A History of the Left in Pakistan – 21

By Ahmed Kamran

Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan – (Continued)

Sindh – Developing a Rural-Urban Divide

In early 1840s, the British had finally conquered Sindh to clear the way for their undisturbed approach for military expeditions to Afghanistan and Iran via Balochistan for countering the threat of Russian Czar’s southward thrust in the Central Asia. First, the British military vessel Wellseley took control of Manora and the small harbor at Karachi on 1 February 1839, without a gunshot being fired. Manora had a small fort and a few rusty canons brought from Muscat were installed there. Unfortunately, Talpur rulers of Sindh at Hyderabad (160 Km north-east from Karachi) were sunk in deep torpor, unable to even fully appreciate the implication of this British move. Since the end of Sindhi ruling dynasty of Kalhoras (1701-1783), this area had been essentially a lose confederacy of powerful Talpur Baloch tribes. For centuries, the Sindhi society was stagnating under decadent but highly oppressive class of big landlords, tribal leaders, Syeds and Pirs (revered religious leaders who had acquired large tracts of land in grants from corrupt rulers). Most of these big landlords were descendants of Baloch or Pukhtun tribal chiefs who over a period entered Sindh had occupied large tracts of land and had permanently settled here. The tribal social system was on similar pattern as Sardari system in Balochistan, at least in the Baloch dominated areas of northern and western parts of Sindh.

Sindhi rulers didn’t have a trained army. They only had some ill-equipped Lashkars (armed bands) of unruly tribesmen primarily for settling scores among themselves in their unending tribal feuds or to suppress their Haris. These ill-organized tribal armed bands were hardly capable of defending against a trained regular British army. No wonder, in the final battle with the British at Miani, near Hyderabad in January 1942, the British General Charles Napier could rout Talpur’s Lashkar in one day with over 5,000 Sindhi Baloch killed against only 257 casualties on the British side. Karachi was made an army town and a military cantonment was established. Lines were laid to bring water supply from Damloti in Malir to Karachi town. Basic modern police and judicial system was built for the first time. After four years in 1847, the strategic administration of Sindh was appended to the British residency at Bombay from where the Napier’s forces came to subdue this part. The extremely conservative tribal-feudal Sindhi society outside Karachi was, however, left practically undisturbed in its harsh traditional bonds.

In mid-1850s, from a purely military perspective plans were made to lay a railway line from Kotri to Karachi, connecting its sea port with the nearest inland waterway on the Indus River flowing down from Punjab and north-west. This railway link was to be extended up to Quetta in Balochistan. The Karachi harbor at Keemari was improved and it was connected with the mainland by building a Mole (causeway) across Chinna creek. The Karachi-Kotri rail link was completed in 1861, after a brief interruption due to 1857 mutiny in the northern India. On a short inaugural drive of a locomotive engine carrying departing Sindh Commissioner Bartle Frere to Keemari port for his voyage to Calcutta, John Brunton, the Scottish Chief Engineer of the ‘Scinde Railway’ wrote in his diary, “The native of Scinde had never seen a Locomotive Engine, they had heard of them as dragging great loads on the lines by some hidden power they could not understand, therefore they feared them supposing that they moved by some diabolical agency, they called Shaitan [Satan]. During the Mutiny, the Mutineers got possession of one of the East Indian Line Stations where stood several Engines. They did not dare to approach them but stood a good way off and threw stones at them!” (56)

During construction of this railway line, it was also suggested to detach Sindh from Bombay bringing it under Punjab’s unified administration but the proposal was not implemented. At this moment, due to an event, otherwise entirely disconnected with Sindh or India, taking place in faraway America the Karachi-Kotri rail link turned out to be an extremely useful and timely investment for the British Raj. The far-reaching impact of these developments elsewhere played a crucial role for a paradigm shift in the life of Karachi and consequently of Sindh, which remains largely unnoticed. In the American Civil War (1861-1865) seven major cotton producing southern states of USA rose in rebellion and declared independence from the northern federation. It caused a major disruption in the supply of American cotton to the thriving British textile industry. Over 80% of its cotton was imported from the USA. The British textile industry (the world’s largest at the time) faced a historic ‘cotton famine’ and closure of over 2,000 mills, threatening employment of over 360,000 textile workers in Lancashire alone. Alternate sources for immediate supply of cotton were identified in Egypt and India. While Lancashire industry focused more on the Egyptian supplies, the Scottish textile industry in Glasgow relied heavily on Indian cotton. The Glasgow and Lancashire Chambers of Commerce jointly demanded from the Secretary of State for India that “India make good the [cotton] shortfall to protect the livelihood of the 4 millions of our people who are directly or indirectly dependent for their daily bread on our cotton manufacturers” (57). In addition to supplies from Surat, the cotton produce of recently conquered Sindh and Punjab regions was also proved critical. Immediate logistics arrangements for regular supply of cotton via shortest route from Karachi to reach England were made. Cotton from Sindh and Punjab was brought via Indus River on barges to Kotri and transported by train to Karachi for swift shipment to the ports of England. The opening of transport route via Karachi port considerably reduced the transit time for cotton and other agricultural produce from Punjab compared to the long and arduous transportation across whole of north India to Calcutta in the north-east or Bombay in the south-west. The critical time-sensitive commercial transportation needs necessitated rapid development of logistics and trade services infrastructure at Bombay and Karachi. The Government of India directed “those provincial governments with substantial cotton-producing regions to report immediately on what needed to be done to improve the lines of traffic between the cotton producing districts and the ports of shipment” (58). This development suddenly catapulted Karachi town from an obscure position to become a key staging station in the modern global commercial sea lanes.

