By Tahir Mehdi
Are all Pathans stupid? It can’t be. Then why are they normally the butt of every other joke? Is there something sinister behind this stereotyping? Since most of these jokes are community creations, I would rather not look for a ‘well-hatched’ conspiracy theory.
But then why are Pathans portrayed the way they are? I recalled all the Pathans that I have ever interacted with, one by one, from my college days, from my professional life, from my neighborhood, my social circles, Facebook friends. The identification parade told me that some of them did live up to the stereotype, but there is no indication of an abnormally high tendency for joke-worthiness among Pathans.
All communities carry all colors and characteristics, and it is the competing and conflicting interests of various communities that make them exaggerate and twist some of those. I have used this formulation to explain away all the community stereotypes that we frequently encounter. While I still may not mind laughing at a Pathan joke, this explanation helps me guard against letting this fun convert into a discriminatory attitude. But let me admit, that I have struggled with the stereotype of a Sindhi far longer. Are Sindhis docile, smug and the least entrepreneurial people? Most of my friends think so. One joked that if a Sindhi has to go to even the railway station in his hometown, he falls homesick and immediately starts calling himself a pardesi! This proved to be a tough test for my formula to fight off such stereotypes.
I decided to hold an identification parade for all the Sindhis that I had ever interacted with – my college fellows, colleagues, neighbours, friends and all. That’s when I realised all the Sindhis I knew could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Had I not attended a college that had a quota for students from all provinces and areas of Pakistan, I am sure I would have befriended none. I then decided to look into the statistics.
The last population census, held in 1998, counted a total of 18.7 million people speaking Sindhi as their mother tongue in Pakistan and 20.4 million Pashtu speakers. The two thus are quite comparable in size. But that’s where their similarity ends.
The traditional Sindhi homelands comprise of Sindh, parts of one district of Punjab, Rahimyar Khan, and some of Balochistan that is bordering Sindh. There were, in 1998 just about 50,000 Sindhi-speakers living outside this ‘Sindhi homeland’ or you could safely say that only one in every 375 Sindhis had dared to leave his/her traditional homeland looking for jobs, business opportunities, or under an economic or social compulsion.
Compare this with the trend in Pashtuns, a whooping two million of them lived in Punjab and Sindh (1998 figures) or every 10th Pashtun was living outside his/her traditional homeland. In four Punjab districts, their population exceeded 100,000. Two of these, Mianwali and Attock are either partly their homelands or exist in close proximity. But in the other two, Rawalpindi and Lahore, they had settled taking up jobs and running businesses. More importantly, the Pashtun population in the Punjab districts seems to be directly proportional to the size of that district’s economy.
The economic size logic can be extended to Karachi too, which is the biggest metropolis of the country with its economic, industrial and financial hub and the main commercial port. According to past census, half of Karachi’s 8.9 million population had Urdu as its mother tongue, another quarter was made up of speakers of Pashtu and Punjabi while Sindhis were just five per cent of the population of the capital of Sindh, and half of them lived in the suburban area of Malir. On the other hand, Karachi had more Pashtuns than Peshawar, the capital of Pakhtunkhwa!
The language barrier between the Pashtuns and speakers of other languages is linguistically bigger than the one between Sindhi and others but nothing seems to hold back the Pashtuns and conversely nothing seems to push the Sindhis out of their homes.
What complicates the matter further is that Sindhis are not stuck because their homes are cozy and their lives prosperous. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Sindh has some of the worst economic indicators of the country and most of its districts have the highest percentages of people living in abject poverty within Pakistan. And while, economic depravity generally drives people out of their homes, forcing them to search for opportunities elsewhere and prodding them to take up the riskiest of ventures. This doesn’t happen with the Sindhis, as whatever the circumstances, they remain holed up, or perhaps they are chained?
With this much statistical evidence, I could have easily concluded that the Sindhi stereotype is an exception, it is true that for some unexplainable reason this community is docile, homebound and the least entrepreneurial – if I hadn’t met an Indian friend. We were discussing politics and it was only a chance reference that brought Sindhis to the center of this chat. I was shocked to realise that our respective perceptions about Sindhis was not only different but in fact completely opposed each other. As I searched deeper, the contrast between the stereotype of Pakistani and Indian Sindhis became sharper.
