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How a Muslim Billionaire Thrives in Hindu India

Mr. Premji Has Wealth And Clout as Wipro Chief; The Imam Disapproves

September 11, 2007; Page A1


BANGALORE, India -- The world's richest Muslim entrepreneur defies conventional wisdom about Islamic tycoons: He doesn't hail from the Persian Gulf, he didn't make his money in petroleum, and he definitely doesn't wear his faith on his sleeve.


A native of Mumbai, Azim Premji has tapped India's abundant engineering talent to transform a family vegetable-oil firm, Wipro Ltd., into a technology and outsourcing giant. By serving Western manufacturers, airlines and utilities, the company has brought Mr. Premji a fortune of some $17 billion -- believed to be greater than that of any other Muslim outside of Persian Gulf royalty.


[Azim Premji]Such success, Mr. Premji says in an interview, shows that globalization -- a force Islamist activists decry as Western neocolonialism -- is turning into "two-way traffic" that can bring tangible benefits to developing countries.


Mr. Premji's rise is already inspiring some Indian Muslims to embrace the modern, globalized world. "He's an icon. He shows that excellence has no caste and no creed, and that if one has excellence, one can make it to the top," says Mohamed Javeed, principal of Bangalore's predominantly Muslim Al-Ameen College. One of the students, Mohammed Nasseer, enthuses, "I'd love to become like Premji one day."

A role model like Mr. Premji might seem to be what India's Muslims need. Though the country's economy is growing at 9% a year, the vast majority of India's estimated 150 million Muslims -- the largest Islamic population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan -- remain socially marginalized, badly educated and mired in deep poverty. By and large, they're left out of the social transformation that is propelling millions of their Hindu compatriots into prosperity, as barriers of caste disappear and India's new corporate giants provide opportunities that never existed before.


Yet, to many in India's Muslim community, Mr. Premji's enormous wealth, far from being inspiring, shows that success comes at a price the truly faithful cannot accept. They resent that Mr. Premji plays down his religious roots and declines to embrace Muslim causes -- in a nation where people are pegged by their religion and where Hindus freely flaunt theirs. "If you are a Muslim and want to be rich in India, you have to show you are very secular," says Zafarul Islam Khan, secretary-general of the All-India Muslim Majlis e Mushawarat, an umbrella group.



•  The Issue: Wipro executive Azim Premji has inspired other Muslims in India to embrace the modern world -- but not all Muslims approve of his secular ways.

•  Behind the Debate: Muslims are among the poorest and least educated groups in India.

•  Hiring Prospects: Technology giant Wipro says it seeks to hire regardless of creed, but relatively few Indian Muslims meet its standards because they lack English skills and engineering degrees.

A Muslim school a half-hour's drive from Mr. Premji's Bangalore home reveals the chasm between this globalist success story and the country's Muslim masses. Students sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Masjid e Takwa madrassa spend their days memorizing the Quran in Arabic -- a language that neither they nor their teacher understand.


The classes are taught in Urdu, a tongue that's largely confined to Muslims and uses the Arabic script. There is no science in the curriculum. Neither is there English, the language in which Wipro conducts business and interviews job applicants, as it looks for Westernized staff who can deal with international customers.


The madrassa's imam, Munir Ahmed, says that for his students, a future as self-employed shopkeepers or peddlers is preferable to seeking formal work at a large company. "A job is like being a slave," Mr. Ahmed chuckles, adding that his graduates are in great demand as teachers in other madrassas. Schoolboys in the streets nearby, asked about Wipro, say they've never heard of it or of Mr. Premji.


The condition of India's Muslims is rooted in the partition of the subcontinent along religious lines in 1947. Amid horrendous massacres, millions of Muslims fled to the newly formed Muslim-majority state of Pakistan, just as most of Pakistan's Hindus and Sikhs escaped to India.


The Muslims who abandoned India included large numbers of the most educated and successful. Those remaining after partition have become "economically, socially, educationally...India's most backward community," says Mahmood Madani, a Parliament member who is secretary-general of India's leading Muslim religious organization, Jamiat Ulema e Hind. By some economic and social measures, Muslims are even losing out to Dalits, the erstwhile "untouchables" who are at the very bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy.


Illiteracy is higher among Muslims than among Dalits in the key 6-to-17 age group. Although Muslims account for more than 13% of India's population, they make up only 1.7% of undergraduates in India's version of the Ivy League, the seven Indian Institutes of Technology. The underrepresentation is just as severe in the nation's bureaucratic elite: Muslims make up 3% of staff in the Indian Administrative Service and 1.8% of the diplomatic corps.


Only a few of the Muslims who stayed behind in India after partition have managed to prosper, including some Bollywood stars and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who until recently held the largely ceremonial post of Indian president. "The Muslims we have in India are mostly the poor and the laborers, and a few very rich people like Premji," says Ramachandra Guha, a prominent historian.


[Graphic]With the country regularly rocked by bombings carried out by radicalized Muslim groups, such as the twin attacks that killed 42 people in the technology hub of Hyderabad in late August, even many Hindu politicians and academics see an urgent need to bridge the economic divide between the Muslim minority and the Hindu majority. The Indian government is considering measures to extend to most Muslims the affirmative-action benefits that have long reserved a large share of government jobs and university places for Dalits and other underprivileged groups.


Unlike those observers and Muslim community leaders, Mr. Premji bristles impatiently when the plight of the broader Muslim populace is cited. "This whole issue of Hindu-Muslim in India is completely overhyped," the 62-year-old executive says.


