Muhammad Ali Shah will always keep alive in the hearts of those he worked for: the fisher folk, desert dwellers and members of many other marginalised communities
Fighting for one’s motherland and its offspring is a valued cultural trait in Sindh, the land Muhmmad Ali Shah belonged to. Saying ‘no’ to some wrong done to the native land and its children is a trait routinely praised in Sindh’s folklore, poetry, music and dance. The people of Sindh, irrespective of their educational attainment, socioeconomic status and their places of residence, equally revere Marui, Soreah Badshah and every other symbol of resistance and struggle. All those who stood up and made a sacrifice for their marooara (the native people), are celebrated. These rebels and their rebellion, no matter whether they belong to a distant past or to a recent time, are always alive in the imagination and memory of Sindhi society.
Saeen Muhmmad Ali Shah is the latest addition to the list of such illustrious rebels. He said no to the directives and diktats of those who wanted to suppress the rights of the already marginalised sections of society. For doing so, he will be remembered forever by those whose lives he touched during his struggle and activism.
Hailing from a political tradition informed and shaped by socialist and nationalist ideologies, Saeen Muhammad Ali Shah cherished Sindh’s culture to an extent that he chose to spend most of his life with the fisher folk and desert-dwellers of Sindh. Rather than confining himself to his immediate family, he extended his kinship far and beyond to everyone who required his support in their struggle for their rights. He questioned every development policy that impinged upon their lives and livelihoods and resisted every move that he thought could endanger the ecology and environment of his beloved land. His loud ‘no’ to and steadfast resistance against every wrong committed against fishing communities made him a household name among the inland and marine fisher folk living not just in Sindh but everywhere across Pakistan.
Muhammad Ali Shah opposed large dams because they leave little water for the lower riparian areas, destroy river channels, devastate natural lakes, creeks and the delta and, thus, cause large-scale destitution of fishing families. He resisted industrial ventures that could cause environmental degradation of land, pollute water bodies and damage air quality. He strived against mega-projects – such as the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) and the Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD) – that degrade Sindh’s water resources.
Hailing from a political tradition informed and shaped by socialist and nationalist ideologies, Muhammad Ali Shah cherished Sindh’s culture to an extent that he chose to spend most of his life with fisher folk and desert dwellers of Sindh.
He waged a long battle against the oppressive and exploitative contract system in inland fisheries. He protested strongly against corporate deep-sea fishing because these two leave poor fisher folk at the mercy of wealthy contractors and multinational corporations. He also highlighted the disappearance of mangrove forests from along the coast of Sindh and Balochistan and made efforts for their preservation and expansion.
Shah fought against moves by the federal government to occupy some islands off the coast of Karachi to develop mega real estate projects. He did this twice in 20 years – once during the military government of Pervez Musharraf and a second time under the administration of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The accidental death of his wife, Tahira Shah, who was also his comrade and companion in all his struggles, was an immense emotional loss he suffered a few years earlier. He, however, did not let his grief dampen his fighting spirit. Instead, he chose ever new battles to fight after her passing away.
One of his most recent struggles was highlighting the social and environmental impacts of coal-fired power projects being set up in the Thar desert. He raised his voice against the displacement of the fisher folk, farmers and herders from their ancestral homes, water bodies, farmlands and pastures. He always stood firmly with the communities suffering the tragic consequences of these projects in their political, legal, and social struggles to protect and preserve their rights. He, indeed, mobilised, united, and led them to initiate a people’s tribunal — known as rajooni Kath in Thar’s local parlance –against the socially disruptive, economically damaging and environmentally destructive impacts of coal mining and coal-based power generation in Thar.
Saeen Muhammad Ali Shah not just led rallies, caravans and protest demonstrations. He also wrote regularly in Sindhi newspapers. He delivered numerous lectures, gave hundreds of interviews and addressed countless press conferences – all in the service of the land he belonged to and all the people, animals, fish, birds, plants, flowers and trees that sought sustenance from this land. His struggle for environmental justice was not just focused on here and now. He wanted to hand over a cleaner, greener and more sustainable future to the coming generations.
Saeen Muhammad Ali Shah passed away in August after a long battle with Covid-19 – the only battle he lost all his life. He, though, will keep alive in the hearts of those he worked for: the fisher folk, the desert-dwellers and members of many other marginalised communities. They will remember him just as they remember Marui and Soreah Badshah – as a rebel with a lifelong cause to improve the lot of his motherland and its dwellers.
The writer is development sector specialist and writes for different publications