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Minority report: Hiring Muslims in India Inc

Is the corporate sector prejudiced against hiring and promoting Muslims?

Ranjita Ganesan 

Faith is the nucleus of every action at Hari Krishna Exports, says the publicity material of the Mumbai-based diamond company. Recruitment could be one of those actions, if one were to go by the experience of 22-year-old Zeeshan Ali Khan, whom it did not consider for employment because of his religion.

The company's seemingly employee-friendly policies - last year, it gave out Diwali bonus in the form of cars, diamonds or part-payments on homes - had impressed the MBA student enough to seek a job there soon after his exams last month. Within 15 minutes of sending in his resume, he received a reply: "Thanks for your application. We regret to inform you that we only hire non-Muslim candidates."

Screenshots of the e-mail flooded social media, shocking some and confirming for others what they always suspected - bias lurks in the corridors of modern-day offices. An e-mail sent to Hari Krishna Exports went unanswered. For Khan, a Kurla resident who studied in D Y Patil College in Navi Mumbai, this was a lone encounter with blatant religious prejudice. "This was always their unwritten hiring rule I think, but this time it was in black-and-white and sent from an official e-mail address," he says.

Following the incident, a businessman, the leader of a Muslim organisation in the city, promised to give 10 jobs to non-Muslims for every job denied to a Muslim. Two of Khan's classmates, both Hindus, refused to join Hari Krishna Exports when they learnt of the incident. Since then, Khan has done the rounds of police stations and courts, given interviews, received several job offers and, most recently, been recruited by the Adani group.

The bias works against other faiths too, Khan is quick to add, talking of how Internet searches showed up advertisements calling for only Muslim or Christian applicants. Such ads, which were circulated widely in response to the episode, were mainly from data entry firms or supermarkets.

Many dismiss the incident as a case of tactlessness from a company with archaic sensibilities. According to observers, such practices are commonplace in small and medium family-run enterprises, typically promoted by vegetarian Gujarati, Jain and Marwari communities. They choose to hire those within the family or through a reference for reasons of trust.

"A lot of appointments take place through references in the gold or diamond business. If they do not have strong systems and processes in place, religion becomes an important binding force, not just in India but outside as well," says Kavil Ramachandran, a professor at Indian School of Business who specialises in family enterprises.

Then there are cultural preferences. "There are some companies that prefer not to have non-vegetarian food in the office and they cannot inform employees about after hiring them," notes Uttam Jain, president of the Hindustan Chamber of Commerce, a body of textile traders. "But it is a mistake to state this insensitively."

In traditional setups, Marwari businesses may not prefer South Indian candidates, and vice versa, observes Murad Ali Baig, management consultant and author. "It is natural, especially because communities have their own language and there's a huge culture of gup shup."

While everyone agrees that incidents of religious prejudice could be taking place in the private sector, no one is sure how rampant it is. In the light of recent events, all conversations about prejudice in the corporate sector begin with a disclaimer: only a small number of individuals harbour bias and Muslims are not the only victims. It can be aimed at caste, gender and sexual orientation too.

Muslims are 14 per cent of India's population, yet their representation in the corporate sector is way below that, everybody agrees. According to the Sachar Committee, appointed in 2005 to study the condition of the Muslims, the community's representation in the elite Indian Administrative Service was 3 per cent, and in the Railways, the country's largest employer, 4.5 per cent.

The situation in the corporate sector, where the whims and fancies of the promoters and senior executives often come into play, is unlikely to be any better.

Large business houses have no predisposition when it comes to hiring, says K Sudarshan, managing partner of global executive search firm EMA Partners. To them, only the right kind of experience, and the cultural and contextual fitment, matters.

Fellow executive search expert Guruprasad GK of Heidrick & Struggles agrees. "If there aren't many Muslims at the top levels of companies, it is only because the pool of candidates is not very large." Top recruiters reckon any conscious steps by companies to employ members of certain communities would only be at the lower levels like receptionists or support staff.

Some Muslims report unpleasant experiences at the lower or middle levels of the organisation. After he completed his bachelor's degree from West Bengal in 2010, Imtiaz Ahmed (name changed on request) attended a walk-in interview at a Gujarat-based household goods company where he was asked, first, if he was a Gujarati, and then, if he was a Patel. "They told me we prefer Patels and Gujaratis, so I left," he says.

Later, he joined an Indian multinational company as a trainee in Gujarat. After three months, he asked that he be absorbed into the company, but he claims his request was repeatedly denied on the grounds that there were no vacancies. "At the same time, two Marwaris were absorbed. When I enquired about this, I was told that I needed to understand how this industry worked and that there were certain criteria they could not disclose," says Ahmed, currently working with an infotech company in Kolkata.

Aamir Idrisi, president of the Association of Muslim Professionals in Mumbai that connects young job-seekers with employers, claims a retail company had a strange pre-condition at a recent employment fair: we do not want a dadhiwala (bearded man). On occasion, he says, placement firms have been requested by local companies to not send Muslim resumes.

