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Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Muslim Billionaire in India
Not all Muslims wear their religion on their sleeves, why should they? Not all Hindus, Christians, Jews or others wear it either. The below posted article on Azim Premji in the Wall Street Journal is getting quite a lot of reviews. I have included notes from my friends on the subject followed my own commentary.
Premji should be applauded for keeping religion out of his office. As a Muslim he has not Muslimized his office nor does he hire people based on religion. He is a true role model for India for years to come. Much of the conflict can go away, if all Indians follow that model.
Indeed, Premji is a shining example of keeping business as business and keeping the faith where it belongs; home and your heart. I hope this model of his becomes a norm in India or elsewhere. On the other hand, as a pluralist, I do not have any problem if people practice their faith every day.
My Brother in Bangalore has both the picture of Krishna and the Name of Allah hanging on the wall in his real estate office. As he share is his office with his Hindu friend. If you are new and visit my office or home your head will spin… trying to figure out my religion. Religion is personal, it makes one a better human and create better relations if it is understood in the spirit which it was issued.
In any given office, let's say there are people from all faiths and are working together. There will be coffee breaks, lunch hour and bath room visits. When people take lunch break they may go to a restaurant together and order different foods, from pure vegetarian to Kosher, Halal, Beef or pork to whatever. We can do the cry baby – you are not sensitive about me, you know I don’t eat (meat, pork or beef) and you have this dead animal sitting in my face on your plate, or we can get angry that the others did not give a hoot about my sentiments. All of them can go back to the office with a sour face.
Better yet, no one should abstain from eating certain food out of respect for the other, as the other would be insisting, please eat what you enjoy. I respect you for who you are and not what is in your plate. We can also add “Hey, I am so happy that you got what you want to eat, enjoy it my friend. Perhaps, all of them will enjoy their food and go back to office without a good mood.
It is not, wearing or not wearing of religion that matters; it is our attitude towards inclusion that really matters, as it uplifts every one in the office.
No one does business with the other for their religion. It should be for who they are and not what they wear on them.
Many thanks for your mail. I too was puzzled by Versey's piece, which
I see as a case of overreading. I appreciate many of her writings and
Versey is by no means a religious or political conservative but her
argument here sounds suspiciously conservative. Indirectly she seems
to be saying that the only authentic Muslim is one with a beard or in
Versey thus seems to miss one fundamental point : just because Premji
does not proclaim his faith in obvious ways does not make him less of
a Muslim or less of a good Muslim. There are many Muslims like this in
India, whose Indian Muslim identity is not defined exclusively by
Muslim personal law, who do not agonize whether wearing a wristwatch
or taking out a life-insurance policy is consistent with fiqh, or who
insist that they don't need to pay taxes because they already pay
My hunch is that the possibility of Premji becoming a role model for
Muslims makes the mullas, self-proclaimed leaders like Syed
Shahabuddin and Bukhari, and our politicians nervous. (As someone
informed me backchannel, in the opinion of Rafiq Zakaria, Kalam is not
a real Muslim). Who will keep them in business? Sania provokes the
same anxiety which is why the fatwas started pouring out when she made
news for her sporting achievement...
Muslims who fit the Premji paradigm (in terms of not wearing their
faith on their sleeve) often don't speak up because of the possibility
of censure and ostracism in local community structures, and because
they are not recognized as Muslims in the same way that rabble-rousers
and so-called community leaders are. Our media too have not quite
given these Muslims the voice they deserve. So, yes, three cheers for
all the Premjis and budding Premjis.
Rohit / Boston
The article appeared in Counterpunch.org, a controversial outlet to say the least.
While I agree with many of your points, I think perhaps Versey is taking the WSJ article in a different context. I found it interesting that she first made it a point to say that India "is not Hindu," something which made me read her piece from a different vantage than I normally would. She also spent a significant portion of the article pointing out that Muslims are clustered into ghettos, and also took the time to mention that she herself was born an Indian and felt no supranational loyalty that superceded that to her country of birth (strange point to make, all things considered).
Perhaps her gripe was more that taking note of a Muslim Indian's religious affiliation somehow suggests that Muslims everywhere should be shown they can still be Muslim and succeed in India, when what she really wanted was to dismiss Muslim identity as a factor altogether. I've noticed this trend among many Muslim-Indian nationalists, some of whom find it insulting that people allegedly pay special attention to their religious affiliation when what they desire more than religious tolerance is unconditional acceptance as Indians first and Muslims second (if at all).
