Arguably the most important crucible of Indian nationalism was the ashram run by Mahatma Gandhi in Ahmedabad from 1915 to 1930. It was here that the programmes for the major satyagrahas were designed, and the activists and social workers who led those satyagrahas trained. Gandhian ideas of non-violence, the upliftment of women, Hindu-Muslim harmony, and the abolition of Untouchability, were all perfected in this ashram.
Had it not been for a munificient philanthrophist, however, the ashram may never have survived. Not long after it started, Gandhi admitted an Untouchable family, whereupon his patrons withrew support. The shortfall was made up by a man identified in Gandhi ’s autobiography only as ‘the Sheth’ (but whom we know to have been Ambalal Sarabhai). The Rs 13,000 offered by the Sheth (a considerable sum in 1915) sustained the ashram for more than a year, by which time it was well established, and able to call on support from, as Gandhi wrote, other ‘good Hindus [who] do not scruple to help an Ashram where we go the length of dining with the untouchables’.
Philantrophy for the social good must be differentiated from communal charity, where, for example, poor Brahmins or sick Jains are given a leg up by the more fortunate members of their community. The first real philanthrophists in India were the Parsis of Bombay, who, in the 19th century, build roads, hospitals, parks, schools and colleges for their fellow citizens (themselves mostly Hindus and Muslims). Names such as Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy, Cowasji Jehangir, and Jamsetji Tata are, justly renowned, but, as that knowledgeable Mumbaikar Naresh Fernandes reminds me, history must also remember the contributions of Jewish benefactors (the Sassoons) and Hindu Sheths (as in Jagannath Shankar of that ilk). These traditions have been continued by later Parsis, among them the Bhabhas, the Godrejs, and the Tatas, who have supported major scientific and cultural institutions.
If one large-hearted businessman saved Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmedabad, another, Jamnalal Bajaj, funded Gandhi’s next (and equally epoch-defining) ashram, which was located in Sevagram in Central India. The Mahatma had argued that industrialists were ‘trustees’ whose wealth had to be wisely used for the social good, rather than spent on personal aggrandizement. The family who perhaps best embodied this ideal were the Sarabhais. Thus, in the 1950s and beyond, the descendants of Ambalal created a series of high-quality centres of education in Ahmedabad, among them India’s best design and management schools.
These two earlier phases of social sharing form the necessary backdrop to the new, or post-Gandhian, wave of philanthrophy. This last wave has been led by the IT czars of my home town, Bangalore. Azim Premji’s extraordinarily generous bequest is only the latest, if certainly the most substantial, of a series of donations by software entrepreneurs to the promotion of wider access to education and health, and to scholarly research. Many of these gifts occur below the radar of the press. Thus, one founder of Infosys quit early and has since steadily supported research into innovation and new models of entrepreneurship. Another founder has, again very quietly, helped restore some historic buildings in Mysore. A third, has, likewise without fuss, helped place the unstable finances of India’s finest journal of social science research, the Economic and Political Weekly, on a solidly secure footing, this notwithstanding the fact that the EPW has a marked anti-capitalist bias itself.
These three waves of philanthrophy have two things in common. First, although Hindus are in an overwhelming majority in India, Hindu businessmen in general, and bania businessmen in particular, have been less willing to contribute to society. I have already mentioned the staggering contributions in this respect of the Parsis, and of the Jews. Azim Premji is of course a Muslim. Interestingly, although the founders of Infosys are Hindus, they come not from a bania background but from other castes. They are children of teachers and managers who made their own money and have thus been more willing to give it away.
To be sure, the capitalists who, inspired by Gandhi, funded public institutions were often banias. However, they would not have done what they did without the Mahatma’s challenge. And since Gandhi himself was deeply influenced by Christian traditions of charity and social justice, in acting as they did, they were themselves being somewhat un-bania-like.
The second thing to note is that in all three waves, those who gave have been the exception rather than the rule. In the first decades of this century, as in the first decades of the last, most industrialists have been inclined to stash their money away in foreign banks, and/or use it for conspicuous consumption. Perhaps Mr Premji’s magnificent gesture may now provoke or shame his more parsimonious or exhibitionist peers to emulate the Sarabhais and Jagannath Shankarseths of the past.
There is one last point. In the late 19th century all women, including wives of the richest men, were without influence in the public sphere. However, more recently women from rich families have played a salutary role in the promotion of philanthrophy. This was especially true of the Sarabhais, where Anusuya, Mridula and Gira made their brothers more socially conscious as well as more culturally aware. Likewise, one must be thankful that the wives of the IT billionaires have not come in the way of their husbands’ donations, or suggested that the funds be used to buy private jets and cricket teams instead. In fact, these women, themselves educated and progressive, have often actively directed their money into the most constructive and creative channels.