Bengal's Long Lost Entrepreneurial Spirit
A look back at the heyday of Bengali enterprise through the journey of one man.
West Bengal doesn’t have the best reputation for business in a country involved in trade and commerce for the last 6000 years. The Left Front government, in 34 years at the helm of the affairs of the state, presided over the decline and fall of industry and transformed Bengal from a go-to business destination to a region governed by politically backed trade unions and unreasonable government regulations.
Fast forward to 2016, and the easterly state plays host to the second edition of the Bengal Global Business Summit. Industrialists and business leaders from across India come together to discuss and promote Bengal as an investment destination, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee characterizes the State government as the ‘employees’ of industry to woo potential investors, and all-in-all, Bengal makes an attempt at becoming a hotbed of economic activity. This is in spite of the damage caused by Communist rule in preceding decades, and the poor press following the famed Singur controversy.
As a Bengali, albeit having never lived in the state, there is a great sense of pride that accompanies Bengal’s attempts at establishing a place for itself at the commercial high table. India’s much talked about economic growth has given impetus for its various regions to make the conduct and establishment of business easier, and despite a flurry of scams and allegations against the ruling Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerjee has, prima facie, made a pretty convincing case for the return of Bengal to the domain of business.
Once Upon A Time in Bengal...
It is easy enough for people to forget, or for more recent generations to not know at all, that at a point of time, Bengal (and particularly Calcutta) was perhaps the most important commercial centre in the country. It was the hub for the surrounding jute and tea industries, a port from where the British used to conduct their trade with China, and the starting point for a number of great business houses in the country. This added to the already cosmopolitan nature of Calcutta, which boasted of numerous business communities within its environs including the Marwaris, Punjabis, British, Chinese, Baghdadi Jews and, perhaps less, notably, Bengalis themselves.
In more recent times, business (or what was left of it) in Bengal came to be associated with the Marwari community, who were the only real survivors of the modern period of ‘deindustrialization’ in the state at the hands of the Left. Marwari families such as the Goenkas and the Neotias continue to dominate the commercial landscape of Bengal. Some say it’s because of a Marwari’s inherent sense of business and hard work. Others say it’s simply because the Bengali people were characterized by their laziness, unwillingness to work and general demeanour which was not conducive to lasting business concerns.
It is notions such as these which gave rise to the popular idea of the Bengali business owner’s work day:
8am: Tea, Biscuits & Newspapers
10:30am: Open the shop for business; show complete disinterest in customers while continuing to devour newspapers and drink more tea
12:30pm: The smell of rancid mustard oil wafts through the establishment, as fish begins to be fried for lunch in the small kitchenette attached to the shop
1-2:30pm: Lunch for all shop staff
2:30pm-4:30pm: Shut the shop for the afternoon, return home and take a long siesta to help ‘digest’ the mountain of rice and fish consumed at lunch
4:45pm: Re-open the shop and show greater disinterest
5:30pm: Shut shop for the day
5:30pm-7:30pm: Sit at the street corner with five other men for the daily ‘adda’ session over tea, biscuits and cigarettes
7:30pm: Return home, ask children about their marks at school, wash up for the evening meal
While this ‘timetable’ may just be exaggeration, it continues to be the prevailing notion about the Bengali business acumen. However, this is not an entirely accurate perception, particularly in light of Bengal’s past and the period of the Swadeshi movement in India in the early part of the 20th century.
The Renaissance of Bengali Industry: The Swadeshi Movement
Lord Curzon’s decision to partition Bengal in 1905 had unwittingly set into motion a chain of events that would change the face of the national movement. Rather than looking for the political means to protest the decision of the Viceroy, the people of Bengal looked to a new kind of strategy – economics. By promoting Swadeshi (or locally manufactured) products, Bengal sought to hit the British government where they felt it would hurt the most – in their coffers.
Economic boycott was preferred to constitutional agitation, as scores of people set fire to British-made cloth and took to donning indigenous products. The movement cut across barriers of class and even sex, as women were often the leaders of such agitations.
In such a climate, Bengal also witnessed a unique event - the establishment of indigenous industry. With the dissemination of greater scientific knowledge to the people of Bengal, there emerged from the rank-and-file a number of individuals who set up companies in Bengal to meet the growing demand for Indian-made products. These included Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceutical Works, Bengal Potteries, Bande Mataram Match Factory, Duck Back Waterproof etc.