It doesn't look like Versey would even broach the topic of Hindu tolerance, but would rather focus on Indian unity. Why else would she take the trouble to venture a bit off-topic and say India was not Hindu (not to mention throw in her own personal experiences in a piece meant to be a rebuttal to someone else's article)?
Just a thought.
Thanks for sending this. Where did it appear?
The spirited nature of the piece apart, I think Versey has missed the point of the piece - spectacularly. While she sees the article as patronizing to India and to Mr Premji, I see it as a great example of disabusing readers who aren't familiar with India or with Islam, that just-because-India-is-a-Hindu-majority-it-doesn't-mean-a-Muslim-can't-succeed; and that A-Muslim-tycoon-doesn't-have-to-be-an-oil-sheikh.
These are important markers, worth reminding in these interesting times. And Mr Premji's ascent is as remarkable as Stan O'Neal heads Merrill Lynch or Rick Parsons heads Time, Inc. Yes, a headline saying a black heads an icon in white corporate America would not sound outrageous; it would draw attention for all the right reasons - it would show the meritocratic nature of corporate America. (Two decades ago, no Fortune 500 company was run by a person of color or a woman; I was at a US B-School then; the talk was of glass ceiling. Now, nobody talks about that. Cream rises to the top, whether white or not). I think that's the rationale behind pointing out a Muslim running one of India's topmost companies. Contrast that with Gujarat, and you realize how important Mr Premji's achievements are. Gujarat is his home state, run by one of the most hardline chief ministers who was denied visa to the US because of his role in the Gujarat riots. That's a contrast no journalist should miss pointing out, even if the riots per se have no relation with Mr Premji's achievements, because the coexistence of those riots and Mr Premji's achievements show India in all its contrasts.
What's worse are the unresearched innuendos with which the column is filled. "In all likelihood" she says, the Muslim mafia is richer or investors in big companies. Isn't that a caricature itself? Has she checked where they invest? Would they want a paper trail of investments, which can be linked to companies, so exposed, so that it could be confiscated?
More power to Mr Premji for not closing office on Muslim holidays, or for not wearing his faith on his sleeve. But the fact that he does not do these things, at the time of religion's revival, is a legitimate point. The Marriotts are Mormons, and there's a burger chain in California which publishes references to biblical verses on its plates and cups. Wipro doesn't print "786" or something similar on each shrink-wrapped software package. I think this is an important thing for readers to know. That they don't start their day with a prayer - unlike Japanese company songs - is also an important thing to know. It shows Mr Premji to be an ordinary person, an Indian, pursuing profit. What better compliment can be there than that?
Finally, while Mr Premji had a family business to start with, it was a vegetable oil business; it was his entrepreneurship that built a completely different line of business, and made it such a success. India deserves more of him, more of Sania Mirzas, more of Irfan Pathans, more of Aamir Khans, and more of Nafisa Alis. And their thriving doesn't necessarily show Hindu tolerance. In some cases, they may have succeeded despite Hindu bigotry. Now, that's a good story readers in India need to know, so that they get off their smug high-horse of India shining and rising and all that....
The sub-text quite clearly is that only those Muslims thrive in a modern world who aren't actually 'Muslim.' Whatever that word may mean to whomsoever. Anything to get a little attention. That reminds me to make a suggestion that SAJA could look into creating a hall of fame for worst pieces carried by the most read papers.
How a Muslim Billionaire Thrives in Hindu India
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
How a Muslim Billionaire
Thrives in Hindu India
Mr. Premji Has Wealth
And Clout as Wipro Chief;
The Imam Disapproves
By YAROSLAV TROFIMOV
September 11, 2007; Page A1
BANGALORE, India -- The world's richest Muslim entrepreneur defies conventional wisdom about Islamic tycoons: He doesn't hail from the Persian Gulf, he didn't make his money in petroleum, and he definitely doesn't wear his faith on his sleeve.
A native of Mumbai, Azim Premji has tapped India's abundant engineering talent to transform a family vegetable-oil firm, Wipro Ltd., into a technology and outsourcing giant. By serving Western manufacturers, airlines and utilities, the company has brought Mr. Premji a fortune of some $17 billion -- believed to be greater than that of any other Muslim outside of Persian Gulf royalty.
Such success, Mr. Premji says in an interview, shows that globalization -- a force Islamist activists decry as Western neocolonialism -- is turning into "two-way traffic" that can bring tangible benefits to developing countries.
Mr. Premji's rise is already inspiring some Indian Muslims to embrace the modern, globalized world. "He's an icon. He shows that excellence has no caste and no creed, and that if one has excellence, one can make it to the top," says Mohamed Javeed, principal of Bangalore's predominantly Muslim Al-Ameen College. One of the students, Mohammed Nasseer, enthuses, "I'd love to become like Premji one day."
