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The People of Pakistan, Cultural Groups

Pakistan is a multilingual and multiethnic nation. Most of the people belong to one of the country’s five major ethnolinguistic groups: Punjabis, Sindhis, Pashtuns (Pakhtuns), Mohajirs (Muslims who migrated to the newly formed nation of Pakistan after 1947), and Baluchis. Ethnically distinct subgroups exist within each of these five categories. Overall, ethnic identity is multilayered and complex and may be based on a combination of religion, language, ethnicity, and tribe.

Not all of the ethnolinguistic groups are equally represented in the power structure of Pakistan. Mohajirs, Punjabis, and Pashtuns are the dominant groups, while Sindhis and Baluchis struggle to advance and protect their interests.

Punjabis constitute 58 percent of the population. They have diverse origins, but over the centuries they coalesced into a coherent ethnic group in the historic Punjab region and developed a common language, Punjabi. Today most Punjabis prefer to read and write in Pakistan’s official language, Urdu, and their language-based ethnic identity is relatively weak. Many Punjabis are farmers in the fertile valley of Punjab Province. Punjabis also predominate in the military and the federal government.

Sindhis constitute 13 percent of the population of Pakistan. Their traditional homeland is the province of Sind, where they maintain the country’s largest concentration of large landholdings. Sindhis are a predominantly rural people. They have a strong sense of linguistic and cultural pride and identity. They have a rich literary and folk tradition and prefer to read and write in their own language, Sindhi.

Pashtuns constitute 12.5 percent of the population. Pashtuns are divided into many tribes, and their tribal structure is egalitarian. Pashtuns follow a strict code of conduct known as Pashtunwali (“Pashtun Way”). Pashtun identity, including their interpretation of Islamic law, is formulated and guided by Pashtunwali. The code is based on the absolute obligations of providing hospitality and sanctuary, even to one’s enemies, and exacting revenge at all costs in the defense of one’s honor. The code also requires Pashtuns to abide by the decisions of the jirga (council of tribal leaders) in matters of dispute. Many Pashtuns have blue eyes and claim to be descendants of the European soldiers who fought for Alexander the Great in the region 2,000 years ago. They have a rich oral tradition in their ethnic language, Pashto, but many Pashtuns prefer to read and write in Urdu. Pashtuns are primarily farmers, livestock herders, traders, and soldiers in the Pakistan military.

Baluchis constitute 4 percent of the population. Most Baluchis are nomadic, migrating wherever the desert-like conditions of their homeland, the Baluchistan Plateau, provide enough vegetation to raise their animals. Raising livestock, mainly sheep and goats, and selling their hides and wool is a way of life for the Baluchis. They also have apple, almond, and apricot orchards, and some grow wheat. Baluchi tribal organization is strictly hierarchical, and each tribe is headed by a sardar (tribal chief). Most Baluchis speak Baluchi (Balochi), a language that is similar to Persian. About one-fifth of Baluchis also speak Brahui, a Dravidian-derived language. Baluchis are the least educated and poorest segment of the population and are inadequately represented in government.

Mohajirs constitute about 8 percent of the population. They are Muslims who settled in Pakistan after the partition of British India in 1947. Unlike other cultural groups of Pakistan, they do not have a tribe-based cultural identity. They are the only people in the country for whom Urdu, the official language, is their native tongue. Mohajirs were the vanguard of the Pakistan Movement, which advocated the partition of British India in order to create the independent nation of Pakistan for Indian Muslims. After the partition, a large number of Muslims migrated from various urban centers of India to live in the new nation of Pakistan. These migrants later identified themselves as mohajirs, meaning “refugees” in both Urdu and Arabic. A large number of Mohajirs settled in the cities of Sind Province, particularly Karachi and Hyderabad. They were better educated than most indigenous Pakistanis and assumed positions of leadership in business, finance, and administration. Today they remain mostly urban.

Sindhis felt dispossessed by the preponderance of Mohajirs in the urban centers of Sind. With the emergence of a Sindhi middle class in the 1970s and adoption of Sindhi as a provincial language in 1972, tensions between Mohajirs and Sindhis began to mount. The 1973 constitution of Pakistan divided Sind into rural and urban districts, with the implication that the more numerous Sindhis would be better represented in government. Many Mohajirs felt that they were being denied opportunities and launched a movement to represent their interests. The movement, which evolved into the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) in the mid-1980s, called for official recognition of Mohajirs as a separate cultural group and advocated improved rights for Mohajirs. Although factional rivalries and violence within the MQM tarnished its image and shrunk its power base, the movement continues to be a potent force in urban centers of the province, particularly Karachi. The MQM has contributed to a more defined Mohajir identity within the country.

 

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