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Portrait of a Remarkable Community

communication between Hindus and Muslims. The continued use of the Arabic Portrait of a Remarkable Community Cosmopolitan Connections: The Sindhi Diaspora, 1860-2000 by Mark-Anthony Falzon; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005;

Reviews

Portrait of a Remarkable

Community

Cosmopolitan Connections: The Sindhi Diaspora, 1860-2000

by Mark-Anthony Falzon; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005;

pp 294, Rs 650.

FAISAL DEVJI

A
global community of Hindus with origins in what is today Pakistan, the Sindhis are a remarkable people by any accounting. Unlike trading diasporas from other parts of the subcontinent, they are not heir to a long tradition of commerce overseas, having taken up the practice only after their forcible displacement from Sindh during the partition of British India. Certain castes of Sindhis had, of course, participated in overland as well as overseas trade in the past, but it is the conversion of a whole community to this vocation that is so interesting. Indeed, Falzon points out that it is this conversion and not exile alone that made an agglomeration of castes into a community properly speaking. But what he neglects to tell us is that this new community was only made possible because its menial castes had been left behind in Sindh where they still languish. Sindhis outside Pakistan are the only Hindu group defined by language and region without a low-caste base.

It is because they form a community properly speaking that the Sindhis differ even from closely allied trading castes in Gujarat like the ‘lohanas’ and ‘bhatias’, as well as from Muslim groups like the ‘khojas’, ‘bohras’ and ‘memons’, who share the same caste background. However long their commercial pedigree, and whatever their rates of exogamy, these groups have remained castes, though like the Sindhis the majority of their members were pushed into trade by external circumstances. In the case of Gujarat, and especially Kutch, the primary circumstance was drought, which during the 19th century encouraged people to abandon seasonal agriculture as well as local commerce for Mumbai and the territories connected to it by the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and beyond.

In Falzon’s recounting Sindhis compare themselves to the Jews and Palestinians or the Armenians and Lebanese, rather than to their Gujarati neighbours, business partners and indeed kinsmen. Not only does this comparison show up the global history within which the Sindhis situate themselves, it also points to their identification as a community at a global level, something the Gujarati groups can only do by identifying with Hinduism or Islam more generally. Naturally this does not mean that Sindhis do not identify as Hindus, but that their sense of community is not globalised in terms of Hinduism. Falzon notes, however, that there is a lessening, or rather an internalisation of ‘nanakpanthi’ or sufi practices among Sindhis, who publicly at least abjure rituals and beliefs that are now marked as Sikh or Muslim.

Religious Universalism

The community’s Hindu devotions include the worship of Jhulelal, formerly a lohana deity who has become a pan-Sindhi god, though one whose name and legend have long been appropriated by Muslims in Pakistan. Even the reformed Hinduism of the Sindhis, therefore, retains a direct connection with sufism, one that is recognised by them in the popularity of Pakistani odes to Jhulelal such as that sung by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But sufi texts from Sindh, like the hugely popular Shah jo Risalo, contain a great many ostensibly Hindu elements, so it is unfair to label their use among Hindus as being somehow more syncretistic than they would be with Muslims. Such links with Sindh do not in any case presume any real communication between Hindus and Muslims. The continued use of the Arabic alphabet for the Sindhi language is a case in point, for unlike the case with Punjabi or Bengali, this common language does not seem to have resulted in the development of any common literature or even culture.

What all this suggests is the operation not of religious syncretism but rather the reverse – of religious universalism. So when the khojas, themselves of lohana extraction, began moving in large numbers to Mumbai and beyond during the 19th century, they also discarded the local Kutchi and indeed Sindhi elements of their religious texts for the universal narratives of reformed Hinduism. The fact that they were at the same time becoming more Islamic in terms of their practices was part of the same logic of universalism, with Hinduism increasingly becoming a private, internal and sometimes folkloric element in khoja devotion. But the important thing is that even in a suppressed mode these elements have to be part of a reformed and universal Hinduism in order to make sense. Unfortunately Falzon is content to rely upon a dismal literature that would divide Indian religions into either the syncretistic or the puritanical.

Falzon also gives short shrift to the relations and comparisons that exist between Sindhi and Gujarati trading groups, despite the fact that they often live and work side by side. He is more concerned with locating the Sindhis within a larger scholarly debate on diasporas and cosmopolitanism that spans the globe. But it is precisely this bit of his book that is least interesting, constituting as it does the “theoretical” portion of a PhD dissertation that might well have been omitted for publication. While Sindhis are to be found in many of the same diasporic locations as the more numerous Gujaratis, they also dominate their own global circuit. If the Gujaratis are to be found in East and Central Africa, Sindhis compete only with the Lebanese for West Africa. If Gujaratis make Britain their base, Sindhis take Spain, Gibraltar and Malta as their own. If Gujaratis trade in North America, Sindhis do so in the Caribbean as well. The list goes on, with Hong Kong, Tangier and Yokohama still unaccounted for.

