Pakistan is a rich tapestry of ethnic groups, tribes and social groups who are mainly bound together by religion, although the way each groups goes about practicing Islam is as different as the groups themselves. The six major ethnic groups in Pakistan are the Punjabis (44.7 percent), Pashtun, or Pathan (15.4 percent); Sindhi (14.1 percent); Saraiki (8.4 percent); Muhajirs or Muhajirs (7.6 percent); and Balochi, or Baloch (3.6 percent). Other groups (6.3 percent) include the Brahui (0.9 percent), Gujarati (0.6 percent. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

The Punjabis live primarily in the northeastern, central, eastern part of the country. The Sindhis live primarily in the Sindh in the southeast part of Pakistan. The Sindhis however are outnumbered in Karachi, a city they established, by Muhajirs (from the Arabic term for “immigrants” or "refugees"). The Muhajirs are Urdu-speaking immigrants from India and their descendants. They live mostly in the cities and came to Pakistan during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and took over many of the administrative jobs previously held by Hindus.

In 1998, 55.6 percent of the population lived in Punjab, 23.0 percent in Sindh, 13.4 percent in the NWFP, 5 percent in Baluchistan, 2.4 percent in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and 0.6 percent in the northern areas and the federal capital of Islamabad. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: The provinces are, by and large, based on the 5 major ethnic groups prevalent in Pakistan. Punjabis live mainly in the fertile and most populous region, Punjab, in the center and east of the country. Sindhis live in the south; the Pashtuns share a common ethnic heritage with most Afghanis and live in the west. Baluchis live in the mountainous areas in the southwestern part of the country. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

The Pashtuns are tribal groups that also lives in Afghanistan. Pashtuns are known for their size, code of honor and strength. They have traditionally lived in the mountains in the northwest but now are are scattered in other parts of the country. The Pashtuns have long resisted advances by invaders and that has at times sought to establish an autonomous state within Pakistan.The Baloch have traditionally lived in the deserts of Balochistan of southwest Pakistan, which extend into Iran, and, like the Pashtuns, they are known for their fiercely independent ways. Baloch have also pressed for the creation of a state that would incorporate parts of Afghanistan and Iran. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall and Company]

Among the more interesting groups in the north are the Burusho Hunzakuts, believed to be one of longest-living people in the world), the Kalash (who many believe are descendants of warriors of Alexander the Great) and the Baltis (a Muslim group that descended from Tibetans). There are also Kashmiris, Hazaras, Gojars, Kohistanis, Chitralis, and a dozen or so Dardic languages-speaking ethnic groups.

But Michael Javed,chairman of the Karachi-based Pakistan Minorities Front, told the Washington Post that intolerance afflicts minority groups throughout Pakistan. Thousands of Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and non-Sunni Muslims have fled the country, fearing persecution or state-sponsored policies, including harsh laws on blasphemy. “No minorities in this country are safe,” said Javed. [Source: Tim Craig, Washington Post, August 16, 2016]

History of Ethnic Groups and Their Migration in Pakistan

Pakistan has traditionally been a crossroads for travelers and invaders and this is reflected in the people. You see will people with Iranian and Turkish features as well as those that look European or Mongolian.

Pakistan’s mixture of ethnic groups is a result of the occupation of the region by groups passing through on their way to India. Ethno-lingual processes over the centuries have helped developed nationalities and ethno-lingual groups who have a deep sense of identity, psychological make-up, commonality of language and area and belonging to certain regions of Pakistan. [Source: Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. ]

