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The Sindhi Identity

The Burden of Refuge: The Sindhi Hindus of Gujarat by Rita Kothari

The Sindhi Identity

The Burden of Refuge: The Sindhi Hindus of Gujarat

by Rita Kothari;Orient Longman, Hardback;pp 208 + xx, Rs 675.


istorical exploration is, fortunately,a never-ending process. The constantsearch for new meanings or the excavationof hitherto hidden histories and the stretching and expansion of the boundaries ofhistorical meaning and definition are whatmake this process both enriching and fascinating. Nowhere is this more evidentthan in the recent opening up of what hascome to be known as “Partition studies” – occasionally referred to as Partition histories – that bring new perspectives to themultiple narratives of the Partition of Indiain 1947. Not only are scholars in India,Pakistan and Bangladesh and elsewherenow working on different aspects of thehistories of the Partition but there are, happily, also a number of cross-countrystudies that are in the making (with at leastone project directed by Ashis Nandy andhoused at the Centre for the Study ofDeveloping Societies now completed, andanother, housed at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad currently). Recent books address aspects,which have not received much attention before, such as the comparative aspects ofdifferent partitions (as seen in the work ofSmita Tewari Jassal), or the experience ofdalits (as seen in the work of RavinderKaur), or that of minorities (as seen in thework of Ahmed Salim), or indeed that ofsmaller, significant groups such as theSindhis (as seen in the work of RitaKothari), or the experiences of Muslimswho did not migrate (as in the work ofVazira Zamindar), or those in border cities(as in the work of Ian Talbot), or thespecific experience of Kashmir (as in thework of Andrew Whitehead). Nor is academic enquiry the only route that recentresearch and questioning has taken: TarunSaint, Jahanara Kabir, Sukrita Paul Kumar, Niaz Zaman are names that join other writers and editors such as Alok Bhalla, Mushir ul Hasan, Intizar Hussain, whose focus combines both academic research and the exploration of fiction, first personaccounts and testimonies. The list grows,as it should, and in doing so, opens upfurther rich seams to mine.

With new books come new methods of research, and with new methods of research come new results, and new knowledge. Rita Kothari’s fine book, The Burden of Refuge, provides an excellentexample of this. With its mix of the personal story, academic exercise, reading ofliterature, attention to voice, tracing ofrecord and file and letter and document, this elegant and accessible book makes asignificant addition to the new literatureon Partition.

Another Identity

Although its story lies squarely withinthe master, and meta narrative of the Partition, The Burden of Refuge is about the smaller narratives that lie beneath the master narrative and are often obscured byit/them. In the case of the Partition, it isthe narrative of the Hindu and Muslim identities that has been the dominant one and that has, by and large, held the attentionof historians. This book turns our attention to another narrative (and one that containswithin itself many contesting narratives)

– that of the Sindhis and in so doing,directs our attention to a different way ofreading identity: not in terms only ofreligion as mainstream Partition historiesdo but in terms of another, different form of identity, that of a region, a people, possiblyeven a community. The moment you turnthe lens in that direction, a different realitymanifests itself. As this study shows, forthe Sindhis, the distance between the Sindhi Hindu and Punjabi Hindu was sometimesgreater than that between the Sindhi Muslimand Sindhi Hindu. Syncretism was a realthing, Sufism a shared inheritance, friendships real and deep, customs and ritualsand ways of dressing were often common(such that Sindhi Hindus were often considered different and not “real” Hindus because, it was said, they dressed likeMuslims and ate meat).

Economic and Political Weekly May 5, 2007

But equally real were the cleavages andthe bitterness that emerged when thePartition did take place. Kothari painstakingly traces the many elements that wentinto the making of fissures and divisionsamong a people who were bound togetherin different ways by a culture, a contextand multiple and overlapping identities.The economic domination of the Sindhi Hindus (and the continuing indebtednessof the Sindhi Muslims, including the oncewealthy landowners targeted by colonialland taxation policies), often expressedbenevolently but nonetheless carrying withit the potential for resentment, was onlyone element in this. Language was another

– in particular the attempt on the part ofthe colonial masters to find for Sindh a language and a script that would enableboth its Hindus and Muslims to access education and therefore jobs but wouldspecifically also empower the Muslims todo so (Hindus already held many important posts). The choice of the Perso-Arabicscript, made with this in mind, ironicallyresulted in more Hindus mastering it andusing it for social mobility. Added to thiswere differences in physical location, withthe majority of Hindus living in cities andthe majority of Muslims in rural areas, afact that resulted in enabling the formerto better access the benefits of education. Differences of this kind provided a fertileground for organisations like the HinduMahasabha and its later partner, theRashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) onone side, and the Muslim League on theother to foment prejudice and hatred.Kothari traces the growing influence of theRSS, and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar’s growing interest in Sindh and HinduSindhis, through a range of sources thatinclude, poignantly, her own family history and the involvement of her father anduncle in the organisation, and points tohow its success was, in some part, also dueto Mahatma Gandhi’s relative non-involvement in Sindh at the time.

