Turn Right: Sindhi Nationalism and Electoral Politics

Issue IV | اردو

Artist: Zahra Malkani | Dadu 1960 series

Artist: Zahra Malkani | Dadu 1960 series

Recently, an unprecedented 10 party electoral alliance was formed in Sindh between several nationalist groups and right-wing mainstream political parties, including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Sindhi nationalist groups who have hitherto stayed away from electoral politics, announced their arrival on the electoral stage. Electoral politics in interior Sindh has been historically dominated by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), while Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM) dominates in large urban centers such as Karachi and Hyderabad. The main objective of this alliance is to defeat the PPP and MQM.

One can understand PML-N’s motivation for forging this alliance in Sindh where they have no political standing of their own. But, how do we make sense of the aims of the nationalist groups of Sindh? Why do they need this ten-party alliance? What can we expect from the nationalist in the coming elections? And most importantly, what can be the consequence for an alliance with the biggest party of Punjab – a province that has serves as the existential other of Sindhi national identity?

To answer these questions, we will have to consider both the historical context of nationalist politics in Sindh and the current dynamics of electoral Pakistan in Pakistan.

Historical context of nationalist politics in Sindh

Sindh has a long tradition of nationalist politics, and the political consciousness of the people is shaped at a very early age through stories of the many sons and daughters of the soil who sacrificed their lives for their homeland. Sindhi nationalist poets like Shaikh Ayaz have written poems eulogizing the heroic efforts of Raja Dahir against the invading Arab imperialist forces of Mohammad bin Qasim. The stories of the bravery of Hosh Muhammad Sheedi (Hoshu Sheedi), the African-descent commander in-chief of the Talpur rulers of Sindh, are also well known. When Charles Napier took his forces to sack and conquer Sindh in 1843, as “revenge” for the humiliating defeat of the British at the hands of the Afghan tribes during the First Anglo-Afghan War, Hoshu Sheedi led a brave charge against the British in the Battle of Dubee near Hyderabad. In the face of impending defeat, Hosu Sheedi famously raised the slogan:

MarsooN, MarsooN, Sindh na DdesooN

(We will die! We will die! but we will not give up Sindh)

The same spirit was evident during the the early twentieth century, when nationalist and anti-colonial politics was at its peak in colonial India. This was the time of Ghulam Murtaza Shah (G.M. Syed), lovingly known by the people as “Saeen,” who blended Marxism and Sufism to present the founding doctrines of Sindhi Nationalism. G.M. Syed started his political career by organizing Sindhi hari (peasants); he was elected to the Sindh Legislative Assembly in 1937. His played a central role in getting resolution in favor of Pakistan passed by the Sindh assembly, the first such act by any assembly in British India. The scheme called for the establishment of a federation comprising of Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan, NWFP, Bengal, and Asaam, with full autonomy to be given to the provincial units. Later on in his career, disillusioned with the politics of Pakistan,  G.M Sayyid established Jeay Sindh Mahaz. Several factions of which now support full independence of Sindh.

The early decades of an independent Pakistan saw a brutally centralized rule by the military and civilian bureaucracy, which used heavy-hand tactics to suppress any demands of provincial autonomy and the rights of ethnic-nations. An example of this was the “One-Unit” plan imposed by Governor General Ghulam Muhammad in 1954, which remained in place during the decade of military rule under Field Martial Ayub Khan. This scheme dissolved the all the provinces of West Pakistan (Sindh, Punjab, N.W.F.P. and Balochistan). There was no major resistance movement against the one-unit scheme in the Punjab–it seems that they had given up on their identity as Punjabi and taken on the garb of being Muslim and Pakistani.

A peculiar mix of leftist and ethno-nationalist politics, resulting in the National Awami Party (NAP), was the principle opposition to the military regime of the 1950s and 1960s. When the national leaders of Sindh, Balochistan and N.W.F.P united under this banner and resisted the imposition of One-unit, both in its administrative and identity dimensions, the state used coercive measure to stop the nationalists’ resistance. For a while all the major jails of the country were filled with political prisoners.

If we focus on electoral politics, the decade of 1970s saw both the appearance of the Pakistan People’s Party riding the wave of anti-establishment sentiments, and the gradual demise of united nationalist and left-wing politics. The relationship between the PPP and natinoalist parties remained a strained one, marred with conflicts and tensions.

