Secular Success of Muslim Business

Many readers heard of Cipla, the pharmaceutical company, when its share price recently hit Rs 35, 000, making it the priciest stock in India. But relatively few readers know that Cipla is owned by a Muslim, Mr. Yusuf Hamied. It is good that Cipla is viewed in secular rather than communal terms. But it is also important to scotch notions that discrimination against Muslims in India makes it impossible for them to succeed in business. An increasing number of Muslim entrepreneurs are rising towards the top of the business ladder.

In north India, Muslims are seen as an economically depressed community whose natural leaders emigrated to Pakistan. This nation is less widespread in coastal India, which has always had some prosperous Muslim traders. Even in North India, Muslim businessmen were always active in artisan-based industries like Moradabad’s brass, Firozabad’s glass and Varanasi’s silk, and were major hirers of Muslim labour. But such businessmen were traders rather than industrialists, using cheap artisanal labour and low technology. They could never hope to reach the top (or even middle) heights of the economy, and their stagnation led to much despair and wailing in the community.

Muslims have good reason to complain, but not to despair. The rising Muslim business stars are not in traditional lines, and do not have a hundred-year history (like the Tatas or Birlas). They are brash newcomers who have scaled meteoric heights within a generation.

THE WIPRO: The biggest of this breed is probably Mr. Azim Premji, whose Wipro group exceeds Rs 500 crore. The company started as a humble producer of refined vegetable oil. But Mr. Premji’s dynamism has made Wipro the second biggest computer manufacturer in India, far outstripping old-established companies like ICIM. It is also one of the biggest and most innovative producers of medical equipment.

Other top Muslim businesses include:

  1. East-West Airlines, the biggest air taxi operator, run by the Wahid family.
  2. Wockhardt, a fast-growing drug company about to make a Euro issue, run by the Khorakiwalas, better known for owning the Akbarally store in Bombay.
  3. The Al-Kabeer group run by the Allana family. There are controversies and communal tension every time it sets up a slaughterhouse. But it is by no means confined to meat. It is one of the five top export houses (exports exceed Rs 300 crore), and has in some years been the second biggest coffee exporter.
  4. Himalaya Drug, run by the Malans, is the biggest producer and exporter of ayurvedic drugs.
  5. Patel Roadways is one of the-top transport companies.
  6. Lokhandwala, who has lent his name to a gigantic Bombay” colony, is one of India’s biggest builders.

I suspect I have left out some very big names in leather and construction. I simply want to emphasise that India is not a dead end for Muslims. Despite much communal hate and discrimination, India is secular enough for Muslim families to rise to the top. This owes nothing to special communal subsidies or favours. It is a secular success.

Many Muslims want employment for their community to be stimulated by concessions for Muslim business. This communal approach is undesirable, and will0 fail. Muslims account for only 263 per cent of Wockhardt’s work1 force, 20 per cent of Al-Kabeer’s not have the data for Wipro or Cipla, but I suspect they will tell a similar story.

SECULAR EMPLOYMENT: A businessman may appoint relatives and friends to the top management and a few junior positions, but for the rest he will employ the best people available irrespective of religion. In the case of small businesses and shops, hiring only a handful of people, the entire employment may be of friends and relatives?” and so small Muslim enterprises may imply Muslim employment But if they grow large, employment will turn secular.

Even if they do not promote Muslim employment, the rise of big Muslim business is important because it provides role models to a community lacking self-confidence. Politics provides Muslims with some role models, but often in an undesirable way, since these are often appointed to curry favour with Muslim vote-banks. This tends to communalise the country, not secularise it. We need Muslim role models who have succeeded in a completely secular fashion. It is extremely important that Azharuddin is captain of India’s cricket team, and that film stars like Salman Khan and Aamir Khan are the heartthrobs of countless teenagers of all religions.

Azharuddin and Salman Khan need no additional publicity. But I think it important to publicise the outstanding success of the Premjis, Khorakiwalas and Hamieds. Above all I think we need to publicise the success of Himalaya Drug in becoming the top ayurvedic producer and exporter, a classic example of secular commerce crossing religious lines. For Muslims, this is a symbol of hope. For secular Hindus it is a matter of pride.

What do you think?