Exploring India-Pakistan Cultural Affinity Beyond Divided Punjab

The India-Pakistan cultural affinity is often framed in terms of cross-border Punjabis but there is much more to it with similarities between divided mercantile communities such as Gujaratis being a case in point

The cultural affinity between India and Pakistan is often framed in terms of cross-border Punjabis but there is much more to it with divided mercantile communities such as Gujaratis being a case in point
Thirty-six of 46 large industrial groups were generally in the hands of Karachi-based businessmen from Gujarati Memon, Khoja, and Bohra mercantile communities in the 1960s.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In a March 2011 Mint newspaper column, columnist Aakar Patel explained why India is ‘part dysfunctional, fully functional’. He attributed caste balance to it while drawing a parallel with Pakistan, which he argued was a ‘mess’ because it lacks a similar equilibrium. 

Patel noted there are not enough traders ‘to press for restraint and there are too many peasants in Pakistan. Baniyas or mercantile communities, he wrote, ‘are brought up to seek compromise, to keep emotion in check, to identify value, to understand capital, to persist.’ 

Patel emphasized there are exceptions such as Karachi’s Gujaratis and Punjabi Khatris such as journalist Najam Sethi to ‘the peasant Punjabi (Jat)” and ‘his militant stupidity.’ 

Sethi would vindicate the argument by steering Pakistani cricket out of the messy situation it had been in for nearly a decade. His leadership capped a turnaround with the Sri Lankan cricket team’s return to Lahore for a T20 match on October 29, 2017. 

The game was played at Gaddafi Stadium, a few hundred meters from where the team’s bus was attacked in 2009. The assault threatened the future of the sport in the country. As if that were not enough, three top cricketers, including skipper Salman Butt, were found involved in fixing matches and banned the following year.

Then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif handed over the PCB reins to Sethi amid this mess in 2013. The move stirred up a hornet’s nest. Led by Pakistan’s greatest cricketing icon and opposition leader Imran Khan, critics questioned Sethi’s credentials. They even alleged he was rewarded for ‘rigging elections’ for Sharif when Sethi oversaw the 2013 elections in Pakistan’s biggest Punjab province as the interim chief minister. 

Sethi persisted, digging in his heels through thick and thin as the Pakistani cricket reeled under the back-to-back blows. Within three years, Sethi helmed the successful launch of the Pakistan Premier League (PSL) in 2016 in the UAE after years of inertia under his predecessors. 

Sethi proved naysayers wrong when he oversaw the PSL final in Lahore in 2017, two years after Zimbabwe became the first international team to visit Pakistan after the attack. The events paved the way for a star-studded World XI’s visit to Pakistan for a three-match series, which turned out to be the precursor to the Lankan team’s game-changing return. 

That the Sri Lankan board agreed to play the match eight years after the traumatizing experience forced even Sethi’s worst critics to acknowledge his success.

Sethi earlier persisted with Misbah-ul-Haq as captain despite a barrage of criticism over his measured, calm and composed leadership to help repair Pakistani cricket’s battered image in the wake of the fixing scandal. Pakistani cricket had until then been defined by an aggressive and flamboyant style of cricket and leadership of the likes of Jats Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis and Gujjar Shoaib Akhtar.

Sethi stepped down when Imran Khan stormed to power in 2018 before PSL was fully held in the country. He returned to the PCB after Khan’s ouster in 2022 and oversaw the PSL 2023. Sethi has claimed PSL’s digital viewership this year of over 150 million surpassed that of the Indian Premier League’s 130 million.

Aakar Patel’s argument also holds true for Nawaz Sharif, who too comes from a top business family of Kashmiri origins. Sharif attempted to infuse the pragmatic mercantile approach to Pakistani politics, particularly vis-à-vis ties with India. He championed India-Pakistan cultural affinity and the promotion of trade ties while attempting to put contentious issues on the back burner.

India-Pakistan cultural affinity is often framed in terms of food, language, and culture mostly of cross-border Punjabis such as Sharif. But the two countries remain more similar than we think 70 years after British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe drew the line dividing India and Pakistan within five weeks of his first visit to India. 

The culture of divided mercantile communities is another case in point of India-Pakistan cultural affinity. Pakistan’s minuscule Gujaratis, who are concentrated in Karachi, the mainstay of the country’s economy, true to form contribute disproportionately to it. The contribution of Gujaratis to India’s economy is also significant as the owners of many of the country’s top businesses.

In his book Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City, Laurent Gayer writes the firms based in Karachi controlled Pakistan’s 96 percent private industries in the 1960s. They owned 80 percent of assets in private banks and insurance companies. 

Thirty-six out of 46 large industrial groups were generally in the hands of Karachi-based businessmen from Gujarati Memon, Khoja, and Bohra mercantile communities. The Gujarati trading communities accounted for Pakistan’s 0.4 percent population but controlled the country’s 43 percent industrial capital, according to Gayer’s book. Halai Memons alone owned 27 percent of these industries.

The domination continues. For example, the House of Habib conglomerate, whose founders were from Jamnagar in the Indian state of Gujarat, among other things, runs Pakistan’s biggest bank. The Mandiwalas, also of the same heritage, have led a multiplex boom in the country over the last decade or so. 

Gujaratis also own five-star hotels and manufacture cars besides dominating the country’s biggest stock exchange. Gujarati-speaking Parsis, the Bhandaras, own Murree Brewery and are among Pakistan’s biggest tax-payers who survived the prohibition introduced in the 1970s. Another Parsi family– Avaris–owns five-star hotels across Pakistan and in Dubai and Canada.

The political culture of Karachi is similar to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar since immigrants from the two Indian states have dominated the polity in the metropolis.

The centuries of togetherness have left many such deeper linkages. Radcliffe’s arbitrarily drawn line cannot erase the India-Pakistan cultural affinity despite seven decades of hate and bigotry. The sooner it is understood the better it would be for the future of over a billion people in the region, whose pressing issues have been sacrificed on the altar of the conflict between the two countries.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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