A role model like Mr. Premji might seem to be what India's Muslims need. Though the country's economy is growing at 9% a year, the vast majority of India's estimated 150 million Muslims -- the largest Islamic population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan -- remain socially marginalized, badly educated and mired in deep poverty. By and large, they're left out of the social transformation that is propelling millions of their Hindu compatriots into prosperity, as barriers of caste disappear and India's new corporate giants provide opportunities that never existed before.
Yet, to many in India's Muslim community, Mr. Premji's enormous wealth, far from being inspiring, shows that success comes at a price the truly faithful cannot accept. They resent that Mr. Premji plays down his religious roots and declines to embrace Muslim causes -- in a nation where people are pegged by their religion and where Hindus freely flaunt theirs. "If you are a Muslim and want to be rich in India, you have to show you are very secular," says Zafarul Islam Khan, secretary-general of the All-India Muslim Majlis e Mushawarat, an umbrella group.
A Muslim school a half-hour's drive from Mr. Premji's Bangalore home reveals the chasm between this globalist success story and the country's Muslim masses. Students sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Masjid e Takwa madrassa spend their days memorizing the Quran in Arabic -- a language that neither they nor their teacher understand.
The classes are taught in Urdu, a tongue that's largely confined to Muslims and uses the Arabic script. There is no science in the curriculum. Neither is there English, the language in which Wipro conducts business and interviews job applicants, as it looks for Westernized staff who can deal with international customers.
The madrassa's imam, Munir Ahmed, says that for his students, a future as self-employed shopkeepers or peddlers is preferable to seeking formal work at a large company. "A job is like being a slave," Mr. Ahmed chuckles, adding that his graduates are in great demand as teachers in other madrassas. Schoolboys in the streets nearby, asked about Wipro, say they've never heard of it or of Mr. Premji.
The condition of India's Muslims is rooted in the partition of the subcontinent along religious lines in 1947. Amid horrendous massacres, millions of Muslims fled to the newly formed Muslim-majority state of Pakistan, just as most of Pakistan's Hindus and Sikhs escaped to India.
The Muslims who abandoned India included large numbers of the most educated and successful. Those remaining after partition have become "economically, socially, educationally...India's most backward community," says Mahmood Madani, a Parliament member who is secretary-general of India's leading Muslim religious organization, Jamiat Ulema e Hind. By some economic and social measures, Muslims are even losing out to Dalits, the erstwhile "untouchables" who are at the very bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy.
Illiteracy is higher among Muslims than among Dalits in the key 6-to-17 age group. Although Muslims account for more than 13% of India's population, they make up only 1.7% of undergraduates in India's version of the Ivy League, the seven Indian Institutes of Technology. The underrepresentation is just as severe in the nation's bureaucratic elite: Muslims make up 3% of staff in the Indian Administrative Service and 1.8% of the diplomatic corps.
Only a few of the Muslims who stayed behind in India after partition have managed to prosper, including some Bollywood stars and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who until recently held the largely ceremonial post of Indian president. "The Muslims we have in India are mostly the poor and the laborers, and a few very rich people like Premji," says Ramachandra Guha, a prominent historian.
With the country regularly rocked by bombings carried out by radicalized Muslim groups, such as the twin attacks that killed 42 people in the technology hub of Hyderabad in late August, even many Hindu politicians and academics see an urgent need to bridge the economic divide between the Muslim minority and the Hindu majority. The Indian government is considering measures to extend to most Muslims the affirmative-action benefits that have long reserved a large share of government jobs and university places for Dalits and other underprivileged groups.
Unlike those observers and Muslim community leaders, Mr. Premji bristles impatiently when the plight of the broader Muslim populace is cited. "This whole issue of Hindu-Muslim in India is completely overhyped," the 62-year-old executive says.
Mr. Premji has mentioned his Muslim background so rarely in public that many Indian Muslims don't even know he shares their heritage. None of Wipro's senior managers aside from Mr. Premji himself are Muslims. The company maintains normal working hours on Islamic high holidays. Among its 70,000 employees, there's only a "sprinkling" of Muslims, according to Sudip Banerjee, president of a division that accounts for a third of revenue.
Mr. Premji's private philanthropy is dispensed through a foundation that's managed by a Hindu former Wipro executive and cuts across religious lines. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. officials asked the Aziz Premji Foundation to help start an education program that would instill moderate values in Islamic schools. The foundation declined the religion-focused project, according to its chief executive, because "we are working for all."
