The Hindu-rooted caste system is very much in evidence 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. In the Punjab the caste system is most evident in the 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.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: There is no caste system in Pakistan. There are high-income, middle-income and a large number of low-income persons throughout the country. Locale makes an important difference in the quality of life; a low-income person in an urban area has more problems than one living in a tribal, mountainous area.

Muslim Society and the Caste System

Even though Islam is regarded as egalitarian and Islam forbids hereditary distinction based on social rank, hierarchies exits. The traditional South Asian Muslim system of social rank distinguishes between nobles ( ashraf) and lower ranks ( ajlaf or atraf, some of which are based on occupations). The four-part varna categories of the Hindu caste system has Muslim equivalents. The highest category includes four caste of Near Eastern origin: Sayyid (descendants of the Prophet), Sheiks, Moguls (descendants of the Mogul rulers) and Pathan.

Below them are “Ashraf” (of foreign origin). These include the Muslim Rajputs, who do not marry above or below their caste. The third group is made up of members of lower-ranking castes. At the bottom are Muslim sweepers, who are the equivalent of Hindu untouchables and are believed to be descendants of untouchables. Some traditionally Hindu castes are occupied exclusively by Muslims. Muslims have traditionally been weavers, tailors and butchers.

In many Muslim communities, most of the residents are farmers and caste-like distinctions are not strong. When stratification occurs it based more on wealth than anything else. The social system as a whole is more fluid and provides more opportunities for social mobility. Rather than having caste councils, Muslims have traditional councils called smaj that fill a similar function. They are composed of village elders. Unlike Hinduism ,where only some men can become priests by their birthright, any Muslim can be a iman if he undergoes the training, religious study and requires knowledge of Arabic and the Quran.

Muslims have traditionally worked as butchers because Hindus and Buddhists consider butchering as dirty, distasteful and cosmically and religiously uncool. Many Muslim butchers are forced to lie about their profession if they want to get their children into a good school. If the lie is found out the kid risks getting kicked out of school.

Caste Groups in Pakistan

Many Punjabis and Sindhis are descendant of Rajputs and Jats. 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 *]

Punjabi Castes

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.

Most Punjabis trace their ancestry to pre-Islamic Jat and Rajput castes. However, as they intermarried with other ethnic groups who came to the area, certain qaums (clan or tribal groups) came to predominate, especially Gujjars, Awans, Arains, and Khokkars in northern Punjab, and Gilanis, Gardezis, Qureshis, and Abbasis in the south. Other Punjabis trace their heritage to Arabia, Persia, Balochistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir. Thus, in contrast with many other areas, where people often remained isolated, Punjabis had very diverse origins. The extent of this diversity facilitated their coalescence into a coherent ethnic community that has historically placed great emphasis both on farming and on fighting. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In censuses taken in British India, Punjabis were typically divided into "functional castes" or "agricultural tribes." The word caste, however, is grounded in the Hindu notions of reincarnation and karma; Muslims totally reject these religious connotations and use the term qaum instead. Tribal affiliation, based on descent and occupational specialization, tends to merge in Punjab into a qaum identity. An occupational group typically claims descent from a single ancestor, and many tribes traditionally followed a single occupation. The traditional occupation gives the group its name as well as its general position in the social hierarchy. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]


For a long time the main power brokers in much of Pakistan were the “zamindars” (large landowners). Zamidars are a Muslim Rajput caste of horsemen and soldiers that developed into a powerful group of landowners and presided over a feudal tax collection system known as zamindari. They acquired land in various ways and but more crucially obtained state recognition to collect taxes and transmit them to more powerful leaders, including the British, and jacked up their authority with fortresses and militias. “Zamindar” comes from the Persian word for “landowner.”

Zamidars had a reputation for wasting their money, exploiting peasant farmers but also being friendly and generous. Up until the mid 20th century villagers had to prostrate themselves whenever the came in the presence of a zamindar. The zamindars described they system as benign and paternalistic. Some say they viewed themselves as parents looking after the welfare of their workers as if they were children, paying for weddings, provided medical care and giving them places to live. Zamidars are generally devout Muslims. They view themselves as Muslims rather than members of a caste.

