The term ‘bania’ has been used for Mahatma Gandhi in both pejorative and laudatory terms. On what side of that divide does BJP president Amit Shah’s comment fall? And what do the reactions to the comment tell us about some in the media?
So the old establishment media has found another soundbite to attack the BJP. Amit Shah, BJP’s national president is reported to have said that Gandhi was a ‘bahut chatur Baniya’ – a very smart and clever Bania. At once the Congress and others started attacking him. The media played it up as if the comment was a denigration.
Let us not forget that the colonialists had accused Gandhi of being a ‘Bania’. Each time it was mentioned by the colonial regime, it was done so in a derogatory manner.
Willingdon, who succeeded Irwin as the Viceroy, called Gandhi an 'astute little political Bania'. British intelligence report of the 1929 Lahore Congress session spoke of how 'Gandhi had dominated' and observed that 'the mind that has been so dominant is the mind of the bania chaffering, mixing dust with grain ...' It is interesting to note that the colonial British aversion for the Bania (which could have come from their own anti-Semitism) soon spread to the political discourse of India.
‘You are a Jew, a Bania’
Mohamed Ali, one of the instigators of the Khilafat Movement, when distancing himself and his movement from Gandhi, had charged Congress and Gandhi thus: "You make compromises in your constitution every day with false doctrines, immoral conceptions and wrong ideas, but you make no compromise with our communalists with separate electorates and reserved seats. ... You are a Jew, a Bania." However, Gandhiji with his own characteristic humour changed the intended slur to his advantage. So later, Gandhi addressed the Muslim League Council itself and said, “Brethren, I am a Bania, and there is no limit to my greed. It has always been my heart's desire to speak not only for 21 crores, but for 30 crores of Indians...to strive for Hindu Muslim unity."
Mrs. K.L. Ralia Ram, one of the prominent leaders of the Christian community in Lahore wrote to Jinnah in March 1947 about ' a conspiracy of Brahman plus the 'Bania' to make the Muslim nation surrender to the Hindu 'Raj' ‘ and thanked her God for Jinnah who protected 'the honour and dignity of the Muslims and minorities' against the onslaught of Hindus and Sikhs.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia described Gandhi as 'a reactionary who hailed from Bania caste ... betrayed the people and helped the imperialists against them ... aped the ascetics ... pretended in a demagogic way to be a supporter of Indian independence and ... widely exploited religious prejudices.' The communists of India, not to be left behind, described Gandhi as 'a reactionary’ who ‘hailed from the Bania caste which engaged in trade and usury' in their pamphlets and called Gandhian ideology as a 'broad utilization of religious prejudices, the propaganda of Hindu dogma on the absolute subordination of the 'lower' to 'higher' etc.' Kasim Razvi, the leader of the Islamo-fascist movement of Hyderabad, opposed integration with India saying that the Muslims did not want 'Brahmin or Bania rule here'.
It is interesting to note here that Ramachandra Guha uses the Bania aspect of Gandhi in a peculiar way. He says that though born a Bania, 'Gandhi had in most ways radically departed from the conventions and habits of his caste.' He says that while the Banias are 'notoriously conservative', Gandhi mixed freely with Christians and Muslims. Nevertheless, when it comes to what may be in Guha's view a deficiency of Gandhi, he does not hesitate to attribute it to the 'residue of his Bania upbringing' which is 'an indifference to and a lack of ability in modern sports such as cricket, football and tennis'. ('Gandhi before India', 2014)
Actually, the trading community, while moving freely with people of all religions, always maintains its own cultural and religious identity. This is true for Gandhi also. He resisted all conversion attempts and stood his ground as a Hindu.
After Independence, ‘Brahmin Bania’ = Hindutva
Interestingly, after freedom, the baton of the denigrating rhetoric of ‘Bania’ or ‘Brahmin-Bania’, passed from the colonialists-Islamists-Marxists and other assorted secessionists to Islamists-leftists-pseudo-liberals. The continuity is striking. Dravidianist E.V.Ramasaamy had spit venom on Gandhiji calling him Bania in both direct attacks and veiled references. He named Gandhi as the 'Kathiawar Bania' who was colluding with Tamil Brahmins against the non-Brahmins (Kudiarasu, 13-06-1937). In 1995, the then BSP supremo Kanshi Ram, addressing the 117th birth anniversay of E.V.Ramasaamy Naicker, called Gandhi 'a Gujarati Bania' who swallowed the Dalit rights instead of food during the fast in 1931.
Among the academic elite also one can see a continuing condescension towards the ‘Bania’ nature of Gandhi. For example, the American academic Howard Spodek, who often works in tandem with Indian leftists, writes that ‘in choosing Ahmedabad (as in his new home after South Africa), Gandhi chose to exploit a wholly new aspect of the Gujarati bania heritage, the economic side, in order to support his drive for political leadership of the entire subcontinent.’
Take any secessionist and you will find sooner or later the 'Brahmin Bania' stereotype emerge in his/her rhetoric. For example, the 1986 resolution passed by the organization created by Bhindranwale speaks of slavery of people under 'the communal Brahman Bania combine that controls the Delhi Durbar'.
As post-modernism started becoming the new in-thing for the academics, the English speaking elite started finding slowly that the term Bania may not be that bad a word after all. So let us not forget the description of Gandhi by Ashis Nandy. He described Gandhi as a 'shrewd, sceptical, this-worldly bania, suspicious of all prophets, final answers and keys to history, indeed of all concepts of total good and ultimate evil.' (Traditions, tyranny and utopias: essays in the politics of awareness, 1987)
Yet, the rhetoric still pays dividends. Kancha Illaiah speaks of BJP as trying to build 'Brahmin-Bania' economy’. An EPW article (1998) alleged that Hindutva represents a 'brahmin- bania nexus with the global capital'.
The context in which Amit Shah mentioned Gandhi as a ‘chatur Bania’ – a clever Bania, he actually reversed the negative stereotype. Here was a person who could bring together diverse elements to achieve a great and grand common good. And after that he could foresee the vehicle degenerating into one of vested interests. When Amit Shah said those words, he actually paid a tribute to the Gandhi – one of the greatest sons of India. And only a leader of the Hindutva movement can say that. After all the legacy of being the target of the negative stereotyping related to the term Bania moved from Gandhi to the RSS. This stereotype was first practiced by the British and their supporters and now by some politicians and pseudo-secularists.