In an interview at Wipro's sleek Bangalore campus, which had just been visited by a group of Israeli businessmen, Mr. Premji scoffed at the idea he should display his Muslim identity or champion the cause of Muslim advancement in India. "We've always seen ourselves as Indian. We've never seen ourselves as Hindus, or Muslims, or Christians or Buddhists," he said.
These secularist values came to him naturally. There was no madrassa in Mr. Premji's own education. He attended a Mumbai Catholic school, St. Mary's, and then studied electrical engineering at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
As a prominent Muslim businessman in the 1940s, Mr. Premji's late father, M.H. Premji, faced repeated requests for support from Pakistan's fiery founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who offered the father a cabinet-minister job in the new Muslim country. But the Premji family didn't believe in a religious state, and refused to move. "We did not think in these terms," Mr. Premji says. "There were roots in India, there were roots in Bombay. Why should one in any way dislodge these roots?"
While India's Muslim groups complain about facing daily discrimination, Mr. Premji says the only time he has been singled out because of his Muslim heritage wasn't in India but at a U.S. airport shortly after 9/11. In doing business in India, he maintains, "I don't think being a Muslim or being a non-Muslim has been an advantage or disadvantage. It's just been based on the merits of the opportunities."
He's been adroit at seizing those. After the death of his father in 1966, he took the helm at Wipro at the age of 21, against the wishes of board members who wanted seasoned management. Long publicly traded -- although controlled by the Premji family with 81% of the stock -- the company then had annual sales of only $2 million. It was known as Western India Vegetable Product Ltd. and mostly produced a kind of sunflower oil called vanaspati, a staple of Indian cuisine.
Mr. Premji set out to diversify, and a break came in 1977, when a coalition of Hindu nationalists, Socialists and others displaced the ruling Congress party. The new government clamped down on multinationals, prompting the exodus of corporate giants like International Business Machines Corp. and Coca-Cola Co. Mr. Premji stepped in, beginning to manufacture computers and other electronics.
"The space was opened because imports were banned into India, or imports were very expensive because of duty tariffs," he recalls. He set up shop in Bangalore, a southern city whose dry highland air is well suited for assembling electronics. He hired managers and engineers from India's large military industry. Wipro became a major manufacturer of technology hardware.
The bonanza ended in the early 1990s as a different Indian government, seeing capitalism rise in former Eastern-bloc nations, abandoned socialism and eased import restrictions. This created something of a crisis for Wipro and other electronics manufacturers. "The goods and services that we produced were no longer needed because customers could buy what's best and available on the global market," says Wipro's Mr. Banerjee.
While many of Wipro's peers didn't survive the change, Mr. Premji spotted another opportunity in the upheaval. Wipro went to the foreign companies with which it did business when it was a manufacturer, such as General Electric Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc., and offered a new relationship. At relatively low cost, its high-quality engineers could take on outsourced work such as design, research and testing.
Wipro's outsourcing business now spans the gamut. It has simple call-center management, but it also designs mobile phones for leading international brands. It runs the computer systems of European utilities and does full-service business consulting. In the fiscal year ended March 31, Wipro's profit surged 44% to $677 million, as sales climbed 41% to $3.47 billion. The shares, which are also traded on the New York Stock Exchange, have tripled in value over the past five years, giving the company a market value of some $20 billion.
As Wipro becomes a global powerhouse, company officials say they seek to hire the best regardless of creed. They say that among the reasons few Indian Muslims meet Wipro's stringent standards is that they often study in Urdu rather than English, and rarely pursue engineering degrees. Urdu, which is also the official language of Pakistan, is intertwined with Islamic identity on the subcontinent. In southern India, where most of the country's technology industry is based, Hindus speak a number of regional languages and are more likely to study English.
"All our hiring staff are trained to interview in English," Mr. Premji says. "They're trained to look for Westernized segments because we deal with global customers." Out of every 100 rÃ©sumÃ©s received, only one or two usually come from Muslim applicants, according to a former manager in Wipro's human-resources department.
Yet, as outsourcing giants like Wipro and Infosys Technologies Ltd. have grown and hired, the attitudes of some Muslims toward education are slowly beginning to change. Bangalore's Al-Ameen college is run by a movement that seeks to modernize the Muslim community. About 360 graduate and undergraduate students, both men and women, are currently studying for computer-science degrees. Most are Muslims, including pious young men with long beards and women with an Islamic hejab that covers their hair, though not their faces.
