As though the country does not have its plate full with terrorism, political and criminal turf wars, and the Balochistan insurgency and sectarian attacks in the province, low intensity blasts occurred throughout Sindh on Friday. Cracker explosions and hand grenade lobbing was witnessed in Hyderabad, Larkana, Kotri, Naushehro Feroze, Bhit Shah, Matiari, Hala, Dadu, Ranipur and Karachi. Fortunately there were no deaths. Two people were reported injured. The intent of the attackers does not therefore appear to have been to maim life and limb, rather the campaign appears to have been aimed at making the strike called for Saturday successful. That thought, based on the pattern of such attacks on the eve of strike calls in the past, and the arrest of 14 suspects from various parts of the province, during which some minor weapons and cracker seizures along with recovery of pamphlets regarding the strike were reported, led the police to lay the blame at the door of the Jeeay Sindh Muttahida Mahaz (JSMM), a Sindhi nationalist group. The JSMM’s strike call was issued to protest the provocative remarks of MQM chief Altaf Hussain recently in which he had advocated the carving out of a separate province in Sindh or even a separate country on the basis that the Urdu-speaking citizens of the province were not receiving their due. The nature of the actions suggest the JSMM, if indeed it was behind the attacks, wanted to send a political message rather than follow in the footsteps of the terrorists and inflict death and injuries on the maximum number of victims. The message and its means of transmission appear relatively mild in the context of all the other campaigns of attacks on the state and citizens by terrorists and other interest groups. But it should serve as a warning that provocations of the sort Altaf Hussain keeps authoring from time to time could lead to deepening the ethnic divide and even stoking ethnic conflict in the province. The issue of the ethnic divide in Sindh is highly sensitive, and therefore not to be trifled with in cavalier fashion.
The Sindhi nationalists’ long standing case (stemming from the creation of the country) is that the massive influx of refugees from India (mostly Urdu-speaking) during partition and their concentration in the cities of Sindh, particularly Karachi, created a demographic catastrophe for the original inhabitants of the province. What followed subsequently proved the worst nightmare Sindhis could have imagined for themselves in the new country. Not only was the Sindhi educated and skilled middle class (overwhelmingly Hindu) that existed before partition displaced to our neighbouring country, the vacuum left behind was filled by an Urdu-speaking salariat with the requisite education and skills. That marginalised and ghettoised Sindhis to a largely rural existence, in which the structures of large landholding and feudalism remained intact (even after Ayub and Bhutto’s attempts at land reform in the 1960s and 70s respectively). But in case anyone thinks that the rural areas remained free of the malign vested interests that the new state encouraged, barrage lands in Sindh were freely and generously allocated to retired military and bureaucratic officers (mostly Punjabi). Whole villages emerged in the Sindhi rural areas as a result that were known as ‘Punjabi chaks (villages)’, in which not only the landowners, but even the cultivating peasantry had been ‘imported’ from the largest province to the north. The resentments of the emerging urban Sindhi middle class and the feudals and peasants of the Sindhi rural areas against this ‘invasion’, which they felt had deprived the sons of the soil of their rights, was sought to be redressed in the 1970s during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s tenure. But the resistance of the non-Sindhi privilegentsia proved the old adage that a vested interest seldom yields easily. For example, when the Sindh government under Mumtaz Ali Bhutto attempted to restore Sindhi as the medium of instruction in 1972, a position it had enjoyed in the province before partitition, the move was met by language riots in Karachi. This development set the tone for a newly assertive Sindhi community attempting to wrest back the rights it felt had been denied after Pakistan came into being, up against an equally if not even more assertive Urdu-speaking community that wanted to cling on to the privileges in education, employment and business opportunities it had been gifted over the years. The rise of the MQM in the 1980s was part of this counter-assertion. If Altaf Hussain’s remarks are placed in this context, it becomes easier to understand why Sindhi nationalist resentment runs so deep. MQM and its leader should refrain from provocation and follow their own oft repeated assertion that they too are Sindhis. Difficult as it is to imagine, the province needs a return to its tolerant Sufi ways, not an ethnic conflict cauldron. *