The Pathans in Karachi

Ever since I was a college student I was fascinated by the analytical methods of sociology. My knowledge never became truly academic. Icould not get a PhD degree and deliver learned lectures. But a limited knowledge became a practical guide of my work. It taught me to understand important social factors.

In the immense katchi abadi of Orangi, communities of Biharis, Mohajirs and Pathans live mainly in separate enclaves. I have observed how they adjust to thepressures of a great city, and the demands of a global urban culture. They are new immigrants to the great city. They have different backgrounds. The Biharis, born and bred in East Pakistan possess the Bengali ethos. I am familiar with the Bengali ethos because I lived for thirty years in Bengal. I often amuse myself by watching how the Bengali ethos of the Bihari, operates in and is modified by the Karachi climate. Besides, being myself a migrant from Agra-Delhi, I am also familiar with the Mohajir ethos, an intoxicating mixture of nostalgia for a vanished Agra-Delhi culture, and defensive chauvinism of dispossessed imperial class. The struggle for existence of Urdu-culture cultist Mohajirs in the great Karachi jungle is pathetic and tragic.

The Pathans (a blanket term not synonymous with Pukhtoons) are migrants from the vast border areas, stretching from Baluchistan to Hazara, to the tribal belt, to Peshawar and Swat. They bring with them the Highlanders’ ethos, well defined by Ibn Khaidun, its three chief characteristics being tribal solidarity (asbiyya), great physical stamina, and volitional tenacity. Throughout history the highlanders have been successful colonizers. In the Darwinian contestfor survival in Karachi they are proving the fittest

My father was the product of a Pathan colony in Ferozabad near Agra. He was very proud of his pure blood. In fact he was the first clansman who married a non-Pathan girl, for which I am thankful because my mother was totally free from any tribal bias. She taught me to be a humanist rather thana tribalist, My father tried in vain to make me memorize the genealogical table of our paternal ancestors, who belonged to the Mattozai tribe, and migrated to India in the eighteenth century Unlike my father, I could not admire our great grandfather, Asad Khan, who was an associate of a famous pindari leader, Amir Khan. When the new British rulers suppressed the marauding gangs, they pacified MirKhan, as was their custom, by giving him the big jargir of Tonk. Asad Khan was tamed with a tiny jagir in Ferozabad. My virile ancestors, it seems, embraced the peace and order of the British Raj as readily as they had exploited the disorder of the Maratha Raj. They gladly became soldiers, policemen and civil servants Their impressive physical appearance and reputation for discipline got them good jobs. They also excelled in peaceful pursuits: planted gardens, raised crops and made glass bangles My grandfather, Mir Mohammad Khan, was an assistant inspector of schools. He developed scholarly tastes, which led him to seek early retirement, return to his two-storey village home, and live for the rest of his life as a cloistered sufi, immersed in books and meditations. When I resigned from the Indian Civil Service, my father told me sadly that perhaps my weirdinclinations were inherited from my grandfather. I myself consider it great good luck to be a quietist sufi, like Mir Mohammad, and not a plundering pindari like Nawab Asad Khan.

There were numerous other colonies like Ferozabad, where the Pathans peacefully followed their family occupations of “service and zamindari”, as my father was fond of repeating. They were prosperous and respectable. Their mango and guava gardens were first rate horticultural feats. The Chura Pathans were famous for their ceramics as the Ferozabad Pathans were famous for their bangles. The Pathans of Agra or Bareilly, Shajahanpur or Qaimgunj (Dr. Zakir Hussain’s home), Meerut or Malihabad (home of poet Josh) eagerlyadopted Syed Ahmed’s educational and social reforms. Many Pathan boys, the sons of zamindars and service ’boldere, were my friends in Agra and Meerut colleges. We all loved our green gardens and golden fields, our forests full of nilgais and black bucks, partridges and quails, our delightful rainy season, Urdu ghazals and Indian girls. None of us had any nostalgia for the tribal wastelands of our remote ancestors. None of us really wanted to become a predatory eagle and build a lonely nest on a rocky crag, although we all applied Allama Iqbal’s exhortations to do so.

