At just 39, mother-of-three Tanzeela Qambrani has made history. Qambrani secured a seat in the legislature of Sindh province in Pakistan, making her the first member of the Sheedi minority to become a lawmaker in Pakistan. Unlike other minorities in the country, the Sheedis can trace their roots far beyond Sindh — they are the descendants of the African slaves, sailors, and soldiers who made South Asia their home in centuries past.
Pakistan’s African minority is one that few outsiders are aware of, and the group continues to be largely marginalized in their home country, battling both prejudice and wider socioeconomic ills. Qambrani’s election itself was not without detractors: One party member was so incensed by her nomination that he left the party and ran against her.
“As a tiny minority lost in the midst of local populations, we have struggled to preserve our African roots and cultural expression,” Qambrani noted, “but I look forward to the day when the name [Sheedi] will evoke respect, not contempt.”
Estimates of the size of the Sheedi community vary wildly, with their population said to range between 50,000 to as many as 250,000 according to K. Kwekudu in Blacks in Pakistan. What is certain is that the group maintains a foothold in Sindh and Makran, as well as in Karnataka, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh in India.
Despite having lived in these regions for centuries, the Sheedis (or Sidis as they are known in India) have faced discrimination due their appearance. This in turn has led increasing numbers to seek marriages outside their group to dilute the African appearance of their children. Luke Dugglely, a photographer who works in South Asia and creator of the Sidi Project, has noticed this trend during his time in Pakistan: “For some [marriages to non-Sheedis] is how they can avoid this discrimination, but for many this is seen as the very disappearance of the Sidi people themselves.”
Concerns about being lost within the greater population are mirrored by the Sheedis’ patchy connections to their African past. Whereas Qambrani can point to her Tanzanian great-grandparents, many no longer recall where in Africa their ancestors originated from. Consequently, a host of theories abound, with some pointing to the importation of Ethiopian soldiers by various rulers on the Indian subcontinent, as well as the arrival of both slaves and sailors from East Africa and Madagascar. There is even mention of the Sheedi people originally stemming from North Africa.
The traditions that have survived to the present day do little to clarify this debate. The Sheedi Mela is a prime example of this blurry past. Celebrated by the Sheedi inhabitants of Karachi, the festival sees the community come together in celebration and worship of some 150 crocodiles that inhabit a sanctuary in the metropolis. Many Sheedis have become devotees of the 12th century Sufi saint, Pir Mangu, whose shrine plays host to a range of folktales involving the nearby hot spring and its attendant crocodiles. Whether the crocodiles were brought to the site by the Sheedis or predate them remains unknown, but the reptiles have become associated with the saint and are revered as a result.
Every year the community bedecks the crocodiles (who are fed on charitable donations of meat) in colorful powders and flowers. This is accompanied by dances that bear a striking resemblance to similar dances in Africa, as well as singing in Swahili. Many participants unabashedly admit that they no longer understand the words being sung, but they maintain it is important to worship in the same manner as their ancestors in order to keep their traditions from dying out. Indeed, Sir Richard Burton recalls witnessing boisterous festivals by the “black people of Karachi” during his travels to the area in the 19th century. The use of Swahili points to the influence of persons from the eastern coast of Africa; however, for centuries the peoples of Madagascar have believed that crocodiles possess supernatural abilities, hinting at another potential origin for the celebrations in Karachi.
The Sheedis’ murky past and history of discrimination are perfectly embodied in the term “Sheedi” itself. “The usage of the word from honorific to insult is a journey almost as telling as the journey the original Sheedis are believed to have taken to reach Asia from their homes in Africa,” writes Khaled Ahmed, director of the South Asian Media School in Lahore, in Newsweek Pakistan.
Seen by some as a pejorative denoting hoodlumism, the word has its roots in the Arabic syed, which in turn has various honorific connotations, ranging from saint in Tunisian Arabic to master or liege lord in Magrebi and Egyptian Arabic. In its wider use syed is often shortened to sidi or sid. It appears strange that a term of respect has morphed into an insult; one reason for this linguistic evolution could be that the term’s meaning was inverted through the use of sarcasm, and pointedly used to juxtapose the disparity between the term’s connotations and the Sheedis’ actual circumstances.
All this makes Tanzeela Qambrani’s ascendancy to the Sindh parliament all the more important, as it represents a chance for the minority to be viewed as more than just “Sheedi” — a word with mixed connotations. It seems only fitting then that Qambrani’s election itself has sent mixed messages. Qambrani’s appointment to the Sindh parliament by Bilawal Bhutto — leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and son and grandson of former prime ministers — is certainly worth celebrating. However, there is a danger that both she and the Sheedis will be caught up in Pakistan’s often tumultuous politics.
Both Bhutto and the PPP tow a progressive line, with the party having long courted the country’s minorities. Alongside Qambrani, the PPP also boasts the only Christian Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) in the Sindh parliament, and counts the country’s first Hindu Dalit — or untouchable — woman among its recently elected members. Bhutto’s role in nominating these individuals has won him plaudits from Sindh’s minorities, with Qambrani herself proclaiming that “just as Columbus discovered America, Bilawal discovered the Sheedi.”
Minority support in Sindh is vital for Bhutto and the PPP in what has been a traditional stronghold for the party. Despite coming in third nationally in the recent election, the PPP won the most seats in Sindh, thus securing control of the provincial legislature.
