THERE are banias and banias. It’s a caste and a vocation ranging from mercantile capitalism to moneylending, from the neighbourhood grocer to the stockbroker. Banias are communist and socialist too. They are, in fact, to be found in every party though, in India, they seem currently partial to the right-wing Hindu BJP. There are communal banias and secular banias, fascist banias and democrats. There are ascetic banias and greedy, worldly banias.
Banias patronise the fine arts and they can be gross. There are corrupt and clean banias. Arvind Kejriwal is seen by a majority of Delhi voters as a clean bania, if we insist on seeing him through his caste. His main adversaries happen to be banias too, tycoons with powerful political connections, with the current dispensation and the previous ones. Some banias are so powerful that they claim to have political parties in their pockets. They own TV channels and newspapers to engineer or subvert public opinion. Journalists think it is their doing.
There are good and bad journalists among banias. The man who exposed the key players in the Gujarat carnage of 2002 with shocking sting operations is a bania, a key lieutenant of Kejriwal. That’s one more reason why the Delhi chief minister is in such bad odour with India’s ruling party.
BJP president Amit Shah is a bania from Gujarat. He has called Gandhiji a chatur bania recently. ‘Chatur’ could mean clever or shrewd in a positive way or it could mean sly. Given the context, I think Shah meant to say Gandhi was a clever man. In Shah’s view, evidently a correct one, Gandhi could see that the Congress would degenerate into a ruling wand for the privileged after independence. He had therefore wanted the Congress to be wound up after 1947.
The killing of Muslims and Dalits over beef consumption and cattle trade has more to do with right-wing politics than with religion.
Had Gandhi succeeded, there would have been a power vacuum. In all likelihood, the Hindu right would have stepped in. Another possibility, which the wealthy banias feared most, was of a communist takeover. Nehru took charge to keep both sides on a tight leash. He dismantled India’s first communist government in Kerala and was partial to state-owned enterprises to challenge the tycoons he didn’t trust.
I am intrigued by the fuss about the BJP president calling Gandhi a shrewd bania. If Nehru could flaunt his Brahmin caste and be called a pandit, which is how he would be announced on All India Radio — Pandit Nehru — why is there so much caginess about the word bania for Gandhi?
Elections in India, without exception, are conducted along the caste arithmetic. It’s not the hallmark of an enlightened democracy, but that’s what we have. AJGAR in Gujarat or Rajasthan stands for an alliance of Ahir, Jat, Gujar, Adivasi and Rajput. Add Muslims to the equation and it becomes MAJGAR. Lalu Yadav has a Muslim-Yadav winning combination spelt as MY.
Castes compete with other castes and their leaders vie for influence within each caste. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is a Thakur, a caste also known as Rajput elsewhere. Home Minister Rajnath Singh was considered the most powerful Thakur leader in Uttar Pradesh before Prime Minister Modi promoted Adityanath. The move has undercut the home minister’s political influence. Caste plays a major role in stratifying Indian Muslims too but that is a separate voluminous subject. And, Muslims too have banias.
Shah’s calling Gandhiji a chatur bania incurred strong criticism from upper-caste opposition parties and intellectuals. But Shah is shrewdly aware that criticism of Gandhi goes down well with the Dalits he is wooing. B.R. Ambedkar had major run-ins with Gandhi. Ambedkar called Hinduism a “chamber of horrors”. Gandhi saw Hinduism as an anchor of India’s spiritual (thus secular) future.
If I am right, Amit Shah is the first bania president of the BJP. And he is a staunch vegetarian. In fact, of all three Hindu upper castes — Brahmins, Thakurs and Banias — the banias are traditionally the most rigid in their vegetarianism. But they own and run abattoirs. If you ate a juicy seekh kebab at Khan Chacha at Delhi’s Khan Market, the bill would have come with the name of a certain Mr Gupta as proprietor, a bania. The killing of Muslims and Dalits over beef consumption and cattle trade by fascist vigilantes has more to do with right-wing politics than with religion. Shah says Gandhi foresaw the degeneration of the Congress. But Gandhi even more presciently saw the danger right-wing Hindus posed.
Excerpts below from Gandhi’s prayer meeting, 20 days before India gained independence, could be a message from an old bania to the younger ascendant banias.
“Rajendra Babu (who became India’s first president) tells me that he has received some 50,000 postcards, between 25,000 and 30,000 letters and many thousands of telegrams demanding a ban on cow slaughter. I spoke to you about this before. Why this flood of telegrams and letters? They have had no effect.
“I have another telegram which says that a friend has started a fast for this cause. In India, no law can be made to ban cow slaughter. I do not doubt that Hindus are forbidden the slaughter of cows. I have been long pledged to serve the cow but how can my religion also be the religion of the rest of the Indians? It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus.
“We have been shouting from the housetops that there will be no coercion in the matter of religion. We have been reciting verses from the Quran at the prayer. But if anyone were to force me to recite these verses I would not like it. How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed? It is not as if there were only Hindus in the Indian Union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups here.”
For that and less Gandhiji, the good bania, was killed by Godse, the bad Brahmin.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2017