When Neil Armstrong reached the moon, he saw some friendly-looking people there, with strange headgear. His conversation with them went something like this:
Armstrong: “Who are you and what are you doing up on the moon?”
Aliens: “We are Sikhs. Assi te Partition de baad hi aithe aa gaye (We came here after the Partition)!”
This is one of the many jokes about the ubiquitous Sikhs, found today in almost all parts of the world, running a variety of businesses, from small food joints to massive manufacturing industries. Nine out of ten businesses run by the Punjabis today are by the Khatri Punjabis (found both among Sikhs and Hindus because of their common ancestry) who really landed on the business map of India after Partition. Arriving as penniless migrants from what was then called West Punjab, their enterprising nature and legendary capacity of hard work, fuelled by adversity, made them the formidable component they are today of the India growth story.
The Khatri Sikhs are the sweet-talking, non-confrontationist businessmen hailing from clans like Bedi, Bhalla, Arora, Ahluwalia, Pahwa and so on—many of whom trace their ancestry to the 10 Sikh gurus. The industrial hubs of Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Yamunanagar and Delhi, of course, grew on the back of Khatri enterprise. The Pahwas of Avon cycles, Kapurs of Atlas cycles and Munjals of Hero Honda pioneered the bicycle industry in Ludhiana; just as the Sondhis, Chadhas and Wassans established the Rs 2,000-crore Jalandhar sports goods industry, which grew around the hundreds of sports goods craftsmen and traders fleeing Sialkot in Pakistan in 1947.
Most of them still speak the sweet, west Pakistani dialect of Punjabi that differentiates them from their loud and somewhat brash Jat Sikh brethren. Though the post-Partition years saw several Khatri families growing from small-time traders to big business interests, every decade has spawned absolutely new success stories. Like the Rs 300-crore Doraha (near Ludhiana)-based Kashmir Apiaries, started by Jagjit Singh Kapoor, son of an impoverished school teacher from Mirpur in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. “When my father came here,” Jagjit tells Outlook, “he began inviting other fleeing Punjabis to Doraha, and soon all of us were into small businesses. After graduating in 1971, I also tried my hand at several small ventures, but most failed. In the early ’80s, I did a course in beekeeping, began selling boxes for beehives and soon began buying honey from people who had bee colonies.”
Kashmir Apiaries is today the largest Indian exporter of honey, selling a variety of honey products to 48 countries, and Jagjit is proud of being able to adhere to stringent international standards. Displaying the quintessential Khatri trait for hard work and risk-taking, he says, “I used to travel third-class to find buyers for my honey and saved on hotel bills by sleeping on night trains, and bathing at railway station waiting rooms.”
Unlike the ever-cautious Jains and Banias of north India, taking risks comes naturally to the Khatris, an instinct honed possibly by centuries of survival in the invader-prone northwest. So, in 1953, when nascent Chandigarh was just a cluster of a few houses and government offices, Darshan Singh, originally from Rawalpindi in Pakistan, started Aroma hotel, the city’s first commercial property. “It didn’t make much money initially,” says his son Manmohan, “and the Punjab government made it into a resthouse to enable us to get by.” Over the years, though, Aroma’s become a Chandigarh landmark, and the family has recently added a four-star property, besides interests in the hospitality business in the US and video distribution.
In the same mould is Gautam Kapur, who established Radisson hotel in Jalandhar some eight years ago, at a time when opening a five-star property in the city was considered foolhardy. But the 57-year-old had started his hugely successful hand tools manufacturing business also in adverse conditions, in 1985, when militancy was at its peak. “It was a time,” he recalls, “when businessmen were moving out of Punjab, but my father who was a leading motion picture distributor of north India said we should not leave a town which had given us so many good decades.”
Though the Khatris believe they are warrior Kshatriyas who took to trading, there is some ambiguity about their place in the varna system, as they have for centuries been in mercantile occupations. Their children received solid education; many found their way into the army, banking and judiciary. In recent decades, though, many Khatris from service backgrounds have given in to their merchant genes and entered business. Deepak Pahwa of Bryair Asia, for instance, is a first-time entrepreneur. His grandfather was a renowned eye surgeon of Punjab, his father was in insurance while numerous uncles and cousins of his were in the army. Deepak himself began with a small air-conditioning unit some three decades ago to grow into a Rs 500-crore engineering giant with a presence in 40 countries.
