The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Outsiders can restore vitality in both business and culture

Alice Hardgrove's scholarly work on Marwaris cites European Jews and the Chinese of Indonesia. The latter comparison had occurred to me during Java's 1998 anti-Chinese riots when I read that the community accounted for under five per cent of Indonesia's population but controlled 70 per cent of its wealth. It was reinforced by the repeated publication in Indian newspapers, including this one, of a picture of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee with a man with Mongolian features in a long-sleeved batik shirt.

That is London-educated Anthony Salim, the Salim Group's chairman and the most prominent member of Indonesia's fascinating ethnic phenomenon called cukong. Spelt tjukong in Dutch times, it is Hokkien for 'master' but like 'sahib' has lost connotations of racial superiority and means only a local Chinese businessman who collaborates with a member of the ruling elite. That was usually an army general during Suharto's long dictatorship when the highest in the land were often in cukong pay, and the president's wife, of whose royal descent Suharto was so proud, was nicknamed 'Madam Ten Per Cent'.

Salim's father, Sudono Salim, the group's founder, was born Liem Sioe Liong, in China's Fujian province in 1916. A peasant's second son, Liem ran a village noodle shop before fleeing in 1936, when civil war ravaged China, to the Dutch East Indies where many Chinese entrepreneurs took Indonesian names and embraced Islam. The Lippo and Ciputra conglomerates (both reportedly invited to West Bengal) were founded by Li Wenzhang and Tjia Kian Liong who became Mochtar Riady and William Suryajaya respectively.

It would be untrue to say that the cukong are not resented; but Indonesians are also conscious of their contribution to national enrichment. Instead of dabbling only in lucrative short-term trading, construction or the service sector, cukongs have invested heavily in industry. The manufacturing base they have created gives them a visible permanent stake in local prosperity by providing jobs for hundreds of thousands of Indonesians.

West Bengal's demographic planners should note that mutually beneficial interaction. Outsiders, even if only from other states, give a city its cosmopolitan flavour. Calcutta once boasted thriving Jewish, Armenian and even Greek and other continental European communities, to say nothing of the British, Parsees or Marwaris. Marwaris remain, but others have fled as wealth has. They will return if wealth does, to create the economic basis to generate more wealth. Remembering that, the authorities should make long-term investment and job creation an enforceable condition for all businessmen, not just foreigners.

Any community's willingness to travel long distances and capacity for hard work offers an example to laid-back indigenes who consider their talents wasted when not engaged in the liberal professions. The cukong's willingness to absorb, adapt and assimilate sets a model for all immigrants who seek permanent hospitality elsewhere. Indonesia's periodic outbursts of racial friction recall the Deccan Riots of 1875 when farmers in Poona and Ahmadnagar went on the rampage against Marwari moneylenders but not against local Brahmins who were far more active in closing land mortgages.

Another example of similar bias is available in the memoirs, Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist, of Prafulla Chandra Ray, revered as scientist and nationalist. Comparing fiscally conservative Marwaris with anglicized Bengali zamindars in the early Thirties, he argued that unlike the latter, the former earned a thousand times more than they spent. Some of Ray's comments sound offensively racist to modern ears, but there might be takers still for his complaint that though Marwaris must be admired for hard work and business aptitude, they deserve criticism for not reinvesting in the local economy.

Even their vegetarian diet, Ray believed, contributed to the economic drain for dal, ghee, and wheat flour were then imported into Bengal. 'Whatever they spend finds its way back into their own pockets,' he wrote. 'Hence the Marwari or the Bhatia or the Punjabi, although they make their money and live in Calcutta, seldom add any wealth to Bengal; nor is Bengal in any way materially benefited by their being residents of Bengal. They might as well have been residents of Kamchkatka or Timbuctoo.'

Claiming that Marwaris ignored the needs of local education and medicine, he cited the case of Nagpur University's vice-chancellor struggling to raise Rs 88,000 for new buildings while a Marwari spent more than Rs 6 lakhs (excluding the cost of the attached dharmasala) on building a nearby temple with the same expensive Jaipur marble as the Victoria Memorial. The Birlas, Ray contended, gave only Rs 26,000 to Calcutta University but Rs 1.2 crore to start Birla College in their native Pilani.

The situation has changed. There is ample evidence of Marwari philanthropy. The late Bejoy Singh Nahar did not think of himself as an outsider. But has public perception kept pace' The Ananda Bazar Patrika reported in 1995 that a Bengali in Burrabazar was 'like a traveller who has lost his way' and could 'easily assume that it is Rajasthan.' Rudraprasad Sengupta has not altered the sizzling park bench fracas with its explosive dialogue since Nandikar's highly popular Football opened 30 years ago, only modernizing the sethji's appearance. If there are few such explicit references, it is because, as a leading Jakarta editor argued in a comparable situation, when a bus collides with a bicycle, no reporter says the driver was Chinese and the cyclist Javanese.

Identity offers another point of comparison. Sociologists hold that 'there are no Marwaris as such in Rajasthan; they only become Marwaris when they leave (their homeland).' In contrast, for many years census enumerators recorded no Chinese in Indonesia because diaspora members identified themselves by linguistic label, entering Hokkien, Hakka or Teochew for nationality. The concept of China and Chinese nationhood is relatively recent among the overseas Chinese who were neither rich nor sophisticated to start with.

There is also an Indian parallel for Indonesia's quaintly named Ali Baba alliances. Ali was the local Muslim in whose favour the business licence had been issued. Baba (a term that also referred to Chinese immigrants in the old Straits Settlements who intermarried with Malays and evolved the rich Peranakan culture) was the Chinese businessman with capital and brains. One finds many equivalents of such pacts throughout India's northeast where Punjabi and even Bangladeshi businessmen operate behind the fig leaf of a Naga or Manipuri partner. Likewise, Bhutiya-Lepcha front men enabled multinationals to make hay during Sikkim's tobacco excise evasion boom.

With assets worth 32.5 trillion rupiahs in 1995 and more than a finger ' a fist more likely ' in the cement, food, property, automotive, finance, steel and agribusiness industries, Salim is the largest cukong conglomerate with investments in mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Netherlands and America. West Bengal's agreement with it confirms that the Liem family's close friendship with the Suhartos since the Fifties has not stopped the group from continuing to flourish since his overthrow. The invitation flows logically from Bhattacharjee's admission that the state must attend to industrialization. I have written before in these columns about young men from peasant families that prospered through land reform and the Food for Work programme but who have themselves outgrown their village past. Having completed high school or gone to college, they are anxious to make the jump from chasha to bhadralok through white-collar jobs. Without employment, a whole new generation of bright young men is at risk of turning into drifters at best and criminals at worst.

Industrialization by cukongs like Salim, Lippo, Ciputra and others has helped to reduce such dangers in Indonesia. Chinese migrants have added variety to Indonesian life. West Bengal needs to be rescued from economic stagnation; a mushroom crop of restaurants, bars and fashion boutiques testify to Calcutta's yearning to escape monocultural monotony. Outsiders can restore vitality on both counts. But enlightened self-interest must also compel them to insure in the future ' the state's as well as their own.

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