The RSS presence and its success inSindh, however, was due in no small measure, as Kothari ably demonstrates, tothe presence of the Arya Samaj whoseactivities in bringing converts (presumedto be erstwhile Hindus who had strayedinto or been coerced into converting toIslam) back into the fold through ‘shuddhi’ceremonies paved the way for the RSS tostrike its roots in Sindh. In the way thatone form of intolerance feeds into another, the Arya Samaj’s activities did not onlyopen the route for the RSS but also, indirectly, allowed the Muslim League entry,thereby creating conditions for the furthersolidification of communal identities.

Thus economics, language, education,politics, land reforms and the rural-urban divide were among the elements that madefor divisions across the commonality of aSindhi identity shared by Muslims andHindus, while a sense of “Sindhiness” in which both took pride was the cement thatperhaps kept the communities from turningviolent towards each other. For one of the remarkable things about the Sindhi experience of the Partition is the absence (inrelative terms) of physical, brutal violence.Unlike in Punjab, where a similar sense ofa shared past was brutally ruptured by theviolence of the Partition, in Sindh, the violence was sporadic and did not extendover a long period. Nor was division, asin the Punjab or in Bengal, a real thing,for, as Kothari points out, the whole ofSindh went to Pakistan and for the Sindhis there was no other land that they could calltheir own, where they could go and settle.Nor were the Muslims who streamed into Sindh, Sindhi Muslims; rather theywere Muslims from different parts ofIndia, seen by the Sindhi population (bothMuslim and Hindu) as “outsiders” and itwas when they came and started to takeover properties that feelings of fear, bitterness and resentment were exacerbated. The perception of those who left as “theirown” and those who came in as “outsiders” in many ways sowed the seeds for theturbulence in which Sindh finds itself today.

Changing Sindhi Character

However, as Kothari’s book points outagain and again, nothing is ever simple andthe blacks and whites of any situation arealways tempered by the greys. Her discussion of the “Sindhiness” in which manySindhis took pride does not romanticise orvalorise something that is, in effect, sonebulous that it is difficult to pin down.That there was a shared culture, a sense of belonging, an identity not defined byreligion, is without doubt. But that therewere, within this, differences and divisions is also clear. That Sindhis in Sindh today still mourn the departure of theircompatriots of yore and reminisce aboutthe days when Hindus and Muslims livedtogether, and Sindhis who left, yearn forthe homes left behind, is something thatemerges again and again from the firstperson accounts that form the backboneof Kothari’s book. What is also clear, and what marks the Sindhi experience of dislocation and exile, is the fact that while the absence of violence may have madethe actual departure materially easier, itdid not, in any way, mitigate the depth ofthe loss – a loss not only of home and‘watan’, but a loss also of a particularcomposite identity, and of the richness thatwas carried within that. Kothari talks movingly of how second generation Sindhis, her generation, did their best toforget their Sindhi identity, losing language, custom, modes of dress and so onin order to better assimilate into the societies where they settled, principally inMumbai and Gujarat. In an innovativedeparture from the historian’s craft, shemoves to present day Gujarat and interviews her Sindhi students, young men andwomen, and finds in them an even greaterdenial of what their parents and grandparents took pride in, a sense of“Sindhiness”, and of Sindhi identity. Indoing so, Kothari’s exploration, while shotthrough with a sense of regret and loss atthe Sindhi’s lack of pride, or even a sortof embarrassment and shame, in her/hisidentity, raises the question of how identities change and transform over time, evenas their contexts change.

Trauma, dislocation, loss, a sense of almost permanent exile from their homeland, and the absence of a community oftheir “own” (as in the Punjabi or Bengaliexperience) characterised the Sindhi experience of Partition. Was the experience ofarrival any different? Did it enable theSindhi to shed the burden of refuge andto begin the process of building a future?Kothari here explores where the Sindhissettled on arrival in India, and the sorts of jobs they took on. Enterprising by nature,no job was too menial for the Sindhiand middle class men and women moved into selling food, fruit, doing clerical jobs,serving in roadside restaurants and so on.This brought them face-to-face with muchsubliminal, and sometimes obvious, prejudice against the Sindhi, and their acumensuccess in business did not help to removethis. As elsewhere, the experience was alsodefined by class, with upper class Sindhisnot only moving to different cities (specifically Delhi and Mumbai) but also notfacing the same kind of prejudice.

Rita Kothari’s text makes use of diverse sources: oral accounts, archival documents, letters, newspaper articles, secondarysources and others. These enable the author to provide a rich cross-referencing in whichno one source becomes the single definingfactor for any discussion, and also lead herinto an analysis that works at once at manydifferent levels, and remains, throughoutthe book, rich in nuance and complexity.Her involvement in the literature of Gujarat,both as a translator and a writer is perhapswhat gives her text easy accessibility andfrees it from jargon. And finally, her workas a teacher, and sometimes as an editor allows her to construct a text that does not run into thousands of pages but is short,insightful and relevant. This is a book tobe read and savoured.



Economic and Political Weekly May 5, 2007

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