For long, Talibanisation was considered the biggest threat to the Pakistani state. This perception overlooked the fact that Taliban only threatened the government, whereas ethnic movements targeted the state and eroded Pakistani nationalism. Pakistan, from its inception, has failed to build a national identity. Consequently, all ethnicities, other than Punjabis, perceive themselves as Pakhtoons, Baloch, Sindhis or Mohajirs first, and Pakistanis later. They also feel discriminated by the Punjabi elite.
Baloch nationalism is the strongest today amongst Pakistan’s ethnic nationalisms. However, the Baloch are just five per cent of Pakistan’s population. Consequently, they have been keen to create a broad front of ethnic minorities against the Punjabi elite. The alienation in Pakistan’s second most populous province, Sindh, has provided them with an opportunity to create a united front with the Sindhi nationalists. This front has been functioning quite effectively overseas: Baloch and Sindhi activists have been protesting jointly at the UN bodies and in western countries. Of late, there has been growing convergence between them, even within Pakistan.
The tumult in urban Sindh and the movement of the Mohajirs has been making the headlines for some time. What is often overlooked is the deeper resentment in rural Sindh. At the time of Partition, Sindh had enormous untapped agricultural potential. This led to its colonisation by farmers from outside the province — immigrants from Punjab or retired army officers. After Partition, Sindh was forced to accommodate another set of immigrants — the Mohajirs, who came from the rest of India. Unlike Sindhi Muslims, who were mainly illiterate peasants at the time of Partition, the Mohajirs were amongst the most educated and elite Muslims of India. They cornered most of the government jobs and private businesses in Sindh.
Sindhis perceive themselves as being marginalised in their traditional homeland. The more than 81 per cent increase in Sindh’s population between 1998 and 2011 shows large-scale migration to the province. Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur, Sindh’s three major cities, are totally dominated by Mohajirs while the fertile land of northern Sindh is under the control of Punjabis. Sindhis are scattered in the barren countryside. They constitute only 45 per cent of the province’s population. Their percentage in Karachi is even lesser. They have been marginalised in various organs of the state. Only two per cent of Pakistan’s armed forces and five per cent of federal civil servants are Sindhis. Of the around 2,000 industrial units in Sindh, only a quarter are controlled by the Sindhis.
Sindhis have a strong socio-cultural identity, rich literature and a distinct script. However, Urdu-speaking migrants to Pakistan, who controlled Pakistan in the initial decades after Partition, tried to impose Urdu in Sindh. Sindhis see this as an attempt to marginalise their culture.
The first major insurrection in Sindh erupted in 1983 against General Zia-ul-Haq, who had executed a popular Sindhi leader — Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Numerous Sindhi nationalists defied army in the interiors of Sindh to fight for “Sindhudesh”. However, without external support, the movement lost steam. Subsequently, with the rise of PPP, with its base in Sindh, as the dominant political party, local perceptions changed . However, reduction in Sindh’s share of Indus water and reduction of the land under irrigation in Sindh and the proposed Kalabagh Dam, which could further reduce availability of water to Sindh, continue to agitate Sindhi minds. With the PPP reduced to a provincial party, Sindhi nationalism has raised its head again.
In early 2005, the Sindh Liberation Army (SLA) — allied with the Baloch Liberation Army — claimed responsibility for blasts on railway tracks and other sensitive installations in Sindh. Low-level blasts continued till 2007; SLA claimed credit for most of them. However, with the return of democracy in 2008 and the PPP’s rise to power, there was a sense of euphoria in Sindh. The turbulence started resurfacing in early 2010, when numerous bombs exploded on railway tracks. The floods in Sindh and the belief that the province was flooded to avoid damage to fields in Punjab, gave a fillip to resentment in the province.
Sindhi nationalist outfits have also been expressing dissent through legitimate political means. On Pakistan Day on March 23, 2012, the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM) led a 1,00,000-strong “march against slavery” in Karachi and called for an end to the subjugation of Sindhis by “a Punjab-dominated, Punjab-ruled, and Punjab-manipulated state”. Bashir Ahmed Qureshi, JSQM’s chairman called for the independence of Sindh and Sindhi resources from the whims of Punjabi aspirations. However, Qureshi died under suspicious circumstances within a fortnight of this proclamation. The belief that intelligence agencies had a role in his death, and in the disappearance of large numbers of Sindhi activists, have hardened positions even more.
Recent events show that the resentment in Sindh both amongst Mohajirs in urban centres and Sindhis in the countryside is rising. However, the lack of unity amongst Sindhi nationalists and absence of an effective organisation has prevented them from being able to force Islamabad to accommodate their viewpoints.
This article first appeared in The Indian Express.
The writer is director, India Foundation and adjunct professor at New Delhi Institute of Management. Views expressed are his own