“Tu shaheen hai, basera kar paharon ki chatano par”

“You are an eagle, build your nest on rocky crags”

When I began to work inOrangi in April 1990, the settlement was only ten or twelve years old. Many immigrants were still arriving and additional sectors were being developed; new lanes and houses built and old houses improved. I noticed the important role of the Pathans. They were the chief diggers and builders. Early in the morning in the chowks and markets one could see the long lines of sturdy highlanders, with ruddy faces and dusty clothes, sitting with some tools spread out before them. Very soon they were hired. I watched them digging. The speed with which a team of three men and a donkey moved earth and stones was amazing. Here were the world’s quickest and cheapest manual diggers. With their cheap labour even low income people could afford to buildhouses and sewerage lines and sanitary latrines. Mohajirs orBiharis rarely sat in the line of labourers or worked as hired diggers.

I noticed another manifestation of the Highlanders’ physical stamina: the innumerable Pathan peddlers. They were everywhere with their thelas, selling everything – vegetables, fruits, shoes, crockery or collecting junk. Even the handsome little boys, big canvas bags slung across their slender shoulders, went around from one dump to another, picking rags, paper, plastic and tins for the junk dealer, earning fifteen or twenty rupees a day. And the Pathan women, sturdy like their men, came without hesitation to our women work centers and took away in their arms or on their heads, bundles of cut pieces of dusters and shopping bags for sewing at home. In contrast the Mohajir women felt ashamed of sewing for wages, and we had to arrange delivery of the bundles secretly to their homes. They could never carry a load publicly on their delicate heads. It took a decade for the Mohajir women to discard their false shame atwage earning. The Pathan or Bihari women were free from this handicap and got a head start.

Our sanitation program gave us a glimpse of tribal solidarity. In 1980 there was a most distressing problem in Orangi; the residents – Mohajir, Bihari or Pathan had built houses, but they had not built a proper system for the disposal of human excreta and waste water. This filth was flowing in the lanes everywhere and causing immense damage to health and property. While the people were expecting that the official agencies will give the sewerage lines as a gift, OPP was suggesting that the house owners of each lane should take over the responsibility of constructing (and maintaining) with their own money and under their own management, underground sewerage lines, connected to flush latrines in the homes, This was a hard message. Itsacceptance was very slow. But gradually some residents realised that self-management was the only way to save their health and property. Underground sewerage line began to be laid in the lanes of Mohajir, Bihari and Pathan enclaves. Then we saw a clear difference: the usual disputes, delaysand defaults did not occur at all in the Pathan lanes. There was collective discipline instead of turbulent individualism. Consequently, coordinated planning was done on a wider scale and work was completed more quickly.

We saw striking examples of tribal discipline in Faqir and Afridi colonies. At first they watched the Bihari cleaning up their lanes, by laying underground sewerage pipes. Our social organisers offered to make plans and estimates forFaqir and Afridi colony lanes. The lane dwellers did not respond lane by lane like the Biharis, but when the elders decided to ask for plans and estimates for all the lanes, in a short time both colonies, one Baloch, the other Pathan, built complete sanitation networks.

More recently as the practice of self managed and self financed sanitation has spread outside Orangi to other katchi abadis in Karachi, OPP has seen the best examples of highly coordinated and disciplined work in Pathan areas like lslamia colony and Welfare colony.

Tribal solidarity operates not formally by means of institutions or contracts, but rather informally through tradition and custom. It is an invisible but pervasive force. Where the tradition is alive it moulds the instinctive behaviour of the chiefs and the clansmen, the masters and apprentices, the elders and the youngsters. Tradition and custom oblige, on one hand the chiefs, masters and alders to be protective guardians; and oblige, on the other hand, the clansmen, apprentices and youngsters to be loyal retainers. How effective this tribal bonding is can be seen in the quick establishment of Pathan colonies or the acquisition within thirty years of near monopoly of trucks and wagons.