PPP always relied on the cooperation of the Sindhi nationalists to gain power. Consider the aftermath of the judicial murder of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) during the 1980s. Nearly all the nationalist and patriotic parties joined PPP in the MRD movement. However, when PPP came in power after the 1988 elections, after being given a strong mandate by the people of Pakistan, the Benazir government appointed General Zia’s close friend Ghulam Ishaque Khan as the President as part of a deal with the Establishment. This backfired as two PPP governments were dissolved during the 1990s through the use of “unconstitutional” measures put in place by General Zia. The PPP once again played the victim.

The tension between Sindhi nationalism and the fascist brand of Mohajir nationalism is an important factor in the calculus of Sindhi nationalist politics.  PPP has never shied away from claiming to represent Sindhi people and forming alliances with the MQM. When not in power, PPP presents itself as the true representative of Sindhi and a true friend of oppressed nations of Pakistan. But when in power, they start singing songs to the tune of “compromise is the best policy,” and form coalition governments with MQM.

But the story of the politics of major political parties is not our major concern. Let’s get back to analyzing the internal dynamics of the politics and factions of the Sindhi nationalists.

 Who are the Sindhi nationalists?

There are two major schools of thoughts among the nationalists of Sindh. The first group shuns parliamentary politics and to found a separate independent state of Sindhu Desh. This group largely consists of the various factions and sub-factions of the Jeay Sindh Mahaz, whose foundations were laid down by G.M Syed in the 1970s. The major parties included in this group are Jeay Sindh Qomi Mahaz (JSQM Bashir Khan Qureshi group) led by Qureshi’s son Sanan Qureshi;  JSQM Abdul Wahid Arisar group;  Jeay Sindh Tehreek (JST) led by Dr Safder Sarki;  Jeay Sindh Mehaz (JSM) led by Riaz Chandio;  and Jeay Sindh Mutahida Mehaz (JSMM) led by Shafi Burfat.

The second group comprises of parties who are in favor of parliamentary politics and do not want separation of Sindh from Pakistan. They want a renewed social contract between the people and the state, based on the original Lahore Resolution of 1940 which promised autonomous status to the provinces. The main political parties belong to this group are: Qomi Awami Tahrik (QAT) led by Ayaz Latif Palijo;  Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party (STP) led by Dr. Qadir Magsi;  Sindh United Party (SUP) led by Jalal Mehmood Shah;  and Sindh National Movement (SNM) led by Ali Hassan Chandio.

No doubt that the nationalist parties are fragmented and have differences of ideology and strategy. But, at the same time, there is a lot of common ground to build alliances if the time and issues call for it. One example is the Kala Bagh Dam issue. All these groups are united in their unanimous opposition to the construction of this dam. The same spirit was evident when the PPP-MQM coalition government passed the Sindh People’s Local Government Act 2012—all the nationalist groups united against SPLGA and PPP had to withdraw the bill.

The current ten party alliance also has roots in the alliances against SPLGA 2012. Let’s look at this alliance closely.

 Ten party electoral alliance

The alliance consists of several mainstream political parties such as: PML (N), PML (Functional), Jamiat-e-Islami, Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, Jamiat-e-Ulema Pakistan, Pakistan Sunni Tehreek, and National People’s Party. It also includes Sindhi nationalist parties such as: the Sindh United Party, Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party and Qomi Awami Tehreek. The main objective of this alliance is to defeat PPP and MQM in coming elections.

Many have supported the idea of this alliance, but there are clear ideological rifts among the so-called allies. We see a combination of religious and right-wing parties such as JI, JUI, JUP, PST, and even PML-N to a certain degree. Then there are the nationalist parties with their more progressive and left-wing agenda. Qomi Awami Tehreek led by Ayaz Latif Palijo is a considered by many as a “left-wing” party since its inception.

The alliance then is obviously relying on more strategic calculations, beyond ideologies and manifestos. We have seen in the past as well, for instance MRD, All Parties Democratic Alliance, and Poonam alliances in Sindh all had strange mixes of conflicting ideological groups.

The big debate in the case of this particular ten party alliance is regarding the role of Punjab. Critics raise the question that if Sindhi nationalists have been always been against Punjab and Punjabis, at least in their political discourse, how is it that they have not suddenly become allies?

