Monday, May 10, 2010

The Muslim Businessmen of India

Bombay's Mid Day newspaper group was sold by the Ansari family this week. The Ansaris had owned it for 72 years, and they were the only Muslims to own a major English newspaper. Ansaris are converts from the Vankar caste of weavers. Many are from Uttar Pradesh, which they are thought to have fled after the 1857 mutiny. The British chopped off the thumbs, the story goes, of these rebellious weavers, and so making them useless in their profession. The Ansaris moved to Bhiwandi outside Bombay, making it one of the largest weaving centres of the world.

The Shia from Gujarat is a tiny community, perhaps no more than a half a million people, it totally dominates India's other 160 million Muslims in matters of business. So it isn't so much religion that makes a difference so far as the ability to trade is concerned, but the linguistic community an Indian belongs to, and his caste.

Wipro's Azim Premji, India's second richest man, is a Khoja. An electrical engineer from Stanford University, Premji is part of Bombay's Khoja elite, whose most famous member was of course Jinnah. The Premjis owned a vegetable oil business incorporated in 1945 which Azim Premji inherited at the age of 21, after his father died in 1966. He founded the software division of the company in Bangalore at the age of 35, and that made Wipro the force it is.

Azim Premji is quite a simple man. Tariq Ansari of Mid Day knows him. Tariq said to me once that he bumped into Premji at the jetty, and asked him how he would get from there to his house. "By autorickshaw of course," a puzzled Premji told him, "don't you know the service is very good?" Azim Premji flies economy class, and lives in three-star hotels. He is worth $17 billion (Rs1.4 lakh crore). This attitude is consistent with many very wealthy Gujarati families, Hindu and Muslim, who are interested in the creation of wealth and not particularly keen on showing it off.

From Aakar Patel's report in The News
To read the full report click here
The writer is a director with Hill Road Media in Bombay. Email: aakar

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