• Manan Bhavnani

Home Away From Home: Sindhi Identity, The Partition, and Migration

When the partition happened 75 years ago, all of Sindh went to Pakistan. For Sindhis being forced to leave, and even generations later, ties to language, culture, and identity remain complicated.


Members from the Sindhi Association of Metropolitan Chicago walk during the Independence Day parade in Naperville on August 14. The event was organized by the Indian Community Outreach, an Indian-American organization based in Aurora. (Manan Bhavnani).


“Asaan paanje desh mo panje desh aaya si,” poet and researcher Gittanjali C Kalro writes in one of her poems. Translated, the line means “we left our country for our country.”


The summer of 1947 was a tumultuous one for 14 million people, among them was Pritam Jotsinghani’s family. On July 18 of that year, the British government introduced the Indian Independence Act which paved the way for the end of British rule. The ruling also established dominion status for India and the newly-created state of Pakistan. As the Act came to fruition that August, what followed was the largest migration in human history. The partition led to the deaths of thousands of people, leaving millions as refugees, with others still unaccounted for.


At the time, Jotsinghani was eight years old, and utterly confused by what was happening. He described “trains packed like matchboxes.”


It was common for people to hang from windows, or sit on train roofs. Usually, he said, women and children would sit inside the train, while the men would take the more risky seats. This was long before rail lines were electrified and windows upgraded with thick metal bars.


An overcrowded train transferring refugees during the partition of India, 1947. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS).


Jotsinghani’s family left Hyderabad in Sindh, Pakistan before settling in Ajmer, in the Northwestern state of Rajasthan in India. They later moved to Ohio.


Partition survivors have generally been hesitant in talking about the event, in part because of the chaos, trauma, and pain attached to it—making it difficult to recount. For younger generations, this has created a sort of ‘amnesia’ regarding one’s family and community history. This is particularly true for the Sindhi community—suddenly stateless and forced to start anew.


The partition displaced much of the Sindhi community, especially non-Muslim minority, including Hindu and Sikh Sindhis who settled in India. An estimated 12 to 14 million Hindu Sindhis migrated into India, according to The Partition Museum, a public museum focused around the event in Amritsar, India.


The early years of partition were a period of struggle for the newly-migrated communities in India. In those initial years, schools or army bases were turned into crowded refugee settlements, while people were still rebuilding their lives.

Jotsinghani’s family, along with those of his three sisters, came to one of these facilities in Ajmer located in Rajasthan, India. They describe these camps as classrooms where one room could host up to four families, each in one of the four corners.


“Luckily, we had four families, so we got a room,” he said.


At the time, Ajmer was under curfew, as was much of the country. Communal violence and skirmishes were an on-off occurrence. In some cases, one could see trains pulling into stations filled with bodies, and blood-stained interiors. Jotsinghani said he had witnessed the same on more than one occasion en route to Ajmer.


The curfew in Ajmer was eventually lifted a few days later, but he said he could not remember how long it had lasted. As all this was happening around them, family and community became havens for safety.


JOTSINGHANI: “It was important that families stay together. There was a lot of fear.”

However, migration was not limited to India or within the context of partition. In the seven and a half decades since, Sindhi communities have spread out across the world, from the Middle East to Europe to the United States and beyond— even including the vibrant community in Chicago. With Sindhis scattered across the world, maintaining one’s culture and language can be a challenge.


EXTENDED VACATIONS, SECONDARY MIGRATIONS

In the summer of 1947, Navin Megchiani’s family was vacationing in Mumbai. Megchiani, now 83, was born and raised in Karachi, which is part of the Sindh province. When the partition happened, it became clear to their family they would be unable to leave.


“We had to decide what to do and how to start a new life in a country we had never visited before,” he said. Following the partition, the family initially found shelter in Nashik, a few hours from Mumbai, before relocating to Kandivali.


“We had to get a ration card to get food supplies, and get permission to get admission into schools,” he said.


