What Makes Premji a ‘Muslim tycoon’?
Can we see his philanthropy without religious blinkers?

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.

However, being called a Muslim tycoon is like being addressed as a hot Eskimo. And who doesn’t like a touch of oxymoron?
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?

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. 


  1. I am a Proud Indian because of people like Aziz Premji, NR Narayanmurthy & Co. And all religions preach on serving the mankind in your own personal capacity. Fact of the matter is that this isn't about religion in any which way. This is about humanity! Let us not vititate his noble deed and stupendous effort by making this a debate on religion - @vipul_bagga

  2. FV, Philanthropy of the Bill Gates or Premji kind has been blind to race/religion etc., unlike so many "philanthropists" of today who fund people belonging to their favorite religion or social group. So the comparison to Bill Gates is correct in the sense of it being truly humanistic/secular and not with some parochial or religious agenda.

    No comment on the burning need to for people to compare Indians of one kind to some one else much more famous and with some common characteristics, as if to satisfy some deep-seated complex...agree that it is odious at various levels.

    For every Premji in India, there are surely a few 100 "hindu and musliim philanthropists" that spend their cash on building large temples no one visits or religious schools that are regressive in their curriculum.

    Drive along the highway from Goa to Bangalore and you will see villages with no roads or schools and the intermittent well-constructed road with night lights and such that usually leads to some shiny new religious construction -- the school in the same village will resemble a cow shack with a few benches and no teachers and in filthy surroundings. Things are even worse in Tamilnadu...throw in politically connected criminal gangs running villages for more "flavor" of village life in the 21st century.

    If only these people with money to burn spent it on the local schooling or public education, philanthropy by Indians would seem less like an exercise in placing the family name on ozymandian relics with a plaque stating "This proudly donated to the public by the family of XYZ to the village of ABC" in the local language.

    But then superstition, prejudice, and ignorance is not just the domain of only the poor and the illiterate in India, or anywhere else for that matter.


  3. I don't know why Muslims in India have to declare their religion and display love for their country as it was in short supply. The cudgel mindset of the media should change or simply islamophobia has become a vogue for many journalists

  4. Rizwan Alam

    I am not a journalist.

  5. Vipul:

    I agree that this is not about religion. That is the crux: why it is portrayed as such.

    India, besides its role models, also lives in the hope of millions who don't have the means to either express or deny their beliefs.


    I was not discussing Azim Premji's personal life. Even so, have you cared to check out those from other faiths where the woman/children are brought up as those of the father's religion?

    Would this be secular enough for you?


    It is not just the media, although it plays a huge role.

    Much of what passes for patriotism is superficial.

  6. Al:

    Agree with you about how some philanthropists are busy building places of worship rather than institutions for more practical needs.

    However, one may find a Birla temple, but there are other institutions they are responsible for. Same goes for Ambanis. One may have issues with business model and even the nature of philanthropy, but they exist.

    The Gates/Buffett charity may be secular, but it has other issues of seeking another form of gratitude, of playing god, of teaching people from 'lesser' societies on how to give.

    Another form of 'donated by XYZ'.

    Of course, this does not absolve the prejudice and superstition that prompts most philanthropy in our society.

    Premji is a 'secular deity' for some :)

  7. FV

    1. I can give numerous examples of Muslims opposing marriage of a Muslim girl to a Hindu boy, many times through mad violence.
    2. I can give numerous examples of Muslim women insisting on man's conversion to Islam before marriage (and the Hindu men capitulating).
    3. I can cite countless examples of Qafiro-phobia among Muslims.

    I can do all if the above without once referring to Pap-istan or Saudi Arabia.can I exercise the privilege here?

  8. FV:"The Gates/Buffett charity may be secular, but it has other issues of seeking another form of gratitude, of playing god, of teaching people from 'lesser' societies on how to give. Another form of 'donated by XYZ'. "

    FV, Gates/Buffet charities don't appear to be playing god to me, unless vaccinating people in poorly governed countries amounts to playing. Or maybe you are referring to some other activity of theirs, but then they earned that money by honest means, so it is theirs to spend as they wish.

    The only part I find obscene about "structure ABC donated by XYZ" is the kind of structure ABC is, and in the examples I refer to, the obscene part is that they are religious structures that benefit no one, excepts XYZ's ego and possibly regressive individuals that use the wealth in unhelpful ways, compared to helping improve public health or public education.

    if that structure ABC benefits people like a school, or a program that benefits people across the board without discrimination, then I don't see why XYZ cannot take credit for it. Do all donations have to be anonymous to be truly worthy of merit?

    Don't understand the "lesser people" comment -- did one of them say that? Could you please expand on this?

    I would also add that If every rich person actually behaved like Gates/Buffett, we would have rich people voluntarily handing over all their wealth to charity and bequeath a nominal amount to their own kids -- definitely role models for wealthy people wouldn't you say? In fact, such behavior is lauded by most religions that speak of charity towards the less fortunate if I am not mistaken.

    My view is that Gates/Buffet put their money where their mouth is, which is more than one can say for those who build temples and mosques and adorn them with plaques trumpeting their so-called charity.

    Philanthropists who donate large sums of money for causes that do not discriminate who benefits from the money can surely take credit for finding a purpose for their wealth, compared to mostly stingy, exploitative, and self-serving super rich crowd on the planet. The ideologies of marxism and socialism may well be redundant if the wealthy ones all behaved like Gates. :)


  9. FV:"However, one may find a Birla temple, but there are other institutions they are responsible for. Same goes for Ambanis. One may have issues with business model and even the nature of philanthropy, but they exist. "

    I doubt the Birlas are role models for anyone, as any of their employees will tell you. They scam their own employees out of their pensions and the government of taxes, and their pretensions of being charitable cannot override their underlying dishonesty in their day-to-day operation. The Birlas (like other crony capitalists in India) got rich by riding on the coattails of venal politicians in India's past who were wedded to socialism as a concept and restricted the playing field to a select few. Even Idi Amin freely donated to Mother Theresa and made claims of being charitable, if one stretches this concept to its limits.


  10. Al:

    I fully understand people being given credit for their contribution. I just do not like the idea of outsourcing of the very idea of charity. Only because it is secular - if we push it a bit, then many of the ills in society are based on superstitious reluctance to use science and would therefore not be secular, but then I would be splitting hairs.

    This is no way exonerates how Indian business works.

    Re. the Gates/Buffett perception I have, you might like to look at the latter half of this piece:




    I don't have a clue where all these 'important' points came in here. I can give examples to the contrary, too...and you must have surely heard about Rizwan, who was killed because he married a Hindu girl in Kolkata. Her influential father managed to muzzle any further noise.

    So let us not go there. And do regale us with stories about all the Hindu families that have accepted Muslims without ever asking them to perform any rituals that go contrary to their culture. India is not about one culture, one religion.

    Hate to even bring this quid pro quo here, but time you figured out what you are talking about.

  11. FV

    The point is not India but Islam. Islam demands that its adherants ruthlessly and remorselessly eliminate traces of other religions and cultures, not just from their own lives but from the world at large. This foundational tenet is the root cause of all the Jihadi terror.

    Thanks for explaining to me my own views. Thought I knew them! Where would Hindus be without such selfless sekulaarism?

    By the way, 'death for conversion' is the only feature of Islam that Hinduism needs to imbibe. Besides this, Islam brings nothing new to the table.

    Not even terrorism! :)


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