Sharp hotelier Gautam Kapur in Jalandhar
“Yes, we are a docile community,” he observes, “who will never be found protesting and sitting on dharnas, though we may talk a lot.” Avinash Chopra of the Rs 500-crore Hind Samachar group of newspapers, first established in 1948, is more direct about typical Khatri traits. “We are basically ‘darpok’, not given to taking strong stands, and get a high from making money. Other communities are jealous of our success and influence, but do not see the hard work behind it.” Kishie Singh, a Jat Sikh journalist and keen observer of Punjabi culture, sees Khatris as “the politest people I know, great networkers, though not necessarily very honest in business”.
Everyone is hugely proud of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, their best known political face, but freely acknowledge he is not a typical politician who can be counted on for “favours”. The Punjabi Jat Sikh, it’s often said, is known for agriculture and litigation (from never-ending disputes over land). The Khatri Sikhs, on the other hand, are not hobbled by either. Their business philosophy is best illustrated by the phrase, ‘sanoo ke lena ji (how does it concern me)’. It means minding one’s business.
I don’t quite agree with the premise of the article on Punjabi Khatris (Make Money, Not War). Sikhs really don’t distinguish between Khatris etc. The writer needlessly tries to link the industrial trait to a particular caste group. I’m an Arora myself and have seen great businesses owned by Jat Sikhs all over the world, including a lot of them in the US. The article has been written to justify an assumption—the writer has conveniently forgotten the Dhaliwals of Punjab, Bains of California and Raunak Singh of Apollo Tyres. All are Jat Sikhs.
Prabhujeet Singh, Singapore
The article is more about Aroras. Khatris (Kapoors, Khannas, Malhotras etc) are distinct; they generally don’t marry into the Arora community. There could have been a mention of the families of Dabur, Nirula’s and also the doctors Luthra and Batra. All business communities have a tendency for staying out of trouble, not just Khatris.
P. Kotvi, Noida
Are you sure that “nine out of ten businesses in Punjab are run by Khatris?” Perhaps this is true of Delhi and Bombay, where most Sikhs probably are Khatris, but I think the article needed more research. As I see it, the Sikhs are a diaspora spread all over the world, from California and London to Vancouver and Toronto. Wherever, one notices that only a fraction of businesses is owned by Khatris. Most are owned by Jat Sikhs, who make up most of the Sikh diaspora population.
Jaz Dhillon, London
This article is more about the Arora community. Khatri's (Kapoor, Khannas, Malhotras etc.) are distinct, they generally do not prefer to marry into Aroras. There could have been a mention of the Dabur's and the Nirulas too, also the Vandana Luthras and Dr. Batras. Staying out of trouble maybe true for all business communities, lets not generalize this for Khatri's.
"9 out of 10 businesses run by Punjabis are run by Khatris" ???? Are you sure about this ? Perhaps this is true of Delhi and Bombay, where the only Sikhs that exist are the Khatris, but I think the author needs to get out more and understand the world a little better. The Sikhs themselves are a wide diaspora spread all over the world with their heartland being Punjab. No matter where you go in the Sikh diaspora, be it London, Vancouver or California, you will notice that not more than 1% of the Punjabi businesses are run by Khatris. The vast majority are owned and run by the Jatt Sikhs, who make up the overwhelming population of the Sikhs there. And in Punjab itself, whilst it is true that most of the city center businsses are run by khatris you must remember that Punjab is mostly rural. You could quite easily spend a year touring all the rural and semi rural businesses and never meet a khatri.
p.s Since when have the alcohol distillers kalals (Ahluwalias) been classed as 'Khatri' ?
Bullshit article ! ! ! Sikhs do not distinguish much between Khatri etc. One can go on to distinguish to no end, even Bhapas and Khatris are not same.
The writer inconclusively tries to link the industrial trait to a particular race group . I am Arora myself and have seen great business owned by Jat Sikhs all over the world including a lot of them in US.
The article has been written to justify an assumption. The writer has conveniently forgotten Dhaliwals of Punjab, Bains of California and Raunak Singh of Opollo tyres. All of these are Jat Sikhs.
The article could have been totally avoided.
Prabhujeet Singh>> Bullshit article ! ! ! Sikhs do not distinguish much between Khatri etc. One can go on to distinguish to no end, even Bhapas and Khatris are not same.
The entire series of articles from OUTLOOK were hastily written, without much background research, thus there are tonnes and tonnes of errors..
The enterprenueral castes and communities of india cannot be written in one 75-100 page magazine with silly photos, but then what exactly is the objective of the Otherwise LEFTIST OUTLOOK?
It is quite likely that the edition was hastily drafted to bring a feel good factor to the so called NON-REFORMS That MMS-Sonia govt has carried out of late..
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