Identity, structure and agency

May 30, 2021

Asma Faiz’s book is the first comprehensive scholarly study of Sindhi nationalism in Pakistan from the colonial era till 2020

The book under review is the first comprehensive scholarly study of Sindhi nationalism in Pakistan from the colonial era till 2020. There is a fairly vast archive of articles, chapter-length studies and polemical works of political activists both among the Sindhis and the Urdu-speaking muhajirs who have written on the ethnic politics of Sindh. However, a dispassionate account which is informed by the theories of ethnicity and identity construction and bases itself on the solid foundation of historical sources and interviews of participants in the ongoing expression of Sindhi nationalism was missing and the author, Dr Asma Faiz, has provided us with this.

The book has five chapters excluding the introduction and the conclusion. In the introduction the author makes the important point that the book “focuses on both structure and agency”” (p 3). The former refers to the way the state and its institutions control, mediate or/and influence the distribution of resources and power and what effect these phenomena have upon identity-construction and its articulation. Agency, on the other hand, refers to how human beings — in such formations as political parties, pressure groups and myth-makers — shape events. For instance, says the author, the basic structure of the state in South Asia is that it is centralised and follows a top-down model of governance. But this structure is challenged by counter-elites, which mobilise public opinion with reference to ethnic symbols (language, myth of common origin, religious uniformity etc). The structure actually favours the unitary state but, having declared that Pakistan (like India), is a federation, the governing elites can choose two paths of action. They can either profess to believe in federalism while actually governing according to existing patterns; or, they can react to the traditional ways of governance and insist on giving more powers to the federating units. Faiz calls this “path dependence” and explains the first mode of action as “self-reinforcing” and the second “reactive” (p 4). This theoretical framework places the politics of Sindhi nationalism in one or the other mode and is, therefore, of cardinal importance in understanding her work.

Having cleared the decks, so to speak, Asma Faiz tells us about the politics of Sindh before the Partition of 1947. The main points are that Sindh was a divided land even then. The urban areas were strongholds of Hindus who were urbanised, educated and thriving business people. The countryside, however, was dominated by Muslim landowners among whom some were religious leaders too. The colonial state determined a standard script for the language, encouraged the cultivation of land by Punjabi settlers especially around the Jamrao Canal and allowed the separation of Sindh from the Bombay Presidency in 1936. All these measures facilitated the construction of a Sindhi identity. And, Sindh being a Muslim-dominated province as opposed to Bombay which was not, this identity was Muslim Sindhi in orientation. With this background it is easy to understand how the settling in of a large number of Urdu-speaking immigrants (muhajirs) from 1947 onwards affected the Sindhis which is the subject of Chapter 2.

The muhajirs filled in the vacuum left by the migration of the Hindus to India in the urban areas. Moreover, the nascent Sindhi middle class, born as a consequence of colonial policies (such as teachers, lecturers, petty bureaucrats, journalists, publishers etc), was overwhelmed and dominated by the better educated muhajirs who, to the dismay of Sindhis, used Urdu and English which were the linguistic currency of the Pakistani state. More ominously for the Sindhis, the new state enforced policies of homogenisation and centralisation even going so far as to take over Karachi as its capital separating it from Sindh. The governing elites, even if Sindhi, were co-opted as they wanted power in return for following the traditional viceregal model of rule while the Sindhi nationalists, in their indignation of being cheated by the new state, went onto the path of radical opposition on the lines of the Bengali ethnic proto-elite and the Pashtun proto-elite. The promulgation of the One Unit, in which even the name of the province was officially banned, increased the tempo of resistance giving it a cultural stamp (the language, script, ajrak [a kind of sheet with colourful patterns], Raja Dahir as an icon of resistance to foreign conquest not Mohammad bin Qasim, who was an outsider etc). All these cultural icons irritated the Pakistani centralising bureaucracy, military and politicians.

This book is a landmark in studies on not only Sindhi nationalism but also ethnic nationalism, identity-formation and the deeper theoretical questions of structure and agency, centre-periphery relations and quotidian experiential ethnic lived relationships.

