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Transnational Indian Business in the Twentieth Century

  • Chinmay Tumbe

This article argues that migration and investment from India moved in tandem to chart the evolution of transnational Indian business in the twentieth century, first toward Southeast Asia and Africa and later toward the United States, Europe, and West Asia. With a focus on the banking and diamond sectors, the overseas investment project of the Aditya Birla Group, and the transnational linkages of India's one hundred richest business leaders, the article locates important events, policies, and actors before economic liberalization in 1991 that laid the foundation for subsequent globalization of Indian firms.

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1 Even though various reforms were initiated in the 1980s, 1991 is the conventional date marking the wide set of reforms on economic liberalization in India, including a new industrial policy enabling greater foreign investment and trade.

2 Reserve Bank of India, Handbook of Statistics on the Indian Economy, 2015–16 (Mumbai, 2016). The figures in colonial India were in the range of 1 to 2 percent of national income and the figure was close to zero in the period from 1950 to 1991. Roy, Tirthankar, India in the World Economy: From Antiquity to the Present (New Delhi, 2012), 239 .

3 Reserve Bank of India, Handbook of Statistics, 2015–16, 217.

4 Nayyar, Deepak, “The Internationalization of Firms from India: Investment, Mergers and Acquisitions,” Oxford Development Studies 36, no. 1 (2008): 111–21; Kumar, Nagesh, India's Emerging Multinationals (London, 2007).

5 Tripathi, Dwijendra, The Oxford History of Indian Business (New Delhi, 2004); Tripathi, Dwijendra and Jumani, Jyoti, The Oxford History of Contemporary Indian Business (New Delhi, 2013).

6 On foreign investment in India in the twentieth century, see Choudhury, Prithwiraj and Khanna, Tarun, “Charting Dynamic Trajectories: Multinational Enterprises in India,” Business History Review 88, no. 1 (2014): 133–69; and Lubinski, Christina, “Global Trade and Indian Politics: The German Dye Business in India before 1947,” Business History Review 89, no. 3 (2015): 503–30.

7 Markovits, Claude, “Indian Merchant Networks outside India in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: A Preliminary Survey,” Modern Asian Studies 33, no. 4 (1999): 883911 , is an exception but the narrative stops in the pre-independence period, as does Balachandran, G., ed., India and the World Economy, 1850–1950 (New York, 2005), which focuses more on monetary and fiscal arrangements than business per se.

8 Baubock, Rainer and Faist, Thomas, eds., Diaspora and Transnationalism: Concepts, Theories and Methods (Amsterdam, 2010).

9 There have been several studies on specific transnational Indian merchant communities in the twentieth century, particularly the work of Claude Markovits on Sindhis; Gijsbert Oonk, Shobha Bondre, and Makrand Mehta on Gujaratis; W. A. Weerasooriya, Michael Adas, Raman Mahadevan, and David Rudner on Chettiars; and Barbara-Sue White on Sikh traders in Hong Kong. Barring the studies of Oonk and Bondre, however, these have been confined to the pre-Independence period. Thomas Timberg discusses the internal migration of Marwaris but not international migration in The Marwaris: From Traders to Industrialists (New Delhi, 1979). Medha Kudaisya provides a useful summary of Indian trading networks in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century in Trading Networks in Southeast Asia,” in The Encyclopedia of the Indian Diaspora, ed. Lal, Brij V. (Singapore, 2006), 5965 .

10 For instance, in a seminal work, Mira Wilkins notes emigration as one of thirteen factors driving overseas investment and its particular significance for Germany and Britain. Wilkins, , “European and North American Multinationals, 1870–1914: Comparison and Contrasts,” Business History 30, no. 1 (1988): 845 .

11 Jones, Geoffrey, “Globalization,” in The Oxford Handbook of Business History, ed. Jones, Geoffrey and Zeitlin, Jonathan (New York, 2008), 146 .

12 See Brown, Rajeswary A., Chinese Big Business and the Wealth of Asian Nations (London, 2000); Yen, Ching-hwang, Ethnic Chinese Business in Asia: History, Culture and Business Enterprise (Singapore, 2014); and Chinese Overseas Direct Investment,” special issue, China Economic Journal 7, no. 1 (2014).

