Pakistan and the art of trading castes

Pakistan has no community left to resist its drift into becoming an irresponsible state
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First Published: Thu, Dec 06 2012. 08 19 PM IST
The dominant community in Pakistan are the peasant castes, not merchants, which shows in its economy. Photo: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
The dominant community in Pakistan are the peasant castes, not merchants, which shows in its economy. Photo: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
Imagine that, for some reason, all mercantile castes were partitioned from India on 31 December.
Jains, Khatris, Marwaris, Baniyas, Chettiars and the rest, whatever name you know them by, all forced out in three weeks’ time. What would happen?
First, at a stroke, we would lose nine of the 10 wealthiest people in India.
Second, we would immediately lose the experience and industry of these communities, skills built over centuries. Third, we would lose, this would take a little more time, their influence on society. Their culture of pragmatism, compromise and sobriety would be lost to north Indian cities now dominated by peasant castes. These are the castes driven by honour, rather than pragmatism. If you were to make a list of communities that do honour killing, they would dominate that list, just as Baniyas dominate the list of billionaires.
What would India be like without the mercantile castes? I can tell you. Like Pakistan. Four conditions trouble scholars of Pakistan: Military dominance of policy; an economy subservient to national honour; revisionism in Kashmir and an inability to come to terms with an enemy (India) it is unable to defeat; and the inability of society to internally resist religious bigotry.
The reasons cited for these conditions are usually disparate. Military dominance is thought to be the result of the Muslim League’s undemocratic phase after 1947. The real or imagined threat from India explains the revisionist outlook. Society’s extremism is blamed on the US meddling in Afghanistan and on drone strikes.
The real reason for all four conditions is the same: An imbalance of caste. In a part of the world where culture trumps individualism, Pakistan has no community left to resist its drift into becoming an irresponsible state and a danger to itself.
The community that could do this, the Khatri-Arora combine that dominates Delhi’s economy, Pakistanis booted out in 1947. My hypothesis is that the division of the Punjabi nation in 1947 produced a Pakistani Punjab that was heavily weighted in favour of the peasant castes.
Why is Punjab so important to the argument? Punjabis form over half the Pakistani nation. At Partition, Pakistan got two-thirds of Punjab, while India got one-third.
Eighty per cent of Pakistan’s army is Punjabi. All the four conditions we observed are Punjab-specific. More Punjabis live in Pakistan than in India. However, in the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, there are five Indians from the Indian side of undivided Punjab. Malvinder and Shivinder Mohan Singh of Fortis Healthcare, Sunil Mittal of Airtel, Savitri Jindal of Jindal Steel, Brijmohan Lall Munjal of Hero MotoCorp and Gautam Thapar of Avantha. There is no Punjabi from Pakistan. Why? Because the conversion of Hindus has been the conversion of castes, not individuals (for a moment, let us discard the myth Muslims feed themselves about their Arab/Persian/Central Asian origins). All these individuals are from trading communities, Baniya, Khatri and Arora.
Few mercantile Hindu castes took up Islam. The Lohanas of Gujarat, who produce India’s and Karachi’s great Memon/Vora/Khoja communities, are among those who did. Lohanas dominate the economy of Karachi and its stock market. But not many Punjabi trading castes took up Islam. All Baniyas and most Khatris and Aroras in Punjab remained Hindu while some became Sikh. Punjab’s Partition was essentially a partitioning of castes. India got Jats and other peasant castes, but it also received most of the trading Punjabis. Pakistan got only the peasants. This separation is the critical aspect and it defines the character of Pakistani Punjab. What had been a stable society in united Punjab became lighter on the side of the castes the Hindus dominated—trade, commerce—and heavier on the side of the peasant castes, which Muslims dominated.
This has produced the imbalance which explains Pakistan’s fondness for a state dominated by soldiers. The army under General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (from the warlike Gakkhar caste) runs Pakistan’s foreign policy, security policy and most of its economic policy because the majority of Punjabis are comfortable with the idea of warriors being in charge.
Let’s look at Sindh. The economy of Pakistan is commanded by one city in Sindh, Karachi. Over 50% of all government revenue comes from Karachi.
Despite the violence in Karachi, which is mainly of a secular nature, Sindh is more normal than Punjab. One reason for this is because it has a stable society. How? The Sindhi Hindus who left at Partition were replaced by two communities. One was the educated middle class of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the Mohajirs. The gap in the trading community created by the migration of Hindus was filled by Muslim Gujaratis of the Lohana caste—Memon, Khoja and Vora. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was also a Lohana, one of the most talented and prosperous trading castes of India.
This is why Sindh is more normal than Punjab, despite the Mohajir-Pashtun skirmishes in Karachi. Because it is a stable society in terms of balance between those parts that are feudal and those parts that are mercantile. This balance is missing in Punjab.
It is impossible to understand India without being aware of caste and I see no reason why this should not be true for the area that used to be India till 65 years ago.
I would say that the Baloch are a nation, Pashtuns are a nation, Gujaratis are a nation, Tamilians are a nation and Punjabis are a nation. But Punjabi Muslims are not a nation, only half a nation. This incompleteness in its society, which I see as a permanent feature, is the reason Pakistan is the way it is.
Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.
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First Published: Thu, Dec 06 2012. 08 19 PM IST
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