Sunday, October 02, 2022

How refugees from Sindh rebuilt their lives – and India – after Partition – Scroll.in

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What happened in Sindh during Partition was not considered consequential until quite recently.

In 2012, I Will and I Can: The Story of Jai Hind College by Nandita Bhavnani was among the first mainstream publications that gave a glimpse into this refugee community and its many contributions. In these ten years, a growing swell of voices have shown that the dominating images of Partition are part of a bigger picture.

There are many factors that make the Sindh story different. Originally a Hindu and then Buddhist land – as was the rest of India – Islam came to Sindh as early as 711 Common Era. It grew steadily and peacefully with Sufi values of tolerance and integration. Fluid belief systems dominated all forms of worship. This ecosystem endures among Sindhis even today.

Through centuries of paying tribute to Delhi and Kabul, the indigenous prince of Sindh ruled largely undisturbed. Non-Muslims migrated from neighbouring provinces confident of a relatively non-discriminatory environment. These groups included the Nankapanthis from Punjab and worshippers of various deities from other parts. Over time, they evolved into a comfortable, prosperous minority with an eclectic belief system.

One group served in the courts of the princes, rising to positions of responsibility and even power, and came to be known as the Amils of Sindh. The larger part of the community were traders, from the omnipresent village grocer and moneylender to those with a larger reach and empires that stretched all the way to Russia, China and Japan, and Iran on the other side.

The British occupied Sindh in 1843 – in gross violation of treaties of eternal friendship with the princes – their descriptions of barbarism a transparent and weak defence of the annexation. They also wrote of the sad plight of the Hindus, but a closer look at indigenous accounts of the time reinforces the “comfortable, prosperous minority” version.

The British occupation was a setback to the traders of Sindh but they soon used the opportunity to expand using steamship routes and set up retail outlets in ports around the world. In 1999, French scholar Claude Markovits published a detailed account of how this group of South Asian merchants had carved a niche for themselves in a European-dominated world economy.

A Hindu temple in Malaga in Spain. Credit: Saaz Aggarwal.

The Amils, meanwhile, had been recruited into the British administration and switched quickly from Persian to English. Their commitment to education led to increased opportunities and they began setting up their own schools and educated their daughters.

The Dayaram Jethmal Sind College – Dayaram Jethmal Government Science College today – one of the finest institutes of higher education in India at the time, was built and funded by the Hindus of Sindh. By the early 20th century, the Hindus were the backbone of the Sindh administration as well as its economy.

All this while, Sindh had been a part of the Bombay Province and in 1936, it was given provincial autonomy. The separation was not made on communal lines but for administrative care and focused development. In fact, it was a Hindu, Harchandrai Vishindas, who first expressed this need at a Congress assembly in 1913.

However, the separation made the Hindus a minority in a Muslim province, in a larger political situation with festering differences between the two communities. It was in Sindh that the question of Partition was first raised as well. During the annual session of the Muslim League in Karachi in 1938, leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah made Pakistan the official demand of the Muslims of India. In 1942, the legislative assembly of Sindh passed a resolution supporting the demand for Pakistan.

The British, meanwhile, were busy with the Second World War and the Indian freedom struggle. MK Gandhi’s demand that the British “Quit India” drew a tremendous response across the country, no less in Sindh. There are numerous examples, not least being the sound system used by the Indian National Congress which was contributed and personally monitored by Nanik Motwane of Chicago Radio, an electrical business that started in Larkana, Sindh, with its head office in Bombay.

The DJ Sind Arts College in Karachi in 1893. Credit: Zainub via Flicker, Public domain.

The men, women and children of Sindh participated in the freedom struggle. A poignant and heroic case is that of year-old Hemu Kalani, who was arrested for his participation in Quit India and sentenced to death. The responses to Kalani’s mercy petitions said that he would be pardoned if he named the co-conspirators. He was executed on January 21, 1943.

Madhuri Sheth, who was 13 years old at the time, recalls: “He was hanged at midnight and we sat up in wait until the body was cremated behind the primary school where I studied.”

When the dividing line of Partition was drawn, it was believed that the Hindus, well-integrated as a religious minority for centuries, would continue as such. Sindh was given in its entirety to Pakistan.

As Partition approached, tension rose and reports of the massacres in other areas led to fear and uncertainty. When an influx of migrants entered Sindh from other parts of India, things began to change dramatically. Mohini Hingorani, 17 years old at the time, was a student at DJ Sind College, Karachi, recalls:

  “When the trouble started before Partition, Bunder Road Extension where we lived remained unaffected. But Gadi Khata, where the college was, had severe riots and some of my father’s stepbrothers were caught in the crossfire. One of them was killed.”    

Still, the story of Sindhi Partition is marked by less violence than in other areas. Karachi remained calm even in December 1947. Cases of abduction and even decapitation were reported – but they were few. This changed with the pogrom of January 6, 1948.

