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The religious right in Sindh

Despite intellectual property rights, the internet has broken the monopoly over books, libraries, distances, university degrees etc which are not confined to a few individuals now – including in Sindh.

Many Urdu, Sindhi and some English writers in Pakistan made a conscious effort to pass on their knowledge about history, class conflict, philosophy and other core issues of class exploitation. Over the years, progressive writers’ guilds, groups and political parties arranged study circles, training workshops and such events to share notes on the state’s class role and revolutionary experiences of other nations. The left created a politically educated class that is conscious about history and the exploitation of religion by the ruling class.

In Sindh, progressive parties took it up as a serious cause to spread awareness among workers of leftist freedom movements and peasant rebellions during the colonial age and the cold war. Though these parties had a political agenda, the process produced educated, well-informed cadres in society, who, unfortunately, after the decline of the leftist movement, joined civil society organisations (NGOs) and journalism, gradually distancing themselves from political activism; this is generally called de-politicisation in our societies.

The religious right-wing parties also had similar traditions and practices. The Jamaat-e-Islami and varying groups of the JUI still continue to train their followers with their version of Islamic history in order to create an ‘Islamic society’ and state according to their versions.

Some of Sindh’s progressive parties were considered as universities for peasants and workers. Their public meetings would last for hours and many writers and intellectuals would also speak at such gatherings. A culture of reading and haring books was also encouraged. I recall that in the late 1980s leftist activists would hold political classes to debate Gorbachev’s book ‘Perestroika’ which presented a reformist agenda in Russia’s communist polity, state and economy. Later, many accused Gorbachev of betraying Soviet Communism. Sindh-based workers of the Awami National Party (ANP) led by Rasool Bux Palejo and others were supportive of Gorbachev’s idea.

Progressive leaders in Sindhi-led parties were also well-known writers and intellectuals, from comrade Sobho Gianchandi, to Haider Bux Jatoi and Rasool Bux Palejo. G M Syed, a hardcore nationalist Sufi, wrote several books. Poets and writers also wrote their autobiographies. The more prominent among them were Shaikh Ayaz, Jamal Abro and M H Panwhar. These autobiographies have enriched Sindhi language literature, and are a marvelous reflection not just of Sindh’s social, political and cultural history but also of the rest of the country and region. The number of such books runs into hundreds if not thousands; they played a key role in the awakening of Sindhi society and identity.

Politically speaking, Sindh was not a stronghold of religious political parties, until the Afghan jihad and Iranian revolution in the 1980s. Though the JI had existed, it never became a popular political movement among Sindhi speakers and could not establish large recruitment and training centers outside Karachi. With the rise of the MQM in Karachi, the JI was wiped out from Sindh as a political force and was left with only street power. Meanwhile, the JUI-F gained a foothold in the 1980s under the leadership of Larkana’s lower middle class medical doctor Khalid Mahmood Soomro.

The JUI-F played a major role in changing the political landscape of Sindh, by changing the mosque and madressah into political networking spaces. Every mosque led by a JUI-I imam and leader started placing a party flag at the entrance gate. Hundreds of such mosques and madressahs could be seen across Sindh. Khalid Mahmood Soomro grew up in Larkana at a time when Sindhi nationalist and progressive politics was at its peak. The political environment helped him understand the nationalist narrative of Sindh. Later, when he became the leader of the JUI-Sindh he turned the chapter into a party which stood together with the nationalists on many issues including that of the Kalabagh Dam.

With his powerful angry voice, Quranic verses, Sindhi poetry, talk of the imperialist occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan, Soomro used to hit hard at America, India and Israel – the usual right-wing narrative in Pakistan. For the first time, he turned the JUI-F into a popular religious movement in Sindh, mainly in upper Sindh. In joint public meetings of alliance, he mixed nationalist politics and religion, but in his sermons in Larkana, Soomro attacked secular values, art, music and culture. This writer once went to attend his sermon in his huge mosque-madressah in Larkana. Madam Noor Jehan had died recently, and he condemned the media for expressing grief on her demise, used derogatory remarks about her and accused her of promoting vulgarity in society. During a political rally in Hyderabad in alliance with secular Sindhi parties, he insisted that the women tableau be presented after his speech; he did not want to see women perform.

In 1988, when Soomro contested the election against Benazir Bhutto, he secured over 5,000 votes, but in the last election of his life he gained close to 30,000 votes. His madressah in Larkana became a power center. The last few rallies in his life he held in Upper Sindh were huge.

The PPP, in political coalition with the JUI-F, made Dr Soomro senator, which helped him strengthen his political base. He used funds for his constituency – part of it went to hospitals too – which earned him a good name. During his time in the Senate, he would seek advice and help from Sindhi writers, who used to provide him data and background on different issues related to Sindh. Some writers used to say ‘Dr Soomro listens, and is often eager to learn – unlike PPP senators’.

In November 2014, Dr Soomro was assassinated in Sukkur. Thousands attended his funeral; some even compared his funeral with that of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto in terms of the number of people attending. After him, the JUI-F chose hereditary politics and appointed his son Rashid Mahmood Soomro party leader in Sindh. Most recently, Rashid Soomro contested a by-election from Shikarpur against the PPP’s Imtiaz Shaikh, securing 27,000 votes. It was unprecedented for the JUI-F to get such numbers Shikarpur; some Sindhi nationalists had also supported him.

Dr Soomro led an organised religio-political movement in Sindh, which had never happened before to that scale. He left behind a number of political madressahs and mosques, which advocate for the creation of a religious state in country. The social composition of the zealots in these spaces is largely from the lower middle class.

The left, on other hand, seems to be fading away. Progressives have become more nationalistic in their narratives and discourse and stand divided and weakened. The culture of study circles, book readings and lectures has declined, if not vanished completely. Some NGOs have undertaken the task of organising political classes, day-long workshops and lectures for workers. But that solely depends on foreign funding and cannot be a substitute to political movement which counters the right-wing with a socio-political and economic agenda for an egalitarian society. The ruling PPP has empowered tribal, feudal chieftains and has created a neo-feudal class. The class question and land reforms issue, thus, remain unaddressed in Sindh.

Email: mush.rajpar@gmail.com

Twitter: @MushRajpar

Mushtaq Rajpar, "The religious right in Sindh," The News. 2017-07-18.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political class , Political parties , Civil society , Economy , Religion , Jihad , Shaikh Ayaz , Jamal Abro , Sindh , Iran , ANP , JUIF