Interview with Professor Sarah Ansari, Royal Holloway

Interview with Professor Sarah Ansari, Royal Holloway, University of London (by Saba Sindhri, CEIAS-EHESS)

Professor Sarah Ansari is Professor of History on South Asia’s recent past at Royal Holloway University of London. Her research interests tend to focus on the history of (1) the province of Sindh and its mega-port city of Karachi, and (2) the lives of women in South
Asia. Her main publications are Sufi saints and state power. The pirs of Sindh, 1843-1947, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992; Women, Religion, and Culture in Iran, Editor with Vanessa Martin, Routledge, 2002; Life after Partition: Migration, Community
and Strife in Sindh, 1947-1962, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005; From subjects to Citizens: Society and the Everyday State in India and Pakistan, 1947-1970, Joint Editor with Taylor C. Sherman & William Gould, Delhi, Cambridge University Press, 2014; Boundaries of Belonging: localities, citizenship and rights in India and Pakistan, co-authored with William Gould, CUP, 2019.

You have been working on Sindh since many years, can you please shed light on this long journey? Specifically, what triggered you to start working on Sindh? How this journey had been so far? What challenges you had to go through?

Being absolutely honest, I initially became interested in the history of Sindh for personal reasons. I met and married my husband, whose family had lived on and off in Sindh since 1944 (first in Sukkur, then Hyderabad, and finally Karachi). Hence, I wanted to know more about the province’s past. The journey since then has been a very enlightening one. I hope that my research has helped to generate more interest in Sindh. Certainly, when I began my studies in the mid-80s, there were very few academics focused on Sindh’s history and culture. Anne Marie Schimmel, whom I was fortunate to meet on my first visit, was the biggest name. Christopher Shackle, who taught me during my MA at SOAS, was another early influence. In terms of challenges, an early one was probably persuading other historians that Sindh offered a credible context for the questions that I was asking as part of my PhD.

When I explained my interest in Sindh’s sajjada nashin families during the period of British rule, I was often asked why … after all, there were already studies on pirs in the Punjab, and their Sindhi counterparts were no different. Of course, I replied that ‘context’ is all important, and Sindh’s context was definitely not the same as that of the Punjab! On the other hand, when a field of study is relatively ignored, this offers all sorts of opportunities to make a contribution, and so I was lucky in this respect. More generally, the biggest obstacle for me has always been archives-related – while the period up to 1936 is relatively better served (even if nowadays there is material still in Bombay Presidency records that is inaccessible to researchers based in Pakistan), it remains a challenge to track down archival material relating to later years. I got into trouble once by pointing this out. But my comments were not a criticism of today’s archivists so much as a reflection on the low priority given in the past to preserving a record of unfolding developments.

How the Sindhi society has evolved, in terms of religion, since the time you start your research? Under the Zia-ul Haq regime, Pakistan became more Islamized: how did it influence the religion of Sindh, specifically?

I first arrived in Sindh during the Zia years. The aftershocks of the MRD movement were still evident. People whom I met often had links with the PPP, and they had played a role in these protests. This meant that I was able to witness first-hand how intimately certain sajjada nashin families were engaged in politics. Perhaps, however, the regime’s Islamisation programme had the effect of making some of them more defensive when it came to how they accounted for their own ‘Islamic credentials’. I do remember both murids and sajjada nashins seeking to align themselves publicly with a more ‘austere’ religious practice. But, on the other hand, many of the long-established rituals seemed to still be taking place at shrines. Being historical about things, we need to remember that successive and subsequent Pakistani regimes (Ayub, Bhutto, Zia, Musharraf) all tried, in their different ways, to harness the popularity of Sufism and its shrines to their own agendas. And – as in past times – many sajjada nashin families accommodated themselves to these external forces in order to meet the challenges that they posed.

You have done extensive research on the Pirs of Sindh and there is common discourse that Sindh is the land of Sufis. Could you please tell how the Sajjada Nashins/Pirs played their role in developing this discourse? If they did?

Certainly, much has been made of Sindh being the land of Sufis. The syncretic traditions often involved in Sufi belief and practice meant that much early writing in this vein was produced by non-Muslim Sindhis, whether based in Sindh or outside (after 1947). Moreover, many Sindhis since 1947 have adhered to and perpetuated this discourse, in part because it reinforces a distinctive Sindhi identity that has been put under repeated pressure by the wider ‘Pakistani’ one. But it is hard for me to point to individual pirs specifically developing this discourse. As I understand it, relatively few members of sajjada nashin families have engaged in Sindhi nationalist politics as compared with their involvement in parties with all-Pakistan aspirations, but where they have, then no doubt this discourse features strongly.

According to you how does the Sufi Sindh discourse influence Hinduism and Islam in Sindh and create space for itself?

As a historian, I am more equipped to discuss the past, rather than present-day Sindh, but my view is that this discourse definitely encouraged the blurring, at least in popular belief and practice, between different religious communities in Sindh (just as it did in other parts of South Asia and beyond). It is well known that certain saints ‘combined’ both Hindu and Muslim identities, and their shrines/festivals offered shared spaces or opportunities for people from different religious communities to pray and worship alongside one another.

In South Asia, in general, there is caste hierarchy system but Sindh, in particular, it is considered a casteless “Sufi” society. According to you, to which extent, this claim could be justifiable? Also, can a person from scheduled castes communities become a Pir? Did you encounter any of such Pir during your research?

I am afraid that my research did not touch on this interesting aspect of Sufism or Sindhi society. It would be great to learn more from others! My only comment would be that many sajjada nashin families claim a Sayyid identity, one that is very high up the religio-social hierarchy from a Muslim perspective. How well this equips them to deal in practice with the idea – let alone the reality – of a non-hierarchical, egalitarian socio-economic order remains highly debateable!

Do you have current ongoing project relating to Sindhi Studies?

I have recently co-written a monograph with William Gould that looks at developments in Sindh and UP in the aftermath of Independence and Partition (Boundaries of Belonging: localities, citizenship and rights in India and Pakistan, 2019). I also have a short piece on sajjada nashin families in a Columbia University Press edited volume that will hopefully appear at some point later this year. But in terms of current work, I am writing a research article on the Government Hari Committee Enquiry of 1947-8 from the perspective of contemporary thinking and debates about development, while also trying to digitise more of the research data that I have collected!

How could we reinforce Sindh Studies, especially among European academics?

A tough question but one approach – from a historian’s perspective – might be to get the message out there that there are still so many unanswered questions regarding Sindh. But this means being prepared to approach the history of the province from new directions, moving away from tropes closely associated with it (e.g. Sufism and sajjada nashin families!), and finding ways of integrating developments in Sindh into wider debates and stories. In other words, we need to ‘stretch’ the horizons of Sindh studies so that European academics recognise the ‘added value’ that can be gained from looking at Sindh from different perspectives and through different lenses.

Source: MIFS Newsletter  n°7-8 2020


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