A history of the Agarwals

Aakar Patel on why the Agarwals are among the most interesting castes of India


Arvind Kejriwal used the BJP’s own argument against it. Photo: Kamal Kishore/PTI
Arvind Kejriwal used the BJP’s own argument against it. Photo: Kamal Kishore/PTI

Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal took the front pages again this week when he attacked an advertisement that targeted his community. The Times Of India reported the offending line, published in a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) poster:

Desh ke karodon log gantantra divas ko rashtriya parv mante hain, us par garv karte hain (Crores of people consider Republic Day a national festival and feel proud about it). Aur apka upadravi gotra isme bhi vyavdhan dalne ko taiyar tha (And your troublemaking community was ready to disrupt this too).”

Kejriwal referred to the words “upadravi gotra” as being “gaali galoch politics”, adding that the BJP had “no manifesto, no plan for Delhi, all they can say is Kejriwal is a Naxalite, Kejriwal bandar hai, haramzaada hai, toxic hai, they abuse my community. First they targeted my kids, today they have targeted the entire Agarwal gotra. Fight with me, why target my community? The Agarwal samaj is the backbone of this country’s economy, they are law-abiding citizens, how can you call them upadravi? BJP should apologize to Agarwal Samaj for that advertisement.”

Actually, the fact is that Agarwal is not Kejriwal’s gotra (or anyone else’s gotra for that matter). Kejriwal’s gotra is Bansal. Agarwal is part of the larger community of Banias. To me, it is among the most interesting castes of India and one that I have long studied and admired.

In his autobiography Brushes With History, K.K. Birla writes that “among the business community of North India there are three main groups—Agarwals, Oswals (who are Jains) and Maheshwaris. The Agarwals and Oswals are large groups; the Maheshwaris are much smaller in number but well knit.”

The Agarwal community is split into 18 (according to some, 17 and a half) gotras. These include Bansal, Goel, Garg, Jindal, Kansal, Mittal, Singhal and other surnames that most Indians will be familiar with because they are such a phenomenally successful community. And so if the BJP meant to attack Kejriwal’s gotra, meaning family lineage, they were going after Bansals, not Agarwals.

This is also not so clever, because the Bansals are brutally good at business and hardly troublemakers, as we shall see later. Most of what I know about the Agarwals outside of personal experience comes from Bhartendu Harishchandra’s Agarwalon Ki Utpatti (Origin Of Agarwals) and the People Of India series published by the Anthropological Survey of India. The Agarwals are the only community to feature in the volumes on at least five states, showing how widespread their presence is.

The work on Uttar Pradesh (Volume 42, Part 1) says the Agarwals are “the highest and most important sub-division of Banias”. One branch of the community migrated to Rajasthan and are known as Marwaris. The other moved east and spread to Uttar Pradesh , Bihar and elsewhere. The written script of Agarwals, according to this volume, “is Perso-Arabic”. I was taken aback to read this and assumed it was because of fieldwork done in the early 20th century. However, I noticed some modern references later, meaning this is probably an error.

The book says their name is probably derived from the aromatic wood of the Agar (agallochum, from which incense is made), which they dealt in. Another theory is that the name Agarwal may have been derived from Agroha, an ancient town in Haryana’s Hisar district. The Agarwals claim descent from the 18 sons of a Scythian king called Agra Sen, who may also have been the origin of the name.

The Anthropological Survey of India’s Volume 16, Part 1 (on Bihar) says the Agarwals “are placed lower than the Brahmans, the Kayasths and the Vaishyas”. I find this incredible. It adds that “the bulk of the Agarwals belong to the Vaishnava sect of Hinduism”, though “a large number follows the tenets of the Digambar sect of Jains”. It ends with the line that the Agarwals are “one of the most respectable and enterprising mercantile communities of the country”.

The Rajasthan volume (Volume 38, Part 1) says the Jain Agarwals were converted under a man named Lohacharya and that Agarwals “use Devnagari script for writing”. This volume claims that the “major section profess Jainism” which again I find hard to accept, unless it is true only for Rajasthan’s Agarwals.

Volume 23, which is on Haryana, conflates the Bania caste and the Agarwal community, claiming that “Banias are also called Agarwals and Gupta”. It spells the king’s name as Ugar Sain and says he had 17 sons. This volume says that a few Agarwals also follow Sikhism, something that I have personally not encountered.

In his book, which I referred to above, Birla writes that the Maheshwaris were descended from Kshatriyas who “decided to turn Vaishya”. This claim of martial ancestry is a common thread that runs through mercantile communities, including the Khatri/Kshatriya of Punjab and the Lohana of Gujarat and Sindh. Sorry, but I also find this to be bogus. It probably comes out of the fact that Banias operate in a part of the world (north India) where silly honour is valued much more than pragmatism. And so they were forced to concoct Kshatriya ancestry for respectability, just as the great warrior Shivaji was in Maharashtra.

Kejriwal’s Bansal gotra has produced some of the best business minds of this country, including young men in their 20s and 30s who without family money founded the firms Flipkart, Snapdeal and Myntra. The Economic Times reported that in 2012, “for every 100 in funding for e-commerce companies, 40 went to firms founded by an Agarwal”.

And so Kejriwal was only mildly exaggerating when he said that Agarwals are the backbone of India’s economy (I would say that Gujaratis and Hindi-speaking Banias are the backbone).

I doubt the BJP meant gotra in the sense that Kejriwal, our second most talented politician after Narendra Modi, tells us. But he is clever enough to have used a silly error to full advantage to try and fire up his proud and accomplished community. I have learnt most of what I know about the newspaper business at the knee of Agarwals. They are a superb asset to this country and, as I have said, one of my favourite communities.

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