I was stunned to the point of disbelief. Before writing this article, I again approached a lot of my Indian Facebook friends just to reaffirm that I was not mistaken. But they are unanimous – a Sindhi for them meant a rich businessmen, the very entrepreneurial types who can find their way through the trickiest of situations. Nifty, shrewd and cunning are the words that they used to describe them. They are flashy, ultra-fashionable, love driving big cars and send their kids to English medium schools only.
While there is no doubt that all of this cannot hold for all Indian Sindhis but it also can’t be denied that this is the dominant impression in India about them as a community. There are many Indian Sindhis running successful businesses outside India as well, mainly in Singapore but also in USA, Canada and Australia. In Lahore, however, you will find a Pashtun enterprise at every corner and even a Sikh cloth merchant but never a Sindhi businessman. The Pakistani labour working in Middle East is almost exclusively Punjabi and Pashtun.
How could the two Sindhis, Indian and Pakistani, stand at two extreme poles? I have made some effort to understand this and offer the following as a plausible explanation. The urban population of Sindh, at the time of the Partition was around one million and Hindus constituted more than half of the urban population, including Karachi. They inhabited rural areas all over the province as well.
50 Years of Pakistan in Statistics – Volume II (1947-1997); Growth of selected towns from 1901 to 1981; pg 45; Federal Bureau of Statistics, GoP. Find the total population of Sindh for years 1931, 1941 here.
Hindus not only formed the business community of the pre-Partition Sindh, they also dominated professional spheres. In present day Pakistan, the population of the two religious minorities, Christians and Hindus, is almost the same (after including the Scheduled Casts into what was earlier categorised and counted separately as Hindu-Jati). But despite this numeric equivalence, it is much too easier to find a Hindu doctor, engineer, lawyer or businessman in Sindh today than it is to identify a Christian of similar economic status in Punjab.
I think it is safe to say that Hindus were a dominant part of the pre-Partition Sindhi middle class, if not actually the Sindhi middle class themselves. Like in Punjab, the jagirdars, feudal lords, were Muslims and so was their ryot, mostly the landless farm labourers or the hari. There were substantial numbers of Scheduled Casts (not Hindu-Jati) haris also and they still form a majority in the poor desert districts of Sindh.
The upper and the lower classes are always stuck in a rut of exploitative economics. They hardly have the potential and never get an opportunity to defy the status quo. The middle class, in contrast, has the time and the relative comfort to think anew, take risks and chart new waters. They serve as the engine of change, fountain of creativity and hub of the entrepreneurial culture for every society. They are looked up at as beacons of hope by the lower classes.
And they all left Sindh in one go, in almost an overnight fashion – as India and Pakistan separated and gained independence in 1947. Most sources estimate that around 800,000 of Sindhi Hindus migrated to India. Most of the Scheduled Casts that were much poorer than the Hindu-Jatis stayed back. The total population of Sindh at that time was around five million and I suppose the size of the Sindhi middle class would not have been more than one million.
Studies of the Partition of 1947 generally lay too much emphasis on the ethnic and religious composition of the populations that had migrated to and from the two countries but little attention has been paid to their class composition and how had it impacted the societies they left behind or those they joined.
The exodus of the middle class crippled the Sindhi society. It denuded it of all the characteristics that are associated with this class. Are Pakistani Sindhis of today least entrepreneurial, docile and homebound because the class that had the skills, energy and will had quit its homeland in 1947? It is not all about a stereotype but about the overall economic aspirations of Sindh as a society – if you minus the middle class ambitions, the sum total is bound to hit rock bottom.
The niche created by the gouging out of Sindhi middle class was evened immediately by those migrating from various parts of northern India and since they found themselves in a privileged position they didn’t feel compelled to find a common cause with the other two – the upper and the lower classes of Sindh.
Amid the riotous events of the Partition, Sindh lost its cultural composure. I don’t know how it would fair if compared with the loss of geographical territory. Sindh today has a lower and upper class that is culturally and linguistically Sindhi, while its Urdu-speaking middle class is not only alien to both, it insists on a distinct identity and independent politics. The Partition choked Sindh right in the middle. It deprived it of its capacity to channelise the struggle among its various classes into a progressive political discourse.
Earlier, the economic structure of Sindh had a clear religious divide as its middle class professed a faith different from the majority of the upper and the lower tiers of the society. In 1947, it achieved a religious unanimity but lost the cultural harmony among its classes. I wonder, had it preferred the latter, would it be less divided and violent than it is today.