|Right said, Premji? Pic: The Telegraph|
Azim Premji is the right type of man. India deserves every bit of him and his contribution, both as entreprenueur and philanthropist.
Therefore, when he announced recently to give more, it sounded just right:
“I strongly believe that those of us who are privileged to have wealth should contribute significantly to try and create a better world for the millions who are far less privileged.”
No one can have a problem with this. However, it raises two issues.
- Did he have to sign up with the ‘Giving Pledge’ group, co-founded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett? I have discussed my reservations about this sort of philanthropy earlier. It is his money, his country, his concerns. Globalising it obscures intent, if not action. He is right that education is the way forward. Unfortunately, there appears to be an increasing move for ‘quality’ education, ignoring the massive illiterate ‘market’.
- Is it necessary to make him into a showpiece of a community? There is a difference between keeping a low profile and not being proactive. It is indeed commendable that he does not flash his faith (a luxury he has, incidentally, because money has no religion), but what about the desperation by others to thrust it on him, and for him to do the proper secular thing?
I will have to reproduce in entirety the piece I wrote in 2007 in Counterpunch as a response to the execrable interview in Wall Street Journal. Azim Premji may be “The Bill Gates of India” (which tells us more about our foreign obsession than globalisation), but even the international media will sell his story tagged with religion:
Is Azim Premji really the world’s richest Muslim entrepreneur? Is there a list which mentions the richest Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, Christian, Scientologist, atheist, Rastafarian?Unlikely. At least nothing that would make the Wall Street Journal want to give it front page legitimacy. Talking of legitimacy, surely we are talking about legitimate enterprise, for the underworld and the mafia, Muslim or otherwise, are flush with money. In all likelihood, they are investors in the big companies.Mr. Premji heads Wipro, India's third-largest IT exporter. Its fortune rests at $17 billion. I like rich people. But this gentleman is not just rich; he has been saddled with baggage. And the newspaper goes out of its way to prise it open by saying that he defies all conventional wisdom about Islamic tycoons - he does not hail from the Persian Gulf and does not wear his faith on his sleeve.Where did the term ‘Islamic tycoon’ come from? What is unconventional about not wearing your faith on your sleeve? Is it even important to discuss?Of course, it is. Imagine the world we are living in. Azim Premji has to be displayed as the nice guy – no beard, well-fitted suit, an amiable demeanor, likeable. He might have been a crass bore with filthy lucre, the Tom Cruise type who had to jump on an Oprah Winfrey sofa to declare his love for a Kate to become interesting. Mr. Premji has been given a moment quite unlike that cheesy one. He has been profiled (and do pardon the pun) in an article titled, “How a Muslim Billionaire Thrives in Hindu India”.I am an Indian and have always lived in the country of my birth. It is not a Hindu nation. It may have a majority of Hindus, but then it has a majority of illiterates. Why wasn’t the report called, “How a literate billionaire thrives in illiterate India”? There are many such potential headlines I may offer, but I should hope the point has been made.This ‘Muslim billionaire’ has thrived because he had a family business to start with. He had money to get a decent education and he had the spirit of enterprise. Hindu India did not contribute to these, neither did Muslims. It is an individual achievement.It is unfortunate that Muslims are being made accountable for aspects of life that would under normal circumstances not identity them with religion.Yaroslav Trofimov, the writer of the article, says, “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.”What price has Mr. Premji had to pay? He has quietly gone and made a success of his business. There is no resentment against his hesitation to talk about his Muslim identity, and no Muslim social organisations are dependent on his largesse.What is resented is the fact that in a country where most of the 150 million people of the community are ghettoized, the likes of Premji are touted as examples of Hindu tolerance. This just does not wash. It is most patronizing, and a huge insult to those who do make a decent living but are tagged in ways that are negative simply because they lack the visibility of a high-profile profession. On any given day there will be a handful of Muslims taken out of the celebrity closet to reveal the mothballed magnanimity of the majority community.No one wants Premji to stand up and be counted. But there is no reason for him to play along with this secular sham, and he has been doing so for a while. He said in an interview to the paper, “We have always seen ourselves as Indian. We've never seen ourselves as Hindus, or Muslims, or Christians or Buddhists.”The report further states, “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.”This does not sound like a report in a respected newspaper but something straight out of a pamphlet. What heritage are we talking about? Is there one Muslim heritage? His last name could well be Hindu as his roots are in Gujarat. What is so heart-warming and significant about not working on Islamic holidays? Does it become news when many Hindu-owned companies celebrate religious festivals with a puja (prayer) and in fact during Diwali (that is an unabashed ode to the goddess of wealth) people even offer prayers to account books? Is it news that this includes Muslim entrepreneurs? What is the purpose behind such a statement? And why is it surprising considering that most of the 70,000 employees of Premji’s company are non-Muslim?These are devious little tricks. No one mentions good old Adnan Khashoggi and his cruise liners in which the international high and mighty had fun vacations.Isn’t there a mean between riding the Islamophobia and secular waves? The latter is as ridiculous as Mohamed al Fayed screaming about being discriminated against by British society because of his religion.Azim Premji is a thriving businessman in the globalized world he keeps talking about. A globalized world that is unwilling to dignify him as just another wealthy guy and has to mention his religion not just in passing but as the very crux of his defiance – a defiance that is as imaginary as other stereotypes.He says with what appears to be an element of arrogance, “All our hiring staff are trained to interview in English. They're trained to look for Westernized segments because we deal with global customers.”Indeed. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Russians are doing rather well for themselves, and they don’t go around kowtowing to some colonial mentality that talks about English in such a fashion. He mentions that most Muslims are educated in Urdu. Perhaps he might like to check the statistics that say Urdu is a dying language. Perhaps he might like to sponsor some schools for Muslim children; he can do so incognito so that his secular credentials are safe. Perhaps he might like to know that even madrassas these days use his computers, so it is entirely possible they are cracking codes on them. Perhaps he might like to not even entertain questions about his Muslim identity. He is rich enough to afford to say, “No comments”. That is true liberation.
Are we grown up enough to accept him without strings attached and our baggage of expectations and stereotypes? Why does he or anyone need to do something specifically, and self-consciously, secular to prove their nationalistic stripes?However, being called a Muslim tycoon is like being addressed as a hot Eskimo. And who doesn’t like a touch of oxymoron?
Update Query: Wonder why I forgot to add here that among all the industrialists who sang paeans and promised and were promised a rose garden during Narendra Modi's 'Vibrant Gujarat Summit', Azim Premji was not around. He is or Gujarati origin and interested in development. What made him stay away? A point that needs to be noted.