Sunday April 14, 2024

The Sheedis of Sindh

By Mubarak Ali
February 25, 2019

Every society has marginalised groups of people, who are separated from the mainstream and whose social and cultural contribution is not recognised by traditional historians.

As a result, they are confined to their own micro world and develop their own customs and traditions, social and cultural values. As a minority, they are not in competition either for a higher social status or for government jobs. For their livelihood, they specialise in professions which provide them a space to survive.

In Sindh, there are many marginalised groups including the Sheedis, the Bhils, the Kolis and the Megwars, which were tribes that migrated from Rajasthan. They were agriculturists and remained in the rural areas. The Dalits are in every city and town of the Sindh. They are highly discriminated against and reside in their own areas.

The Jogis, whose profession is snake charming, either live in their separate villages or build their huts outside the city in the open space and for their livelihood depend on charity because snake charming is no more attractive for people. Therefore, they do not have any other source of income but begging. Whenever the land mafia acquires their land, they have to move to some other open space and build makeshift huts for a temporary living. My friend Khurshid Qaim Khani, who spent some time living in their community, wrote a book, ‘Jogi Basti’ that describes their social, cultural and religious life.

The Hindu community of Sindh has also been marginalised after Partition, when its higher and middle classes unanimously decided to leave Pakistan. Some Hindus, many of them resourceless, stayed back in Pakistan. The majority of them live in the Tharparkar area as government jobs are accessible to them. The Hindu community turned to independent professions such as medicine or shopkeeping. Mostly they have remained far away from the internal politics of the country and silently spend their time in their own community. Despite discrimination against them, they avoid engaging in any conflict and practise endurance.

The historiography of Sindh has largely ignored these marginalised groups and does not include them in the historical narratives. They are, therefore, deprived of history and identity and have become powerless and history-less. However, their very existence, their activities and their professional work, contribute to society, something that generally goes unnoticed. There is a need to include them in historical narratives, so they are consequently assigned a social status in society.

We would like to discuss the brief history of the Sheedis of Sindh who were brought from Zanjibar, which was ruled by the Arabs, most probably during the Talpur period. These African slaves were purchased by the amirs and the nobility of Sindh but they were not treated inhumanly and brutally. On the contrary, they became trusted and faithful domestic servants of the family.

Some of the European travellers who visited Sindh in the 19th century such as E A Langley, Richard Burton, and T Posten observed the presence of the Sheedis in Sindhi society and studied their character, habits and customs. According to them, they were fond of dancing, singing and merriment. They celebrated an annual festival near Karachi at Manghopir. They remained happy in their small world.

Richard Burton in his book, ‘Races of Sindh’, remarks that “their great delights are eating, drinking, music and dancing. The two latter exercises are usually combined, and present a most grotesque appearance.” (R Burton, Races, pp255-57)

With the passage of time, the Sheedis forgot their mother tongue, learnt Sindhi language and converted to Islam. There are Sheedi villages in Sindh where they live and are engaged in different professions. Socially, they belonged to the lower stratum of society. Education is beyond their access. Therefore, they engage in unskilled labour job. There is an organisation of the Sheedis known as the Anjuman-e-Habsha. It makes efforts to create social and cultural consciousness within the community. However, it is a difficult task because the organisation does not get any moral and financial support from the rest of society.

Again it is difficult to write the history of the Sheedis because the majority of them are not aware of their ancestral history. The only book about them that I know about was written by Siddiq Musaffir (d1961), who was an African slave, and became a teacher after gaining an education. He inspired the vadera/jagirdar of Tando Bago to establish a school for boys and girls. He was a journalist as well as a poet, and wrote his memoirs tracing the origin of the African slaves who arrived in Sindh. Unfortunately, the book is not available now. Perhaps, someone has it in their private library.

When the British invaded Sindh in 1843, they easily defeated the Mirs of Hyderabad in the battle of Miani. However, in the battle of Dabba, the English army was resisted by Hushu Sheedi, who was killed fighting. He was buried on the spot where he was killed. The Sheedi community gathers around his grave to remember his bravery and sacrifice for Sindh.

The Nationalist Movement of Sindh, recognising the services of Hushu Sheedi named him general Hosh Muhammad Shaheed. A road in Hyderabad is named in his honour. Sindhi nationalism should try to not alienate marginalised groups but include them in the Sindhi nation and struggle for their rights.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.