Sindh Before Partition: Demographics and Religious Conflict

After my previous post on British Punjab I decided to take a look at British Sindh. This region tends to get less attention when it comes to partition-era discussions, as unlike Punjab and Bengal it was not cleaved in two, and suffered relatively little communal violence. There’s also the fact that Sindh tends to fly under the radar in general when it comes to South Asian history; but rejoice, as we’re reversing that trend for today. This post will cover the demographic and social situation of Sindh during the lead-up to partition.

Demographics:

Muslim Population of Sindh: 1941

Prior to partition Sindh was 71.5% Muslim and 26.4% Hindu, with 2.1% of the population largely comprised of non-denominational tribes. Sindhi Muslims dominated the countryside, while Sindhi Hindus were concentrated in major cities.

The exception was Tharparkar district, where Hindus were also found in rural areas. Many of these Hindus however weren’t Sindhis, but ethnic Rajasthanis and Kutchis. The non-Muslim tribes of Tharparkar were largely estranged from orthodox Hinduism, and some didn’t identify as Hindus at all. Many of the Thari tribes remained in Pakistan after partition, as they faced relatively little pressure to emigrate from their Muslim neighbors.

While a large majority of Sindh spoke Sindhi in 1941, a significant minority did not, a situation that persists today. Sindhi was the most commonly spoken language in every district, aside from Tharparkar, where only 40.3% of the population was Sindhi speaking. Most of the Punjabi speakers were Seraikis living in northern Sindh (where they still reside).

Partition resulted in the exodus of many Gujarati, Kutchi, and Rajasthani speakers, but the percentage of Sindhi speakers in the state actually declined from 70% to 62%, due primarily to the influx of Urdu speaking refugees (Muhajirs) from India. A few decades later a large number of Pashtuns would also begin migrating to the province (particularly into Karachi), further diluting the proportion of Sindhis.

Communal Relations:

Sindh had traditionally seen relatively amicable relations between its Muslim and Hindu populations, due in large part to the syncretic nature of the religious traditions practiced in the region. In the lead up to partition however, the two communities would become increasingly antagonistic, even to the point of violence. The grievances between the two communities stemmed from three major issues.

The Socioeconomic Gap between Muslims and Hindus:
Hindus in Sindh had traditionally occupied roles in finance and administration under a Muslim ruling elite, with both often using their positions to exploit the larger masses of Muslim cultivators. The arrival of the British however saw the Muslim elite largely vanquished, resulting in a stark religious divide between wealthy Hindus and impoverished Muslims. The British also changed landowning laws (which previously favored Muslims), resulting in large masses of Muslim peasants losing their land to Hindu money-lending practices. The establishment of British schools in disproportionately Hindu urban centers further widened the economic gap between the two communities. Such disparities provided fertile ground for communal resentment.

Hindu Opposition to Sindhi Nationalism:
Under British rule Sindh was administered not as its own province, but as part of the Bombay Presidency, which included regions like Gujarat and Maharashtra. In this system Sindh was considered as little more than a backwater, and its unique culture and history largely ignored. Sindhi merchants were often shut out of lucrative trade opportunities by their more wealthy and established competitors in Surat and Bombay. As a result Sindhis, Muslim and Hindu alike, launched a movement calling for a separate Sindh province.

Religious polarization was sweeping British India during this period however, and soon made its way to Sindh. Hindus began to view Sindhi nationalism as a kind of Trojan horse, a plot which would result in Hindus becoming a minority in the new province, and eventually, losing the favorable status they enjoyed over the Muslim masses. Sindhi Hindus retracted their support for the movement, and instead turned their attention to Hindu organizations like the Arya Samaj, who they invited from regions across India to help combat the local conversions of Hindus to Islam. Muslims, who viewed Sindhi Nationalism as a means of economic liberation and cultural revivalism, were enraged by this development.

The Restoration of Manzilgah Masjid:
The Manzilgah Masjid was part of a Mughal era complex near the city of Sukkur that fell into disrepair after being seized and converted into a bunker during the British invasion of Sindh. By the 1930’s calls for the British to return the Masjid to Sindhi Muslims had reached a fever pitch, with Muslims across India lending their support to the campaign. Following mass sit-ins at the Manzilgah Masjid the British appeared to relent, and in 1939 began the preliminary process of returning the building to the Muslim community.

This prompted immediate outcry from Sindhi Hindus, and the community quickly mobilized all means of political and economic influence with the British in order to prevent the return of the Masjid to the Muslims. The Manzilgah complex lay across the river from a Hindu holy site, and the Hindus feared that crowds from a neighboring Masjid could disrupt their pilgrimage, and ultimately weaken the Hindu character of the area. The Hindus were temporarily successful, and the British violently cracked down on the Muslim protesters. The local Hindu community celebrated, unaware of their impending misfortune.

Small scale riots soon erupted in the neighboring city of Sukkur, beginning with Muslims looting the wealthy Hindu inhabitants of the area. Overt violent clashes followed, and though Hindus comprised a majority of the city’s population, they fared poorly in the exchange. The British soon regained control, killing a number of Muslim attackers and incarcerating many more. The conflict simmered down, but any pan-religious Sindhi camaraderie that had survived to that point was officially dead.

Muslims increasingly viewed their Hindu neighbors not as fellow Sindhis, but feudal overlords willing to conspire with foreigners if it meant retaining their position of privilege over the Muslim masses. Conversely, Hindus saw themselves as an endangered minority, whose only hope for long-term survival was to keep the deck stacked in their favor. Both views were probably accurate.

The Situation Today:
Sindhis, while proud Pakistanis, do harbor some resentment toward the Muhajir community in Sindh. This is understandable; following partition the Sindhis had finally emerged out from under the economic boot of the Hindus, but before they could grasp the reigns of Sindh, they were seized by newly arrived refugees from India. Of course from the Muhajir point of view, they were simply an educated affluent community filling the now vacant positions that required their expertise. Again, both views are probably correct.

Sindhis place a lot of importance on maintaining their culture in the face of what they see as Muhajir and Punjabi dominance. Usually this manifests itself quite nicely, with emphasis on Sindhi language, cuisine, and art. Sometimes however it boils over into the absurd, like when the pre-partition days with Hindu Sindhis are pined over (to slight Muhajirs), or when the pre-Islamic Chach dynasty is lionized (to slight Punjabis).

Sources:

Masjid Manzilgah, 1939–40. Test Case for Hindu-Muslim Relations in Sind, Hamida Khuhro

Discovering Sindh’s Past: Selections from the Journal of the Sindh Historical Society, Michel Boivin, Matthew A. Cook, and Julien Levesque

Sindhis: Hardening of Identities after Partition, Rita Kothari

1931 Bombay Presidency Census

Pakistan Geotagging, Tariq Amir

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