The population is a complex mixture of indigenous peoples, many racial types having been introduced by successive waves of migrations from the northwest, as well as by internal migrations across the subcontinent of India. Aryans, Persians, Greeks, Pashtuns (Pathans), and Mughals came from the northwest and spread across the Indo-Gangetic Plain, while the Arabs conquered Sindh. All left their mark on the population and culture of the land. During the long period of Muslim rule, immigrants from the Middle East were brought in and installed as members of the ruling oligarchy. It became prestigious to claim descent from them, and many members of the landed gentry and of upper-class families are either actually or putatively descended from such immigrants.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “While the history of Pakistan as an independent nation dates only to 1947, the history of the territory it encompasses dates back many thousands of years, during the period when the territory was a portion of the Indian subcontinent. In addition, the land is home to the famous Khyber Pass, which is the route that many invaders into India used. These include Mughal invaders and Alexander the Great. Many centuries ago a number of Buddhists also used that northern section as a route, so Pakistan today has many interesting Buddhist sites and historical notes as part of its history. Punjab is also a portion of the country; it was the home of the founder of the Sikh religion, and it continues to play a significant role in Pakistan. Lines of demarcation between India and Pakistan in northern border areas are unclear in places or in dispute, and controversy continues to surround these lines. [Source:“Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Although the separation of Bangladesh removed one of the major sources of social heterogeneity, Pakistan continues to be an ethnically and socially diverse nation that includes five major ethnic groups: Punjabi, Balochi, Sindhi, Pashtun, and Muhajirs. The last group, whose name is literally translated as "pilgrim," comprises refugees from India. In addition, since 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed it have resulted in a large refugee population from that country, primarily in the Northwest Frontier Province. These refugees have created security and societal stresses for communities along the border as well as for the nation in general.

According to “Cities of the World”: Internal migration, particularly from rural to urban areas, has begun to alter the ethnic and linguistic character of each of the Provinces, but it is still generally true that Sindh is the home of the Sindhis who speak Sindhi; Balochistan is the traditional home of the Balochi-speaking Baloch; Punjabi is the language of the Punjab, home of Pakistan's largest and most influential ethnic group; and the Northwest Frontier is the tribal homeland of the Pushtu-speaking Pashtun. The most notable exception to this pattern is seen in the urban areas of Sindh. Immediately after independence, a significant number of Muslim "muhajirs" or refugees of various ethnic backgrounds poured into these areas from India. More recently, internal migration has brought many job-seeking Pashtuns to Karachi. In addition, the movement of large numbers of Pashtuns and some Punjabi farmers into Balochistan over the past decades has made the Baloch a minority in their own Province. The remote valleys of the Far North are inhabited by a few smaller ethnic groups, such as the Gilgitis, Kashmiris, and the people of Hunza. [Source: “Cities of the World”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Ethnic Identity in Pakistan

Local, ethnic and tribal identities are very strong. Pakistanis often identify themselves by their ethnic group first and Pakistani second. The five main groups are Pashtun, Sindhi, Punjabi, Muhajir and Baloch. Conflict between tribal, Afghani-influenced western Pakistan and India-influenced eastern Pakistan is recurrent theme. Based on ethnic and tribal connections, Pakistan and Afghanistan should probably be one nation, with the entire Punjab being part of Indian.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “The national identity of Pakistan today is that of an Islamic nation; it was created as such. However, because the territory that is now Pakistan has a history that goes back several thousand years, the area has a history that forms part of the present identity of Pakistan. That is one of the reasons why both residents and visitors find the relatively young nation of Pakistan historically interesting and why the national identity includes many sites and stories that are centuries older than the nation itself.” [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

One thing that amazes first time visitors to Karachi and Pakistan as a whole is the astounding variety of people that are found there. In Karachi, you can find neatly-groomed lawyers in business suits, fashionably-dressed women and tribesmen with henna-stained bread and tumbling turbans and everything in between.

Most of the people you see on the streets are men. The type of turban and clothes that men’ wear often indicates what tribe or ethnic group they belong to. I am a Pakistani, and then I am a Pushtun," one Karachi resident told National Geographic. "It was in coming to the city that I learned this. In the village where I am from, our elders are poor farmers. They think in terms of the village, and that's it. They don't look to the future. Pakistan is “ our” future.

Pakistan’s national unity based on common the religious identity of its citizens as Muslims has been undermined somewhat by the nations ethnic and linguist diversity. Ethnic groups in Pakistan generally are categorized according to various combinations of religion, language, and sometimes tribe. Punjabis are the largest linguistic group and often are divided into three occupational castes: Rajputs, Jats, and Arains. Pashtuns (Pathans) are the dominant ethnic group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province), but Pashtuns belong to different tribes or kinship groups and have no central governing authority. Sindhis are dominant in Sindh and are divided into occupational and caste groupings. Baloch are dominant in Balochistan and are divided into various eastern and western tribes. Other ethnolinguistic groups include the Siraikis, who live mostly in Punjab; Urdu-speaking Muhajirs, refugees from India and their descendants who migrated to Pakistan during the 1947 partition and are concentrated in Sindh; and Brahuis, a Dravidian language group in Sindh and Balochistan. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2005 **]

Ethnicity and Geography in Pakistan

The provinces of Pakistan correspond to some degree with the ethnic group divisions of Pakistan but should not be seem as defining markers. They border were drawn up by colonial officials often in the 19th century, sometimes quite arbitrarily.

