Of Islamic VC Funds and Christian Chambers of Commerce

Hidden among the news of last few days was an innocuous and brief report which I am certain most of you missed.

It talked about an “Excellence Award” for 2012 that was bestowed upon Dr Augustine F Pinto (Chairman) and Grace Pinto (MD) of the Ryan Group of Institutions by the Governor of Rajasthan, Margaret Alva (thanks to Sh Krishen Kak for alerting me).

What was interesting was not the award but the body that was honouring Dr Pinto and Grace Pinto. This organisation was the Christian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Now, up until I was alerted to this news-item, I had never heard of the “Christian Chamber of Commerce and Industry” (nor the “Excellence Award”). But it did remind me of something else I had read more than a year back. Something which I had filed in the hope to dig further when I have more time.

That something was a conference that was held in May 2011 in New Delhi on “Prospects for Islamic Venture Capital Funds in India”

As with the “Christian Chamber of Commerce and Industry”, I had never heard of “Islamic Venture Capital Funds” – either in India or elsewhere.

The news-report on the conference was largely innocuous but a few lines towards the end were revealing. They included (emphasis added):

The fast and unhindered growth of economic disparities, regular occurrence of banking and financial crises, and stock market crashes, the world over, testify to the fact that the interest-based paradigm of banking and finance has grossly failed to ensure sustainable and inclusive economic growth.”

The article made all the right noises about “”justly inclusive economic growth”, about how the “right of doing business fairly and fearlessly” was a “humanist goal” and “social justice”.  Words and phrases like “inclusive”, “humanist” and “social justice” always make me sit up and take notice. They also make me a little nervous.

For most of the time, these are but a cloak for something else – usually some kind of redistribution, or other socialism-inspired ideas. Sometimes there is not even pretence of a cloak. But I digress.

Implicit in both these news-stories was the belief or the assumption that Muslims and Christians in India (which is neither Islamic nor Christian; nor Hindu, for that matter) may need some “special” treatment since they perhaps suffer discrimination living in a non-Islamic or non-Christian country – or get sidelined in some other manner.

The first question that came to my mind when I read about the Christian Chamber of Commerce (as well as the Islamic Venture Finance Conference) was this, “What is Christian about a Chamber of Commerce? And what exactly is Islamic about an “Islamic Venture Capital Fund”?

I wondered whether an Islamic Venture Capital Fund will only invest in companies founded by Muslims. If yes, how about companies founded by Muslims where the majority stake is actually owned by non-Muslims?

Would such an explicit criteria of “selection” fall foul of anti-discrimination laws? Or are such laws only applicable when a majority faith institution or a “secular” institution begins to discriminate among applicants?

And if the Islamic Venture Capital Fund(s) would not discriminate among Muslims and non-Muslims, would they insist on the company adhering to the principles of “Islamic Finance” (whatever they may be)? And if none of this is true, then what exactly is the point of an Islamic Venture Capital Fund?

What about the Christian Chamber of Commerce? Would it welcome non-Christians? Would it charge more fees from them? Would it favour Christians over others?  Or none of these?

But the most important question – which also makes me most uncomfortable – is this, “Have things now come to such a pass that each identity-based group and each “minority” in India feels compelled to organise their own narrow lobbying groups to protect their “interests” and their identities?

Where does this stop? And what does this mean for the “Idea of India”?

Questions, questions and more questions…but few answers.

Jai Hind, Jai Bharat!

P.S. In his acknowledgement speech after receiving the award, Dr Pinto “acknowledged God’s constant guidance in building one of India largest chains of privately owned schools”.  Which made me wonder how much of the “success” of such minority-institutions (in particular, Catholic-faith based schools and educational groups) is due to the relative “freedom” they enjoy from government interference and controls (e.g. minority-institutions are exempt from the recent RTE legislation), as well as the generous funding they receive from abroad? More questions. Sigh.


Cross-posted at ToI Blogs.