Mai Bakhtawar: A forgotten daughter of Sindh

Remembering the symbol of peasant resistance against landlords

Mai Bakhtawar Shaheed is one of the most important figures of peasant resistance in colonial-era Sindh.

The history of Sindh, today a province of Pakistan, is in large part the history of peasant movements, reflecting peasant resistance to the power of landed aristocrats.

Frequently, it was in reaction to the exploitation of the peasants by the landed gentry in Sindh that the former organised themselves. They stood against the landed class in order to safeguard their rights.

Sindhi women, like their men, took part in these efforts. However, so far, their role has largely been overlooked. Thus, little is known about the role of women in peasant uprisings.

Mai Bakhtawar, like many other women heroes of peasant movements such as Bibi Alai of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (Roshniah Movement) and Mai Ladhi of Punjab (Dullah Bhatti Movement) did not attract the due attention of academicians or historians, who have failed to do justice to them. Mai Bakhtawar was doubly oppressed i.e. because of her class and gender.

Bakhtawar was born in 1880 in Dodo Khan Sargani village, in Tando Bago tehsil, in a peasant family. She was a Lashari Baloch.

She was popular for her bravery since her childhood. Bakhtawar was married to Wali Muhammad Lashari in 1898, who worked as a peasant in the lands of a landed aristocrat.

Her village was a part of an estate which consisted of 40,000 acres of land. It was routine those days for landlords to come with armed men at the time of harvest and grab most of the yield, leaving only a small portion of the crop for the peasants.

In 1946, a row over batai (crop sharing) started between the peasants and the landlords in Sanghar, Nawabshah and Tharparkar districts.

In 1946, a row over batai (crop sharing) started between the peasants and landlords in Sanghar, Nawabshah, and Tharparkar. Mai Bakhtawar was shot dead when she confronted the landlord and his men who tried to take away the villagers’ share of the crop.

Landed aristocrats demanded a larger share from the peasants. However, the peasants refused to give up more than half of the crops. This resulted in clashes between the peasants and the landlords.

The latter, with the help of state machinery, attacked the peasants in many villages and drove them out of the fields.

The Sindh Hari Committee responded by organizing demonstrations, rallies, protests, conferences and meetings across the province.

Hyder Bakhsh Jatoi and other leaders started a movement and demanded that peasants be given their half of the crops. In this context, Jatoi organised a peasant conference which lasted for three days, June 20-22, 1947.

On June 22, almost all men and a majority of women went to attend the conference in Jhudo village.

Taking advantage of this situation, Saadullah – the landlord of the area - entered the village and tried to take away the entire crop yield with the help of his manager, Khalid, and some armed henchmen.

However, Mai Bakhtawar challenged the group and said: “You cannot take a single seed of grain from here, until the real owners of this crop return from the conference, and get their basic right.” She raised the slogan “whosoever sows, shall reap”.

This infuriated the men who shot Mai Bakhtawar. She died on the spot. Later, her killers were punished with life terms in jail.

She was the first woman to have died in the history of the peasant uprisings in Sindh. She sacrificed her life for the rights of the peasants. She lived in an era and area where even men were afraid to raise their voice against the landlords for their rights.

She tried to keep the lamp of resistance by burning her blood. That is why she is called the Sindhi Joan of Arc.

She opened the way and encouraged other women to participate in the peasant resistance. Women of Sindhiani Tehreek (a movement of women in Sindh) are said to be inspired by Mai Bakhtawar’s struggle.

Her sacrifice motivated the Sindh government to issue the Sindh Tenancy Act, 1950, which gave the right to the tenants to take half of the total crop yield. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto named her daughter Bakhtawar Bhutto after Mai Bakhtawar Shaheed.

A union council and a primary school for boys in Kunri tehsil in Mirpur Khas district, are also named after her.

Landless women farmers received tenancy rights for the first time in Sindh in 2016.

However, Mai Bakhtawar’s role has been largely forgotten. This is manifest in the fact that not even a single research paper has been written on her.

There are two reasons behind this: she hailed from a poor peasant family of rural Sindh and she was a female in a patriarchal society.

She must be remembered for being a symbol of resistance against landed aristocrats of Sindh as her role is no less important than the women textile workers of the US, who revolted against their exploitation by the capitalists in 1857.

The writer is a lecturer at GC University, Faisalabad, and a PhD student at the Centre for Global Studies at Shanghai University, China

Mai Bakhtawar: A forgotten daughter of Sindh