Accelerated foreign trade operations from Karachi brought in their wake significant growth in port assets and a network of leading British (mostly Scottish) trading companies, banks, clearing & forwarding agencies, stevedores, civil contractors, food and commodity supply contractors, wholesalers and retailers in the market. Karachi and Bombay were connected with a direct telegraph link via a new submarine cable laid to link with an Aden-Malta cable to London. The first telegraph message from India to London was sent from Karachi in 1864. With the opening of Suez Canal in 1869, the sailing time from Karachi to European ports was further reduced from a long three-month journey around Africa via Cape of Good Hope. Within a short period of about ten years, a sleepy fishing Goth (hamlet) of Karachi grew into an important commercial town where hundreds of Europeans, Marwari, Hindu, Parsee, Jewish, Memon, Khoja, Bohra, and Chinioti investors and traders from London, Calcutta, Kanpur, and Bombay arrived. With them thousands of Anglo-Indians, Jews, Goanese, Punjabis, North Indians, and Gujaratis flocked into the city to service the unprecedented rapid growth of a thriving modern town. This sudden rushing in of people from outside of Sindh caused a significant impact on its demographic composition. Old inhabitants of Karachi—the Kutchis, Baloch, Makrani, and Sindhis were simply overwhelmed and marginalized by the new wave of energetic and skilled ‘foreign’ settlers. This unprecedented phenomenon taking place in Karachi on the outskirts of Sindh’s traditional rural life in 1860s and 1870s was, incidentally, to be repeated on even larger scale in about 90 years.

In 1878, the Karachi-Kotri railway line was extended to connect with Delhi-Punjab rail link at Multan in the north-western Indian railway system. During railway line construction, it was again proposed that for military strategic reasons Sindh should be attached to Punjab instead of Bombay for a unified north-western command. The Sindh’s separation from Bombay and its attachment with Punjab was in principle approved in London to take effect from 1 January, 1880 but due to the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) it was deferred indefinitely. Karachi Port Trust was established in 1886 and the East Wharf was built at Keemari port and a public tram service commenced from Saddar to Keemari harbor in 1900. By 1914, Karachi had become the largest grain exporting port in the British Empire and in 1924 the first aerodrome was built near Malir making Karachi for a long time the first airport of call for airliners coming from Europe for entry into the Indian subcontinent. These developments brought Karachi in sharp contrast with the rest of Sindhi society.

The first modern but informal school was built for the children of few English families in Karachi in 1847 and the first proper English school was opened in 1854. But the introduction of modern education in Karachi town practically had no impact on Sindh’s traditional rural life. According to the Education Commission Report of 1882, among the list of all graduates of Bombay University (of which Sindh was a part) there were two Muslims with bachelors’ degree and only one had a masters’ degree. Though, it is not known from where these Muslim graduates originally belonged but it is highly unlikely that any of them was from Sindh. With the spreading influence of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Muslim educational movement at Aligarh, Syed Amir Ali, president of Muhammaden National Association of Calcutta arrived in Karachi in 1882 and a Muhammaden National Association of Sindh was established with a Sindhi Muslim lawyer Hasan Ali Effendi as its first president. This Association established the first school— Sindh Madarsat-ul Islam in Karachi in 1885. The Sindh Arts College (later converted into D.J. College) was established in Karachi in 1887.


56. ‘John Brunton’s Book—The Diary of John Brunton, Engineer, East India Company’, Cambridge University Press, 1939, Reprint by City Press, Karachi, 1997, p. 96.
57. ‘Chasing Commodities Over the Surface of the Globe – Shipping, port development and the making of networks between Glasgow and Bombay, c.1850-1880’ by Sandip Hazareesingh in Commodities of Empire Working Paper No.1, The Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies, The Open University, Milton Keynes, 2007, pp. 11-12.
58. Ibid, p. 12.

Chapter 4… To be Continued

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