Gateway House, based in Mumbai, is a foreign policy Think Tank established to engage in debate and understanding on India’s foreign policy and its role in global affairs. Its Founder, Manjeet Kripalani, invited me in July 2014 to participate in the “Brainstorming Session on Sub-Regional Perspective on Indo-Pakistan Cooperation, Prospects and Challenges with reference to Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Punjab” to discuss “Trade and Economic Cooperation between Mumbai and Karachi” and “Trade and Economic Cooperation between Gujarat and Sindh”. A gentleman farmer from Okara, Syed Afzaal, was the other Pakistani invited to share his views. The rest of the participants were Indian intellectuals and professionals.
On my right at the table sat an elegant, smiling lady in a resplendent blue sari. I introduced myself as Former President of Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry and she replied that she was Nandita Bhavnani. She is a Chartered Accountant, a lawyer, an investment banker, did her MA in anthropology and, of course, an author. She informed me that she has written a book on the migration of Sindhi Hindus after Independence and that her book was to be launched in Mumbai that very evening.
Halfway during the session, Manjeet announced that Nandita had to leave and that she wanted to make a presentation. I was surprised when Nandita stood up and said that she wanted to present her book to me and that I was the first non-Indian to receive her latest (well-researched) book. I had taken three Ajraks with me and I wished I had one more that I could gift her.
Ms Bhavnani and I have been interacting via email. She informed me that “after completing my MA, I started studying the Sindhi community in India. This was part of a research project, ‘Reconstructing Lives’, which explored memories of mass violence at the time of Partition. As part of this project, I interviewed several elderly Sindhis in different parts of India. In the process, I learnt to speak Sindhi. Later I also learned to read and write Sindhi in the Perso-Arabic script.”
Ms Bhavnani has authored three well-researched books. The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and the Partition of India (2014) which is a detailed and multi-faceted history of the Sindhi Hindu experience of Partition, Remembering Mohan T. Advani: The Man and His Legacy (2012) which is a biography of Mohan Advani who founded Blue Star Ltd in 1943 and that today Blue Star is Indian industry’s leader in central air-conditioning and commercial refrigeration, I Will & I Can: The Story of Jai Hind College (2011) that is the story of how Sindhi Hindu Professors at DJ Sind College in Karachi migrated to Mumbai after Partition and established a new college within only a few months, and a well-documented essay ‘Kalachi, Kurrachee, Karachi: Biography of a Metropolis’ in Sindh: Past Glory, Present Nostalgia (2009). She disclosed that “currently I am working on a book on the beauty of Sindhi culture and the highlights of its history.”
Talking about her trips to Pakistan, Ms Bhavnani said that “In April 2001 I visited Sindh for the first time. I was fortunate to travel to Karachi, Hyderabad, Larkana and Sukkur. This trip turned out to be a landmark event in my life. My interest in Sindh, its people, culture and history only deepened, and the scope of my research expanded. I visited Sindh again in December 2003 and then after ten years, I returned in April 2014 to present a paper on ‘Sindhi Media in India’ at the conference on Sindhi Media at Karachi Urdu University.”
“The Making of an Exile” is worth reading as it portrays the trials and tribulations of Sindhi Hindus who, either voluntarily or unavoidably, left ancestral homes to dwell in territories that manifested into a new beginning, more so with feared uncertainty. Sindhi Hindu exiles really did not "feel" the "Freedom at Midnight" experience because of the hardship, prejudice and fear. The author took substantial advantage of her meticulous research and ensured that the reader would experience and feel the mosaic of events that impacted on the immigrants, both in their halcyon past and their days of the future. The author titillates the appetite of the readers with nuggets of history and background compelling the latter to make their own conclusions about the facts, about the attitude, about the legends, about the compulsions and about the bureaucratic and political decisions that this book very vividly projects. The Foreward, “In the Imagined Landscape of Sindh”, by Dr Ashis Nandy of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and the Committee for Cultural Choices in Delhi is in itself a masterpiece and worth reading it more than once.
Ms Bhavnani commences the Prologue with reference to the Sassui-Punhu legend. She explained that “I wanted to explore the many different bittersweet facets of Hindu-Muslim relationship in Sindh. This would cover not only history but also myths and legends which may be prevalent among the common people. I really like this legend because it shows the love between a Hindu and a Muslim, but they are not allowed to live happily together”.
When asked to comment that in her book, Ayub Khuhro is portrayed as more in a non-positive mode, Sindhi women as Force of Strength despite cultural mores and inhibitions, and Dr Choitram Gidwani as the Guardian Angel, she said that ”nobody is either black or white. We are all human, we are all shades of grey. Khuhro may not have been pro Hindu in some aspects, yet it was thanks to his government’s firm stand that there was comparatively little communal violence in Sindh prior to the winter of 1947-48. Further, he was the one who protested the separation of Karachi from Sindh, and paid the price in the process. Partition did provide an opportunity to Sindhi women to discover their latent strength and talents, but as I have depicted in my book, many Sindhi women could also be quite conservative. Dr Choithram Gidwani certainly did a lot for the Sindhi Hindu community, acting as a spokesperson for them in Pakistan as well as in India, and representing their interests to the respective governments. He was foremost among the Sindhi Hindu leaders who helped in the resettlement of the community in India, and worked tirelessly in this regard.”
On my contention that Indian bureaucracy and certain Congress leaders were "roadblocks" rather than "considerate" in helping Sindhi Hindus, she commented that “This was true to some extent. However, the Congress government as well as the governments of princely states also took various measures for the benefit of the Sindhi Hindus. They organized the evacuation of Sindhi Hindus to India, put them in refugee camps and gave them rations etc. So it was a mixed bag.”
A perception among some is that the Muslim immigrants from India exacted "revenge" thru forceful and illegal usurpation of property and assets. She stated that “I have shown that the Karachi violence was motivated not by a desire for revenge, but in order to appropriate Hindu property, and to frighten the Hindus into migrating to India. There were many places where minorities were attacked by the majority community with the intention of scaring them into migrating and taking over their property. I cannot comment on the ethnicity/ place of origin of the Muhajirs who usurped property or indulged in violence, since I have no way of knowing this.” She describes the Karachi violence as “Karachi pogrom” and in her narrative considers it “a watershed event which convinced many Sindhi Hindus to migrate.”
On the question of changing the Perso-Arabic script of Sindhi into Devanagari although India is a mosaic of multi-ethnicity and nationalities, Ms Bhavnani explained “the change of script was driven by two factors. Firstly, the Perso-Arabic script was associated with Muslims, and the Devanagari script was associated with Hindus. Certain communally prejudiced Sindhi Hindus wanted to drop this Muslim association, and to make the language more ‘Hindu’. The second factor was that in those days, many Indians were influenced by the Nehruvian idea that Indians should not consider themselves as Hindus or Muslims or Sikhs, or Gujaratis or Tamils or Bengalis - but simply as Indians. So the Devanagari script would have more in common with other Indian language scripts such as Hindi, Marathi, etc. In my opinion, the change of script was a huge blunder.”
She very emphatically underscored the “great need for local histories or micro histories of Partition. For example, the Partition experience of Muslims in Gujarat, or of Hindus and Sikhs in KPK. These are important stories which need to be told. I definitely feel the need for additional writing on the Muhajir experience of Partition, especially after their arrival in Pakistan.”
Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai very aptly described an Exodus. “They have departed now, heading eastwards. Giving up their homes here, they will settle ahead.”