Sufi saint Shah Inayat was brutally crushed, and Shah Inayat was executed in 1718. The Kalhoras found Sindh to be politically disturbed and tribally divided. They had failed to consolidate their rule and couldn’t contribute to people’s welfare.

When Nadir Shah invaded Sindh in 1739, Mian Noor Muhammad, a Kalhora ruler, didn’t defend his people. Instead, he escaped along with his treasure and sought refuge at Amarkot, from where he wanted to travel to the Thar Desert. However, Nadir Shah eventually reached Amarkot, took Mian Noor Muhammad prisoner and seized his treasure. Nadir Shah fixed an annual tribute of Rs20 lakh and made Sindh a ‘tributary state’. After Nadir Shah occupied Sindh, Ahmad Shah Abdali followed in his footsteps and invaded the region quite a few times and plundered its wealth.

When the Kalhoras rulers failed to protect people from invaders, their lives became miserable. There was a permanent threat of invasions in their towns and villages. When the political system became progressively more unstable and the economic situation collapsed, the Kalhoras made attempts to seek refuge and protection. They turned their attention towards Sufi saints and their shrines and khanqahs. As a result, Sufism became popular in Sindh and various Sufi orders emerged that drew people to pay homage to saints and revitalise themselves to endure life’s hardships.

Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai experienced Sindh’s escalating political, social and economic conditions. As a result, we find deep imprints of his times in his poetry. Shah Bhitai also travelled across the country and established direct contacts with peasants, workers, craftsmen, artisans and nomads. He fully integrated their sensibilities, sufferings and pain into his consciousness. Therefore, his poetry reflects the condition of marginalised groups.

There is no religious extremism and sectarianism in Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s poetry. He also did not seek any royal favours or protection throughout his life. Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai chose to write in Sindhi instead of Persian, the language of the elite, to gain direct access to the people. His poetry, therefore, enriches Sindhi literature and raises the standard of Sindhi as a language.

If history is written on the basis of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s poetry, historians may find considerable information about culture and folk literature that could provide a better understanding of Sindh’s people.

After Partition, Sindh faced an array of political and social problems and a nationalist movement emerged to address these challenges. The nationalist movement recognises Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai as a symbol of Sindhi culture and the voice of Sindhis. However, making Bhitai a nationalist emblem is not correct because his poetry carries a universal message that should be promoted to integrate all the provinces of Pakistan.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.