July  2002 

Manavta nu kaam                                                    >>>to index page


I am the CMD of the Gujarat Tea Processors and Packers Limited. We manufacture the Wagh Bakri and Good Morning brands of tea. My family’s association with tea goes back 110 years. My grandfather started out in South Africa where we had tea plantations since 1885. I am also chairman of Federation of All India Tea Traders’ Association (FAITTA).

After the recent carnage, in Gujarat, I am seriously thinking of resigning from the company and devoting all of my time for ‘manavta nu kaam’ (working for humanity). My company may need me, but society needs be more. Our group has been committed to charitable work and through the VN Desai Charitable Trust we devote 5–10 per cent of our income every year, since 1985, to social causes.

In the initial days there was an unbearable level of hatred and suspicion. By early May, we tried to bring the trading community together across community lines, despite the fact that political elements threatened our attempts. I was disturbed then and remain concerned now about talks of economic non-cooperation among some Hindu traders who are not ready to supply to Muslim traders; their refusal to extend credit, cash etc. There are groups here — and I make bold to say this — who are even now pressurising traders not to sell goods and enforcing an economic boycott. People like us need to resist such efforts. We are trying to form a body on a cooperative basis to collect materials from both sides and ensure free flow without any disturbance.

Secondly, I felt for the first time that we should get directly involved in rehabilitation to send out a message that we care. Hence, through my personal trust, the Asha Kiran Trust, we re–built the homes in the Vejalpur–Juhapura area.

Work like this should not be spoken about. I only went public about this because I felt in my travels to Pune, Bangalore and other parts that people carried this disturbing impression that all Gujaratis supported the VHP’s brand of Hinduism.

Just like at the time of the earthquake, when the violence raged, I first sent a circular to all my agents in Gujarat — there are about 210 agents — saying that tea must be sent to the camps on credit. This way I have supplied 4 thousand kilograms of tea (worth Rs 4 lakhs) to the camps. We also supplied paper cups which are hygienic. So there were and are traders who are taking risks and driven by their conscience, helping. In Gujarat, unfortunately, no one says that they are helping openly, restrained by an all–pervasive fear.

We are also trying to ensure that those traders and businessmen who have lost their property, their hotels, their restaurants, and their shops, are provided with loans without waiting for government assistance. We also feel strongly that when they do get the assistance from the government, we should stand surety for them by getting deposits from colleagues in business and industry.

I am also personally keen that over 80 restaurants and hotels within Ahmedabad and at least 300 on the Ahmedabad–Mehsana, Ahmedabad–Baroda highway (Kheda, Surat, Palanpur, Modasa, Mehsana) should be given special assistance to re–start quickly. I am also chairman of All India Tea Federation and therefore have close connections with the Union commerce ministry through the Tea Board of India.

This time the promotion budget of the Tea Board is Rs 15 crore. I have formally proposed that, at least one–third of the amount should be spent on giving loans to these restaurants and hotels along with an identity to the restaurants that are rehabilitated — some emblem which will identify that this is recognized by the Tea Board of India or Tea Federation, like Resham Bhavan in Bombay.

I think of myself as an instrument and only wish to bring light and some purity. We will make every effort and God is great.

In the last 8–10 years, through various platforms, this poison of communal conflict and hatred by one community towards the other is being spreading. There are groups – I do not wish to take any names — who make me ashamed to call myself a Hindu. When we go to the market in the morning we hear stories of small incidents that depict this corrosion of the mind and heart.

Young minds are being poisoned through education. It is a dangerous venom that is affecting the quality of everyday life. Four days back, on July 12, I felt ashamed when the Lord Jagannath Yatra was taken out. Our Muslim brothers were asked to observe self–imposed curfew, shoot–at–sight orders were issued on the route of the procession. Do we even remember that the Muharram tazia procession that means something to them and is a tenet of their faith did not take place this year? What message are we sending out by suppressing only one section?

We need to ensure that those, who are not noble of heart and mind, those who have no respect for the feelings of other communities, such leaders should not cross the corporator level let alone become MLAs. They should not go to Parliament either where national policy is framed.

"Aren’t you Hindu? Why do you want to help them? Are the Wagh–Bakri owners Muslims’? I am ashamed when these questions are put to me every other day in Ahmedabad. Our Wagh–Bakri brand was started with the help of a Muslim who gave us a loan of Rs 10,000 over 150 years ago. We are indebted to him. How can we ever pay off this debt?

(As told to Teesta Setalvad)


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