May 07, 2018

Sindh: Author and Activist Recounts Struggle for Recognition of Language

A native of Sindh province, Varsha Thebo recounts here below the ordeal of having Sindhi language respected in Pakistani society. Sindhi is generally perceived as a “less classy” or peasant language compared to the lingua franca, Urdu. Thebo recounts that one of the key explanations for this was the migration of many Urdu-speaking refugees in the Sindh province during the Partition. The teaching of Sindh as an official language would greatly help in rectifying what the author claims is an injustice against the Sindh people.


The article below was published by The Express Tribune:

I am one of those lucky few who got to spend her childhood with her grandparents. My grandfather would tell me stories of the days of Partition. He was quite young at the time, but seemed to remember every single detail about how everyone in his village would prepare for the people coming to live in Sindh from across the border. He told me how the women would prepare and bring food to the railway platforms, and how some people would even vacate their homes to welcome the refugees.

I would often ask him why they had to do this, and he always said,

“Because this is what Sindh is all about! We are Sindhis, and we always accommodate and love anyone who comes to us. They become our family.”

One might question the authenticity of the stories told by my grandfather, given he was quite old when he narrated them to me, and quite young when the events occurred. However, you cannot question the authenticity of the events that unfolded over the years.

What my poor grandfather did not know was how sometimes your guests want to remain just guests. With the inception of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan established a quota system for the refugees who arrived from India so they could have job security. It clearly was a blow to the economic lives of the indigenous people, but because the newcomers were part of the family, nobody raised their voice. However, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – in order to mitigate the differences in the provision of facilities to different groups of people and to level the playing field – established a quota system for the rural population of Sindh, it became an issue.

Sindhis, especially those living in rural areas, rarely, if ever, got a chance to come forward and find jobs in their own country. Nobody dared to acknowledge the existence of human life in rural Sindh prior to that, because they did not speak Urdu. While it is always difficult to give Sindhis a chance, on the contrary, it seems quite easy for the intellectual and political mafia to ridicule them or to hurl insulting remarks at them on every front, be it in a dictator’s book, or a supposed intellectual’s show on television.

Most of my friends in Pakistan are Sindhis. They come from various cultures, backgrounds and religions, but because they deem Sindh to be their home, they call themselves Sindhis. See that’s the thing about Sindh, you do not need to speak the language or flaunt an ajrak or don a topi to call it your home. If you are familiar with Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s muses and Sachal Sarmast’s Socratic ideas, it is automatically your home. You are home if you can hear the sound of Sindhu, or if you believe in Marvi’s beauty. It is home if you have walked on the streets of Jamshoro, or if you can hear the melody in each of the 52 letters.

However, it is hard to list the number of times I have had encounters where my Urdu-speaking Sindhi friends and family (because no matter how much they deny it, they are Sindhi) would ask me to converse in Urdu because,

“Eww… Sindhi sounds gross!”

“We don’t understand your language.”

To which I always end up saying,

“But it is your language too! You belong here. Sindhi is your language, just as much as Urdu.”

On Eid dinners, when all our Urdu-speaking family members would come together at our village, my brother and I would always be ridiculed for speaking in Sindhi with the other side of our family.

Similarly, a few years ago, I got to visit an elite educational institution in Pakistan. The attitude of a majority of their educated students towards the Sindhi language and Sindhi people was shockingly disturbing. From comments such as “it doesn’t sound classy”, to telling me how they thought people in rural Sindh are either dacoits, cruel landlords, waderas or poor peasants, their statements reeked of bias and condescension. Most of these people had never even been to Sindh, but formed an opinion based on what they saw on mainstream TV shows and adopted certain stereotypes. These interactions showed how the media plays into the politics of language, and propagates an image befitting the opinion of the privileged.

In Sindh, my Punjabi and even Farsi-speaking Sindhi friends often speak Sindhi as well, but I always find my Urdu-speaking Sindhi friends reluctant to even hear the language spoken around them, let alone wanting to speak or learn it. As for the rest of the Sindhis, they never learned the difference between ours and theirs, and the undeniably generous history and hospitality of Sindh offer a vivid proof of that.

So I guess the problem really lies in the fact that our guests never considered Sindh their home, and us their family. We were always the gross, Sindhi-speaking, lazy peasants. And because we are invisible to our guests, we are not even allowed to share our pain in our own language when we are at the hospital. It is interesting how nobody ever comments on the absence of the Sindhi language from the wall boards of Karachi University, but giving equal status to Sindhi at a university that a majority of the “invisible” rural Sindhis attend, seems like an injustice to the linguistically privileged.

I was born into an intercultural family, and grew up speaking both Sindhi and Urdu at home. It never felt like I was speaking a different language with either of my parents, as long as I knew and believed that it was my home. A home where my father recited Bhitai’s poetry in the morning, and my mother would read Ghalib out loud in the evenings. It did not matter, as long as we believed we were a family.

Sindhis like myself, who also speak Sindhi alongside Urdu, know the pain of not being allowed to speak our language, and thus, we would never want to inflict this pain upon others. To all those spreading hatred on social media and creating a divide by playing the blame game, I request you all to do what I do when I am frustrated: read Ghalib or Faiz, and mix it with a bit of Sarmast or Bhitai. I promise you will feel right at home!


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