The man behind the creation and the rise of the Birla Group in India, Ghanshyam Das Birla died 34 years ago on 11 June, 1983. He founded the Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences (BITS) in Pilani as well as the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan by the Government of India in 1957.
Birla lived life guided by his rigid business ethics, but another major influence on his life was Mahatma Gandhi, with whom he shared an unusual friendship.
‘Gandhiji Came into My Life Because I Went to Him’
GD Birla met Gandhi in 1916 for the first time. In an interview to India Today, he said:
...my association with Gandhiji, it was not planned. Of course, my ambition was to meet all the big people struggling for India’s Independence. Gandhiji came into my life because I went to him. I wanted to know him, and I must say that I was greatly benefited by that great soul.’
The two had little in common, the industrialist wrote in his diary. But they were close and continued their association till Gandhi’s death. In fact, the Father of the Nation spent the last four months of his life at Birla House in New Delhi, where he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse on 30 January, 1948.
The Businessman Birla and the Politician Gandhi
Birla was a valuable sounding board for Gandhi, who had little patience for the Britishers’ business dealings. He thought of himself as an unofficial emissary between Gandhi and the British business class, a point of pride for the industrialist who had faced discrimination at the hands of the British.
Birla often gave money to Gandhi, from a purported Rs 300 monthly for his living expenses to many lakhs. However, the exact amount Birla gave Gandhi, or gave away at Gandhi’s request, and how frequently was never made clear.
As Birla explains:
Gandhi-Birla: A Lifelong Association
Mahatma Gandhi and GD Birla had their differences. Gita Piramal writes in Business Legends that Birla and Gandhi argued frequently and their differences increased over time.
For example, Birla differed greatly from Gandhi in his opinion on Hindu-Muslim unity. In a letter to Gandhi in June 1924, Birla endorsed the forcible conversion of Muslims to Hinduism:
However, despite their ideological differences, Piramal added, the two were close till Gandhi’s assassination. After his death, Birla wrote:
(With inputs from Business Legends by Gita Piramal and India Today)