Almost emperor: The shopkeeper Hemu.
Almost emperor: The shopkeeper Hemu.

Caste can turn a boardroom into a classroom

Public sector boards can be accused of discrimination with a little less justification, because the IAS cadre already has reservations built into it

Any attempt to understand India without penetrating caste will hit a wall of data and crumple. The Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) has published a remarkable study on caste in our corporate boardrooms.

The authors, D. Ajit, Han Donker and Ravi Saxena, inspected the boards of India’s top 1,000 companies. These companies represent 80% of the total market capitalization of the National Stock Exchange (NSE) and Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) in 2010. The study includes public sector companies.

Having accessed the database of their directors’ names, the three writers classified them. They explain how they did this: “In India, the surname normally refers to the caste affiliation. Based on the surnames, we classified the corporate board members into a) forward caste (Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas), b) Other Backward Classes (OBCs), c) Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe, and d) others (foreign directors). In cases where the corporate board members’ names were caste-neutral (example, K. Ramakrishnan), we had to rely on our social networks to identify the caste category. Such an endeavour was not difficult as these board members occupy an important place in the economic and social fabric of Indian society. Such cases refer to approximately 15% of the board directors of 1,000 companies."

The authors are being modest. I know how difficult this would have been to do. Most Indians cannot place a last name unless it is from their own state and even then many cannot. Few Indians will know that Gautam Adani is Jain Baniya.

Secondly, names can be misleading in India and someone with the last name Modi could be Vaishya (Lalit Modi) or OBC (Narendra Modi). Parmar could be Kshatriya or Dalit. Singh could mean anything from Khatri to Jat to Rajput to Dalit. Rajput itself could mean forward in one state and backward in another (Gujarat).

It would be nice if the authors were to open up their raw data for interested outsiders to have a look.

Anyway, the findings of the writers are that over 90% of the boards are made of two castes, 46.6% Vaishya and 44% Brahmin. To this the authors add another 2% from Kshatriyas and the “forward castes (like Syrian Christians)". I’m assuming this includes Muslim converts from upper castes like Memons, Khojas, Bohras and wealthy communities that are casteless, like Parsis.

photoThat leaves 7.4% for all other castes, which are over 90% of

India’s population.

Out of 9,052 board directors, 8,204 are Vaishya or Brahmin.

What explains this sort of dominance? The authors think it is discrimination. “It is difficult to fathom the argument that merit is the cause of under-representation," they say.

My view has long been that these are our only two capable castes. It is largely from merit that they dominate. However, there is discrimination of a sort. For instance, the core of the private sector company’s board is composed of family, which picks one another. But the question that then arises is: Why are these Vaishya families on the boards? The answer is that they are the ones who create wealth.

Public sector boards can be accused of discrimination with a little less justification, because the IAS cadre already has reservations built into it. My guess is that a large proportion of the 7.4% lower-caste directors are in the public sector.

Setting aside family directors, the total dominance of Vaishyas and Brahmins must come from the independent directors and non-family board members. Here the strongest case for discrimination can be made.

This is where another argument may be introduced. There is a different way of looking at merit, and that is through the culture. I have written about this often before in Lounge.

The attributes that we pick up through culture to a large extent define our behaviour, because Indians are low on individualism. Caste is the finest predictor of which Indians become billionaires, become nurses, do honour killing, do female infanticide and participate in communal violence. Because of this, Indians see merit in caste. The Vaishya and the Brahmin see shared values in others of their type that they do not see in other castes.

Other castes also see the values in these two communities and Vaishyas and Brahmins have always dominated decision making in India. Shivaji’s Council of Eight (Ashta Pradhan) contained seven Brahmins. Only the senapati was Maratha. Was Shivaji driven by discrimination? I would say no.

The brilliant warrior-administrators, the Chitpavan Brahmin Peshwas, were only 20 (Bajirao), 19 (Balajirao) and 17 (Madhavrao) when they were put in charge by Shivaji’s heirs. Their primary qualification was their caste.

There is something about the values and culture they were raised in that made them successful. Another example: Starting with absolutely nothing, the shopkeeper Hemu may have founded a Great Baniya dynasty instead of the Great Mughal dynasty, had he not been accidentally struck by an arrow at Panipat in 1556.

The Mughals took all the wrong lessons from Vaishya values.

Aurangzeb’s sons Azam and Muazzam fought after the emperor’s death. Azam crowned himself and went off to attack Muazzam, who was older by 10 years, but the Mughals did not recognize primogeniture. The court writer Iradat Khan said Azam was quite macho. He would roll his eyes about angrily and, standing up, pull up his sleeves when messengers read letters from rivals.

Muazzam was the opposite, cautious, unemotional and pragmatic his whole life. Azam’s nickname for Muazzam was “Baniya".

Battle was joined between the two armies. The macho man, when told that the enemy was in sight, pulled up his sleeves and flourished a stick (which was all that was needed to chastise the “Baniya"). Muazzam came prepared and coolly crushed his brother, and the Baniya won over the warrior.

The EPW findings make a strong case for reservation in boardrooms, and I am in favour of this. Those directors from outside will learn something about negotiation, compromise and, above all, sobriety that is the cultural inheritance of Vaishyas and Brahmins.

Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.

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