The business of caste in India

Priyanka P. Narain and Pallavi SIngh

Mumbai/New Delhi: Images of adventure reside in their collective memory—journeys into the cobbled streets of Antwerp to compete with powerful Hasidic Jew merchants for grubby stones, which, when polished and cut, would sparkle and dazzle. The journey that transformed the Palanpuri Jains from cloth and perfume traders into moguls of the diamond empire was challenging: The language of Antwerp was strange to their ears and its exotic meats forbidden to their vegetarian palates. But during those days of mercantile entrepreneurship, this community coped with challenges together and forged ties of kinship that “have survived till today and have provided the basis on which we have built this industry in India,” says Rajiv Mehta, chief executive officer of Dimexon Diamonds Ltd.

But to the Bunts of Karnataka—former warriors and landowners who created the famous Udipi restaurant chains, established restaurants, hotels and resorts—globalization has not been so kind. Raghu Shetty, who set up the first catering business in Mumbai in the late 1970s, says the community is unable to keep up with new Indian tastes. “The culture of five-star weddings, glamorous family and business events…and our job is not very rewarding. The children don’t want to run restaurants at street corners…you see all our old Udipis shutting down. No one needs them any more.”

These stories reflect the fact that there is no clear answer to the question: How have community businesses adapted to India’s growth in a globalized world? There is little data to go by and anecdotal evidence meanders in all directions.

Business legacy: Diamond merchant Pankaj Shah (wearing a garland) leaving for his first trip to Antwerp in 1972. He had relatives in Antwerp who ran brokerage firms through which he could buy the rough diamonds he would select. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Claiming that economic cooperation was the basis of defining caste, Roy says that “these (caste-based) groups are protecting access of outsiders to assets—be it skills, people, capital…sometimes successfully, sometimes not. They are guilds, rooted in blood, rather than rules. The ties run so deep that if anyone breaks a business rule, they can be excommunicated from the community.”

And because of the efficiency of this economic model, many communities have drawn inspiration from this idea over the ages, “and that is unlikely to change. I see no reason why world markets would not help caste-based community business to expand their business and strengthen their ties. Of course, some communities will prosper, others may not. For instance, the Marwaris—who had prospered in the last century as the manufacturing community—did not do so well after. But I believe the idea will endure,” said Roy.

Also Read previous stories in the series

Diamonds are forever

Among the Palanpuris, diamonds have created a mutual dependence that has not only endured but also thrived in a globalized world.

“Thirty years ago, when I was growing up, we were trained to think that one day, we will also play with these shiny stones,” says Mehta, splaying imaginary diamonds on the table as he speaks. “You cannot underestimate how much power that knowledge gives—you become a risk taker, you are willing to put yourself out on a limb if it will expand the business for your sons who are there with you. That kind of quick, risky, urgent decision making can never happen in a corporate setup,” explains Mehta.

Over the last 50 years, they have trained their sons in the art of identifying diamonds among stones in the diamond bazaars of Antwerp. Pankaj Shah, a diamond merchant, remembers his Antwerp trip of 1972—the time he began to choose rough diamonds that held most promise of dazzling when polished.

“I was 20. My family thought it was time for me to learn. At that time, relatives used to live in Antwerp and run brokerage firms. We could select diamonds ourselves, but we could buy diamonds only through a brokerage firm. So we stayed in homes of relatives. Since we were Jains—there were no vegetarian restaurants in Antwerp at that time—we ate in their homes. We simply selected the rough diamonds we wanted to buy and the brokerage firm would complete the formalities and export them to us.” Those with no family lived in cheap, hovel-like hotels, ate at common Jain kitchens and practised their trade.

In an open world economy, Palanpuris have taken their business to far-flung countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas and while “it’s hard to give exact figures in this industry, the Palanpuris have retained 60-70% of the market…as long as the world needs diamonds and succession remains intact, I think we will stay in the game,” says Mehta.

New opportunities

For the Oriyas, the last two decades have meant opportunity—to get a job, to live in a city, to educate their children, to give them a better life. Opportunities that they grabbed together, helping each other along the way, each man pulling a few kinsmen out of a bleak hole.

Like Niranjan Parida did.

On a January morning of 1993, a?teenaged Parida boarded a Delhi-bound train with a thousand rupees, without informing his family. He says he ran away from his home to escape the purposelessness that had seeped into his village, Ratnapur in Kendrapada district in Orissa, where the only opportunity available was for daily wages. “That is not (what) I wanted to do,” says Parida.

His impulsive journey to the national Capital is not a lone migrant story, but a chain of migrations of scheduled caste Oriyas who have escaped the bleakness of Orissa’s villages, curiously enough, for plumbing jobs.

When Parida arrived, he knew no one and spoke little Hindi. He pounded the streets for a job, slept on footpaths—till he happened to meet a woman from his village. “Her husband was a contractor for plumbing jobs in Delhi. She took me home and he trained me in plumbing,” he says.

Within months, he began to land contracts. Seventeen years later, thin and blackened from working in the unforgiving Delhi sun, he makes Rs10,000-12,000 per month. He also does what he insists people of his community have traditionally done—bring people from the village for plumbing jobs. “I brought almost a dozen people from my village here. I train them and get them employed,” he says.