The ethnic composition of Pakistan roughly corresponds to the linguistic distribution of the population, at least among the largest groups: Punjabis, Pashtuns (Pathans), Sindhis, Muhajirs and Baloch. Each group is primarily concentrated in its home province, with most muhajirs residing in urban Sindh. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: “Pakistan has four major provinces: the Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The provinces are, by and large, based on the five major ethnic groups prevalent in Pakistan. Punjabis live mainly in the fertile and most populous region, Punjab, in the center and east of the country. Sindhis live in the south; the Pashtuns share a common ethnic heritage with most Afghanis and live in the west. Baloch live in the mountainous areas in the southwestern part of the country. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: In the area of the delta and the lower course of the Indus River are Sindhi peasant tribesmen. In the north and northwest are the hardy, warlike nomadic and seminomadic Pashtuns. The Baloch live in the vast western section of Pakistan and are divided into 12 major tribes, some of them purportedly of Dravidian origin. Native speakers of Urdu, the Muhajirs are refugees, or descendants of refugees, from pre-partition India. They are well represented in the cities. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

People of Valleys in Pakistan

A number of tribal people and ethnic groups live in valleys. According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: These include Chitral Valley, at an elevation of 3,800 feet (1,158 meters), where the majority of the people are Muslims but that also is home to the Kafir-Kalash (wearers of the black robe), a primitive pagan tribe. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“In Swat Valley, which was once the cradle of Buddhism, Muslim conquerors fought battles and residents claim to be descendants of soldiers of Alexander the Great. In the Hunza Valley, people are noted for longevity, which they claim is because of diet and way of life. The people of Hunza Valley are Muslims and also are believed to be descendants of soldiers of Alexander the Great.

“In North-West Frontier Province is Kaghan Valley, which is bounded on the west by Swat Valley, on the north by Gilgit, and on the east by Azad Kashmir. The people of Kaghan Valley are Muslim-Pashtuns as well as Kohistanis and Gujars. Shardu Valley is the capital of the district of Baltistan and is known as "Little Tibet" because the lifestyle there is similar to that in Tibet itself. The people of each of these valley areas are well known for their tribal cultures, handicrafts, and for fascinating clothing, most of which is woven and handmade there and unique to their particular area.

Linguistic Diversity in Pakistan

According to “Governments of the World”: “Ethnic differences are reflected in the linguistic diversity of the country. Urdu and English are both recognized as official languages, and both are used extensively in government, education, and the media, but neither is the mother tongue of the vast majority of citizens. Although many Muhajirs and some urban residents claim Urdu as their mother tongue, most citizens speak the language of their province of origin: Sindhi, Punjabi, Balochi, or Pashto. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Urdu and English are official languages, but Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Hindko, and Brahui are also spoken; English is common among the upper classes and in the government. . Most of Pakistanis can understand and speak Urdu but Urdu is the first language of only eight per cent of the population. More people speak Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto and Saraiki. Both Urdu and English serve as lingua francas. Arabic, the language of Islam, is widely used in religious matters. Arabic script has been adapted to spell Punjabi and Sindhi words.

Punjabi is spoken by 48 percent of the population, followed by Sindhi 12 percent: Saraiki (a Punjabi variant) 10 percent; Pashto (alternate names, Pashto. Pashto Pushto) 8 percent, Urdu (official) 8 percent; Baloch 3 percent; Hindko 2 percent; Brahui 1 percent, English (official; lingua franca of Pakistani elite and most government ministries), Burushaski, and other 8 percent. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Punjabi is closely related to Urdu while Sindh is more distinctive and has more unique features of its own. Siraiki, once regarded as a dialect of Punjabi, is now regarded as a separate language. It is spoken in southwest Punjab and neighboring areas. Pashto, the language of the Pashtuns, has few vowels and lots of consonants, and many Pakistanis say that Pashto speakers sound like their talking with mouthfuls of stones. Most Pakistanis speak the language of their ethnic group as their first language and learn Urdu and English in school.