Is it just the wild imagination of a community under siege? Not really. In 2007, The Economic and Political Weekly published a study by two researchers who replied to job advertisements in major English dailies with three applications: as an upper-caste Hindu, as a Muslim and as a Dalit. They found that "job applicants with a Dalit or Muslim name were on average significantly less likely to have a positive outcome than persons with high caste Hindu names and equivalent qualifications".

Some complain life isn't easy at the workplace too. Nazish Khan, a 26-year-old accounts assistant in Gurgaon-based travel startup ixigo, experienced a prejudiced culture in his previous job with a marketing company. "Whenever there was an India-Pakistan cricket match, people would assume that I was rooting for Pakistan. If Pakistan lost, some people would come up to me and ask if that upset me. That broke my heart and shattered my confidence."

But at ixigo, he is asked if he needs special food during Ramzan, gifts are given on Eid, and everyone gets some time off in the day for one's personal needs, religious or otherwise.

Cases like Zeeshan Ali Khan's are only aberrations, says Kalim Khan, director of Mumbai's Rizvi Institute of Management Studies and Research, which reserves half its seats for Muslim students. "Let's be happy that 95 per cent of companies do not discriminate." Muslim students in his institute and other colleges like Sydenham where he teaches find plum placements. "I have seen them go up the ladder. It is not that they are losing out on promotions or increments," he observes, before pointing out his past employment with Sterlite Industries, a Marwari-owned company.

Muslims high up in the corporate hierarchy insist there is no discrimination. Abid Qureshi, sales head (west), UTV Movies, says he was the youngest in the office to be promoted to the level of regional head. Hameed Khan, a category head for Future Group's Foodhall business, says the company was generous enough to take him back even after he quit and went to Dubai for four months. At his workplace in Vikhroli, there is space created for prayers during Ramzan and Muslim employees are allowed to leave early to break the fast.

Are companies taking conscious steps to create an inclusive environment? Without entertaining requests to go into detail, TCS says it provides "equal opportunities to all employees" at the time of "recruiting, hiring, promotions, retention and discipline-related matters". Infosys says it strives to create an "inclusive work place for sustainable competitive advantage."

Large employers like Cipla and Hindustan Unilever declined requests to disclose the number of Muslim employees on their payroll. Wipro too claims it does not maintain records based on its employees' religion. A spokesperson for L&T says it is "totally areligious" but has a fairly large number of Muslim employees in its operations in West Asia.

In the highest echelons of the corporate world, there are few Muslims. Among the CEOs or managing directors of the BSE 500 companies, roughly 2 per cent are Muslims, according to Business Standard Research Bureau. For NSE-listed companies too, that figure is 2 per cent, says data provided by Prime Database.

In the last edition of The Billionaire Club, Business Standard's list of 100 richest Indians by stock market wealth, in January, there were only four Muslims: Azim Premji of Wipro (on the 3rd spot), Yusuf Hamied of Cipla (24th), Habil Khorakiwala of Wockhardt (44th) and Irfan Razak of Prestige Estates (57th). In the list of 100 highest paid CEOs, there were just three Muslims: Zubair Ahmed of GSK Consumer Healthcare, Premji and Hamied.

Among successful Muslims, there is a certain reluctance to highlight the religious identity. Khorakiwala's son, Huzaifa, who heads the company's social initiatives, says he does not "comment on such topics". Many refuse to be drawn into any such conversation.

To be successful in India, you have to show that you are very secular, says Zafarul Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, the umbrella body of Muslim organisations. "It is normal for businessmen to not speak their mind, contribute or take interest in Muslim issues. They are afraid of being seen as anti-national."

Likewise, a sense of hopelessness also tends to exist among Muslims, says Sajjad Hassan, senior fellow at the Centre for Equity Studies, who recently reviewed literature on Muslim exclusion in India, including the Sachar Committee report. "That is how ghettoised communities feel. The sense of 'nothing is going to improve, no jobs are available to us' might come in the way of people even trying out."

In Hyderabad, which has a large Muslim population, there are a negligible few in corporations or in high positions in government, notes Sayeed Amin Jafri, a city journalist. The community has not been able to utilise opportunities as it was economically, educationally and in some places even socially backward, he says.

Other than talent, the only aspect info-tech companies in Hyderabad consider is that of gender balance, according to Ramesh Loganathan, vice-president of US-headquartered Progress Software.

Rather than crude reservations, CES's Hassan recommends affirmative action in the form of scholarships, coaching programmes and special recruitment drives. But the task is hamstrung by the lack of any data on that number of Muslim employees in the private sector. Idrisi says an audit should be conducted right away. "Given the total population of Muslims in the country, at least 7-8 per cent of employees of big companies in cities like Mumbai should be Muslim."

But for that to happen, the mistrust will first have to go.

Indulekha Aravind, B Dasarath Reddy and Manavi Kapur contributed to this report

First Published: Sat, June 06 2015. 00:30 IST