Land was passed down generally from father to son and could not be sold without the agreement of other family members. The zamindar go through great lengths to prevent their land from falling into the hands of outsiders. Women are generally excluded from owning land and making decisions on land. Marriage is viewed as a way to form bonds between newly-bonded families or strengthen existing bonds. Age and skin complexion are taken into consideration when choosing a marriage partner.

The power of the Zamindars has been greatly reduced by democracy and the subdivision of land among relatives. Land reforms enacted in India in 1951 stripped the Zamindars of some of their holdings but they remain powerful politically and economically. The Zamindars have also seen their power reduced by laws that limited the amount of land that people could own. Zamidar landowners have tried to get around these laws by placing land holdings in the names of other family members.

22 Families

The political and social elite of the country in the 1960s and 70s was referred to as the "22 families" or "feudals." These people were the aristocratic landowners of Pakistan, some of them owning hundreds of thousands of acres of land. They been able to avoid land reform and many of the county's politicians have come from the class including Benazir Bhutto. During the Ayub Khan period of the 1960s the 22 Families were at the peak of their power. In 1968, it was estimated that 20 families controlled 80 percent of Pakistan’s assets, 80 percent of the banking, 70 percent of the insurance, and 66 percent of the industry.

In 1968 Dr Mahbubul Haq alleged that 22 industrial family groups had come to control a majority of industrial, banking and insurance sectors in the country. He argued that the concentration of wealth was a by-product of the government policies and the primitive capitalist system in Pakistan. The slogan 22 families, he said, was taken too literally and they were not the cause, but symptom of the system that created them.

Dilawar Hussain wrote in Dawn: Dr Mahbubul Haq “first sifted the few rich and mighty families from teeming millions in Pakistan. On April 21, 1968, Dr Haq, the then Chief Economist of the Planning Commission, identified Pakistan’s 22 richest families that, according to his calculations, controlled 66 per cent of the industries and owned 87 per cent share in the country’s banking and insurance industry. Dr Haq placed Adamjees on the third slot after the Dawood and Saigols. Among the other rich and mighty, he identified the following financial groups: Colony, Fancy, Valika, Jalil, Bawany, Crescent, Wazir Ali, Gandhara, Ispahani, Habib, Khyber, Nishat, Beco, Gul Ahmed, Arag, Hafiz, Karim, Milwala and Dada — the last holding total assets of Rs 90 million. And the big families went into big businesses in which they could summon the greatest expertise. Habibs laid the foundations of Pakistan’s first and the largest bank — Habib Bank Limited — and Adamjees set up the Muslim Commercial Bank. [Source: Dilawar Hussain, Dawn, December 9, 2007]

“The 22 rich and the mighty had flourished during the Ayubian era, only to be swept away by the wave of nationalizations that followed comrade Z A Bhutto’s coming into power. A veteran industrialist recalls that in the six years of his iron-fisted rule, Z.A. Bhutto pulled into the nationalization fold as many as 31 key industries; 13 banks; 12 insurance companies; 10 shipping companies and two petroleum companies. Out of those, at least two dozen industries and almost all the banks and insurance companies belonged to the 22 families.

Some of those 22 have a record of surviving winds and storms that lashed across the country’s financial field. Those who were unable to withstand the onslaught vanished into thin air. Fancy, Valika, Ispahani, Beco, Arag, Milwala, Khyber and Hyesons groups are alive only in the books of history. A friend often refers to the Chinese proverb that says: “Great fortunes do not see third generation.” The reason being that the grandfather works all his life to build the financial empire; his sons inherit and being brothers somehow manage to keep up the tie; but the third generation is that of cousins, with little love for the other. Thus a feud follows, resulting into disintegration and eventual collapse of many big businesses.

Old timers recall that some of the 22 families were unable to escape the natural divisions and disintegration, which follows one generation after another and thus faded into history. The ravages of time now see grandsons and granddaughters of those who once frequented the then Karachi’s only five-star hotel ‘Columbus’ and drive around in Chevrolets, toil quietly at nine to five jobs in the US and Canada. But if nature abhors vacuum, it is nowhere more true than in case of Pakistan’s business, economic and financial world. As most of the old guards of communities (Khojas, Memons and Bohras) who had sown the seeds of business and finance in Pakistan, packed up what was left of their wealth and migrated mainly to the US and Canada, the top slots were quickly filled up by others who by the time had amassed the billions.No one is really sure of who owns the greatest amount of wealth in the country for it is in no way verifiable. The reason being that most conglomerates are into everything: industries; real estate; shipping and mainly trading. Since assets of only publicly-listed companies are exposed to the public eye, the entire amount of wealth of a conglomerate would be almost impossible to count.

