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December 1, 2019

Culture is political

Opinion

December 1, 2019

The celebration of Sindhi Culture Day started in December 2009, first as a reaction to the comments of a television anchor who criticized then president Asif Ali Zardari for wearing a Sindhi cap (topi) on a foreign tour. The anchor’s comments invited a strong backlash from Sindhi intelligentsia, media and activists.

Ali Kazi, a pioneering leader of one of the largest media houses in the Sindhi language, was the first one to call for a day of unity (Ekta Day) to denounce this reductionist mindset that has been on display since the birth of Pakistan. This narrow mindset has survived because of the monologue that has continued on state-controlled media. Consequently, the country failed to promote an understanding of people, their culture, history and languages among the federating provinces.

Why should the Sindhi topi and Ajrak not be considered Pakistan’s national outfit? The Turkish cap does not have roots in our society and culture; my grandmother has no association with it, it is alien to the people living on the banks of the Indus river. Similarly, no one has a problem with the ‘shervani’ but it has not existed in Dadu and Hala. Ajrak, on the other hand, is found in archaeological discoveries on the banks of River Sindhu (Mehran and Indus).

Sindh’s accumulated discontent needed a way out to express itself. Ali Kazi gave it to them in the form of Ekta Day; later other media groups joined the popular movement with different names such as Sindhi topi-Ajrak day, which changed into Sindhi Culture Day.

The PPP, being the largest representative party in Sindh, did not remain aloof from this activism. The party was also facing many pressures from the MQM and the centre. As the MQM continued to call for creating a new administrative unit in Sindh, in 2014 the Sindh Assembly passed a strong unanimous resolution against the division of the province or formation of new administrative units, which Sindhis saw as a means to divide Sindh and take away urban cities including the province’s capital port city.

While for politicians such calls for more units may be a part of political blackmailing to weaken the PPP’s rule in the province, common Sindhis, mostly nationalist ones, continue to see it as a deep-rooted conspiracy to divide Sindh on ethnic basis. Some Sindhi nationalists see it as part of a divide and rule policy by the powerful centre.

Like economy, law and ideology, culture is political too. When people feel insecure and feel that their rights and resources are being snatched and controlled by others, they resort to varying means to assert their identity and express discontent. Sindhi Culture Day is an expressed rejection of a constructed identity being imposed on them, on their history and their unique identity.

Interestingly, the celebration of Sindhi Culture Day has taken a form of narrative that furthers the view of Sindh as a pluralistic and inclusive society. Religious beliefs have not influenced the core decision-making of rulers, whenever there has been indigenous rule in the land. If we tell our children today that the Prussian language has remained the official language in Sindh for over a thousand years – the court language even in days when the native Talpurs were ruling Sindh – would they believe us?

Sindhi language, literature and poetry not just survived centuries-long dominance of Persian but also when Farsi was seen as ‘farsi ghory charhse’ meaning ‘if you know Persian, you will rise in power’. During Mughal rule in Sindh, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai rejected this notion in his famous couplet: “Jey tu sikhi farsi, toon golo toon gulam’ (Shah Latif 1690-1752) [“If you learn Persian you remain a slave and serve their interests”].

Shah Latif rejected the dominance of a foreign language over Sindh’s people, society and governance. Persian continued to be the court language until the British Raj occupied Sindh, defeating Talpur armies in 1843. British officials and spies knew well how to rule Sindh; they developed and finalized the Sindhi language alphabet and script and declared Sindhi the official language of Sindh. This remained so even after Sindh was made part of the Bombay Presidency and a commissioner from Bombay would rule Sindh for the next 90 years, until 1935 when Sindh regained its separate identity.

The language question remains unresolved in Pakistan. The Senate passed a bill to declare the languages spoken in the country as national languages, but the National Assembly refuses to take it up. In Sindh, some NGOs continue to teach Sindhi-speaking children using Urdu as the medium of instruction, defying the provincial law that has made Sindhi the medium of instruction. Are people wrong to view this as part of indoctrination, bringing the death of a written language in so many households?

In the context of political injustice and central control, Sindhis celebrate their culture day, making it into a huge political statement and proudly claiming their culture and identity. Making Sindhi one of the national languages of Pakistan would create a solid bond between the state and the people, as opposed to suppressing them and treating them as subjects.

Today is the tenth anniversary of Sindhi Culture Day (Ekta Day); the name has became so popular that people have started naming their newborn girls Ekta. It is an expression of soft power, making people feel that there is no degradation in taking pride in one’s roots, history and tradition. Isn’t that the human story in all parts of Mother Earth?

Email: [email protected]

Twitter @mushrajpar