Most public officials and many ordinary people speak English, which is sometimes is referred to as the informal official language of Pakistan. The status of English has declined somewhat as a result of "Urduization" efforts by the government. Urdu was created by combining the languages of early invaders and settlers, including Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. The spoken form of Urdu is the same as that of Hindi but it is written in a different script than Hindi. While Urdu and English are prevalent throughout Pakistan, a number of other languages are spoken in different valleys and areas. Among these are the Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Brahui, Saraiki, and Hindko language and dialects.

Caste Groups in Pakistan

The Hindu caste system is very much alive in Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Nepal and Sri Lanka. In Pakistan it is most evident in the Punjab and the Sindh. In the tribal areas of the west, tribal law and conservative Islam prevail. The caste system manifests itself more in the form of submission to authority and knowing one’s place rather than a ranking of superior and inferior groups.

Punjabis are the largest linguistic group and often are divided into three occupational castes: Rajputs, Jats, and Arains. The Rajputs and the Jats are the most numerous of the Punjabi castes. In the Punjab the caste system is most evident on specialization of artisans and the ranking of farmers. The Mastor are a caste that owns large amounts of land in the southern Punjab. The Gujar are a lower caste that owns very little.

Rajputs are a particularly successful branch of the warrior Kshatriya class, which is just below the priestly Brahman class. They have traditionally been known for their fighting skills and have held key positions in the Indian army. This tradition began under the Moguls, who gave the Rajputs limited autonomy in exchange for soldiers. Over time the Rajputs were able to use their positions to accumulate great land holdings and through this land great wealth. The word Rajput comes from the Sanskrit term “raja putra,” meaning son of kings. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992 <>]

The Jats are an upper farming caste that lives primarily in northern and northwestern India and southern and eastern Pakistan. Most are settled farmers or semi-nomadic herders who have been incorporated into the caste system where they reside. There are maybe 20 million Jats. In some places they call themselves Baluchis, Pathans or Rajputs. The Jats have a reputation for being like Rajputs. They have a military tradition and in some places are powerful landowners. They live in communities of the own kind but speak the languages and dialects of the people that live around them. There are Hindu, Muslim and Sikh Jats. A large portion of all Sikhs are Jats. <>

See Separate Article RAJPUTS AND JATS

Sindhis are divided into occupational and caste groupings. D. O. Lodrick wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “Traditionally, Sindh lacked the pan-Indian four-tiered caste system (Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra). Brahmans, who elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent enjoyed high ritual status, were numerically insignificant. They were neither learned nor affluent, functioning only as priests to the Hindu trading castes. There was no question of royal patronage as the region was under Muslim rule. Since no Sindhi Hindus formed part of the nobility or army, Kshatriyas were notably absent from the region, as were Sudras, the castes who were tillers of the soil (these were mainly Muslims) or the service castes. The main Hindu communities in Sindh were, thus, of the trading caste — e.g. the Lohanas, Bhatias, Khatris, Chhaprus and Sahtas — and social hierarchies among these groups were primarily based on wealth. This social structure was unique to Sindh, and regional identity became more pronounced than caste identity. [Source: D. O. Lodrick “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Tribal Areas of Pakistan

North-West Frontier Province is a swath of land that runs along the northern border with Afghanistan extending from the Indus River to the Hindu Kush. About the size of Virginia, it has been a corridor through which the great conquering civilizations of the world have traveled for 35 centuries. The armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the Taj-Mahal building Moguls have all marched through and each were harassed by the Pashtuns, a fierce, often war-like tribal people that the British called the "best guerilla fighters in Asia.”

The Northwest Frontier Province was created in 1901. It is the home of the relatively peaceful Chitral and Swat valley but it mainly known for a 32- to 130-kilometer (20- to 80-mile) -wide slice of land that stretches for 580 kilometers (350 miles) along the Afghanistan border — the Pashtun homeland. Several million Pashtuns live here as well as an untold number of Afghan refugees. In the "settled" regions there are about nine million people which include Pashtuns and members of other ethnic groups.