Many graduates have already gotten jobs at companies like Wipro and Infosys, says the college's principal, Mr. Javeed, and have started to earn salaries well above those offered outside the booming technology industry. "This has brought awareness to the Muslim community about the need to pursue higher education," he says. "People are beginning to realize that education is power, that education is money, that education is an opportunity."
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lessons from the Case of Dawood Ibrahim
By FARZANA VERSEY
Haji Mastan, the aging underworld Mumbai don, looked at my fingernails that were at the time rather long, neatly filed and painted with toffee-coloured varnish. He asked me, his gaze still fixed on my talons, "Mussalman?"
Since my nails professed no religion, I assumed the query was directed at me. I nodded. What followed was a short lecture on Islamic nails. 9/11 was years away and America had not discovered the Muslim version of Dirty Harry. If that were so, then I would have been accused of sitting with a terrorist (though he called himself a social worker), just as Dawood Ibrahim has been branded one by the United States.
You may wonder why I am bringing up his name now. The 1993 bomb blasts' judgement is out. Nowhere has Dawood been held responsible for it; he was not even a mastermind.
To come to the verdict, Judge P. D. Kode said: "A criminal has no religion, criminality is the only religion. It was a heinous terrorist act to kill totally innocent Mumbaikars who had no role to play in the Babri Masjid demolition and who had not hurt the accused in the riots that followed. They have unnecessarily brought disgrace to the Muslim community which has, among other communities, played a pioneer role in nation building."
This is like saying Paris Hilton has brought disgrace upon Chihuahuas. I don't feel disgraced at all and can we stop being pressurised into becoming pioneers? Why can we not just be zardozi embroiderers, butchers, smugglers, doctors, SIM card owners? Okay, skip the last two. As for nation-building, that is the job of those who are our elected representatives. Everytime there is one of those 'Muslim moments', we are asked to list out reform movements in Islam. When was the last Hindu reform movement? The Brahmo Samaj? We have to listen to nice examples, like how Azim Premji makes computers and Shahrukh Khan makes faces before the camera. These people do us proud, we are told to say. Have you heard a Hindu say he is proud of Narayana Murthy who, incidentally, has nothing to do with Hindu terrorism?
However, it is wrong to state that criminals have no religion. How many have claimed to be atheists?
Criminals do what they do by taking the cover of religion. And governments play to that. Remember how a ceasefire was declared during the month of Ramzan? Did the state imagine that militants in Kashmir would have no energy left to hold a gun only because they were not swallowing saliva?
If religion gets debased by criminals then why are holy books popular reading material in prisons? Why are priests called in before the person is to hang? And if the judge is saying that the blasts killed those who had no part to play in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, then is one to venture the dangerous theory that had the victims been those responsible for the demolition it would have been kosher?
Dawood Ibrahim was at that time busy giving interviews from Dubai about patriotism. "How do you think one feels about the country of his birth, where his family and mother still live?"
Why are criminals expected to mouth clichés? Realising that he had to take a stand he spoke lovingly about the Muslim League, as though he were a modern-day Jinnah. He was seeking a certain purity for his deeds.
Seen in a broader perspective even the devil is pure, untainted as he is by any virtue. A single-mindedness may limit a person but it also keeps him away from other diversions. The Dawood who courted the rich and famous is no more. At that time his agenda was large enough to encompass a lot of others and even have some of their fame rub off on him.
Today, he is a hunted and haunted man, hiding in a mansion with walls that have ears. His very power has made him powerless. He cannot even call himself a don, so he calls himself a businessman. He is not the first big criminal and certainly not the last. He lacks the suave intelligence of a Charles Sobhraj, the rustic charisma of a Haji Mastan or the obvious religiosity of a Varadarjan. Yet, in the Indian psyche he has surpassed them all because we have created this behemoth and never paused to think what he might have been.
A small-time actor who would one day turn producer? A pani-puri stall owner who would expand his business and open a flashy resto-bar? A mechanic who would ultimately own a garage?
The tragedy of Dawood is that he is inexorably bound to a 'motherland' by ties of delusion. As he had stated, "Not only was I born in India but also innumerable people in that country know that I am their 'Bhai'."
Had we left him to do his job he would not have become a hero. He lacks the commitment of a militant and let us accept one thing: Terrorism is a form of dissent; people do get killed, but if you like reading up trivia then it shows that the number is way fewer than those killed by donkeys. These are the only people who oppose fully, unlike civil society that continues to enjoy the handouts dished out by the System.
You can hang as many people as you wish, but all of us have a noose around our necks. We suffocate on the stereotypes we form.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer-columnist. This piece first appeared in The Asian Age, India. She can be contacted at email@example.com