But efforts have been made to identify groups that could today be placed among the richest. The last list (unofficial) was drawn of 40 families who command the greatest wealth in the country. Some of the known groups included: The Nishat ; Hashoo; Packages; House of Habib; The Saif; Crescent; The Monnoo; Dewan; Lakson; Sapphire; Dawood ; Best Way; Yunus Brothers; Gul Ahmad/Al-Karam Group; Bawany Group; The Servis; The Tata Family; Alam Group; The Guard Group; The Ejaz Group; Tabani Family; Tapal Group; Atlas Group; The Seth Abid Group; Sheikhani Family; Dadabhoy Group; Adamjee Group; Din Group; The Adil Group; Chenab Group; Sitara Group; The Colony Group; Arif Habib and Kassim Dada.

“It is easy to check out a few common names in the list of country’s richest in 1968 and now. But the above list is by no means complete. A knowledgeable old man in the industry says: “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.” Invisible to the public view are the assets of feudals; owners of privately held industries in such lucrative sectors as fertilisers, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and others. And the two sectors that have inarguably prospered the most in last six years: The stock broking and real estate. Mr Shaukat Aziz and Mr Khursheed Mahmood Kasuri, who a little while ago had to vacate their seats of the Prime Minister and foreign minister, respectively, may be the two richest parliamentarians according to the data with the Election Commission of Pakistan, but all that the poor souls possess is on average Rs400 million! That alas is petty cash.”

Pakistan's Modern Feudal System

John Lancaster wrote in the Washington Post: “Some development experts say” that Pakistan’s modern feudal system “is as exploitive as it is paternalistic, trapping many sharecroppers — who borrow from landlords to pay for seed and fertilizer — in a form of indentured servitude. In a 2003 report, the World Bank cited land inequality as a primary cause of rural poverty in Pakistan, with 44 percent of the country's farmland controlled by just 2 percent of rural households. Some estimates put the number of major landed families at just 5,000. [Source: John Lancaster, Washington Post, April 8, 2003]

“Rooted in tribal loyalties and tradition, the feudal system in Sindh and other parts of the land now known as Pakistan reached full flower in the 19th century, when British colonial officials conferred judicial and administrative powers on prominent Muslim landlords. Since the birth of Pakistan in 1947, successive military and civilian governments have tried with little success to redress the land imbalance. As a result, in some rural areas, feudal lords — known as waderas, sardars or khans, depending on their place in the tribal and landholding hierarchy — continue to wield more power than civil authorities. A few even run their own jails.

“With a natural constituent base among tribal followers and tenants, the feudal landlords moved easily into politics after independence, dominating provincial and national assemblies while building alliances with the all-powerful military. Although their grip on political life has loosened in recent years, they remain a potent force in Pakistan's newly reconstituted parliament; last month, Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, who is from a feudal family in Balochistan province, announced that there would be no land reform on his watch.

“By all accounts, the feudal landlords no longer wield the kind of clout they did in the 19th century, or even 40 years ago. The transfer of land from one generation to the next has diluted family holdings. The rise of a new class of industrialists and commercial real estate barons has encroached on feudal economic power. The military, meanwhile, has acquired its own vast landholdings, according to Aasim Sajjad, a Yale-educated economist and land-reform advocate in Islamabad.

“Perhaps most important are the modernizing forces of education and mass media. Villagers who once voted for the local land baron because they were told to do so now expect things like schools, roads and health clinics in return. "It's just a myth that the because of the landholding you always win," said Jatoi, the son of a former prime minister, who was disqualified from running in the last national elections because of a new rule that candidates must hold four-year college degrees (he never graduated). "It's based on performance." To adapt to a changing world, the feudal class has sought to diversify, investing in businesses such as textile mills and preparing its offspring for professional careers by sending them abroad to study.”