But plumbing is not the only job that the community does. Chandrakant Sahu, who speaks better Hindi than Parida, explains how the community also helps Oriya kinsmen become electricians. When Sahu migrated to Delhi from Orissa’s Betali village, a relative got him a job at an electrical shop. Now, “Parida suggests my name for electrical fittings in the house where he is working. His good at his work, his recommendation matters,” he says, referring to a system where they try to secure contracts for kinsmen. “We have a human network (that) helps each other since we are emotional about our roots,” he says.

Changing with the times

And yet, for the Bunts—who created the chain of Udipi restaurants, took over the Irani tea houses, bought hotels, established catering businesses, highway eateries and dhabas in the city to escape the bleak poverty of their villages—the changing world has not heralded similar good news, but nor has it broken the spirit of collaboration among kinsmen.

For many reasons, the Shettys are finding it hard to stay afloat. Jairam Shetty explains, “First, so many other communities—Gujaratis, Marwaris and Punjabis—have come in and taken away our market. We could not cater to all those tastes nor compete with the money they brought in. Secondly, in the last few years, international hotels have come to India. They serve international cuisines and tastes have changed. Also, marriages have become very fancy. Finally, succession is a problem since business isn’t glamorous and the children do not want to take over. We are just waiting until they are settled.”

For those who built the business from the ground up, the change is bitter-sweet. “We are happy that our children have more opportunity than we did. That is what we wanted when we came to Mumbai. Our community is still very strongly interconnected, only now we are focusing on education and social issues. This business has brought us so far—now it might be time to slowly move to better things as a community together, supporting each other,” says Raghu Shetty, owner of Santosh Catering, and the uncrowned grandfather of the Bunts in Mumbai.

Like many others, Shetty was a teenager when he left his ancestral village near Mangalore for a better life in Mumbai. For 20 long years, he worked in a little restaurant in Worli— washing dishes, cleaning tables, then waiting at them and gradually, becoming a manager. “All the while, I watched the chef. I learnt cooking, everything about it, and when the time came, I started my own catering business in the city,” he says. Jairam Shetty, owner of Ajanta Caterers in Mumbai, says: “This business is not very capital-intensive. We just needed a supportive human network, and that we had.”

That collaboration still exists, says 67-year-old Raghu Shetty. “We want families of the community to do better with every generation. If the catering work will not take us further, then it is time for us to leave it behind and find another opportunity that will give our children a better life,” he smiles. “As long as the community supports each other and stands as one, it will all be okay…”

This is the second of a five-part series on the changing role of caste in a globalized India.

This story was first published in Mint:

Rise of India’s caste warrior

Pallavi Singh
Duhai, Ghaziabad: Caste is most often seen through the prism of conflict—the heated national debates about reservations, the political polarization on the census and the attacks on young couples that have been blessed by caste panchayats.

But far away from the spotlight, there is the more benign world of organizations and activists who continue to nurture informal networks based on caste, to help fledgeling businesses, build educational institutions and promote philanthropy.

Consider the case of Avneesh Dahiya.

Dahiya owes his three-year journey from Bhojpur, a small village about 187km from New Delhi, to the National Capital Region (NCR), to the commitment of one man to use personal success to help other members of his caste.

Help at hand: Choudhary Chhotu Ram Girls’ Inter College manager Sunil Chowdhry. Pradeep Gaur / Mint

Malik, also national president of All India Jat Arakshan Samiti (AIJAS), a caste-based outfit demanding recognition of Jats as Other Backward Castes (OBC) at the national level, met Dahiya in 2007.

“What do you do?” he asked Dahiya, who had already spent more than three decades in the village, landless and jobless. With Jats rallying to demand reservations for their community, AIJAS had just been formed, and Malik invited Dahiya to join.

In order to help a fellow Jat, Malik also helped Dahiya procure a licence to run the dairy outlet and waived the rent for the shop. The dairy helped Dahiya meet two fond aspirations: to earn a livelihood and send his children to college.

Caste continues to puzzle and infuriate many modernizers, but the institution has survived and changed in the six decades after independence even as it continues to whip up passions that can split most political parties down the middle.

But away from the heated arguments whether the government should ask citizens details about their caste, the institution itself has shown remarkable resilience and acts as a magnet for identity and philanthropy.

Malik’s focus, for example, is not just Masscon India Pvt. Ltd, the real estate firm of which he is the managing director. As a leader of AIJAS, Malik says he finds his true calling. “The business is important because it helps you make money, but AIJAS is what takes the money where it truly belongs—back to the community.”

Malik is a caste leader, of sorts. His caste outfit and business firm collectively serve the community in two ways: while AIJAS helps needy people from his community who approach him, Masscon becomes the employment generator.

Since the company was set up in 2000, it has recruited around 40 people from the Jat community as office staff alone.