Ironically, despite their historical lack of political representation and only recent “discovery,” the Sheedis have had an outsized impact on Pakistani politics. One famous Sheedi stands at the nexus of history, politics, and ethnicity: Hosh Mohammed Sheedi, the 19th century general who died in battle against the British and who has since become a Sindhi national hero.
After moldering in obscurity for almost a century, Sheedi’s legacy was resurrected in the 1960s in the wake of growing Sindhi nationalism. Sheedi’s ill-fated command of anti-British forces during the 1843 Battle of Dubba, and his now-famous rallying cry “Marvesoon, par sindh na desoon” — or “We will die but not give up Sindh” — has turned him into a dashing romantic hero, one with all necessary backstory to become a national icon. In the 1960s, when his gravestone was found in the Pakka Qila fort in Hyderabad, Sindhi nationalists called for the site to be cleared and made a historic site. The problem was that the area around the tomb was serving as housing for muhajirs — Muslims migrants from India who arrived in waves both during and after Partition in 1947. In 1962, efforts began to clear the muhajirs from the area which, unsurprisingly, raised tensions that had been simmering between native Sindhis and the recent arrivals.
That a famous member of the Sheedi community has become a rallying cry for Sindhi nationalists is rather odd, given the Sheedis’ otherwise marginalized existence within the wider Sindh community. The important of, and mythos surrounding, Hosh Sheedi has not been lost on the PPP. Bilawal Bhutto in particular is acutely aware of the need to court both the Sheedi community and Sindhi nationalists, as his mother, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto faced intercommunal violence, with the tomb of Hosh Sheedi at the epicenter of the disturbances. The killing of muhajirs in Sindh in the 1980s combined with existing concerns about discrimination saw the foundation of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in 1984, as a vehicle to protect muhajir interests in Pakistani politics.
Another facet to consider is the past disenchantment with the PPP among the Sheedi community in Sindh. Despite traditionally voting for the party, many Sheedis began gravitating to evangelical Islamic parties, as the PPP government failed to tackle rising gang violence in Iyari, Karachi (home to one of the largest Sheedi communities) in the early 2000s. Security concerns and violence in Hyderabad also led to the Sheedi Mela being cancelled between 2010 and 2017.
By attaching his name to that of Hosh Sheedi, Bilawal Bhutto is hinting at both his connections to Sindh as well as the PPP’s reputation as the party of martyred political leaders. In 2014, Bhutto even visited the tomb of Hosh Sheedi (the first national leader to do so) the day before a major PPP rally in Karachi. Speaking during his visit, Bilawal explained that “today I have come to the resting place of this great leader, Hosh Mohammed Sheedi. He was the one who threw down the gauntlet to Sindh’s enemies. I want to tell [the] people of Sindh about General Sheedi.” Just as Qambrani maintains that Bilawal has discovered the Sheedi community, he also appears to have “rediscovered” Hosh Sheedi.
Invoking Sheedi’s defense of Sindh unity, Bilawal has uttered Sheedi’s famous slogan as a rallying cry against the PPP’s other rivals. Allusions to Hosh Sheedi stoke Sindhi nationalism, something especially useful in the face of the new Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government led by Imran Khan. Writing in The Express Tribune, columnist Dastgir Bhatti argues that, by referencing Sheedi:
[Bilawal] has strongly reiterated his stance against Sindh’s division to the MQM. He also tried to steal the nationalist leaders’ thunder, obstruct the PTI’s popularity and told the establishment that the PPP can take recourse to Sindhi nationalism if it’s cornered in its bastion of Sindh.
With these lessons top of mind, Bhutto needs to outmaneuver the MQM in Sindh, as the latter’s support base is mainly in urban centers, compared to the PPP’s rural support base. The concentration of traditionally PPP-voting Sheedis in Sindh’s urban centers makes them a key target demographic for the PPP to undermine the MQM’s urban support base. Another key voter bloc for the PPP are female voters, a group Bhutto has paid particular attention to. Drawing on the fact that his mother enjoyed high levels of support among female voters, particularly women from minority groups, Bhutto (as the new PPP leader) has worked hard to transfer that popularity to himself. His efforts appear to have paid off; according to analysis in The Daily Times, the PPP garnered 85 percent of the female vote in Sindh during the recent 2018 election.
Enter Tanzeela Qambrani. Her nomination by Bhutto checks multiple boxes as a means to consolidate support among the urban Sheedis, minority voters in general, and as a symbol to the PPP’s female voter base. In tapping Qambrani, Bhutto is looking to further cement his progressive credentials, but his decision was not without resistance within the PPP and among the wider Sindhi community.
Overall, Qambrani’s entry into politics is something that should be lauded as a step in increasing both female and minority participation. That being said, as the Sheedi community is increasingly courted by Pakistani politicians, there is a danger that their political circumstances may now swing too far in the other direction. In other words, the Sheedis risk going from one extreme (i.e. being politically marginalized) to becoming co-opted by politicians looking to score points in Sindh. Going forward it will be important to see whether Sindh’s leaders can deliver more than homages to long-dead warriors; namely meaningful quality of life improvements as well as greater socioeconomic participation for Sheedis across the region.
Jeremy Luedi is a freelance writer and the editor of Asia by Africa, a blog highlighting how the world’s two most dynamic regions are interacting. His writing has appeared in The Japan Times, Business Insider, The Diplomat, Courrier International and Asia Times, among others.