The Northwest Frontier Province is comprised mostly of barren or semi-barren brown mountains and jagged escapements and badland canyons. The local name of the color of the landscape gave us the English word Khaki. British soldiers who wore green uniforms were easy for tribal snipers to pick off; they switched to khaki uniforms so they blended in better. The high elevations often receive quite a lot of snow. They valleys nourished by snowmelt from these mountains can be quite green and picturesque, The climate is harsh: characterized by bitterly cold winters and hot, dry summers.

The Tribal Areas covers a 560-x-40 kilometer (350-x-25 mile) area of rugged mountain territory along the border of Afghanistan. Sometimes it is considered part of the North-West Frontier Province. Other times it is regarded as a separate area. It occupies a quarter of the North West Frontier Province and is controlled by 24 Pashtun tribes and their sub clans in seven Pashtun “agencies” that were created in the British era. It also sometimes includes parts of Baluchistan and the Northern territories. It is the part of Pakistan where Al-Qaida is believed to be hiding out and Osama bin Laden spent some time.

Foreigners are not allowed to enter the Tribal Areas for safety reasons. Those who enter need permission from the local governor or tribal leaders and have to be accompanied by a dozen or so gunmen from local militias. Even with an armed escort visitors have been kidnaped for ransom or accused of being spies. No traveling is done after dark. Permits to enter the North-West Frontier Province are given Peshawar and usually denied to those who seek them. If you try to enter the region without a permit the police may arrest you.

To some degree all this is true in Balochistan, where local Baloch tribal leaders exert more power than the Pakistani government and the Pakistan army is unable to work as is the case in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province).

Laws, Government and Lifestyle in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan

The Pashtun areas are called the “ilaq ghiar” (“land beyond Pakistanis laws”). The area is run by a tribal council lead by its leaders and is almost completely beyond the jurisdiction of Pakistani law. The Pakistani constitution does not apply here. Justice is defined by strict tribal customs and conservative interpretations of Islamic law. The freedoms given the tribal areas dates back to British times. The British colonial rulers had little success in their efforts to control the region and gave the tribes autonomy in return for peace.

Critics say the tribal regions are nothing but a haven for outlaws, smugglers and bandits. Defenders claim the inhabitants are tribal people who follow their own laws and make a living the best way they can. The porous border has traditionally been at the center of major smuggling operations and organizations that move drugs and weapon, Most of the profits end up in the hands of tribal leaders and corrupt leaders. Little of it trickles down to the millions of inhabitants, many of whom are poor and illiterate.

Most men have beards and wear turbans or some other kind of headgear. The few women that are outside are cloaked in burqas. The buildings are made of mud brick. The towns smell of dunf , grilled meat, diesel fuel and hashish. The air is often polluted with sticky, black haze from burnt tires used to fire brick kilns.

The seven Pashtun “agencies” are (from north to south)Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. They are part of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). Other Pashtun groups such as the Malakand live within the Provincially Administered Tribal Area (PATA) of the North-West Frontier Province.

Each agency is supposed to be administered by an agent appointed by the Pakistani government. In reality, each agent acts as an intermediary between the tribes and the provincial governor and its main duty is to make sure that blood feuds do not spill into territory controlled by the government. North and South Waziristan have been characterized as an Al-Qaida refuge.

The agencies are separate from Pakistan proper by what look like customs post with armed guards and chains across the roads. The region is monitored by the legendary Frontier Corps. Their job is to quell feuding but are unable to take action unless crimes are committed on a major roadway. The rest of the agencies are a sort of no man’s land.

Under Pakistani law, an entire tribe is responsible for the crime committed by a single tribesman and can be collectively punished. Trib. elders are expect to turn criminals over to authorities. In return, the tribes have autonomy over their own affairs, The presence of Al-Qaida members in the tribal areas has raised calls for reform of the political status of the frontier area.

