ANOTHER Birla has passed away – Ganga Prasad Birla, only son of the redoubtable Brij Mohan, the youngest of the famed Birla Brothers, who between them established the great Birla business empire. Thus the second generation of the family has gone behind the curtains, and the torch has passed on to the third generation – and also the fourth – though they are not as well known as the original band of brothers who began it all.
Why am I so interested in Birlas, or, for that matter, in the business community? Because I have always felt that their contributions to India’s political life—as separate from economic have not been sufficiently recognised. I always get a feeling that we have not been fair to Indian Industrialists, as opposed to Indian politicians, for their role in the freedom struggle, and have too easily fallen into the Leftist and Nehruist claptrap of treating them as exploiters and lackeys of British imperialists. There were certainly some who were lackeys, but not all, certainly not Birlas. One must remember that the industries they created gave rise to an urban middle class which became more confident about its capacity to rule the country as time went on. After all, if you can run steel plants and cement factories, export fine textiles and even assemble cars and design aeroplanes, why can’t you run your our country? Birlas put up their own jute mill in 1919, just as the Great War was coming to a close. It took just thirty more years to get rid of the British, and during those thirty years, several nationalist industrialists including Birlas, were as close to the freedom movement as they could be.
Birlas, but not Tatas, set up their industries in the teeth of the opposition from the entrenched British businessmen, and of course, British governments in India and England. The British businessmen in India, most of them concentrated in Kolkata, would not allow Indians to sit down in their offices, and when Ghanashyam Das or GD Birla started his career, he had to stand before them for hours. He could not use their lift, nor, of course, their bathrooms. Indians were treated like lepers as late as the beginning of the 1900’s, even men like GD and his fellow-Indians, who naturally resented it.
There is also another factor. Birlas are a quintessential Hindu family, and very conscious of the fact that they are Hindus. They are also great nationalists, and were so at a time when it was dangerous to be Nationalists. GD was not just a businessman but a thorough nationalist who financed Gandhi and his activities, and allowed him to use Birla residences for his political work, at a time when Gandhi was not exactly a favoured name in British books. It is this combination—nationalism and Hindu pride—which, to me, is one and the same thing, makes the Birlas an attractive family.
There was a time when I used to think that Tata and Birla were the same individual with a joint name, Tata-Birla. They were supposed to stand for unbridled capitalism, or so we were told by lefties who, before the war, made all the noises. But sometime during the war, the Tatas and Birlas put their name to a plan called Bombay plan, also known as the Tata-Birla Plan, and we realised for the first time that they were two distinct individuals when their photos appeared in the press. I also saw them at a meeting in Bombay. Tata looked more like a Frenchman and spoke with a lisp. Birla was much older, but also more energetic and forthright in his speech. Actually, the plan was not all that different from Nehru’s first five-year plan, but that is another story.
I did not see GD again for thirty years, by which time both he and I had aged. I was then connected with a newsmagazine and wrote, among other things, about businessmen and their families in a way nobody had done before. As I said earlier, we have always treated businessmen with something near contempt, mainly because of the leftist influence and also the Nehruian approach to business. One day, I received a call from GD himself inviting me to lunch. Thus began a long association with a man about whom I know very little except that he was a businessman and at the same time associated with Gandhiji, and, maybe, his political activities.
It turned out that GD was much more than a mere businessman. In fact, he said he was not a businessman at all, and did not much like being called one. I later learned that he had been a politician himself, had fought elections, and was actually involved in an arm conspiracy which would have put him behind bars for a long time had he not somehow managed to extricate himself from it.
In fact, GD’s involvement with politics and revolutionary politics at that, was so intense that his family feared he was neglecting business and would end up hurting the family’s fortunes. The other brothers got together and nearly decided to cut him off from the family with his share and set him free, if he persisted with his extra-curricular activities. I was told this by one of his brothers. It is not clear what happened next, but soon GD was back in business, and the only link with politics was with Gandhiji.
GD told me about Gandhi and his connection with him, without any hesitation. He was not a blind follower of Gandhi and did not much agree with his philosophy of self-reliance and charkha and rural industries. He also did not have much to do with the Congress, and almost nothing at all with Nehru. He continued to keep away from congress, because congress was politics and he had told his brothers that he would keep away from politics.
But Gandhi, he said, was another matter. I told him, GD said, speaking of Gandhi, that he would make up whatever shortfall he (Gandhi) suffered in running his ashrams. So Gandhi sent him his accounts which Birla never looked at and issued a cheque to make up the deficit. The Britishers were watching every thing and his dossier was growing by the day, but the British too were business-like and they never really hurt him or his family business.
GD was also fond of stories, mostly political stories involving everyone from Gandhi to Morarji Desai and even Jayaprakash Narain, who believe it or not, was at one time his secretary. What work did JP do for GD, I asked. “I never gave him any work, only some money from time to time. But that was only for a short while. JP was too big a man to remain as a secretary and soon went his way.”
Ghanashyam Das Birla died in London during a morning walk. He was cremated there. A few days later I received a card from him with greetings for the new year. He had written the card a few days before his death!
(The writer can be contacted at 301, Mani Kancahn Apts, Kanchan Galli, Law College Road, Pune-411004)