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

Why does this happen? Not because of any anthropological theory regarding diasporas so much as because of a very particular history. It is for this history that Falzon’s book is important, though he has done himself a great disservice by reducing it to many small bits under the wheels of ethnography and theory. But what Falzon does tell us about the history of Sindhi commerce is highly original and deserving of another book. During the 18th century, he remarks, the Sindhi town of Shikarpur was the financial capital of the Durrani empire, which was centred in Afghanistan but extended from the banks of the Indus to those of the Oxus. Sindhi bankers and traders were active then across central Asia, though they appear to have been confined only to certain castes. The fall of the Durranis and the rise of the Sikhs as well as of the British eventually led to the collapse of this flourishing market, though the local dynasty of the Mirs of Talpur continued to provide patronage to Sindhi tradesmen in luxury goods as much as to Sindhi bankers and administrators.

The real break with the past came with the British annexation of Sindh and the dissolution of the Talpur court. While Sindhi administrators and agriculturalists merely accommodated themselves to British rule, the merchants and bankers embarked on a great adventure. With their firms headquartered in Hyderabad, these men took their luxury goods, the Sindh works that gave them a name, Sindhworki, into the Mediterranean. Taking advantage of the new traffic between Europe and Asia, as well as the opening up of tourism in the Mediterranean, Sindhis established themselves in Aden and Port Said, Malta and Gibraltar, no longer selling Sindhi textiles and curios alone, but also Japanese and Chinese goods, silks especially, which they obtained from other Sindhis based in Shanghai or Yokohama. But it was financiers in Hyderabad who held this extended network together. These caste-based Sindhworki firms, claims Falzon, laid the basis both historically and financially for the emergence after partition of the entire Sindhi community as a trading diaspora.

The fact that Sindhi traders should have moved out of India rather than within it is interesting and is true of Gujaratis as well. The idea that this was because of the greater fortunes to be made abroad is disproved by the domestic migration of Marwari merchants at the same time, as well as of the Parsi concentration in Mumbai, both groups producing far more wealth than the Sindhis or Gujaratis overseas. Rather Gujarat and Sindh have historically been connected more to the world outside India than within it, whether this was the world of maritime trade in the Indian Ocean or overland trade in central Asia. Their geographical position on ancient trade routes, coupled with the fact that Sindhi and Gujarati merchants tended to be religious as much as caste minorities, might explain why their wealth remained commercial even in the salad days of industry. Today we are seeing the final absorption of Gujarat into the body politic of India, its resident and diasporic peoples reattached to the state by way of a liberalised economy with which they relate primarily as Hindus.

Call for Papers

The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) is organising its 9th Asian Security Conference (ASC) on Evolving Security Dynamics in Southeast Asia: Emerging Threats and Responses. This will be held in New Delhi on February 9-10, 2007.

The IDSA invites well-researched papers of about 5,000 words on the following themes from interested Indian scholars/officials/experts.

Session One: Perspectives on Southeast Asian Security Session Two: Terrorism and Rise of Religious Fundamentalism Session Three: Energy and Maritime Security Issues Session Four: Regionalism and Multilateralism in Southeast Asia Session Five: Southeast Asia and External Powers Session Six: India and Southeast Asia

An Abstract of around 500 words should reach IDSA by November 15, 2006. The Abstracts will be reviewed by an Expert Committee. Those selected to write the papers will be intimated about the Expert Committee’s decision by November 30, 2006.

All Abstracts should be e-mailed to:

The Conference Secretary 9th ASC, IDSA idsa9asc@gmail.com

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

Falzon tells us that many Sindhis even today define wealth in very old-fashioned ways, in terms of unattached and shifting capital that allows equally mobile traders to take advantage of price differences between markets and to cut out middlemen. Yet this ancient form of garnering (rather than producing) value is now deployed within a global network of which the central point is Mumbai. This city, argues Falzon, is by no means a traditional trading centre for the global network he describes. Unlike Hyderabad before it, Mumbai is neither a headquarters for diasporic Sindhi firms nor a centre for their financing, though it is both these things for companies based there, as well as being a site where commodities are produced and consumed. Instead Mumbai is a notional centre, a place where all the far-flung lines of Sindhi migrancy and commerce meet at intervals. It is a node in which the Sindhi diaspora is tied together by the circulation of women in marriage and of men on family visits.

His all-too-brief telling of history apart, Falzon is to be commended for eschewing the kind of scholarly narrative that would ascribe all of Sindhi success to some traditional if much expanded form of group cohesion. The ancient and oppressive forms of cohesion that are invariably invoked to describe otherwise modern groups like the Sindhis possess no uniquely Asian character. Indeed, Falzon notes that rather than the group it is the individual who dominates the culture of Sindhi commerce. Being one’s own master, he relates, is the stereotyped desire informing Sindhi decisions to reject the land and jobs that the Indian government offered them as exiles in 1947, as well as to move from well-paid professions in Europe and America back into commerce. It is also the desire, held in common with Gujaratis, that prevents the building up of multi-generational family businesses, with Sindhi companies generally fragmenting after the second or third generation. But then is not capitalism the quintessentially individual vocation?

EPW

Email: devjif@newschool.edu

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

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