At the time, everything was a struggle, especially for ‘sharnathi,’ or refugee communities.


In Karachi, Megchiani went to a Sindhi-language school. However, it was a challenge for his family to find a school close to their new home which taught in that language.

“This shows how we lost touch with our education system,” he said. The school the family found in Malad, a suburb of Mumbai, offered no Sindhi teaching.


MEGCHIANI: “I had a choice: Marathi, Gujarati, or Hindi. I had to forget about my Sindhi education and what I learned in the Karachi school.”

Megchiani added that following his graduation, there was pressure to find a job, even more so as the eldest son.


“The quicker we get a job, the better it would be for the family to settle. This is a pain of the partition,” he said.


In 1955, when he was 17, Megchiani moved to Bahrain in search of work, landing a job as a stenographer for a car company. He stayed with that company for a decade before changing jobs and diving into sales. He has been at that second company for over six and half decades since. He said he would have liked to go to college and study before he began working.


“I was very sad when I was asked to start working. But I understood the needs,” he said.


Megchiani’s two sons and four grandchildren either moved to the United States or were born and grew up there. His two sons came to the States to pursue higher education, while some of his grandchildren were born here. One of his sons eventually moved to Doha and is an active member of the Sindhi community there.


Like Megchiani’s family, the family of one Hero Ramnani briefly visited India on a summer vacation from Nawabshah in Sindh, before finding themselves unable to leave India. That was my maternal grandfather’s family.


He was 10 at the time. When the family first moved, they had little money, with most of their possessions back home. All they had were papers for their property in Nawabshah.


“We all felt this would be temporary. We never knew that we were leaving forever.”

After initially moving to Jodhpur in Rajasthan, the family moved to Agra in Uttar Pradesh a year later. Across the two cities, the family ventured into a number of businesses, ranging from shoe-selling to starting a hotel, to textiles. Starting over proved difficult, with several of their early endeavors going bust. Nor was that the only extenuating factor.


As elsewhere in the country, Hindu-Muslim communal riots were a regular occurrence in Agra, with shops and businesses often being looted.


“We could stand on the roof and see riots on the road,” he said.


While the family had little possessions with them, they were able to get housing in Agra based on property documents from Sindh. After moving around Agra and other parts of India, my grandfather relocated again, this time to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.


My grandfather, uncle, aunt, and cousins have lived in Dubai since 1990. With about 94,000 people, the country hosts the second-largest number of Sindhis outside India. Meanwhile, neighboring Qatar has about 25 Sindhi families.


For Sindhi communities in Bahrain, the UAE, and Qatar, upward mobility has been a factor behind post-settlement or secondary migration. However, current generations are often detached from Indian and Sindhi culture and the language either by circumstance or design.


ORAL HISTORIES AND ASSIMILATION

The 1947 Partition Archive is a Berkeley-based archive that focuses on the Indian Subcontinent and aims to preserve “this chapter of our collective history.”


Founder and executive director Guneeta Singh Bhalla started the archive in 2010 with the goal of collecting 10,000 oral histories of partition.


Bhalla said she saw a connection between her story, her family’s journey, and that of others across the region. Bhalla, who is Punjabi Indian-American, moved around India frequently when she was young because her father was in the army. After traveling across India, the family eventually moved to the United States.


Bhalla’s travels across India growing up have shaped her worldview and work.


BHALLA: “When you’re constantly moving around, you naturally develop this appreciation for other cultures and diversity.”

Bhalla would look back to the stories she had heard regarding her family’s journey from her grandmother, detailing how they struggled and most importantly, survived in the aftermath of partition.


When she was studying the subcontinent’s history at school in the States, Bhalla said there was a disconnect between the oral history she had heard and what the course materials said. This prompted her to create the archive.


BHALLA: “Our [American] history books said that Gandhi led a peaceful march and there was a peaceful transfer of power”

With India and the subcontinent’s prolonged struggles, independence was not a parting gift from benevolent colonizers—it was something people fought and died for.


