Memories of Shikarpur, the Paris of Sindh
The news of a bomb-blast at an imambargah in Shikarpur rocked the nation on Friday. But the attack was particularly shocking for my family. They remember a different Shikarpur – a land of peace, tolerance and Sufism, a land once called the ‘Paris of Sindh’.
Many a wars have been fought by people coveting dominion over the emerald city. In the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1841, Lieut. Postans describes Shikarpur as,
“The most important town in the country of Sindh in point of trade, population and influence”.
My father was born in Shikarpur, my grandfather was born in Shikarpur, as was his father and beyond; “We are the Shaikhs of Shikarpur, the sons of this soil” as my father would say. But he grew up in a different Shikarpur; a Shikarpur were people of different religious beliefs, social standing and cultural values could meet every evening in the same autaaq (courtyard) to break bread together.
This city district was famous for its kufli falooda, achar (pickles) and mithai – not acts of extremist violence. Even in the land of the Sufis, Shikarpur was particularly home to a vibrant, tolerant community. Many notable Shia families and scholars belong to Shikarpur; some caretakers of the Karbala imambargah also called Shikarpur ‘home’. Let alone different sects of Muslims, Hindus and Muslims have lived peacefully in Shikarpur for centuries.
Growing up in Shikarpur, my sister remembers that her favourite shop, Deewan Sweets, was owned and operated by Hindus. She was ecstatic when Sunshine Sweets opened its doors on Tariq Road near our house after our family moved to Karachi. The owners of Sunshine Sweets belonged to the same extended Hindu family.
As a child, whenever I visited the city of my forefathers, I never felt a hint of communal tension. While my parents would not let me move freely in Karachi, in Shikarpur I was free to roam the streets. I could go to the sweet vendors or the videogame shops without any adult supervision. Back then, there was no suggestion that this community would also fall victim to the cancer of extremism that plagues Pakistan a couple of decades later.
The fall of Shikarpur’s status is symbolic of the general lowering of the standards throughout the country. A prominent city famous for its infrastructure has been allowed to fall into decay, and oblivion. When my father was young, he remarks, people would come to Shikarpur for education.
“The Government Qazi Habibullah High School was a centre of high quality education in the entire province” he says proudly.
Post-partition, a lot of migrants settled in Shikarpur due to its high level of education and economic opportunities.
The location of Shikarpur in Upper Sindh, and closeness to the Bolan Pass, meant it was a hub of trade. The region dominated the trade between Central Asia and Northern India through Afghanistan. Shikarpur traders constantly visiting Central Asia meant there was a constant exchange of ideas from Central Asia to Shikarpur. The Bukhara province in present-day Uzbekistan had a particularly large Shikarpuri community settled there.
Contrary to our current labelling of the region as ‘rural’, this was not always the destiny of this great city. After partition, Shikarpur had the third best rural to urban ratio in Sindh, only behind Karachi and Mirpur Khass, according to the statistical data calculated by Iqtidar H Zaidi in 1955. In 2005, Haroon Jamal found 43.87% of the population in Shikarpur to be living below the poverty line. When we talk about the broken dream of Pakistan, we are talking about the lives of people in these communities who got dragged below the poverty lines. Fertile lands with vibrant communities reduced to wastelands bereft of economic opportunities; cities stripped of their prominence, and allure.
Shikarpur has a history of being a prominent city in the region. During the Kalhora Rule in the 18th century, Shikarpur was one of the financial capitals of Central Asia. It remained a centre for culture, trade and literature till the partition. It was referred to as the “financial and commercial centre of Sindh” during the British era.
Sir Ghulam Hussain Hidayatullah, who formed the first autonomous government in Sindh in 1937, was born in Shikarpur. He later became the first governor of Sindh post-partition. His tenure as chief minister of Sindh from April 28, 1937 to March 23, 1938 followed by the tenure of Allah Bux Sumro, also born in Shikarpur, from March 23 1938 to April 18, 1940, are famous for the Manzilgah controversy.
Hamida Khuhro outlines the role of both the leaders in the controversy in her article Masjid Manzilgah, Test case for Hindu-Muslim Relations in Sindh. The Masjid Manzilgah referred to two domed buildings on the banks of the Indus near Sukkur. The buildings were used by the Muslims of Sindh as a mosque but were incorporated into the British agency after the British conquest of Sindh.
During the early 20th century, there was mass agitation by Muslims to force the British to hand over the property back. The twist in the story was that Hindus were against this demand since the buildings were situated directly opposite the river island of Sadh Belo. The temples at Sadh Belo were a favourite site of pilgrimage for the local Hindus.
This situation gave the Muslim League their first chance at spearheading a mass movement in a Muslim-majority province. All the elements of a potential communal riot were present – two agitated religious communities claiming a historic right to the use of the land earmarked as holy by both communities.
There were cases of outbreaks and lawlessness, there was a strike that lasted 15 days but before massacres could break out, the leaders on both sides realised they preferred peaceful co-existence. Both communities were able to come together and form an agreement for the use of property. The most perilous possibility of communal riots in Sindh was prevented through negotiation. The Muslims were allowed to pray at the mosque and the Hindus were allowed to play music at their temples.
How did we come from a temple and a mosque operating next to each other to explosives being set off in mosques belonging to a different sect?
Where are the communities that our forefathers remember? And where are the lands we find in our history books?
It is particularly disappointing to see how subsequent governments have let the two most important elements of the city decay – education and infrastructure. Karachi is inundated with urban migration because the lack of foresight by the government to create more urban centres in Sindh. In the case of Shikarpur, it was merely a case of maintaining an urban centre but we have failed to do even that.
The government of Sindh expressed its helplessness at the poor quality of hospitals in the region.
“You cannot expect us to work miracles; there is no adequate healthcare in rural Sindh. It is what it is,” seemed to be the party line taken by Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
A cursory look through history books will show us why the situation is not as helpless as advertised.
A British medical journal from 1985 admires the level of healthcare provided at the Civil Hospital of Shikarpur. Surgeon Major AF Ferguson writes how a young Muslim woman was treated with “fat embolism following free incision of the female breast for diffuse suppuration”. The woman did not survive but the hospital was equipped to provide all the health services. A thorough post-mortem was also conducted with her organs diagnosed fit for further medical research.
In 1911 a special hospital was built in Shikarpur by a Hindu philanthropist. The British Medical Journal of 1965 notes how Sir Henry Holland performed numerous operations for cataract at the hospital and visitors from all over the world came to the hospital.
We are fed a very clear narrative of Pakistan being denied its right to resources at partition and a constant struggle since then to catch up to its more powerful neighbour but this narrative of ‘helplessness’ painted by our governments whitewashes their ineptitude.
Shikarpur is only one of the many examples of how a once bustling urban centre has deteriorated into complete economic isolation. Economics and extremism are closely connected; people who have little to lose are keener to blow themselves up for a few thousand rupees. We stress a lot on the ‘religious’ elements of terrorism but little on its economic aspects.
Almost exclusively, extremist militant organisations are only able to seize control over lands which are in economic decay. These organisations may be funded by rich ideologues but the foot soldiers are inevitably of a much lower social class.
While discussing the role of religion in promoting extremist terrorism, we must not lose sight of how poor governance in the past 68 years has shattered the dreams of Pakistan for many communities. The world is looking forward to their future whereas people in Pakistan are longing for a Pakistan from a century ago. Somewhere along the way, we must have taken a few wrong turns to end up here.
Today, the only thing Shikarpur has in common with Paris is that both the cities were marred by extremist violence in the past month.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.