The political environment was now ripe for mediation as opposed to outright demands for separation of the kind which had created Bangladesh in December 1971. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), was now the ruler and he promised to fulfill many of the demands of the Sindhis. In Chapter 3 Faiz argues that in Sindh, the PPP functioned like a nationalist Sindhi party while in the rest of the country it was a federalist one. Bhutto increased the share of Sindhis in the state, gave the Sindhi language a higher status by declaring it the official language of the province (though this was modified by the dual-language agreement since the muhajirs resisted it and in July 1972 there were language riots in Sindh). That is why, when Bhutto was hanged in 1979, a movement called the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), rose to resist Gen Zia ul Haq’s military dictatorship. The nationalist politicians, such as GM Syed and Pir Pagara, who always thought of Bhutto as a stooge of the Centre and an opportunist, did not join the MRD.

However, the author does not leave the saga of the nationalists at that. The fourth chapter is on their politics from the beginning till date. She mentions different stages of their struggle: “ethnic outbidding, fragmentation and integration in the post-colonial state” (p 145-6). In the beginning, directly piqued by Bhutto, GM Syed raised the demand of an independent Sindhu Desh. Then this movement was fractured and finally the remaining nationalists, like Bhutto earlier, demanded provincial autonomy and resources. One feature of this chapter is the author’s description of the lived experience of life in Hyderabad, which is divided into muhajir and Sindhi zones. She conducted interviews in this divided city and one of the most fruitful aspects of her work is her frank avowal of her positionality as a young woman of Punjabi ethnic background who was also privileged as she held a doctorate from France and was an academic in a prestigious private university in Lahore.

The last chapter is about the fragility of the political equilibrium between the Centre and the province and between muhajir and Sindhi demands in this province which, I sometimes think, seems like an ammunition dump which can get blown away by the blunderings of human agency or the rigidity of the hangover of the viceregal, centralising state. One says that because the author describes how the PPP has become a Sindhi nationalist party in practice. And, this being so, it is harassed by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) which has been in power since 2018. The federal government, following the logic of centralisation, desires to modify the 18th Amendment so as to accommodate the military, which feels that the amendment leaves less resources for onward distribution to the federation and hence puts the defence budget into jeopardy. The Centre also vilifies and frustrates the provincial government on issues of autonomy as far as the curriculum is concerned (PTI’s much-touted single curriculum for all notwithstanding the fact that education is a provincial subject) and policies concerning Covid-19 (Sindh chief minister desiring a lockdown in the first phase of it and the PM opposing it). The Sindhi-muhajir politics, says the author, remains unclear though fraught with dangerous fissures.

In the conclusion, Asma Faiz contends that Sindhi nationalism “expresses the ideological aspirations of a community in search of its lost glory” (p 189). She concludes her book with a frank and disarming admission that no study can be the last word on any subject and future researchers might find it useful to explore the PPP’s future trajectory and, indeed, the future course of Sindhi nationalism itself. But, whatever the future has to offer, this book is a landmark in studies on not only Sindhi nationalism but also ethnic nationalism, identity-formation and the deeper theoretical questions of structure and agency, Centre-periphery relations and quotidian experiential ethnic lived relationships. It has the potential to become a reference work as far as Pakistan’s politics, and, indeed, politics in multi-ethnic post-colonial states is concerned. I recommend it unreservedly to the general reader as well as the specialist in politics, history and South Asian Studies. The book is very well-produced for which the publisher too should be commended. I am glad to find that this book is part of a series of scholarly studies on South Asia whose general editor, Prof Christophe Jaffrelot, is a renowned scholar of South Asian studies. I am sure the studies in this series will be well-received and insightful as Prof Jaffrelot’s work is. I end by congratulating the author for such an excellent addition to studies of the politics and history of South Asia.

In Search of Lost Glory: Sindhi Nationalism in Pakistan

Author: Asma Faiz

Publisher: Hurst & Company, 2021

Pages: 277

The reviewer is an occasional contributor

Identity, structure and agency