array(2) { [0]=> string(4) "toto" [1]=> string(4) "titi"} Presentation of the Research Group

Études gujarati et sindhi : sociétés, langues et cultures |

Presentation of the Research Group

Coordinators: Michel Boivin and Pierre Lachaier


This research group has grown out of a work group with the same title that was formed in 2004 around Françoise Mallison’s seminar, given at the EPHE (École Pratique des Hautes Études) before being transferred to the EFEO (École française d’Extrême-Orient─French School of Asian Studies) in Paris (see the "Decade of History" page). Its aim is to federate students and scholars working on the Gujarat and Sindh geographical areas, using a multi-disciplinary approach that combines anthropology, history and geography with urbanism, architecture and art history (see the list of mettings). It seeks to prove the relevance of such an approach, particularly for working on these two regions of South Asia, which are not often looked at together from a comparative perspective—although they are neighbors, and in spite of the fact that their connections to each other are intense, numerous and date back hundreds of years. Today, Gujarat has 50 million inhabitants (2001), and Sindh 43 million (2012).[1] In the former, Hindus make up 89% of the total population, and Muslims 9%, whereas in the latter, 9% of the population is Hindu and 91% Muslim: note that the two provinces are comparable in terms of demographic size, and that the ratio of Hindus and Muslims is almost exactly reversed.


The overall title covers three main lines of inquiry:

Urbanism, ethno-architecture and social reconfigurations

The ragged outline of the Southwest Indian coast has fostered the establishment of far-flung trading relationships, which extend from the Persian Gulf and the African coast to Malaga. While Ahmedabad, Surat and Porbandar in Gujarat were the main trading centers during the colonial period, Karachi in Sindh became the most important one during the 19th century.

With 350-450,000 inhabitants living in hundreds of closed-off communitarian neighborhoods called Pol or Mohalla, the old quarter of the trading and industrial city of Ahmedabad, which still exists today within the perimeter of its old—although now almost completely demolished—rampart wall, is awaiting recognition as a world heritage site from the UNESCO. Very few social sciences specialists[2] have done fieldwork in the Pol, and even their best work contains hardly any maps, although the help of architects is indispensable for the success of their studies.

The Pol. We will report on our field inquiry conducted in 2010-2011 in the Moti Hamam-ni Pol, approximately ten years after the first study conducted by the student Ashok Patel.[3] Back then, only Kadva and Leuva Patel Hindus lived in this Pol, along with a few Brahman and barber families who provided the necessary ritual services. But today, it is also home to several Râjasthâni trading families, and to some other families who belong to a reputedly untouchable caste. This intrusion has been very poorly tolerated, and seems to have marked the end of the strictly communitarian era of the original inhabitants. This Pol will be compared to another small Kadva Patel Pol, where we conducted research in 2013, as well as to the Kadva Patel Pol studied by Doshi, whose work—originally published in 1974—we have brought up to date.

The guilds. The socio-economic studies on the industrialization movement in Ahmedabad from the 19th to the 20th centuries have often focused on the employers’ Ahmedabad Mill Owners’ Association (AMA), which was founded in 1891, and on that of their laborers and employees, the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association (TLA; Majūra Mahājana), created by Gandhi in 1920. However, only rarely does anyone mention the market associations that grew out of the former guilds or Mahajan, such as the Maskati Cloth Market Mahajan and the Panch Kuva Kapad Mahajan, created in 1906 and 1897 respectively, by Hindu and Jain merchants in order to commercialize what the textile mills produced. We will try to give a rendering of both the present and past of these two Mahajans of whole-sale textile merchants, as well as of a few other Mahajans we met with in 2013 and 2014, on the basis of both our field observations and a few documents, including rules and regulations, provided to us by Mahajan managers.


Merchant communities

Of all the regions of the sub-continent, it is certainly in those of Northwest India—continental Gujarat, Saurashtra (or Kathiawar), Kutch and Sindh—that merchant vocations have long been the most numerous[4]: Hindu Vaishnavites from various castes, including the Bhatyas and Lohanas from the Indus valley, Sunni or Shia Muslims, Jain Schwetambara and Parsi Zoroastriens… have always been among the most prominent of these merchants, and also now have a worldwide diaspora. For our purposes, we will focus on the most important of the Muslim communities.