The purpose of the archive is to tell a more comprehensive story of partition and of the region's collective history. Today, the archive has a collection exceeding 10,500 accounts of the event. Given the range of reach of these stories, it is arguably the most vivid documentation of a not-too-distant past. The 10,000-mark—which the archive recently reached—remains a milestone.


“There was this sense of relief. It was such a huge focal point for ten years that it was hard to plan beyond that,” Bhalla said.


She added that she hopes to keep collecting stories, but said that it is also important to educate people and spread these stories.


This past August marked the 75th anniversary of partition and of independence. In our conversation two weeks prior to that event, “I think as we go into 75 years, we’re moving into a space where we’re getting more intimately connected with the past,” Bhalla said.


Contrary to popular belief, partition was a prolonged process, rather than something that happened in a day or two, Bhalla noted.


BHALLA: “We wanted to create more awareness around what was going on around that period.”

Over the summer, the archive hosted a six-day-a week podcast series titled, “75 Days of Partition.” The podcast’s run, between June and August this year, aligned with the actual 75-day timeline of the partition.


The Mountbatten Plan was announced on June 3 in 1947, which began the process of division. The plan, devised by Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, introduced the eventual separation of the country into what became India and Pakistan. However, the partition was only finalized 75 days later, on August 17, with the announcement of the Radcliffe Line, which formally determined the country’s boundaries.


Today, there is a greater demand for discussing partition and acknowledging that part of history. This change is in part, due to the portrayal of partition in TV shows, documentaries, and movies in recent years. Earlier this summer, the Disney series “Ms. Marvel” gained attention for not just its portrayal of partition, but by the very fact that it explored the subject. Meanwhile, “Bharat,” the 2019 Bollywood film, and the 2017 BBC documentary “My Family, Partition and Me,” were inspired or supported by the archive’s work.


“The event is not frozen in time. There is a persistence of partition,” Rita Kothari, a professor of English and a partition researcher at Ashoka University said.


She has written extensively about partition and the Sindhi experience, including her first book, “The Burden of Refuge,” which deals with post-partition Sindhi identity.


Kothari added that the event is intertwined with the past and present geopolitical struggles of South Asia. She explained that in India, and in other parts of the world, there is a relationship between land and community. In some cases, that manifests as an imposed relationship rather than an organic one. For instance, she pointed out how Muslim-majority areas in India are sometimes referred to as “little Pakistan,” as there is a persisting animosity toward Muslims in the country.


KOTHARI: “Partition does not come to me as a thought that is separate from the life of communities…We were wrenched out of our land, our history, and out of language.”

For much of the Hindu Sindhi community that settled in India, there was a dilution of Sindhi-ness in favor of presenting oneself as more Hindu, especially in Gujarat, which has been a focus of Kothari’s research.


“After partition, Sindhis fashioned themselves as more Hindu than the Hindus,” she said.


For many years, religious and cultural practices were suppressed to align with a more traditional Hindu identity. This included abstaining from meat or alcohol, and speaking Hindi instead of Sindhi. This self-censorship was evident in language too, as Sindhi people would avoid certain words or phrases, like the Urdu word “rassi,” meaning rope, as it is close enough to “rasool,” Arabic for prophet.


As a result, language, culture, and identity were “whittled down,” Kothari said.


In various parts of India, post-partition Sindhi communities have existed for decades, including in Gujarat and Rajasthan in the West to Indore in the center to Maharashtra in the Southwest. Typically, these have been close-knit communities, with the Sindhi language a notable feature of not just home life, but also beyond, from schooling to several day-to-day experiences. For many of these groups, there is a social and cultural binding to the language and culture. For instance, someone in these areas might go to a Sindhi-language school, or grow up in a household where the language is nurtured. More crucially, one might even experience life and the world where the Sindhi language is a persisting feature.