Sociologists view the rise of caste-based organizations as an after-effect of post-Mandal politics in India, the period after 1989 when the Indian government introduced 27% reservation for OBCs in government jobs. “Caste remained unattended before that. Prior to Mandal, there was no reason for individual backward castes to be assertive at the national level. Post-Mandal, caste-based organizations are using caste as an effective instrument of community building and its social and financial upliftment,” Anand Kumar, professor of sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says.

While there are no hard numbers to measure the spread and appeal of such caste organizations, a search on the Internet throws hundreds of names of such outfits with regularly updated websites. While most of them claim extensive membership, many admit that finding issues relevant to the youth of their communities is a big challenge these days.

The Chitragupta Kalyan Sangathan, an organization for Kayasthas, who are traditionally known as the caste of the account keepers, in Delhi’s Shahdara, has a helpline for jobs and marriages. The small office tucked away in an old dilapidated building is remarkable because it has no staff, except a peon and a typist to answer the telephone, no photocopier and no conference room. “We do most of the work in the field,” its convenor Santok Saxena says. “We have a large community pool of lawyers, financial planners and bankers. Whenever someone needs us, we offer guidance and relevant contacts.”

The Kayastha Mahasabha in Mumbai helps entrepreneurs start their own ventures. “We help them in securing bank loans from our contacts, because it is very difficult for a new entrepreneur to get loans. Sometimes we act as guarantors as well,” says Pramod Srivastava, convenor of the organization.

Over the years though, organizations admit much of their appeal has waned.

“What we do is very traditional, such as organize mass marriages and religious festivals, which don’t attract the youth of our community. While forward castes are capable of financial means to dispense with, there is lack of unity,” says Praveen Sharma, secretary of the Brahman Samaj Sanstha in Delhi.

Sociologist Anand Kumar says unlike the backward caste organizations, associations of forward castes today are on the defensive owing to the rise of OBCs. “They are suffering downward mobility. In the 1950s, they were 70% in elected positions. Now, it is down to 30%. In the changed situation of coalition politics, they are adjusting and have no individual identity,” he points out.

At the same time, analysts feel that the caste organizations’ co-option into politics and vice-versa has led to trivialization of the groups’ roles such as their activities remaining limited to distributing medals and organizing dinners to community members.

Some of the examples of this co-option, where caste groups made way for political voices, are the Bharatiya Lok Dal, which was led by Jat leader Chaudhary Charan Singh in Uttar Pradesh, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal led by Lalu Prasad in Bihar, which acted as growth engines of caste-based politics in India.

Avneesh Dahiya at his outlet in Ghaziabad.Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Ajay Navariya, Dalit writer and assistant professor at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi says caste organizations got politicized after independence and expected the government to provide for everything. “They have lost sight of more pertinent issues at hand and have become victims of casteist politics,” he adds.

About 40km away from Delhi on National Highway 58, Choudhary Chhotu Ram Girls’ Inter College (CCRGC) in Duhai is perhaps a near-perfect example of what may have gone wrong with social work centred around caste and community welfare in the last six decades.

Since 1946 when Jat leader Chaudhary Mukhtiar Singh set up the school for girls’ education, the village of Duhai hasn’t seen the establishment of any other institution of higher education by a member of the community. Around the time the college was founded, the western Uttar Pradesh belt, particularly Muzaffarnagar, saw a spurt in schools and colleges set up by Jat businessmen and leaders.

Since then, the pace of educational work slowed only to stop completely in the 1980s, say educationists.

In his rhetoric on the diminishing role of caste-based organizations in social welfare, Sunil Chowdhary, manager of CCRGC, is quick to lash out at caste-based politics, especially by parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in north India. “Earlier, caste-based organizations were set up to work for social uplift. After the 1980s, almost each one of them rallied with a political outfit to assert themselves politically,” Chowdhary says. “There was a time when even Jat leaders like Choudhary Charan Singh laid foundation of a degree college by Gujjars. Is it possible today?”

Listening intently to the entire debate, Balbir Singh, manager of BR Ambedkar Primary School in Duhai, where he has been providing free education to children of the scheduled castes, differs. “They (caste groups) at least organize our struggle through a forum and raise a collective voice for our causes,” he argues.

Inside Chowdhary’s office, dark and humid without electricity, Singh—with his greying hair and tense forehead—is suddenly agitated by the debate. Slowly, the gathering grows to half a dozen people in the room. Someone quotes example of caste groups in Gujarat, which set up orphanages, rest houses, old-age homes and colleges for the community.

Kantaben Kamdar Charitable Trust and Jhaverchand Manekchand Trust of the Saurashtra Khadayta caste, or the trader caste, for example, contributes around Rs30,000 every month to support 42 families in the villages of Junagadh in Gujarat.

For what little Singh has known, this doesn’t happen in his world. “There are hardly any such groups which work for lower rungs of their communities,” he says.

His concerns are not entirely unfounded. The Ambedkar Samaj Sudhar Samiti (or Ambedkar Social Reform Committee), founded by him, often ends up facing resistance from upper caste groups for the work they do: opposing child marriages, untouchability and manual scavenging.

Eleven years ago, he, then unmarried, even picked up a girl child from the streets and brought her home after police refused to find a shelter despite his repeated reports. “Well, what would you have done?” he asks.

This story was first published here: [ ]