One must keep in mind that the Sindhi nationalist parties part of the alliance, including Qomi Awami Tehreek, Sindh United Party and Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party, have never talked against Punjab and Punjabi people. Rather, their political discourse has always been against the establishment and ruling class of the Punjab—identified as the main culprits whose policies go against the interests of the people of Sindh.  Sindhi nationalists groups that engage in negative propaganda and political diatribe against the Punjab and Punajbi people as a whole include the various factions of Jeay Sindh that want separation of Sindh from Pakistan. None of these groups are part of the alliance.

Another point to consider is the shift in the behavior of Nawaz Sharif. His removal from the premiership and subsequent deportation in 1999 at the hands of the military dictator General Musharraf, seems to have left a lasting effect on Nawaz Sharif. His attitude and policy regarding issues of non-Punjabi nationalist and people of Sindh has seen a complete shift and he has also been a vocal critic of the military establishment. It remains to be seen whether this change in discourse will result in actual deliverance of justice to the people of Sindh. It is quite possible that like PPP, PML-N will also forget all its promises once (and if) it gets power.

Still the chance of sitting in the assemblies through this coalition is an appealing prospect for many nationalist leaders and parties, who will be contesting the elections for the first time. This “new” factor quite possibly can win them supporters against the incumbent PPP and an alliance with PML(N) has its benefits, as PML-N is the strongest contender in these highly competitive elections.

Divisions within the ranks

The internal conflicts have already started playing out. Consider the provincial assembly constituency, PS-47 Qasimabad (Hyderabad). Both the president of Qomi Awami Tehreek  and chairman of Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party, Ayaz Latif Palijo and Dr. Qadir Magsi respectively filled papers to contest elections from this constituency. It was only after considerable pressure by other members of the alliance that Dr. Qadir Magsi withdrew his nomination papers. However, at the time of writing, Sindh United Party which is also part of the coalition had decided to field a candidate, Latif Junejo from PS-47 Qasimabad, which is a clear breach of an electoral alliance.

It might have been better for these three nationalist parties to contest the elections under the banner of “Sindh Provincial Nationalist Alliance (SPNA)” which consists of Qomi Awami Tehreek, Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party and Sindh United Party. These nationalists had struggled collectively under the banner of SPNA against the Muhajir Sooba Tehrik (Migrant Province Movement) that had emerged in the main urban centers of Sindh, including Karachi, Hyderabad, and Mirpurkhas. The nationalist were also united in their agitations against the SPLGA 2012 under the banner of Sindh Bachayo Committee (Save Sindh Committee) and they displayed their strength by drawing out large support during their protests, jalsas, and strikes.

But it seems that the leader of feudal dominated PML (F), Peer Pagara has benefited the most from these united nationalist agitations. He arranged several successful public gatherings and protests against the SPLGA in Hyderabad with the help of nationalist parties, and also managed to take the credit even with his minimal contribution.  From the outside it may seem that Peer Pagara’s party is a representative political party of Sindh, though this is not the case.

The alliance has a collective manifesto and the main goal of defeating PPP and MQM in coming elections.  The alliance would have better served the people of Sindh if it had expanded beyond these goals in atleast three ways. First, it should provide a clear program of improving the lives of the people of Sindh. Second, there should be no coalition with MQM under any circumstances. But most importantly, the alliance could have put the Kalabagh dam issue to rest once and for all.  It must be noted that the stance of PML-N is not entirely clearly on this very sensitive issue. One brother, Shahbaz Sharif, stands and Lahore and claims that his party will construct Kalabag dam at all cost. The other brother, Nawaz Sharif, visits Sindh and promises that the Kalabag dam will not be constructed without consensus of all provinces. If PML(N) forms the government at the Federal level, it will have the ability to put this issue to rest. This may be an opportunity lost for the Nationalist.

The ten party alliance has the potential to counter the alliance of convenience between PPP and MQM which only serves their narrow interests.  I expect the alliance to give a tough time to the PPP, because previously Sindhi people had no other viable option available to them.  They won’t affect a clean sweep, but their gain will be PPP’s loss.

If they do affect an upset, this will be a testament to the built-in accountability mechanism of democracy, where the people will oust PPP since it failed to deliver. The sincerity of the nationalists with the people of Sindh is still an open question. In the end, all parties participating in elections make promises. One can hope that the same principle of accountability that gets the nationalists elected will also force their hands for the betterment of the people.

Muhammad Qasim Sodhar is a student at Quaid-i-Azam University and writes regularly for Sindhi language publications. He can be reached at qasim_quaidian AT hotmailDotCom

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