Partly Rooted In Varna, How Biradari System Remains Relevant in Pakistan

The biradari system is among the crucial factors in Pakistan’s elections particularly in rural areas of the Punjab province, which sends 55% of lawmakers to the National Assembly

Not Entirely Rooted In Varna System, Biradari System Remains Relevant in Pakistan

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In the middle of the 2013 poll campaign, I called up Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, then a four-time Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML (N) lawmaker, for a Times of India story on the electoral importance of kinship networks in his country. The suave University of California (Los Angeles) alumnus, whom I got in touch with thanks to my employer’s Aman Ki Asha initiative for India-Pakistan peace, downplayed the importance of the biradari factor.

Abbasi said he counted on his party’s popularity to see him through for the fifth time. But as a hard-nosed politician, Abbasi, who went on to become the country’s Prime Minister from August 2017 to May 2018, had the biradari breakup of his Murree-Kahuta constituency near Islamabad at his fingertips. He told me Rajputs accounted for 30% and the rest were Jats, Arians, Gujjars, etc in his constituency.

Abbasi faced a tough contest. He was pitted against the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)’s Ghulam Murtaza, a Satti Rajput, and two others from his Abbasi biradari, which accounted for 25% of the voters. Abbasi lost to Murtaza in 2002 but wrested back the seat five years later thanks to a division in the Rajput votes.

Despite Abbasi’s insistence, the arithmetic mattered and that is why he tracked the biradari breakup. The biradari system is among the crucial factors in Pakistan’s elections particularly in rural areas. It is particularly important in Punjab, which sends 55% of lawmakers to the National Assembly.

Rajputs are dominant in northern Punjab, where Abbasi’s constituency is located, followed by Jats in central and Balochs in the province’s south. The PPP had a Rajput prime minister and a Jat as his deputy before it demitted office in the run-up to the 2013 polls. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the party’s founder, also traced his lineage to Rajput allies of the Mughal rulers.

In his book The Bhutto Dynasty, Owen Bennett-Jones has cited occasional references to the Bhuttos’ ancestors in 17th and 18th-century Rajasthani chronicles confirming their Rajput heritage. The Bhutto family has given Pakistan two Prime Ministers and arguably its most charismatic and second and third most popular leaders ever—Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir—after the country’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Benazir’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, has served as the country’s president while their son, Bilawal, was the foreign minister in PML(N) led coalition government that demitted office in August 2023. Bilawal leads the PPP and is its contender for the Prime Minister’s post.

Like the Bhuttos, Mohammad Iqbal, widely believed to be Pakistan’s originator, and Jinnah came from the so-called upper-caste heritage. Iqbal’s forefathers were Sapru Brahmins of Kashmir while Jinnah’s grandfather, a Lohana Rajput, converted to Islam. The Sharifs, who have dominated Pakistan’s politics for three decades along with the Bhuttos also come from a Kashmiri Brahmin heritage.

Barring military ruler Zia-ul- Haq, who belonged to the agriculturist Arain community, most Pakistani rulers have had privileged backgrounds. Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief until November 2022, is a Jatt while his predecessor, General Raheel Sharif, a Rajput. Two more army chiefs, Tikka Khan and Asif Nawaz, have been Punjabi Rajputs. A significant proportion of Pakistan army recruits are drawn from the Jat, Rajput, Awan, Gakkar, and Gujjar communities of Punjab’s Pothwar region.

To be sure, Pakistan’s biradari system is not entirely rooted in the Hindu caste or varna system with Brahmins, Rajputs, and Vaishyas being the so-called upper caste and an overwhelming majority relegated to the lower status. Pakistan’s kinship networks do not adhere to the rules of ritual purity, the determination of lower or upper status by the accident of one’s birth that the caste system entails.

The Abbasi biradari, for instance, claims Arab origins. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has Brahmin heritage but he belongs to a wider Kashmiri biradari, which has a geographic basis rather than being rooted in the varna system. Similarly, the dominant Baloch biradari in southern Punjab is ethnic. The Urdu-speaking community, which is dominant in Sindh’s urban including Karachi, has acquired a singular identity overriding the backgrounds individual members came from in India at the time of partition.

Military ruler Zia-ul-Haq’s ban on political parties and the 1985 non-party elections are blamed for re-entrenching the biradari system. In an article ahead of the 1990 elections titled ‘Caste plays a surprising role in Muslim Pakistan’s elections’, Barbara Crossette in The New York Times described it as an unlikely factor that plays a role in a party’s choice of candidates. Crossette quoted a journalist saying that biradari was a factor in the 1988 election, which the PPP won ‘when it became a consideration in awarding party tickets.’

A Gallup survey ahead of the 2008 elections confirmed the existence of biradari as an important civil society institution. It found 37% of rural and 27% of urban voters attended meetings of their biradaris to deliberate on whom to vote for. Biradaris have an all-encompassing role.

In January 2011, academics Mughees Ahmed and Fozia Naseem wrote in the Berkeley Journal of Social Sciences that the biradari makes decisions in every aspect (political, social), and an individual is bound by it even as the kinship links becomes weaker in urban centres although they are not completely irrelevant. Biradari, they argued, ‘is a stronger determinant of voting behaviour than party allegiance and the initial tendency is to treat it ‘as the primary determinant of voting behaviour.’