In the case of settlement, the immigrants are accommodated in ‘deras’ (bachelor hostels or camps), set up by patrons. Life in the deras is hard, strenuous but extremely cheap. With the basic needs of shelter and food helpfully provided, the new immigrants soon learn to fend for themselves. Their physical strength, capacity for hard work and willingness to perform any service establishes them quickly. Within a few years those who started living in Jhuggis make pucca houses. Even a cursory tour will reveal, the remarkable improvement made in older Pathan colonies.

Tribal solidarity and physical stamina have made the Pathans the most common owners, drivers and conductors of trucks and wagons. A Pathan wagon owner quite rightly prefers to engage younger tribals as drivers and conductors because they are, by tradition and custom, hard working and loyal. They have not as yet acquired the Karachi habits of chori and kamchori (stealing and shirkinq). The owner acts as a guardian. He trains and trusts the apprentice lads, and the lads do notabuse his trust, do no stab him in the back. Then the master assists the most skillful and enterprising driver to become an owner himself by giving him a vehicle on hire purchase. The interest rates are very high and the terms of agreement are very onerous; but default is very rare, because under tribal custom, running away with the master’s money is as dangerous as running away with the master’s wife. The physical strength, tenacious will and mechanical skill of the borrowing driver sustain him to repay the huge debt, and become an owner. Then he in turn becomes a guardian master and assists other apprentices. The spreading effect of this “each one teach one” practice can be seen not only in the case of trucks, and wagons, but is also visible in the ubiquitous repair shops and other micro enterprises.

On my way to OPP office in Qasba Colony, I pass Benaras Chowk or rather Baccha Khan Chowk as it has been renamed in memory ofthe Pukhtoon apostle of non-violence. I see in Benares Chowk an epitome of Pathan ethos, an embodiment of solidarity, vitality and tenacity. Nurtured by mutual aid and hard work it has grown and prospered. There are innumerable shops and workshops. How busy is everybody. It seems to me that the Pathans of Benaras Chowk have achieved the miracle of full employment. And when the Mohajir shops in Orangi are shut down by strikes the Benaras Chowk shops are open and get extra customers.

As a reward for their mutual aid and hard work, the Pathan communities are growing more and more prosperous. By the grace of God they are also growing more peaceful. Whatever tribal feuds and political quarrels they may have in their rocky homelands, in Karachi theyare at peace with themselves and their neighbours. Their spokesmen do not exude megalomania and paranoia. They do not complain of genocide. Neither do they demand jobs and privileges. Nor do their youngsters form groups to slaughter each other.

My father-in-law, Allama Mashriqi, interpreted the Holy Quran in the light of Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest. He was fond of quoting the following verse:

“Wa laqad katabna fil zabure min badi zikre”

“Innal ardha yarisoha ibadiyas salihun”

“Inna fi haze la balaghal Ii qaumin abedia”

“And we wrote in the Psalms, after admonition, surely the Earth is inherited by my good servants”

“Surely this is a message for the community of servants”

I do not know if the Allama would have regarded the Karachi Pathans as ‘Ibadiyus salihun’ God’s good servants. But they surely are inheriting a good portion of the earth of Karachi.



  1. Muhammad Asad Khan

    Interesting but write also in urdu so people know better your thoughts i think you can understand thanks.

    Posted January 27, 2013 at 11:46 am | PermalinkReply
  2. Nighat Siddiqi

    You have done brilliant work without a PhD. People don’t need learned lectures. Born in Mohajir family in Karachi, I can confirm what you have accurately pinpointed: “The deffensive chauvinism of these lazy, dispossed imperial class.”

    The physical stamina plus work ethos Pathan Highlanders display, can be compared to the successful Swiss ethos. My Wish: Pathans could take it to Kabul to help get Afghan brothers up on their feet.

    Posted August 17, 2023 at 10:30 pm | PermalinkReply
    • Arif Hasan

      Thank you for your message. I agree with what you have said.

      Best wishes,
      Arif Hasan

      Posted August 18, 2023 at 11:46 am | PermalinkReply

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