Many in the third and fourth generations, in parts of India and within the diaspora have not experienced that reality. Whether through circumstance or as a byproduct of assimilation and capitalistic forces, something has been lost.


“There is a generation gap,” Jotsinghani said. He lamented the fact that our conversation was in Hindi.


“This is a difficult puzzle to solve,” he said. He added that many people do not speak Sindhi at home or are not exposed to the language at school or around them.


“That is the story of every house,” he said.


In rebuilding their lives in India after partition and building lives elsewhere, the Sindhi community have been “perfect citizens of mobility,” Kothari said.


However, that mobility has come at the cost of clinging to one’s roots.

“The same strength [that helped Sindhis build lives globally] is also what made them pay some prices,” she said.


SINDHIS IN CHICAGO

In 1965, a Sindhi immigrant couple in Chicago started the Sindhi Association of Metropolitan Chicago (SAMC), a community organization based in the Chicago suburbs. The region is home to a sizable Sindhi community, with about 400 families that live in the area.


Since its establishment, SAMC has held a minimum of four events each year: Cheti Chand, the Sindhi New Year in the spring; a summer picnic; Gurpurab, which marks the birth of the first Sikh guru, Guru Nanak; and Diwali, the festival of lights in the fall.


“The goal of this organization is to bring people together, culturally and socially,” said Gita Rupani, a pain management specialist who serves as its president.


The picnic returned this year on July 31, after two difficult years of the pandemic.


Besides these four events, she said the organization aims to keep the community connected through its newsletter and updates, especially in the event of someone passing away. Rupani said that the picnic is an important place for the community to gather.


People talk while a man grills corn on the barbecue at the picnic on Sunday, July 31. The picnic was SAMC’s second event this year. (Manan Bhavnani).


“The picnic was very well-attended. I think part of it was because people wanted to meet in person,” she said.


At the picnic, there were a number of people talking and laughing in Sindhi. However, Rupani noted that there are concerns over that being lost. She explained that she would like to see the younger generation take charge of SAMC. She added the hegemony of other languages and cultural assimilation are at odds with preserving one’s language and culture.


“It is within us. If we want to keep the language alive, we have to do it,” she said.


“It felt great. It was nice to be able to connect with people [at the picnic],” said Anil Lal, the executive director of oncology at the University of Chicago said. For Lal and his wife, events like the picnic are crucial to holding on to their culture.


The pair moved from Karachi to Chicago in search of better opportunities 22 years ago, after finishing their studies in Pakistan. For those in the diaspora, gatherings like the summer picnic, the Independence Day parade, or in under two weeks, Diwali, are as much a celebration of identity and home as they are of culture. Language is at the heart of that interplay.


LAL: “To me, it [the language] reminds me of my home and my hometown. I wish my kids could learn it too so we could pass it on.”

Members from the SAMC pose for a photo after the parade on August 14. (Manan Bhavnani).


NOT FAR FROM HOME, BUT NOT CLOSE ENOUGH

For Sindhis who moved to India and elsewhere, visiting ancestral homes in Pakistan and Sindh can be difficult. Since their independence, India and Pakistan have fought two major wars, with other smaller skirmishes being a constant feature. Further, bureaucracy prevents people from getting around. While acquiring a visa is difficult to begin with, there remain even greater barriers.


In some instances, one might be able to visit a part of Sindh, but not travel freely and see their family land or homes. This is because Pakistan requires living ancestors and documentation to prove one’s lineage to a specific area.


My grandfather, for instance, was able to get a visa for Karachi in 2005, but was unable to visit his hometown of Nawabshah. He explained this was because he did not have relatives who could trace his family’s history to the city.


Kothari said that she had a similar experience.


“I got a visa to go to Karachi. I didn’t get a visa to go to Shikarpur,” she said.


She added that she was unable to get a visa to go to Pakistan again.


“It was quite painful,” to be denied the chance to visit her homeland, she said.


“It is still very painful.”