To Durham University’s Shaun Gregory, the biradari system is among the influences that have hobbled democracy as leading political parties particularly continue to use it to maximise votes. ‘[It is done] by harnessing wealthy land-owners with power over the neo-feudal rural peasantry, the wealthy mine, and energy field owners with control of their large workforces, and the factory and industry owners who exert great influence over many of urban poor,’ he said.

Gregory noted the iron grip of the biradaris, which underpin the rule of elites such as the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, explains why it is difficult for emergent parties to flourish. Imran Khan’s emergence as a political force was interesting against this backdrop. Khan was seen to be unlikely to draw on the traditional power structures dominated by the biradari. He made his appeal nationally and offered hope of reform and change.

Gregory argued Khan’s performance was to be a measure of the biradari strength. Khan came to power in 2018 after adapting to the politics of biradari and the so-called electables. He was also seen as a serious contender in 2013 after a decade in the political wilderness but managed to get just 32 seats reinforcing the strength of entrenched power structures.

Khan offered change only to be outmaneuvered by the master of traditional politics – Nawaz Sharif. As a series of political obituaries were written following Sharif’s disqualification over a corruption scandal in July 2016, I argued in an Indian Express piece how the dire predictions about his, as well as PML-N’s future, were premature. Sharif survived murky politics on the back of mastering pervasive kinship and patronage networks. He emerged stronger twice when his time in power was cut short in the 1990s.

Sharif is set to stage another comeback following Imran Khan’s falling out with the military and imprisonment. His brother, Shehbaz Sharif, led the coalition government after Khan’s ouster in 2022. Their party remained intact and relevant as PML (N)’s patronage and kinship networks remained in place. Khan’s party appears to have collapsed like a pack of cards in the face of a crackdown.

In his book A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven illustrates how kinship and patronage networks permeate every facet of Pakistani society. The voting patterns on biradari define the networks the best. The Sharifs continue to be relevant in politics as they still tick many boxes crucial for political survival, including their hold over their Kashmiri biradari and alliances with other biradaris.

The Sharifs belong to Punjab, preside over a huge business empire, and have a strong base among groups such as traders. Punjabis account for around 60% of the population, which means a party like PML-N can form a national government without much support in other provinces.

In the 2013 election, PML-N won 165 seats out of 339 seats from Punjab, where the Kashmiri biradri provides Sharif backbone of his support base. The Kashmiris have a strong presence in places such as Gujrat, Gujranwala, Lahore, and Sialkot. In 2015, the victory of Sharif’s aide, Ayaz Sadiq, in a by-election from Lahore underscored the success of PML-N’s inter-biradari alliances. Sadiq is an Arain, who won thanks to the support of his biradari and the Kashmiris. The Arain-Kashmiri factor has been a perfect winning formula in Lahore for decades.

The domination has been such that most Lahore mayors since 1947 have either been Kashmiris or Arains. The entrepreneurial spirit among Kashmiris gives them financial muscle disproportionate to their numbers. They began immigrating to Punjab for better prospects and to escape religious persecution at the hands of the Hindu Dogra rulers in the 19th century. Over a century later, they acquired influential positions in cities such as Sialkot, Amritsar, Ludhiana, and Lahore.

The Sharifs belong to the Amritsari community; the most prosperous among Punjabi-Kashmiris. The Amritsaris were among the first refugees to arrive in Lahore and were allotted lucrative Hindu and Sikh businesses and properties. In 2012, journalist Amir Mateen wrote in that migrants from East Punjab have generally done well. ‘But this was nothing compared to the rise of the Amritsari Kashmiris who happened to be just 30 miles away, and hence better placed because of their stronger family, cultural and business relations in Lahore,’ he wrote. ‘They virtually run the city now.’

Mateen wrote that their ‘political influence goes much beyond Punjab — the biggest example being… Sharif’s family… (It has) encouraged pockets of Amritsari Kashmiri power in every major city of central Punjab.’ Key ministers Ishaq Dar, Khawaja Saad Rafique, and Khawaja Asif in Shehbaz Sharif’s Cabinet like that of his brother belonged to the Kashmiri-Punjabi biradari. Shehbaz Sharif has also served as a four-time Punjab chief minister.

In 1999, Sharif’s biradari card backfired when he named fellow Kashmiri Ziauddin Butt as the army chief. The move precipitated the coup that cut short Sharif’s second term in office and catapulted Butt’s predecessor Pervez Musharraf to power. Sharif’s assured base perhaps explains his adventurous attempts to take on the army that first forced him out of power in 1993. He had his way when he forced army chief Jehangir Karamat to resign in 1998 before his attempt to mess with Musharraf backfired.

Sharif was sentenced and forced into exile after Musharraf overthrew. The power shifted to Jatt-led Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid) as it chose to be the king’s party of Musharraf until PPP returned to power in 2008 and chose Yousaf Raza Gilani, a Syed, as prime minister. Raja Parvez Ashraf, a Rajput from north Punjab, replaced Gilani shortly before the PPP lost power in 2013.

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

Leave a Reply