Gujarat and Sindh are two major maritime provinces in the north-west quadrant of South Asia. Each has its own regional identity, which is based on the utilization of a specific alphabet and language. In spite of this, Gujarat and Sindh have overlapping social groups, in particular merchant communities like the Lohanas, the Parsis, the Bohras, the Khojas and the Memons. The last three in this list are Muslim and, although they are mentioned in colonial publications, they did not start to become truly visible as such until the publication of A. A. Engineer’s work,[5] which then gave rise to a few scientific studies of these communities that have not, however, yet produced any systematic view of them. Although the first two are Shia, and the last is Sunni, these communities have both trading practices and social behaviors in common, linked to marriage, for instance. They do, however, handle authority in very different ways.

Before the partition, there were a lot of migratory movements between the two provinces. As early as the 19th century, there were Gujaratis in Karachi who, along with the Sindhi Lohana, dominated colonial trade. These Muslim merchant communities (MMC) spread throughout the region as an extension of British, French and Portuguese colonial expansion on the western side of the Indian Ocean, from the sultanate of Oman to Mozambique, and including Madagascar and the island of Réunion. After independence was obtained, the nationalist policies of the African states in the region forced a large portion of the MMCs to emigrate to Europe and North America.

The aim of this line of inquiry is to pool the work of scholars and students—both members and non-members of the center—who are experts on these communities. Indeed, unlike what is the case for Hindu merchant castes, there have been few systematic research programs devoted to these groups, with the exception of a few pioneering studies that need to be extended. Once again, this line of inquiry could take the form of a comparative study of Muslim merchant communities in Gujarat and Sindh. The point of departure will be the impact that the partition had on the socio-religious development of these groups in India and Pakistan, as well as on the reconfiguration of their networks in the Indian Ocean diaspora. The points of entry for the line of inquiry will therefore be the question of centralization and standardization of beliefs and rituals, as well as the points of dissidence. For example, the recent death of the Bohras’ supreme guide (dai al-mutlaq) has given rise to a war of succession: how is it experienced by the faithful in India, where the seat of the supreme authority is located? But what about how it is experienced in Pakistan? And in the East African diaspora? And finally, in the diaspora of the West?

Another major objective of this line of inquiry will be to examine the social re-compositions—Indian-ness—and religious re-compositions—Islamicity—that make it possible for these communities to integrate themselves into Western States, for example into the context of secularity ‘à la française,’ or into Portugal’s multicultural legal regime.[6]


Minorities and ‘complex holy sites’ put to the test of religious radicalization

Both the Gujarat and Sindh provinces were represented for centuries as areas of great religious tolerance, heavily marked by devotional movements such as Sufism and Bhakti. The development of nationalism at the end of the 19th century helped strengthen a process of re-composition and hardening of religious identities. The partition of 1947, followed by three wars between India and Pakistan, theoretically set a fixed boarder, although the areas near the Rann of Kutch, such as the Kori Creek, are still bones of contention between the two countries today.

This line of inquiry will focus on a new phase of religious radicalization, which started in the 1980s. Its effects did not, however, become visible until the end of the 1990s. In Gujarat, a process of Hindu-ization of ways of worship that had been considered ‘hybrid’ up until then was initiated. From this perspective, the example of the Imam Shah cult is representative. Imam Shah was an imam (divine guide) of the Ismaili Shia, or a contender for this position, who probably lived during the 15th century. Such movements, to which Dominique-Sila Khan has devoted much of her work,[7] existed beyond the borders of Gujarat and Sindh, in particular in Rajasthan. In the 1990s, the Imam Shah cult was ‘Hindu-ized,’ such that in the reinvented tradition, Imam Shah has become a worshipper of Naklanki, the savior-to-come who will end Kali Yuga.

