When one goes through the annals of Indian history, there is often mention of a particular ethnic group of sailor merchants, or memons. Rich in entrepreneurs and aggressive, this community started branching out across the world as far back as the 1800’s when they established firms foot holds in Burma, Srilanka, Far east as well as north and south Africa.
However the history of memons goes back a lot further than that. As far back as the 14th century where it is said that a follower of Syed Abdul Qadir Jilani namely Syed Yusufuddin alias Yusuf Sindhi visited India and made converts of thousands of hindu families living in Kathiawar. These families or “momis” as Yusuf sindhi used to call them out of his affection at their exemplary Muslim habits later then came to be known to the world as memons. Today memons are about 4 million in number and are still distributed throughout the world, but most of them live in Karachi and come from different localities all situated around Junagadh. They are known to each other from the names of these localities, such as Bantva, Dhoraji, Vanthali, Halai, Okhai & Jetpur.
I come from just such a family of migrants who initially settled in a small town called Bantva near Junagadh in India. My father was born there and migrated to Pakistan when he was 9 years old. According to him Bantva was hardly a town back then but more of a village, The community that lived there was made up of mainly 80% sunni memons who were employed down to the last man in the factories and offices of 3 huge business concerns mainly the Adams, the Araqs and the Dada’s. Having no choice the men of that time would complete their education and be employed with any of these three firms signing almost slave like contracts of 40 months each, out of which they would stay out of town for more than 10 months. Failure to live up to the expectations of these “nagar seths” as they were called resulted in not just a termination of work but the inability to find any further work anywhere nearby. These seths ruled with absolute power all the way across India, in food grain, jute, commodities and textile trade. The dawood’s and the Ghani and Tyebs came much later, near partition. A small example of this is the fact that before partition Haji habib Ahmed later known as Seth Habib Araqwalla had more than 50 branches of food grain trading businesses all over India , and when Pakistan was formed the (newly rich) Dawoods owned Karmaphulli paper mills the largest pulp and paper project in all of South Asia.
My father migrated to Pakistan right after riots hit his small community. To this day he still blames Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, then the minister of India, who made inflammatory speeches at a public meeting in Junagadh against the Memon community of Bantva on November 13th 1947.. Specifically, he condemned their contributions to the press fund of the Muslim League when Quaid-e-Azam visited the town in 1940. It was at this time that Bantva was attacked and fearing loss of limb or life my father’s family had no choice but to flee.
They initially set off in a train to Mumbai on route to which he vividly describes several stops which were made out of schedule, for boarding looting and killing with only one discrimination, that of the victim being Muslim. Arriving in Bombay his family then boarded a steamer to set sail for Karachi, and a new land which to them was the only option left.
My great grand father had already established business links in Karachi by his partnership in M.M Jaffar and co with its presence in the city by the sea. They arrived and purchased a building, off the main road in the kharadar area of town from a Hindu now concerned only with getting a good price for what he owned as he was leaving for India. Ironically when the leaders of our countries divided India they did not give much heed to the fact that everyone would be displaced, not just the Muslims. Acquiring the 4 storied structure for 40,000 rs they settled in Karachi where they still remain to this day although having shifted out to different areas of the city.
During my years growing up in Karachi, I have personally witnessed many from my community grow in stature or diminish, according to the rise and fall of their business fortunes but one thing remains constant. We are essentially traders and businessmen, mostly quite literate and quite adept at risk taking and competition. Even today bantva in India has an average literacy rate of 69%, more than the national literacy rate of 59% of the rest of India. We are also and have been at silent war with the chinioti and the islamieli communities for control of the economic landscape of Karachi over the 62 years we have stayed here. Yes the three families that were in power in my fathers days are reduced in size by the hits they took in nationalization during the Bhutto years or the rampant departure of industry to Punjab over the years but they are still present. They have now been joined by many others who have made their own share of wealth in this city and employed it to their best advantage.
My fathers small village in India has provided Pakistan with names such as Hussain Kassem Dada, social worker and founder of Memon Education Board, Kasim Parekh – President/CEO of Habib Metropolitan Bank and governor of the State Bank of Pakistan from 1989 to 1990 and Abdul Sattar Edhi a name which needs no introduction in philanthropy or service to this land.
Even today we memons are taught the value of an honest living from birth, even today we fiddle with corporations and politics on occasion but still will respect only and only a businessman, self made and proud. We might have given up sailing but merchants we shall forever remain.
As published in The Friday times on 30 Oct 2009