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What makes business communities special?

The brave business communities went around the world in pursuit of ambition while the rest of us remained in our caste ghettos
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First Published: Sat, Jul 13 2013. 12 19 AM IST
Mumbai’s Zaveri Bazaar is run largely by Gujarati traders. Photo: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg
Mumbai’s Zaveri Bazaar is run largely by Gujarati traders. Photo: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg
How did the Marwaris come to Calcutta?
Krishna Kumar Birla, in his autobiography Brushes With History, gives the story: “The business community was confined to Rajasthan till the sixteenth century. As Akbar’s Commander-in-Chief Man Singh, raja of Amber, conquered and subjugated distant areas of the country, the business community went with him to regions outside its homeland. In course of time it spread throughout the country.”
I had not realized this before reading Birla’s book. Man Singh was from Shekhawati, the same area the Birlas were from, and was appointed governor of Bengal in 1594, staying for a dozen years. This means the Marwaris (our slang for all Rajasthani Baniyas, whether Mewari, Marwari or Shekhawati) have been in Bengal for 400 years.
Birla says the three main trading communities of north India are Agarwals, Oswals and Maheshwaris. The Maheshwaris, of which the Birlas are a part, are the smallest group.
Oswals are Jains, and Murshidabad’s infamous Jagat Sheth, who financed and probably masterminded Clive’s conquest of Bengal in 1757, was an Oswal.
Birla says 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. The slim book Agrawalon ki Utpatti (Origins of Agrawals) says that these Baniyas descended from the Kshatriya ancestry of Raja Agrasen. Whatever their origin, Marwaris fitted nicely into the fabric of Calcutta, because Bengalis don’t have mercantile castes.
How did the Gujaratis come to Bombay?
B.R. Ambedkar wrote about this in his lovely 1948 essay, Maharashtra As a Linguistic Province. It was written in response to a resolution passed by the Indian Merchants Chamber demanding that Bombay be made an independent state, rather than a part of a future Maharashtra. Ambedkar noted of the IMC meeting that “with the exception of one Indian-Christian it was only attended by only Gujarati-speaking merchants and industrialists” (this should give pause to those who think Gujarati industrialists are right when they collectively endorse something or someone).
Anyway, Ambedkar then tears into the Gujarati claim on Bombay by showing how they came to dominate the city in the first place. The fact is that the British imported Baniyas from Surat so that the new port of Bombay could take off (since Marathis don’t have mercantile castes either). The Gujaratis made demands of the British before they would agree, of which Ambedkar lists 10. They include:
u “Land in South Bombay free of rent to build a house or warehouse” (now you know why Gujjus are all over Malabar Hill, Colaba and Nepean Sea Road).
u “That no Englishman, Portuguese, or other Christian nor Muhammadan shall be permitted to live within their compound or offer to kill any living creature there.”
u “That in case there falls out any difference or suit in law between him or his vakil or attorneys or the Banias of his caste, and any other persons remaining on the island, the Governor or Deputy Governor shall not suffer him or them to be publicly arrested dishonoured or carried to prison, without first giving him due notice of the cause…”
u “That in case of war or any other danger which may succeed, he shall have a warehouse in the castle (today’s Fort area) to secure his goods, treasure, and family.”
u The right to carry an umbrella (presumably this added respect to the Baniya’s aura).
The Parsis of Surat demanded free land for their Tower of Silence, which they also got from Gerald Aungier, Bombay’s second governor, in 1672. So this is why the Gujaratis dominate south Bombay, and their merit is only one aspect of it. Ambedkar’s essay put paid to any hope the shameless Gujarati merchants had of controlling Bombay.
How did the Memons come to South Africa? We know that while he was only 23, Mahatma Gandhi was trusted with their disputes by Gujarati Muslims in Natal, but what were they doing there? In his book The Memons, Mihir Bose recounts the following story: “An Indian trader in Mauritius, Sheth Abubakar Amad, thought of opening a shop in Natal. The English in Natal had then no idea of what Indian traders were capable of.” Soon they found out. Then “the story of his prosperity reached Porbandar, his native place. Other Memons consequently reached Natal. Bohras from Surat followed them. These traders needed accountants and Hindu accountants from Gujarat accompanied them.”
The reason that Pakistan has an economy at all is not because of its Punjabis, whose merchant castes were Hindu and Sikh and all left, but its Gujaratis in Karachi, Memons, Khojas and Bohras.
What makes our business communities special and different from the rest of us? One is of course that they are brave and went around the world in pursuit of ambition while the rest of us remained in our caste ghettos.
In his book India’s New Capitalists: Caste, Business And Industry in a Modern Nation-State, Harish Damodaran writes: “The common thread through all these communities—Hindu, Parsi, or Muslim—is their rigid rules of marriage and commensality and conservative social values...”
Commensality is a relationship where one side benefits and the other neither benefits nor loses. An example is the lending of capital by Baniyas to one another at almost no interest.
It is quite different from the idea we have of the “kanjoos Marwari”.
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First Published: Sat, Jul 13 2013. 12 19 AM IST
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