Khushi Khubchandani, 13 years old then, stood on the terrace of his home and could see mobs carrying away radios, furniture and valuables. Anyone who resisted was attacked. Some recited verses from the Quran to escape mobs attacking buses. The Muhajirs, a group of Muslim immigrants, risked their lives to protect many residents. But the exodus began with fleeing residents crowding the docks to escape.

Some tried to stay on. Pribhdas Tolani, once a well-known landlord of Larkana, had no intention of leaving. In October 1948, he was arrested and imprisoned in Sukkur Jail, accused of being an Indian spy. His eldest son Gopal Tolani, the sessions judge in Sukkur at the time, could do nothing but watch helplessly. When Pribhdas Tolani was released, it was on condition that he leave Pakistan and never return. Thus, the government too participated in dispossessing the community.

Mansharam and Rukmani Wadhwani (the aunt and uncle of Mohini Hingorani) with three of their children, on the second floor of the family building in Sukkur. The Sadh Belo temple, accessed by boat, could be seen from this terrace. Credit: Special arrangement.

Newly divided India, economically depleted by centuries of colonial rule and further drained by the Second World War, was in no position to take in lakhs of fleeing refugees but made a tremendous effort nevertheless. Rundown Army camps had infrastructure and were able to house the homeless.

T Sushila Rao, the wife of a camp commandant at Kalyan, recalling an instance, said: “If I ever woke before dawn and looked out, I would see a long line of the Sindhi refugees walking to the station on their way to Bombay for the day to work or trade or study. They had lost everything but did not weep and complain. How hardworking they were.”

Sindh had many women doctors and teachers, even in the 1930-’40s, but most middle-class women did not leave the home for work. After Partition, the women of many families took on economic responsibilities. Some of them made papad and pickles, which their menfolk sold from door to door while others took up sewing. Others went to work as telephone operators, secretaries, assembly-line workers and more.

Many of these refugees had lost not just their homes and their homeland but also their lives and livelihood. The Bombay Refugee Act of 1947 added to the pain of the community for its regulatory provisions for refugees. The Sindhi community fought back with indignation. By definition, a refugee is a stateless person but the Sindhi community was their own country for whose independence they had fought. The act was modified and a new definition “displaced persons” was coined.

Pribhdas ‘Kaka’ Tolani (1893-1988) and his sons. Credit: Special arrangement.

Yet another blow came when the Constitution failed to list Sindhi as an Indian language. The writers and thinkers of the community recruited the young Ram Jethmalani to lead their campaign. Sindhi was included in Schedule VIII of the Indian Constitution, but only in 1967. While Sindhi parents had stopped speaking to their children in their mother tongue to acquire languages that would help them build their new lives, the state played its own role in marginalising the language.

Rebuilding the lives of the community required monumental effort. Support came from within the community with doors being opened to members of extended families, friends and business associates. The wealthy were also the most generous, contributing materially to the camps, providing employment within their enterprises and campaigning relentlessly with the government for matters such as hawking licences and housing development.

There are too many names to list but among the best known is Nanik Motwane of Bombay who made extraordinary efforts on behalf of the community. Ramnarayan Chellaram of Bangalore contributed with material relief and also helped the community ensure their rights as citizens by helping prepare identity documentation, applying for compensation, admissions to educational institutions and other requirements.

The domicile certificate of Situ Kishinchand Bijlani, when she was 13. Credit: Special arrangement.

Sahijram Gidwani of Ahmedabad, who had studied at Cambridge, was retained as tutor to Vikram and Gautam Sarabhai of the Sarabhai business family. He later headed the Sarabhai family’s Calico Mills, which contributed substantially to refugee relief. As the number of refugees increased, he moved to Bombay and took up an honorary position as chairperson of the newly instituted Bombay Housing Board.

One of the most interesting histories is of Bhai Pratap, a businessman with a global retail chain, who with Gandhi’s help acquired land from the Maharao of Kachchh to create a “new Sindh”. It was Bhai Pratap who initiated the development of Kandla Port. He assured the Maharao that he would bring enough business to Kandla so that it would go on to exceed the volume of trade done at Karachi. He was also instrumental in having Kandla designated as a free-trade zone – Asia’s first – in 1965.

Meanwhile, the refugee camps in Bombay, Poona, Ahmedabad, Ajmer, Bhopal and other places grew into hives of industry. Being homeless, the Sindhis built homes for themselves. From these refugee camps rose factories, hospitals, educational institutions. For a community that had lost its ancestral homeland forever, the names they chose – Jai Hind, Jai Bharat, National and so on – are poignant.

Seventy-five years later, the Sindhis are respected for their contributions and the way they integrated into India. Commendably, this heterogeneous community behaved as one, with each family, person and group felled by Partition simply standing up and moving ahead. Their contribution is seen and appreciated, but the loss of their language, music, poetry, philosophy and the distortion of their history is only now being acknowledged as an important aspect of the story of the Partition of India.

Saaz Aggarwal is a biographer, oral historian and artist. See her website here.

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