Since the partition, there have been several cycles of violence between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat. In 1969, the riots in Ahmedabad, the State capital, led to the deaths of 660 people, 430 of which were Muslims.[8] More violence occurred in and around the capital of Gujarat in 1985, and then in 1992 in the aftermath of the Ayodhya affair, before the BJP came into power in 1995. While the BJP was in power, there were multiple riots, but none reached the level of the pogrom orchestrated by the government in 2002, which led to the deaths of approximately 2,000 people, primarily Muslims. In Sindh, religious radicalization can be seen in two different processes. Zia ul-Haqq’s accession to power in 1977 created a completely novel context: for the first time, a Pakistani head-of-State openly proclaimed his intention to institute Sharia law. Despite the fact that only a few ‘Islamic sentences’ (hududs) were passed, these measures would initiate a process of Islamicization that, to some extent, would be the echo of international phenomena, marked for instance by the Islamic revolution in Iran.

The first dynamic of this process takes place on the scale of longue durée; it is ‘soft,’ and consequently almost imperceptible: the Islamicization of ‘complex holy sites.’[9] Since the end of the 1990s, ritual objects have been removed from public places. In Sehwan Sharif, for example, where the tomb of the Sufi Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is located, the bells that the pilgrim was supposed to ring upon crossing the threshold into the sanctuary have almost all disappeared. The justification generally given for their removal is that they constitute references to ‘Hinduism.’ The second dynamic is more brutal, although it is sporadic: the hardening of discrimination against religious minorities, primarily Hindus, which sometimes reaches the point of persecution. Through an instrumentalization of the law instituted under Zia ul-Haqq, Hindus of central Sindh are regularly accused of blasphemy. Elsewhere, such as in Karachi, the mafias destroy Hindu temples because they are purportedly abandoned. It is said that migrations of Sindhi Hindus to India have hugely increased after about 2013.

Within the context of this line of inquiry, the aim is to determine who the agents of these transformations are, but also what consequences such changes have in practice, more particularly on the informal and ritual expressions of devotion. Another point to be clarified will deal with the politics constructed within these places of power, through the two scales of the central State and provincial government.


The ‘Gujarati and Sindhi studies’ research group will interact with other groups, such as ‘Religious Plurality and Reflexivity in South Asia,’ coordinated by Aminah Muhammad Arif and Grégoire Schlemmer, but also with research groups in other countries, such as the Institute of Sindhology or the Gujarat Studies Association.

[1]These figures do not take into account the Gujarati-speakers in Pakistan, or the Sindhi-speakers in India, not to mention the members of the diasporas. The research team puts a reasonable estimate of the total population in question at around 100 million people.

[2]Harish Doshi, Traditional Neighborhood in a Modern City, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 1974.

[3] Pierre Lachaier, “Une étude sociologique d’un quartier communautaire ou pol, par Ashok PATEL,” Bulletin des Études Indiennes, BEI, n°28-29 (2010-2011), 2013, Paris.

[4]See “Mercantile Ethos,” p. 19-38, in YAGNIK Achyut & SHETH Suchitra, The Shaping of Modern Gujarat, Plurality, Hindudva and Beyond, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2005.

[5]A. A. Engineer, The Muslim Community of Gujarat. An Explanatory Study of Bohras, Khojas and Memons, Delhi, Ajanta Books International, 1989.

[6] See the pioneering work of Pierre Lachaier, Les Khojas duodécimains de langue gujarati. De la jamate de La Courneuve au réseau mondial, Paris, EFEO, 2012.

[7]D. S. Khan, Conversions and Shifting Identities. Ramdev Pir and the Ismailis of Rajasthan, New Delhi, Manohar-Centre de Sciences Humaines, 1997.

[8]L. Gayer and C. Jaffrelot (ed.), Muslims in Indian Cities. Trajectories of Marginalisation, London, Hurst, 2012, p. 53.

[9] On this concept, see Michel Boivin, “Compétition religieuse et culture partagée dans les lieux saints complexes d’Asie du sud,” in Isabelle Depret and Guillaume Dye (dir.), Partage du sacré. Transferts, dévotions mixtes, rivalités interconfessionnelles, Bruxelles, EME, p. 150.


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