His holiness: Pir Pagara
Interestingly, while dynastic politics is often criticised by democrats, nobody questions the dynastic political and spiritual hold of the pirs in Pakistan. Perhaps they are not criticised because ‘peeri-mureedi’ has religious overtones and in this country everybody is afraid to comment on issues related to religious beliefs.
The originators of these dynasties may have been saintly people but, several generations down, their scions hold spiritual and political control over the poor masses without having any religious qualities. If a pir in our society is also a big landlord, his power and control over people multiply manifold.
One of the most important of these dynasties is headed by Pir Pagara, a title given to the leader of the Hur Sufi order, established in Sindh in the 19th century. It comes from the Persian word ‘pir’, which means elder or saint, and the Sindhi word ‘pagara’, which means a chieftain’s turban.
The present Pir Pagara, Syed Sibghatullah Shah Rashdi III, who is the eighth holder of the title, is half-heartedly active in politics, unlike his father, Shah Mardan Shah II, who was one of the main leaders of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) that led a movement against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977. The father of Shah Mardan Shah II, Sibghatullah Shah Rashdi II, had revolted against the British Raj from 1930 to 1943. This is popularly known as the Hur Movement in the history of Sindh. He was tricked by the British, captured and killed. Like Osama bin Laden, nobody knows where Sibghatullah Shah Rashdi II was buried by the British.
Shah Mardan Shah II was taken to London by the British as a young man after his father was killed. It was perhaps the bitter lesson learnt from the killing of Sibghatullah Shah Rashdi II that Shah Mardan Shah II always performed the politics of the establishment. During the PNA movement, he bluntly stated that he was a GHQ man. This allowed him to nominate Mohammad Khan Junejo as his candidate for prime minister after the non-party elections held by one of the worst dictators of Pakistan, General Ziaul Haq, in 1985.
Therefore, it is no surprise that the present pir, Syed Sibghatullah Shah Rashdi III, has also been doing politics on the bidding of the establishment. In the run-up to the 2018 election, he has formed the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) to counter the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) strength in Sindh.
GDA is an assortment of all those elements that have not been successful against PPP in the last few elections. It includes leftists like Ayaz Latif Palijo and the Tableeghi Jamaat followers like Arbab Ghulam Rahim. But in spite of political engineering by the establishment, the Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PMLF), the main component of GDA, is not likely to get more seats than what it secured in the 2013 election.
PMLF, headed by Pir Pagara, had only won 10 provincial assembly seats in the last election, including three reserved ones. Traditionally, his strongholds in Sindh have been Pir Jo Goth in Khairpur district and Sanghar, but this time PPP has also managed to get the support of some electables from Sanghar. PMLF may still get the National Assembly seat from Garhi Yasin in Shikarpur district. It is usually secured by Ghous Bakhsh Mahar and his family.
This time round, Pir Pagara’s own supporters complain that he is hardly available for the meetings of the alliance and is not very active in the election campaign. He is more interested in the good things in life.
On the other hand, the new pir of opportunistic politics, Asif Ali Zardari, has managed to further strengthen his position in rural Sindh. As a matter of fact, for the first time, PPP has tried to make inroads in Karachi and Hyderabad in such constituencies that were considered Muttahida Qaumi Movement strongholds. Pir Pagara and his GDA stand little chance of averting a PPP victory in Sindh — unless of course, a hidden hand helps them do so.
The author has worked for numerous publications and media outlets in his 45-year career. He is also the author of What's Wrong With Pakistan.
This was originally published in the July 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.