While Indian and Pakistani sameness is often framed in terms of Punjabi food, language and culture, the two countries have more in common as the comparable culture of divided mercantile communities shows
In March 2011, columnist Aakar Patel wrote a piece examining why India is “part dysfunctional, fully functional”. He attributed caste balance to this question, while drawing a parallel with Pakistan. The neighbouring country, 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 made mention of Karachi’s Gujaratis and Punjabi Khatris like journalist Najam Sethi.
Sethi has since vindicated 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.
When then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif handed over the PCB reins to Sethi in 2013, the move stirred up a hornet’s nest. Led by 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 as interim chief minister oversaw 2013 elections in the Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province.
As Pakistani cricket reeled under back-to-back blows, Sethi dug in his heels and persisted with Misbha-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 so far been defined by an aggressive and flamboyant style of cricket and leadership.
Within three years, Sethi had successful launched Pakistan Premier League (PSL) in the UAE after years of inertia under his predecessors. The lucrative league gave Pakistan at least three gifted cricketers, who played a key role in its surprise Champions Trophy victory over India this summer.
In 2015, Zimbabwe became the first international team to visit Pakistan after the Sri Lankan team was attacked. In 2017, Sethi further proved naysayers wrong when he oversaw the PSL final in Lahore.
All this paved the way for the star-studded World XI’s visit to Pakistan for a three-match series, precursor to the Lankan team’s game-changing return. That the Sri Lankan board agreed to play the match eight years after their team’s traumatising experience forced even Sethi’s worst critics to acknowledge his success.
Patel’s argument holds true for Nawaz Sharif, who also comes from a leading business family and appointed Sethi despite fierce opposition. Sharif has attempted to infuse the pragmatic mercantile approach to Pakistani politics particularly vis-à-vis ties with India. He has championed promotion of trade ties and attempted to put contentious issues on the backburner. These moves are viewed as being factors in his second ouster from office in 1999.
Indian and Pakistani sameness is often framed in terms of food, language, and culture mostly of cross-border Punjabis. 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 comparable culture of divided mercantile communities is a case in point. The political culture, for instance, of Karachi, is similar to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar since immigrants from the two Indian states have dominated the polity in the metropolis. Karachi is also the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy that the country’s Gujaratis – true to form –disproportionately contribute to.
According to Laurent Gayer’s book Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City, Karachi-based firms controlled 96 percent of Pakistan’s private industries in the 1960s. They owned 80 percent assets each in private banks and insurance companies. Karachi-based businessmen from Gujarati Memon, Khoja and Bohra mercantile communities held 36 out of 46 large industrial groups. The Gujarati trading communities accounted for 0.4 percent of Pakistan’s population but controlled 43 percent of the country’s industrial capital, says Gayer. Halai Memons alone owned 27 percent of these industries.
The domination continues. For example, the Habibs, with roots in Jamnagar in Indian state of Gujarat, run the country’s biggest bank while the Mandviwallas, also of the same heritage, have powered a multiplex boom in the country over the last decade. 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, one of the country’s three breweries, among Pakistan’s biggest tax-payers that survived the prohibition introduced in the 1970s. Another Parsi family – Avari — owns five-star hotels across Pakistan and in Dubai and Canada.
Centuries of togetherness have left linkages far too deep for Radcliffe’s arbitrarily drawn line to erase despite seven decades of hate and bigotry. The sooner politicians understand this the better it will be for the future of over a billion people in the region, whose pressing issues have for too long been sacrificed on the altar of the fratricidal India-Pakistan conflict.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist. This is a slightly edited version of the piece first published on his blog Insight. Contact him at: [email protected] On Twitter @SameerAKhatlani and Facebook – www.facebook.com/sameer.khatlani