An interesting illustration was the case of one such entrepreneur, K.C. Das (not to be confused with the famous Calcutta sweet-maker), who was the son of Indian judge Rai Bahadur Tarak Chandra Das and Mohini Devi, herself an important figure in the Swadeshi Movement and a stalwart in Gandhian circles in Bengal. Coming from an already politically conscious family, K.C. Das, who at the time was a lecturer, became influenced by the strain of revolutionary thought that was in vogue in Bengal, and was said to have been involved in the planning and execution of numerous acts of revolutionary terror at the time. His father was advised by an English friend to send his son overseas to study in order to prevent his arrest and possible incarceration. Taking the advice of his friend, he sent his son abroad.
K.C. boarded a ship in 1904 and set sail en route to the West Coast of the United States, holding a scholarship that was provided by the Indian Society for the Advancement of Scientific Industry. He, along with a group of other Indian students, first enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, but in 1907 transferred to rival Stanford University, citing better opportunities and instruction as the reason. During this period, he and another student, S.M. Bose, started the California Branch of the Indian Independence League, which would have links with the Ghadar Party in later years.
In 1910, K.C. Das and S.M. Bose graduated with degrees in Chemistry – possibly the first Indians to graduate from Stanford University (in Chemistry at least!). Subsequently, as the story goes, Das and Bose went over to Japan in order to study the science of pharmaceuticals and waterproofing respectively. They returned to India and established two companies that would become famous in Bengal as well as in India for Swadeshi products. Bose set up Bengal Waterproof Ltd., which would eventually be renamed ‘Duckback’, famous till date for the production of rubber and latex products, in particular the Duckback Hot Water Bottle.
In 1916, K.C. Das, along with B.N. Maitra and R.N. Sen, founded the Calcutta Chemical Company, a pharmaceutical company that would become one of the foremost symbols of Swadeshi enterprise in Bengal. It became famous throughout India for two of its product lines – the neem products for the masses (the most famous example being Margo Soap), and lavender products for more upmarket clientele (Lavender Dew Powder being the most well-known example).
‘CalChemiCo’ was a highly successful company through most of the 20th century, and it was propped up largely by the hardwork and ideals of K.C. Das, who used his foreign education and entrepreneurial spirit to propel the Swadeshi cause forward. Up until his death, he would manage the company’s affairs himself, and was lauded by his contemporaries for his unwavering dedication to the promotion of Bengali enterprise. It was said by his family members that it was at his funeral that they truly understood the full magnitude of his determination, where hundreds of people unknown to the family had shown up for the service. It turned out that on his regular morning walks around the lake in South Calcutta, K.C. would often encounter Bengali youths hanging around with nothing to do. When he asked them why they were whiling away their time, they said, “It is because we do not have chakri (service, or employ).” He would retort by saying, “What do you mean? Why would you want to be in service? That would make you a servant. You must go and make your own way in the world, start something of your own, no matter how small. I will fund it myself.” These same men would then turn up at the funeral service to pay their last respects to the man who showed them the way out of idle living and into the realm of entrepreneurship.
Like this, K.C. funded numerous young Bengalis and, no matter how small their business ambitions were, gave them support along their journey. These young men often became nothing more than hawkers or street vendors, but they were proud that the enterprise was their own. Such was the spirit of Bengali enterprise that individuals like K.C. Das fostered. Somewhere along the way, Bengal faltered, and the decades of Left rule sapped the spirit out of a state, which, once upon a time, was at the forefront of business activity.
Bengal’s apparent resurgence as a business destination would be heartening to a populace whose economic prospects seemed largely bleak for most of the second half of the 20th century. Greater investment and cooperation by the state government will go a long way in giving Bengal back some of its lost glory. But the true testament to the vision of individuals like K.C. Das, S.M. Bose and others will be the day when the spirit of entrepreneurship in Bengal will make a comeback, and we wait for that day with bated breath.
Disclaimer: Details for the reconstruction of the life of K.C. Das have been drawn from newspaper articles, academic books and from the stories told by his grandchildren.