Pakistan's Modern Feudal Lords

John Lancaster wrote in the Washington Post: “Ghulam Murtaza Jatoi steered his four-wheel-drive Toyota down a rutted dirt track and stopped a few feet from the edge of the mighty Indus River. Behind him stretched thousands of acres of family land. In front of him, on the river's opposite shore, stretched . . . thousands of acres of family land. He honked his horn and a fisherman came running. A few minutes later, the Toyota was balanced precariously on planks laid across the thwarts of a rickety wooden boat. As Jatoi sat regally in the driver's seat, the fisherman sculled him to the other side. The feudal lord then resumed his property tour. [Source: John Lancaster, Washington Post, April 8, 2003]

Jatoi, 43, is a proud member of Pakistan's feudal class, a diminished but not yet dying breed that still wields strong influence over the society and politics of” Pakistan. “ A former provincial and national legislator, Jatoi remains the undisputed political boss in this rural part of Sindh province, where his family owns 30,000 acres of prime agricultural land. From his manicured, well-guarded compound here, Jatoi oversees the cultivation of crops, adjudicates civil and criminal cases and generally serves as patron to thousands of villagers, many of whom work on Jatoi lands as sharecroppers in a pattern that has persisted for more than two centuries.

“His is a life both modern and medieval. A burly, plain-spoken man with a dry wit, Jatoi summers in London and the English countryside, shoots wild boar in the woods around his hunting lodge and tools around family lands with a Heckler and Koch MP5submachine gun at his side. "Traditions are still there which have not died down," he said, adding of the people in the area, "They respect us. It's very kind of them."

Tashfin Baloch is another member of the feudal elite. He “is the scion of a prominent feudal family who studied political science at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, interned at the World Health Organization in Geneva and lived for a time in Australia. Along the way, he acquired a taste for rap and hip hop, a shaved head and a dream to one day open a nightclub in Spain . "I'm looked at like I'm a freak of nature," Baloch, 27, said over lunch recently at the Serena Hotel in Islamabad. "People can't believe I'm my father's son."But old habits die hard. Despite his evident thirst for things Western, Baloch has come back to Pakistan, at least for now, to help manage his father's business interests. "The standard of living here you can't get anywhere else in the world," explained Baloch, who calls the feudal system "very enticing," at least for those who run it. "All the servants in my house came from my aunt's village, and their grandfathers worked for my family," he said.

Property of Modern Feudal Family

New Jatoi, a farming village about 200 kilometers northeast of Karachi, is named after the Jatoi family who have run the town and the around it since 1740, according to Jatoi. John Lancaster wrote in the Washington Post: “The Jatois initially drew their authority from provincial tribal rulers. In return for 120,000 acres of prime farmland, the family enforced the law and collected taxes over an area of roughly 200 square miles — a writ that was extended and strengthened under British rule. Since independence, the family's holdings have shrunk by three-fourths — a land reform initiative in 1958 took 45,000 acres — but its influence remains strong. It commands the allegiance of 400 to 500 lesser landlords as well as 1,200 armed "loyalists," according to Jatoi, whose status as eldest son entitles him to the exalted status of khan. Perhaps more important, the family runs its own political party and is represented in both the national and provincial legislatures. "Basically, we are born rulers in one way or another, so to retain power, this is the only way," said Jatoi, who spent two years at San Jacinto College in Texas and has a brother in the upper house of Parliament. . "I think we have had a positive role in rural society. We have got the roads made, the schools made, the hospitals made." [Source: John Lancaster, Washington Post, April 8, 2003]

“A day and a half in his company provided ample evidence that the trappings of feudalism remain very much intact. With a home in Karachi, where his wife and four children live, Jatoi spends alternate weeks at Jatoi House, a gracious, single-story brick home that his forebears built next to the family mosque in 1931. Touring the family lands, Jatoi stopped first at the home of an uncle, a big-game hunter who keeps his property stocked with deer, peacocks and crocodiles. Next door, another uncle is building a 20,000-square-foot mansion surrounded by a massive turreted wall intended as protection against dacoits, as bandits are known .

“After crossing the Indus, Jatoi piloted his Toyota through fields of bananas and wheat before arriving at dusk at his hunting lodge, where servants had prepared a lavish meal. Sitting on his terrace that night, Jatoi acknowledged, a touch wistfully, that the life he has known is probably unsustainable for the long term. His personal holdings are down to 2,000 acres, and — despite the prime minister's recent pledge — fear of land reform keeps him from buying more. "Probably my sons will have 500 acres," he said. "I think about what privilege I have had, the influence I have had with the people. Maybe my sons will not have that."”

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

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