Mr. Premji has mentioned his Muslim background so rarely in public that many Indian Muslims don't even know he shares their heritage. None of Wipro's senior managers aside from Mr. Premji himself are Muslims. The company maintains normal working hours on Islamic high holidays. Among its 70,000 employees, there's only a "sprinkling" of Muslims, according to Sudip Banerjee, president of a division that accounts for a third of revenue.


Mr. Premji's private philanthropy is dispensed through a foundation that's managed by a Hindu former Wipro executive and cuts across religious lines. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. officials asked the Aziz Premji Foundation to help start an education program that would instill moderate values in Islamic schools. The foundation declined the religion-focused project, according to its chief executive, because "we are working for all."


In an interview at Wipro's sleek Bangalore campus, which had just been visited by a group of Israeli businessmen, Mr. Premji scoffed at the idea he should display his Muslim identity or champion the cause of Muslim advancement in India. "We've always seen ourselves as Indian. We've never seen ourselves as Hindus, or Muslims, or Christians or Buddhists," he said.


These secularist values came to him naturally. There was no madrassa in Mr. Premji's own education. He attended a Mumbai Catholic school, St. Mary's, and then studied electrical engineering at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

As a prominent Muslim businessman in the 1940s, Mr. Premji's late father, M.H. Premji, faced repeated requests for support from Pakistan's fiery founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who offered the father a cabinet-minister job in the new Muslim country. But the Premji family didn't believe in a religious state, and refused to move. "We did not think in these terms," Mr. Premji says. "There were roots in India, there were roots in Bombay. Why should one in any way dislodge these roots?"


While India's Muslim groups complain about facing daily discrimination, Mr. Premji says the only time he has been singled out because of his Muslim heritage wasn't in India but at a U.S. airport shortly after 9/11. In doing business in India, he maintains, "I don't think being a Muslim or being a non-Muslim has been an advantage or disadvantage. It's just been based on the merits of the opportunities."


He's been adroit at seizing those. After the death of his father in 1966, he took the helm at Wipro at the age of 21, against the wishes of board members who wanted seasoned management. Long publicly traded -- although controlled by the Premji family with 81% of the stock -- the company then had annual sales of only $2 million. It was known as Western India Vegetable Product Ltd. and mostly produced a kind of sunflower oil called vanaspati, a staple of Indian cuisine.

Mr. Premji set out to diversify, and a break came in 1977, when a coalition of Hindu nationalists, Socialists and others displaced the ruling Congress party. The new government clamped down on multinationals, prompting the exodus of corporate giants like International Business Machines Corp. and Coca-Cola Co. Mr. Premji stepped in, beginning to manufacture computers and other electronics.

"The space was opened because imports were banned into India, or imports were very expensive because of duty tariffs," he recalls. He set up shop in Bangalore, a southern city whose dry highland air is well suited for assembling electronics. He hired managers and engineers from India's large military industry. Wipro became a major manufacturer of technology hardware.


The bonanza ended in the early 1990s as a different Indian government, seeing capitalism rise in former Eastern-bloc nations, abandoned socialism and eased import restrictions. This created something of a crisis for Wipro and other electronics manufacturers. "The goods and services that we produced were no longer needed because customers could buy what's best and available on the global market," says Wipro's Mr. Banerjee.


While many of Wipro's peers didn't survive the change, Mr. Premji spotted another opportunity in the upheaval. Wipro went to the foreign companies with which it did business when it was a manufacturer, such as General Electric Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc., and offered a new relationship. At relatively low cost, its high-quality engineers could take on outsourced work such as design, research and testing.


Wipro's outsourcing business now spans the gamut. It has simple call-center management, but it also designs mobile phones for leading international brands. It runs the computer systems of European utilities and does full-service business consulting. In the fiscal year ended March 31, Wipro's profit surged 44% to $677 million, as sales climbed 41% to $3.47 billion. The shares, which are also traded on the New York Stock Exchange, have tripled in value over the past five years, giving the company a market value of some $20 billion.


As Wipro becomes a global powerhouse, company officials say they seek to hire the best regardless of creed. They say that among the reasons few Indian Muslims meet Wipro's stringent standards is that they often study in Urdu rather than English, and rarely pursue engineering degrees. Urdu, which is also the official language of Pakistan, is intertwined with Islamic identity on the subcontinent. In southern India, where most of the country's technology industry is based, Hindus speak a number of regional languages and are more likely to study English.


"All our hiring staff are trained to interview in English," Mr. Premji says. "They're trained to look for Westernized segments because we deal with global customers." Out of every 100 résumés received, only one or two usually come from Muslim applicants, according to a former manager in Wipro's human-resources department.


Yet, as outsourcing giants like Wipro and Infosys Technologies Ltd. have grown and hired, the attitudes of some Muslims toward education are slowly beginning to change. Bangalore's Al-Ameen college is run by a movement that seeks to modernize the Muslim community. About 360 graduate and undergraduate students, both men and women, are currently studying for computer-science degrees. Most are Muslims, including pious young men with long beards and women with an Islamic hejab that covers their hair, though not their faces.

Many graduates have already gotten jobs at companies like Wipro and Infosys, says the college's principal, Mr. Javeed, and have started to earn salaries well above those offered outside the booming technology industry. "This has brought awareness to the Muslim community about the need to pursue higher education," he says. "People are beginning to realize that education is power, that education is money, that education is an opportunity."


Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com1


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