The question of Sindhudesh, a separate homeland for ethnic Sindhis sans any religious or other distinction, has consistently found widespread traction in the seven decades of existence of Pakistan.
The movement has been given impetus by the systematic oppressive policies of the Pakistani establishment, which the Urdu-speaking Muhajirs initially dominated and gradually overtaken by Pakistani Punjabis.
This relegated the natives to the margins of Pakistan’s socio-economic development trajectory in Sindh, Balochistan, and tribal areas. Pertinently, Sindh continues to endure a demographic assault by the state-patronized influx of predominantly Pakistani Punjabis, resource deprivation as signified by a low share in the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award, skewed job opportunities, and significant suppressive measures.
The genesis of the Sindhudesh movement dates to the centralization of Pakistan’s polity in the 1950s under the contested ‘One Unit Plan,’ wherein the provinces of Sindh, Balochistan, Pakistan Punjab, and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) were reorganized into a single unit, West Pakistan, at par with the East Pakistan (East Bengal) in 1955.
This autocratic move of extreme centralization, which continued till 1970 when the military took over under General Yahya Khan, sparked widespread resentment from the people and called for regional autonomy and federalism in the country. Sindhi nationalists regard this period as the “darkest epoch” in their history as the province came under complete dominance of Pakistani Punjabis.
With regards to Sindh, the seeds of discontent were sown during the very creation of Pakistan with the influx of Urdu-speaking Muhajirs from India and express state patronage to transform Karachi, the central city of the province, into the center of Muhajir politics, and imbalance its demographic composition.
The One-Unit plan, therefore, only added fuel to the prevalent disgruntlement as it appropriated and obliterated their local identity. Adopting Urdu as the pan-Pakistan official language further aggravated the situation, impressing the people that their cultural history was at stake.
As Farhan Hanif Siddiqi argues in his 2012 book, The Politics of Ethnicity in Pakistan, this put them at a significant disadvantage “as they had to learn a new language to apply for government jobs and positions.”
These instances gave rise to a persistent sense of alienation among Sindhis. Ghulam Murtaza Syed, regarded as the founding father of modern Sindhi nationalism, even accused Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, of dismembering “Sindh by cutting off Karachi, its leading city, from it and handed it over to the Central administration with Liaquat Ali Khan as its head, for colonization of the town by Muhajirs.
For the Sindhis, the flight of socio-economic dominant Hindus to India during partition did not translate into any gain as Muhajirs took over the properties as well as the administrative jobs and hence continued being rendered at the lowest pedestal of the socio-economic pyramid of the country.
With continued marginalization at the hands of the Pakistani establishment, Syed, for the first time, called for the independence of Sindh and the establishment of ethnic Sindhudesh in 1972. These calls for freedom were also influenced by the dismemberment of Pakistan through the creation of Bangladesh a year ago in 1971 on ethnolinguistic differentiation.
Syed, in his 1974 book “A Nation in Chains: Sindhudesh,” which provides a blueprint and his conception of Sindhudesh, asserted that Sindh cherished a distinct language and culture, being home to Indus Valley Civilisation, and a 5,000-year-old history “which any nation and any country in the world would feel the greatest of pride to own and cherish.”
Apart from Syed, the other two most influential leaders shaping the Sindhi nationalist consciousness included Ibrahim Joyo and Shaikh Ayaz, jointly referred to as the “Sufi saints of Sindhi nationalism.”
Syed, who endured nearly 30 years of incarceration for Sindhi nationalist politics, further gave an organizational shape to the movement by establishing Jeay Sindh Mahaz in 1972, which riled the Pakistani state with its open calls for the liberation of Sindh and the establishment of Sindudesh.
Given the high-handed approach of the Pakistani Army, the movement gradually descended into an armed struggle where several outfits have taken up the cause of the Sindhudesh establishment. Some of the prominent resistance groups include the Sindhudesh Liberation Army (SLA), Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM), Jeay Sindh Muttahida Mahaz (JSMM), Jeay Sindh Students’ Federation (JSSF), among others.
The Pakistani state has continued to adopt systemically discriminatory policies vis-à-vis Sindh over the years, using high-handed measures against the Sindhi nationalists along with the enforced disappearance of hundreds of civilians by the state security services.
These discriminatory policies have led to a growing alienation among Sindhis and hence given impetus to the nationalist struggle that the Pakistani government had claimed to subdue earlier through widespread suppressive measures from the 1970s onwards.
A prominent Sindhi advocacy group, Worldwide Sindhi Congress, accuses the Pakistan Army of “the practice of enforced disappearance” under which “hundreds and thousands of Sindhis, political workers, human rights activists have disappeared” over the years.
On record, the Government of Pakistan in 2021 asserted that it gave closure to nearly 5000 cases of enforced disappearances, even as over 2000 remain unresolved. However, these claims have been disputed by the rights groups, accusing the government of deflating the actual numbers.
The situation has been further aggravated by the fact that hundreds of unidentified bodies have sprung up over the years across the length and breadth of the province, pointing to the practice of extrajudicial killings at the hands of the state, as claimed by many rights groups.
A US Department of State report for 2022 has also highlighted that the Sindhi nationalists have been subjected to enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings, with dozens of bullet-riddled and mutilated bodies recovered across the province.
A September 2023 report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan denounced the Pakistani government “over the human rights situation in northern Sindh, including rights violations against vulnerable groups, precarious law and order, poor access to education and healthcare, and other curbs on fundamental freedoms.”
Furthermore, a report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) of the United Nations asserts that the situation of minorities in Sindh province has deteriorated over the years and hence needs immediate attention from the rights bodies as well as the government.
“For the past decade, the minorities have been facing persecution like kidnappings for ransom and forced conversions of young girls. Such events have prompted the exodus of minorities from Sindh,” states the report.
This demonstrates the continued discrimination against Sindhis in Pakistan, whereby they find themselves on the lower side of the developmental pyramid of the country, along with anxieties on account of the fear of being rendered a minority in their land due to the demographic assault of Pakistani Punjabis, resource deprivation and ethnic profiling by the state.
The fact that the nationalist camp has failed to organize under a single platform to press home its demands and lead the marginalized community toward actualizing the longstanding dream of Sindhudesh calls for genuine introspection.
This assumes importance to ensure the protection of Sindhi identity amidst challenges posed by demographic shifts, resource inequities, and institutional biases, failing which the community will continue to bear the brunt of the Pakistani state and its oppressive arms, such as the Pakistani Army.
- NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached at ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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