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Self-centred Indian merchant class

india Updated: Nov 12, 2006 12:18 IST
Ravi Kalia
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Delhi has never been a capital city easy to govern, whether it were the Pandayas that ruled Indrapastha or the Turko-Afghans that ruled the Delhi Sultanate or the Mughals that ruled Shahjahanabad or the British that ruled New Delhi. And yet Delhi has been a magnet for conquering people, for migrants, and for the displaced merchants from West Punjab that was lost to Pakistan in the partition of the subcontinent at independence.

The displaced merchants received special dispensation after the partition as the government of India felt that, both for economic reasons as well as for humanitarian considerations, any indefinite delay in settling this group might result in the permanent loss of a source for economic revenue for the country.  Thus the Englishman AL Fletcher, the governor of East Punjab, advised the government of India that "big business and industry uprooted from West Punjab" must be settled as soon as possible. Those traders who could not be settled quickly in East Punjab were settled in Delhi and in neighboring refugee townships of Ghaziabad, Faridabad and others. 

In nomenclature there is distinction between the middle class and the merchant class, the latter being a smaller part of the former, albeit a disproportionately strong and powerful part. Characteristically, the merchant class in general, and the Indian merchant class in particular, have been driven by self-interest; therefore it would be naïve to expect loyalty or even altruism from this group, although this class can and has displayed both when it suited its interest. The nascent Indian merchant class steadfastly remained loyal to the British raj or to its regional interests, but quickly transferred its loyalty to Gandhi and the Indian National Congress once it saw economic opportunity in his message of swadeshi. 

In the instance of Delhi rioting, the same merchant class, expanded and buoyed by economic gains derived from economic reforms since 1991, struck to protect its business interests, even if by any measures of civil society the destruction of private and public property is deplorable.  (I should note here that while there exists substantial research on the Indian Middle Class no corresponding significant research has been done on the Indian Merchant Class. In a recent colloquium at the University of California at Los Angeles, the Paris-based Claude Markovits lamented this lacuna in Indian historical research.)

But even as this new bourgeoisie parlayed in trade and accumulated wealth, the Indian merchants themselves are bundles of contradictions: On the one hand, they are intermediaries embracing the New India's market and economic values that are liberal, or controversial, in the Old India, and bringing a taste for consumerism and fashion-in sum, modern values; on the other hand, the Indian bourgeoisie still supports India's conservative values and traditional institutions, perhaps out of pragmatism.

Thus, computerisation is shunned and accounting books are still maintained in the old fashioned way so as to escape accurate reporting of taxes, and money is given to political candidates who promise to defend their interests, even if it means bending the law -- what Vir Sanghvi calls candidates like Ram Babu Sharma, the president of the Delhi Congress Party, and Harsh Vardhan, the president of the Delhi Bharitya Janata Party.

The Indian bourgeoisie is able to cut across political party lines or ideologies with ease, so long as they are not held to high standards required under the common law and the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) to which merchants in Europe and the United States have to comply. (Under the UCC a merchant selling a product is deemed to give an implied warranty of merchantability, guaranteeing that the product is fit to be sold, even if there is nothing in writing to this effect. The UCC also contains a "merchant confirmation" exception to the Statue of Frauds.) 

It should come as no surprise to anyone, therefore, that if a merchant flagrantly flouts the law, cheats on his income tax returns and builds illegal structures, confident in all cases that he would either buy him impunity or tie up the system in litigation that will last for several years, if not decades.

However, merchants have played important role in both British India and independent India: circulating goods, creating networks of news and knowledge, even supporting nationalist causes-but on their own terms. Since 1991, they have staged a spectacular comeback in the Indian market, but "it is a market without history," as Markovits notes, because so little is known of this class and its interaction with the state.

Because multiple authorities regulate urban India, it can easily be gamed by anyone with half-wit, resources, and time-all at the disposal of the bourgeoisie. The urban poor is at a distinct disadvantage, living in slums, paying premiums to slum bosses. Slum boss, an entrepreneur in his own right, for the right sum delivers services like electricity, water, telephone, to a slum dweller by gaming the system. 

Delhi attracts more hapless rural migrants daily-over 600-more than any other Indian metropolitan city, including Mumbai. New Delhi was initially planned to accommodate a population of 65,000 on an area covering 3,200 acres (1,300 hectares).  Since the 1980s, New Delhi has expanded unabated, the city's population pushing 14 million in 2006. 

New Delhi's rapid growth and the centralisation of resources have served to induce the development of new towns on its periphery: Ghaziabad, Noida, Gurgeon, Sonepat, and others. Unauthorised structures have been built both by merchants and the poor. New Delhi in the twenty-first century is a capital under siege by its own population. As the Delhi Development Authority starts exploring the possibility of expanding vertically, it is questionable whether or not the government will be able to protect Edwin Landseer Lutyens' remarkable architectural vision.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru commenting on urban India observed that "the fundamental problem of India is not Delhi or Calcutta or Bombay but the villages of India, and something has to be done to raise the level of life in villages…  We want to urbanise the village, not take away the people from the villages to the towns. However well we may deal with the towns, the problem of the villages of India will remain for a long time and any social standards that we seek to introduce will be judged ultimately not by what happens in Delhi but in the villages of India."

Forty years on that observation is even more compelling, and deserves urgent attention.

Ravi Kalia is on the faculty of The City College of The City University of New York, specialising in Indian urbanism and architecture. He is the author of trilogy on state capitals of Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar, and Gandhinagar, all available through Oxford University Press, New Delhi. He can be reached at RaviKalia@aol.com.

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