Tensions Between Ethnic Groups in Pakistan

There are of tensions between different groups over things like land and water. The five main ethnic groups within Pakistan are generally separated enough and have their own geographical and cultural refuges so there is not so much conflict between them. The most continuous and frequent problems between the different ethnic groups occurs in the Sindh, primarily between Sindhis and Muhajirs and Muhajirs and Pashtuns

Griff Witte wrote in the Washington Post: “In Pakistan — a federation of four provinces, each associated with a different ethnic group — the issue of ethnic identity has long been troublesome, imperiling the unity of the state. In Balochistan, many people are in open revolt. Pashtuns in North-West Frontier Province have joined their clansmen on the Afghan side of the border in a bloody insurgency against both governments.” [Source: Griff Witte, Washington Post, January 7, 2008]

"Pakistan is like a house," said Bashir Ahmal Haleemi, a trucker and longtime Karachi resident, told the Washington Post: "It was established for us. But when the army was building it, they didn't give us any choices. They chose the color of the carpet, the design of the kitchen, the style of the windows. We have to live there, but they make all the selections."

Witte wrote: “Common is the belief that Sindh, Balochistan and North-West Frontier Province need greater autonomy from the central government. "There has never been an equal and just distribution of resources among the federating units, and that's something that causes big resentment," said Afzal Khan Lala, a senior Pashtun nationalist politician from North-West Frontier Province. His party advocates control of just four basic functions for the central government in Islamabad: foreign policy, defense, currency and communications. The rest would be left to the provinces to figure out on their own. Without autonomy, he said, "the resentment among smaller provinces can grow to dangerous proportions, putting at risk the survival of Pakistan."

Karin Brulliard wrote in the Washington Post: ““When Pakistan parted from India in 1947, it fused vast spans of ethnically and linguistically distinct populations under the common cause of Islam. But the state has struggled to define Islam’s role as a social adhesive. The powerful, Punjabi-dominated military, meanwhile, has aimed to suppress various nationalist movements, even while sometimes backing ethnic and sectarian groups as tools for influence. Politics remain cutthroat and largely localized. The result, some say, is a nation hobbled — and increasingly bloodied — by factionalism. [Source: Karin Brulliard, Washington Post, July 18, 2011]

“National unity, though, has been elusive, despite school textbooks that depict the nation as a refuge for Muslims living in the shadow of a hostile enemy, India. Three of Pakistan’s four provinces are home to separatist or nationalist movements, and they share bitterness toward Punjab, the most populous and powerful province. While striving to foster a national identity, the military establishment, which has ruled Pakistan for half its existence, has tried to quell nationalist movements, human rights activists say. In the southwestern province of Ba-luchistan, where a low-level insurgency rages, Human Rights Watch recently reported that 150 corpses have been found this year in what are known as “kill and dump” operations thought to have been carried out by intelligence and security forces. Zohra Yusuf, of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said Baloch also are killing Punjabi settlers there. “What has failed is this forced onset of Pakistani nationhood,” Yusuf said.

“Nowhere are the ethnic divisions as clear as in Karachi, which is also stressed by problems confronting Pakistan’s other fast-growing cities. Inflation is rising. Infrastructure has not kept pace with growth, and residents of an ethnically divided neighborhood that was the scene of vicious fighting in 2011, Qasba Colony, said they are supplied with just four hours of electricity a day. In parts of the Pashtun squatter settlements that rise on a hill above the neighborhood and on Karachi’s outskirts, municipal services are unavailable.

Sectarian Violence in Karachi in the 1990s

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Karachi was such a violent place that it resembled a city under siege. When the violence peaked in 1994 and 1995, rockets hit police and television stations; rooftop snipers assassinated political rivals; armed gangs stole dozens of cars a day at gunpoint; and foreigners were escorted from the airport by police with sawed-off shotguns.

Thousands of people died. By one estimate 4,000 people were killed and 10,000 were wounded between the mid 1980s, when weapons for the war in Afghanistan began flowing in, and 2000. The number of dead from sectarian violence jumped from 75 in 1993 to 925 in 1994 and over 2,000 in 1995. By 1996, the violence had subsidized. In 1998 it picked up again, with around 700 murders.

The violence was fueled by the availability of weapons, bombs and rocket launchers left over from the Afghan War and the influence of money from the South Asian heroin trade. Not a single murderer was apprehended. People were afraid to leave their homes and commerce aground to a halt. Strikes and shortages were common. According to one 1995 poll, 94 percent of Karachi residents asked said their lifestyles had been altered by the violence. Forty percent said they knew someone who was killed.