13 See, for example, Gupta, Ashin Das, Merchants of Maritime India, 1500–1800 (Amsterdam, 1994); and Levi, Scott C., The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and Its Trade, 1550–1900 (Leiden, 2002).

14 Gandhi, M. K., The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 6 (Delhi, 1999), 424 .

15 On Gulf countries, see Karayil, S. B., “Does Migration Matter in Trade: A Study of India's Exports to the GCC countries,” South Asia Economic Journal 8, no. 1 (2007): 1–20; on European countries, see Tumbe, Chinmay, “EU-India Migration and Trade,” CARIM-India Research Report (Florence, 2013).

16 Oonk, Gijsbert, Settled Strangers: Asian Business Elites in East Africa, 1800–2000 (New Delhi, 2013).

17 Merchant, Minhaz, Aditya Vikram Birla: A Biography (New Delhi, 1997). According to R. M. Lala, J. R. D. Tata's lifelong regret was that he did not pursue university education in the United Kingdom, underscoring the importance of international higher education among Indian business leaders. Lala, , Beyond the Last Blue Mountain: A Life of JRD Tata, 1904–1993 (New Delhi, 1992).

18 Gijsbert Oonk notes this in the case of transnational East African Gujarati family firms. Oonk, Settled Strangers.

19 McDonald, Hamish, The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani (St. Leonards, NSW, Australia, 1998).

20 The focus is on India in the post-Independence period and, more broadly, South Asia in the pre-Independence period.

21 For a listing of over one thousand publications on this topic, see Tumbe, Chinmay, India Migration Bibliography (Bangalore, 2012).

22 Markovits, “Indian Merchant Networks,” table 1A.

23 Ibid., table 2.

24 Oonk, Settled Strangers.

25 Kudaisya, “Trading Networks in Southeast Asia,” 61.

26 Mahajani, Usha, The Role of Indian Minorities in Burma and Malaysia (Bombay, 1960).

27 These migrations were also preceded by migrations for education and citizenship to the United Kingdom in the 1950s and 1960s. See Oonk, Settled Strangers.

28 Markovits, Claude, The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750–1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama (Cambridge, U.K., 2000), table 9.1.

29 State Bank of India (SBI), India's largest lending bank, expanded rapidly overseas after 1991. In 1967, it had overseas offices only in London and Colombo (SBI, 1967 Annual Report, 18). In 1982, the Export-Import (EXIM) Bank of India was set up to deal extensively with international trading operations.

30 Information on the Indian Overseas Bank is sourced from “Building a Bank, the MCt. Way,” The Hindu, 12 Apr. 2004; company annual reports; and the Indian Overseas Bank website celebrating the bank's seventy-fifth anniversary in 2011–2012.

31 Tripathi, Dwijendra and Misra, Priti, Towards a New Frontier: History of the Bank of Baroda, 1908–1983 (New Delhi, 1985), 58 .

32 Ibid., 136, 138.

33 Ibid., 200, 224.

34 Ibid., 227.

35 Hofmeester, Karin, “Shifting Trajectories of Diamond Processing: From India to Europe and Back, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth,” Journal of Global History 8, no. 1 (2013): 2549 .

36 Information on the Indian diamond trade before 1950 is sparse. The notes of Manchersha Godrej, a Paris-based trader of precious stones in the early twentieth century, confirm that many of the traders were Palanpuri Jains. Manchersha Godrej Papers, Doc 1, MS06-01-94-23, Godrej Archives, Mumbai.

37 “Kirtilal M. Mehta, 86; Built a Gem Company,” obituary, New York Times, 23 July 1993,

38 Kapur, Devesh, Diaspora, Development and Democracy (Delhi, 2010), 100 .

39 Tumbe, “EU-India Migration and Trade”; see also the studies cited therein.

40 Banerji, A. K., India's Balance of Payments: Estimates of Current and Capital Accounts from 1921–22 to 1938–39 (Bombay, 1963).

