When they had nowhere to go

THE MAKING OF EXILE — Sindhi Hindus and Partition of India: Nandita Bhavnani; Tranquebar Press, 61, Silverline Building, II Floor, Alapakkam Main Road, Maduravoyal, Chennai-600095. Rs. 599.  

Ashis Nandy in his foreword to this book says, “ … Bhavnani attempts to bring to us the cultural self-definition of the Sindhi Hindus as a community, the continuities and the discontinuities in it, and the way that self-definition sets limit on their relationship with the Muslim Sindhis while, at the same time, remaining incomplete without the crucial presence in their mental landscape or their alter-egos or anti-selves in the form of Sindhi Muslims.”

In March 1940, in the League’s annual three-day session in Lahore, Jinnah gave a two-hour speech in English, in which were laid out the arguments of the two-nation theory. On the last day of its session, the League passed, what came to be known as the Lahore Resolution, or Pakistan Resolution, demanding that, “the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in majority as in the North-Western and Eastern zones of India should be grouped to constitute independent states in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.” That very evening, in Calcutta, the then head of the Government of Bengal, H. S. Suhrawardy gave a speech after which there was communal violence.

Immediately after the war England realised that they are no more wanted in the subcontinent. When the Cripps Mission also failed, it was Mountbatten who presided over the partition of India which was the only escape route for the British. Partition brought huge movements of people from both sides of border causing traumatic experience to all; most of them had a place to call their own in spite of being refugees while it was the lot of Hindu Sindhis who had no place of their own.

There have been a number of studies of partition and its aftermath, like that of Ian Talbot ( The Deadly Embrace: Religion, Politics and Violence in India and Pakistan and Divided Cities: Partition and its Aftermath in Lahore and Amritsar 1947-1957) and Gurharpal Singh. But such books are from scholars of history and like subjects.

Books on partition have not considered the plight of the Sindhi Hindu experience that was significantly different from that of minorities in Punjab or Bengal and Bhavnani in this book addresses that problem which makes this work more important.

The author depends on information gained through interviews, books and from various sources such as letters in the editors column of newspapers, articles and literature on the experiences of the Sindhi Hindus and compiled them with her observations under three main heads which are easily readable and therefore the book is in reality a comprehensive study of the experience of a particular community who were denied space both in their place of origin and refuge.

Conditions in Sindh

Here we have a beautifully woven rendering which is passionately told, from Bhavnani who is from a family that lived well in Sindh and had many good Muslim friends but had lost all. The three main segments of the book, Sindh, India and Pakistan, bring to the reader in 16 chapters the conditions that existed before partition in Sindh province that ended in exodus, their arrival in India as refugees and their reception that was far from warm.

In the prologue the author lays the foundation for the book strongly. She says one of the reasons for Hindu-Muslim tension in Sindh (Quoting K R Malkani) was voluntary conversions of Hindus to Islam. Even in the family of J. B. Kripalani there were converts and these were responsible for more conversions that caused the establishment of Arya Samaj in a bid to foil the conversions. During the communal riots in the late 1920s in northern India, Sindh was also affected. Generally, Sindhi Hindus were more prosperous than Muslims who were looking for a better life after partition. The author explains the communal situation in Sindh on the eve of partition setting the mood for the narration ending with words that reflect the contents of the book, “It was on this note — filled with tension and fear for the Hindus, excitement and anticipation for the Muslims, and pregnant with the possibility of violence — that 14 August came to Sindh.”

A Bloodstained Freedom, describes a similar situation in Delhi where Muslims were targeted and reportedly several thousands of them were driven out and their houses occupied by local Hindus. The Sindh government, anticipating violence as a response to the Delhi occurrences took steps to contain the violence. In spite of the action, the author quotes an ICS officer, on the situation at Bahawalpur where “a complete breakdown, or rather reversal, of the ordinary moral values” to show how violence spread in Pakistan. In the next chapter she describes the fate of Sindhi Hindus when Muhajirs had to be housed. In “Setting Sail” the departure from their homeland, the stories of very well-to-do Hindus leaving home for refugee camps in India, is recorded in detail, explaining the the harrowing experience their journey and arrival in India.

Life in camps

Under the heading India, in six chapters their plight in India and the cold reception and the life in camps of the families of Hindu Sindhis are revealed. The tales as that of Teji Bhojwani are the ones that make the narrative realistic. The way the Indian Government dealt with the situation caused disenchantment and disillusionment to the Hindu Sindhis who had expected a life worth living in India. She says and rightly so, “The limited sympathy was largely due to its failure to understand, or even register, the considerable impact of a variety of small and subtle forms of communal discrimination on the lives of minorities in Pakistan. . .”

There were of course reasons; for instance, the Bombay government was not prepared for the large number of Sindhi refugees, especially after the January 6 pogrom in Pakistan. The Government had limited resources and on the part of Sindhi refugees who were predominantly from trading communities could not be housed near bigger towns with market place, there was disappointment. After some clashes that were created by impatient Sindhis, Bombay’s home minister (Morarji Desai) was not also initially sympathetic. The Bombay Refugees Act irked the Sindhis. However the Sindhis did start their lives anew and the chapter, “Picking up the Pieces” deals with it. The chapter on women of Sindh is refreshingly new in concept and content. “Counting the Costs” talks about the problems faced during the rehabilitation and especially about the two different genres of writers of that age.

Writings about Pakistan after partition and the plight of nearly 40 lakh Muslim refugees landing there explain the similar problems faced by them. However the problems of Sindhi Hindus who chose to stay back were different. They were treated with suspicion and prosecuted with false charges and punished. Even well-meaning Gandhians were not left. Thus, though some Sindhi Hindus wanted to stay back because there was a promise to protect the minorities there was only disillusionment. Many Hindus therefore had to leave much later and once Hindu majority Karachi became completely free of Hindus!

In all, the book deals with partition from a different angle and instead of rousing sleeping ghosts, narrates the stories that were real. A useful book, especially for the younger generation.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 2:25:51 AM |

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