Muhajirs and Pashtuns and Groups Involved in Sectarian Violence

Much of violence in Karachi in the 1990s involved disputes between Muhajirs and Pashtuns and Muhajirs and Sindhis. A variety a groups fought each other for different reasons. Saudi-backed Sunni Muslim militants and Iran-supported Shiite radicals attacked each other's buses and mosques. Muhajir militants fought with Karachi police and Pakistani soldiers for control of Karachi. Criminals to took advantage of the anarchy to loot and steal and ethic gangs used the chaos to settle old scores.

Because it was often difficult to determine why particular individuals had been killed, killers began leaving behind notes. "This is the fate of informers" was scribbled on a paper found with three corpses in central Karachi. "Fate of a man who dishonored a Muhajir daughter’s body" was the message attached to the body of man whose head and genitals had been removed.

In the early 1990s, more than a 1,000 people died in riots between Pashtuns and Muhajirs in Karachi after a Pashtun bus driver shot and killed a young Muhajir girl. In February 1998 riots in Karachi that left two people dead were triggered by the elopement of a Muhajir man in his 20s and an 18-year-old Pashtun woman, against her family's wishes. Pashtun elders sentenced the woman to death because she dishonored the family. The man was shot three times with an AK-47 as he arrived at a court to address charges of having kidnapped his bride. He survived and went into hiding. The couple were called the Romeo and Juliet of Pakistan. From a prison cell he said, "We loved each other and they would not allow us to marry, s we did it anyway. I will not leave here, come what may."

Tensions Rise Between Sindhis and Punjabis After Bhutto’s Assassination

Reporting from Karachi after former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto wasn't assassinated in December 2007, Griff Witte wrote in the Washington Post: “To Khaled Chema, an unemployed 32-year-old living in a sprawling slum of this mega-city by the sea, Benazir Bhutto wasn't assassinated because she opposed extremism and advocated democracy. She was killed because, like him, she was a Sindhi. Her assassination has inflamed long-simmering resentments among ethnic minorities toward the dominant Punjabis. Bhutto's assassination in Rawalpindi, a key city in Punjab province and the home of the military, has endangered the uneasy balance in which Sindhis suppressed their ethnic-nationalist desires because they knew that one of their own was among the most popular politicians in the country. [Source: Griff Witte, Washington Post, January 7, 2008]

“The anti-Punjabi sentiment is, in many ways, an extension of animosity that has evolved over the past year. It started out as anti-Musharraf, grew to become anti-military and has now burst into view as anti-Punjabi. Chema believes the only solution is for Sindh to break away from Pakistan and form its own nation. "We will be separate, and we will solve all our basic problems very easily," he said.

“At Bhutto's funeral in rural Sindh province last month, there was hardly a Pakistani flag to be seen, and Sindhi mourners chanted, "We don't need Pakistan!" Sindhis also attacked Punjabi targets in the three days of rioting that followed news of her killing. Meanwhile, some here in Karachi, capital of Sindh province, are threatening to wage war against the Pakistani army unless Sindhis win more power in elections scheduled for next month. Punjabis have long been overrepresented in the army, which is widely blamed here for Bhutto's death, despite the government's insistence that Islamic extremists were responsible.

Few believe the country is in imminent danger of fracturing again. But Bhutto's death has exacerbated ethnic tension in at least two ways: It has angered non-Punjabis because of her status as a member of a minority, and it has eliminated one of the few Pakistani politicians whose reputation transcended ethnicity.

"The army is unable to work in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province). Sindh is next," said Bashir Ahmal Haleemi, a trucker and longtime Karachi resident. "The people in Sindh hate the Punjabi establishment. Not the common man from Punjab, but the Punjabi factor in the army. Now the hatred is growing."

Tensions Between Muhajirs and Pashtuns in Karachi in the Early 2010s

Reporting from Karachi, Karin Brulliard wrote in the Washington Post: “A trash-strewn dusty street here became a front line in recent ethnic battles that killed 100 people in four days.Now, in the aftermath, residents speak of the street as though it is a chasm...On one side, the Muhajirs, long the dominant group in this economic hub, seethingly point to bullet-scarred and burned houses and demand a new province that would be theirs alone. On the other side, Pashtuns who migrated here in recent years after fleeing an Islamist insurgency in their native northwest also point to bullet holes, and some express worry that a sort of ethnic cleansing is to come. “Now they are asking for their own province,” Adnan Khan, a Pashtun whose brother was fatally shot by unknown assailants this month, said of the Muhajirs. “Next maybe they will ask for their own country.” [Source: Karin Brulliard, Washington Post, July 18, 2011]

“Karachi, Pakistan’s most diverse city, is once more spewing violence that goes unchecked by police and is stoked by thuggish politicians. While the fierce Taliban insurgency seeks to overthrow the government from mountain hideouts hundreds of miles away, the city’s battles are laying bare the deep ethnic, political and sectarian cleavages that pose an additional threat to this fragile federation — as well as an impediment to its unity against Islamist militancy.

