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India@75: Ghanashyam Das Birla, the industrialist who helped the freedom struggle

Some prominent industrialists worked closely with the national movement and also Mahatma Gandhi. Among them were Ghanashyam Das Birla and Jamnalal Bajaj. Besides participation in and funding for the movement, they provided strength to nationalism by setting up modern industries and also giving livelihood to a large number of Indians.

Jul 30, 2022, 2:37 PM IST

Did India's rich businessmen help the freedom struggle? Not too many did. Yet, some prominent industrialists worked closely with the national movement and also Mahatma Gandhi. Among them were Ghanashyam Das Birla and Jamnalal Bajaj. Besides participation in and funding for the movement, they provided strength to nationalism by setting up modern industries and also giving livelihood to a large number of Indians. 

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Birla family had migrated to Mumbai from Pilani village in Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan during the mid-19th century. They entered the trade in cotton, silver, grains, etc, and later amassed wealth by joining the opium trade with China, the most lucrative business during the age. 

Ghanashyamdas belonged to the third generation of this family. With entrepreneurship running in his veins, Ghanashyamdas joined his father's business at the age of 11 discontinuing school education. He moved to Calcutta and set up his first business with a jute mill in 1918. 

The 29-year-old India's entry into a business monopolised by the British and Scotts was severely resented by them. But Ghanashyamdas did not relent and World War I brought him significant revenue.  

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The hostile ways of the foreign businessmen kindled nationalist spirit in Ghanshyamdas. He met Mahatma Gandhi, who had just returned from South Africa and was about to join the national movement. The meeting led to a lifelong association and friendship between Gandhiji and Ghanshyamdas Birla. 

Ghanashyamdas did not budge even when it was highly dangerous to be close to Gandhi and often became an intermediary with the Mahatma and the British authorities. He was Gandhiji's biggest financial supporter even when he had serious differences with him on certain issues. 

He became a member of the Central Legislative assembly in 1926 and also the President of the Harijan Sevak Samaj founded by Gandhiji in 1932. He also edited Gandhiji's 'Harijan' magazine for some time. Ghanashyamdas took over and rescued the nationalist paper Hindustan Times when it was financially struggling. 

The Quit India movement rocked the country in the 1940s and Ghanashyamdas was a participant. Yet, Birla continued to do to further national spirit by focusing on his field. Founding Hindustan Motors at Calcutta in 1942 was to build an Indian car even when the country remained under foreign rule. The Ambassador car manufactured by Hindustan Motors became a proud symbol of Indian identity. 

Next year Ghanashyam Das founded a bank, the United Commercial Bank, which is now the nationalized UCO bank. After independence, Ghanashyamdas's business empire grew exponentially and he also set up the Birla Institute of Technology at his ancestral village in Pilani now known famously as BITS, Pilani. He was also the founder of the largest body of Indian corporates the FICCI.  

Always Gandhiji's able supporter, the Mahatma spent his last three months at Ghanshyamdas's Delhi residence, the Birla House, where he was assassinated on January 30, 1948. When Ghanashyamdas breathed his last at 85 in 1983, the primary school dropout had made his Birla Group a multinational firm with more than Rs 1000 crore in assets which has grown to Rs 3 lakh crores now.

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