Very often it is claimed that the authors who come from foreign lands have a particular outlook about Orient. It is believed that Occident is unable to sympathize with the realities of the so called Orient. The people coming from abroad allegedly look at generalities and ignore the intricacies which define the societies. Moreover, history too is read with a particular perspective. Often historical accounts are about rulers and regimes, the people are ignored. However, Sarah Ansari, a keen historian, defies these clichés.
Ansari turned to South Asia when she was doing her master’s from Royal University. Since then, she studied Sindh extensively, focusing on every detail from influential Pirs of Sindh to local people and their expectations from their state. She studied strife ridden Karachi and investigated that why migrants could not assimilate in the society.
The author tells about her experience, “Most of my research focused on Sindh and Karachi. Actually I was personally very interested in this part of the world. I wanted to know everything about the land. So from the time I did my masters in South Asian Studies at School of Oriental and African Studies, I was looking at Sindh trying to find something that I could work on. So in the end what I did for my PhD and which turned into my first book was the Pirs of Sindh and the British Colonial State. Sindh has been inhabited by large influential families which definitely could not remain unaffected with the arrival of Britishers.”
Colonialism however did not prove to be much of a problem for Pirs of the land who knew how to adapt. “What my sources told me that Pirs of the Sindh were able to survive ups and downs and the challenges of British rule because they adapted. They were flexible. On the whole, though not all of them, the Pirs were prepared to take advantage which the new opportunities offered and they were involved in politics too so by the end of the colonial rule these Pirs were very important players.”
Completing this study, the author moved forward to study other aspects. “That was my early study and then I studied other aspects of Sindh. Sindh is the part of the subcontinent. It has not had a huge amount of history written about it, at least not by the people coming in from outside.
“Few worked to make the world aware of Sindh. There were authors and researchers who looked at culture, religion, society and history. However, I worked on history with different approach.”
Sarah Ansari has done a piece of work that looked on impact of partition on Sindh. “Lot of work was being done on partition but focusing really on the Punjab, Bengal and what was going on in North India. The existing literature also focused on ongoing movements of separatism too. However, the impact of partition on Sindh was not explored.”
“I also worked on annexation of Sindh in 1863 into British Empire. The annexation initiated a debate in 1863. In the same year, a cartoon was published in a paper saying “I have Sindh.” It was a pun which in Latin meant “I have done something wrong.” The cartoon was published to condemn the way Sindh was annexed; many Britishers saw it as morally dubious so there was a lot of discussion.
“My project looked at the detail of the annexation and how the details were spun for a British audience by the government of the day. The evidence was laundered to suit the political discourse of the British government of the time.”
It sounds surprising that the British audiences were this much interested in the details of what was happening in Sindh. “British politics could not ignore what was happening in India as it was part of
British Empire.” There was thriving democracy in the region.
Many see ethnicity as a recent problem which started with Islamiztion. Ansari tries to look for deeper meaning, “When I started this, it was 1990’s and Karachi was gripped by ethnic problems. The 90’s saw a surge in conflict. I wondered about the origins of this unfortunate tension and conflict. So I tried to go back and to have a better understanding of what was happening in Sindh and Karachi. I tried to trace the roots back to the early years of partition. I tried to explore that how did communities in this part of the world tended not to assimilate. I was trying to have a perspective by looking at the problem which ensued as a result of events happening in the late 20th century. The outcome was a book named Life after Partition: Migration Community in Strife in Sindh.”
Usually when Pakistan and India are compared then Punjab, military and corruption come in mind. Ansari and her coworkers are trying to find a deeper meaning, “I have been part of a project that tried to look at the events on the part of both side of the border that was created in 1947.”
Being a keen historian, Sarah Ansari knows that India and Pakistan are similar yet not same. They passed through similar phases but their experiences were different. “We wanted to look at India and Pakistan, even if not simultaneously then side by side. I was working with two colleagues, one working in UP and the other one in Hyderabad Deccan. We tried to look at the challenges that people faced as they made transition from the subjects to the citizens of a state, trying to find what the state meant to them. How ordinary people looked at their state. We tried to explore South Asian neighbors not in terms of PMs and presidents and statesmen or high level politicians, instead we looked at bureaucracy and police who had to deal with general public.”
“That made us look into interesting things for example what they wanted the state to do for them. When you look at Karachi in 1950s, you would see that people were complaining about lack of electricity. They were whining about not enough water. They had issues of transport. They were talking about corruption and graft. It’s the same story which was happening in India and that is an important thing. Despite differences, Indians and Pakistanis, the ordinary people were facing very similar problems. So we have explored issues of police corruption and women problems and even politicians having second wives.”
That was, no doubt a critical time. Post partition was the time when aspirations were being translated into legislations. Ansari tells, “That was the time when constitution was being formulated so we could focus on what people were thinking about. Formation of nationalities, even issues of passports intrigued us. We looked at people living overseas. How they were related to their land which was now divided into two separate states.”
Partition, Sindh, Sufis and Pirs all these sound as very Pakistani topics but author says she does not write about Pakistan. “I rarely wrote about Pakistan but I write about places which are the parts of Pakistan now. I say I don’t write about Pakistan because I am writing about things predating Pakistan.”
Sindh has separate identity the author asserts. “Sindh was annexed by the British, for the first 4 years it was ruled separately and later it was made part of the rest. Until 1936 it was part of Bombay presidency. From time to time people suggested Sindh should be joined with Punjab, it makes more sense. However it never happened.”
“Even then there was discomfort about Sindh and Punjab joined together. Though culturally, Punjab and Sindh are part of the same Indus valley and their histories are intertwined, nonetheless they maintain separate identities.”
Ansari has many things to tell about the history, culture and identity of region. She is one of the pioneers in her field. Her keen sight and passionate work is a must for all those who want to explore the land of Sufis which had Multan as it capital once but which never became what Punjab is. She explores Sindh as part of Pakistan which predates Pakistan.Published in The Nation newspaper on 23-Feb-2014