“The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says 490 people were killed in Karachi in targeted ethnic or political killings in the first six months of” 2011. “This month’s violence erupted after the killing of an ANP activist. After fighting subsided, the MQM was accused of provoking ethnic tensions by spray-painting graffiti throughout the city calling for a separate Muhajir province — a charge that it denied. A provincial minister from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party accused Urdu speakers of trying to divide the province after having migrated to it “hungry and naked.” That sparked another daylong spiral of violence that left 15 people dead.

“It also prompted yet another shutdown of a city that provides 65 percent of the revenue to Pakistan’s tanking economy, worrying the shaky civilian government in Islamabad. According to Pakistani media reports, President Asif Ali Zardari, whose party is also accused of backing gangsters in its Karachi strongholds, apologized to the MQM on behalf of the provincial minister and pleaded for unity to combat what he called Pakistan’s “real enemy” — terrorism.

“Law enforcement authorities said the majority of the nearly 100 people killed in the second week of July were noncombatants who were targeted for their ethnicity or who were caught in the crossfire. Muhajirs in Qasba Colony said bullets rained down for days from the Pashtun-dominated hills, atop which a red ANP flag flies. A few blocks away, Pashtuns say bullets flew from the other direction, fired from MQM weapons. People on both sides acknowledged the existence of ethnic gangs but said they were formed for self-defense. Aisha Bibi, 45, said her son, a 22-year-old Urdu-speaking factory worker unconnected to political groups, was fatally shot when they braved gunfire to buy groceries. His death had eliminated the family’s only breadwinner, and replacing his income would be hard, she said.”

Why There Are Tensions Between Muhajirs and Pashtuns

Karin Brulliard wrote in the Washington Post: “Why are they fighting in Karachi? Because they have not become Pakistani yet. People have not become a nation,” said Syed Jalal Mahmood Shah, the Karachi-based leader of a small nationalist party that represents people native to surrounding Sindh province. Muhajirs, like Pashtuns, are themselves migrants to Karachi: They are Urdu-speaking Muslims who fled Hindu-majority India at partition. [Source: Karin Brulliard, Washington Post, July 18, 2011]

“ Shifting demographics are the root of the fighting in Karachi, where an influx of ethnic Pashtuns from the war-torn region along the Afghan border is challenging the Muhajirs’ long-standing grip on the city. The struggle is waged through assassinations, land-grabbing and extortion, and it is carried out by gangs widely described as armed wings of ethnically based political parties. The Urdu speakers, represented by the dominant Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, accuse the Pashtuns of sheltering terrorists in Karachi; the MQM’s main rival, the Awami National Party, or ANP, says the city’s 4 million Pashtuns are ignored politically.

“Karachi’s police force is too small and outgunned by the city’s gangs, said Sharfuddin Memon, an adviser to the provincial home minister, who oversees security. But Memon also said police are not “a totally independent force” — they, too, are aligned with political parties, partly out of fear.

“Outside her house, a group of Muhajir woman railed against Pashtuns, a word they used interchangeably with “terrorist” and “Taliban.” The only solution is complete segregation and the expulsion of Pashtuns back to the northwest, they said. “Sindhis have their own province. Punjabis have their own province. Pashtuns have their own province,” said Nusrat Siddiqui, 30. “Why not Muhajirs?”

“A short drive away, Mohammed Amin, who said he has lived in Karachi for nearly two decades, tended his tiny grocery in the Pashtun area. Muhajirs used to buy from him, but no longer. His son and nephew were wounded during this month’s battle, he said wearily, and the neighborhood’s water lines have been cut off for 20 days. “We are all poor people,” he said, gesturing toward the Muhajir areas. “But some miscreants kill people for their own vested interests.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (, Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.