41 Markovits, “Indian Merchant Networks,” 906.

42 This has been described using the Burma trade directories for 1895 and 1930. See Sandhu, K. S. and Mani, A., eds., Indian Communities in Southeast Asia (Singapore, 1993), tables 26.2, 26.3, 26.4.

43 Baxter, J., Report on Indian Immigration (Rangoon, 1941).

44 Medha Kudaisya notes that “in 1916–17, out of a total of 318 rice mills, 16 were owned by Chettiars. They also set up saw and timber mills in Burma.” Kudaisya, “Trading Networks in Southeast Asia,” 61.

45 The Tatas had representative offices overseas but no major joint ventures outside India before 1970. This section is based on Merchant, Aditya Vikram Birla.

46 Ibid., 258.

47 Ibid., 146.

48 Lall, R. B., Multinationals from the Third World: Indian Firms Investing Abroad (Delhi, 1986), 4 .

49 Examples of firms include those from the Birla group (Indo Bharat Rayon, Elegant Textile), Indo Rama Synthetics, Ispat, Jay Kay Files, Air India, State Bank of India, Bank of India, Engineering Export Promotion Council India, and Godrej, among others. See Sandhu and Mani, Indian Communities, tables 4.1, 4.3.

50 Sandhu and Mani, Indian Communities, 113.

51 Morris, Sebastian, “Foreign Direct Investment from India: Ownership and Control of Joint Ventures Abroad,” Economic and Political Weekly 25, no. 7–8 (1990): M-30.

52 See Lall, Sanjaya, “The Emergence of Third World Multinationals: Indian Joint Ventures Overseas,” World Development 10, no. 2 (1982): 127–46; Lall, Sanjaya, Developing Countries as Exporters of Technology: A First Look at the Indian Experience (London, 1982); Lall, Sanjaya, Multinationals, Technology and Exports: Selected Papers (London, 1985); R. B. Lall, Multinationals from the Third World; Morris, Sebastian, “Trends in Foreign Direct Investment from India (1950–1982),” Economic and Political Weekly 22, no. 45–46 (1987): 1909–18, 1963–69.

53 Tomlinson, B. R., The Economy of Modern India: From 1860 to the Twenty-First Century (Delhi, 2013), 177–78.

54 R. B. Lall, Multinationals from the Third World.

55 Ibid., 19.

56 J. R. D. Tata founded Air India International, Asia's first international airline, in 1948; however, it was nationalized in 1953 by the Nehru government. Tata's international engagement came primarily through Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company (TELCO, now Tata Motors), Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), and Tata Exports.

57 For a useful summary of major Indian firms investing overseas, see S. Lall, “Emergence of Third World Multinationals.”

58 Karanjia, B. K., Godrej: A Hundred Years, 1897–1997, vol. 2 (New Delhi, 1997). A large fraction of workers employed at Godrej's Malaysian factory were women (see Figure 3). One manager who worked in Malaysia, Mr. Thanewalla, recounted the common stereotype at that time that women were more effective workers than men. Mr. Thanewalla, interview, 10 Feb. 2006, Oral History Collection, Godrej Archives, Mumbai.

59 For the names of over fifty firms participating in such technology exports—including PSUs such as BHEL, SAIL, HMT, and ITI—see S. Lall, “Emergence of Third World Multinationals,” esp. appendices.

60 EXIM Bank, “Outward Direct Investment from India: Trends, Objectives and Policy Perspectives” (Occasional Paper No. 165, Mumbai, 2014).

61 Ibid., 16.

62 Ibid., 15.

63 This section relies extensively on corporate histories drawn from biographies, company websites, and business magazines.

64 They were Mukesh Ambani (Reliance), Dilip Shangvi (Sun Pharma), Azim Premji (Wipro), Pallonji Mistry (stakes in Tata group), Lakshmi Mittal (Arcelor Mittal), Hinduja Brothers (Ashok Leyland), Shiv Nadar (HCL), Godrej, and Kumar Birla.

65 For a discussion on business groups, see Tripathi, Dwijendra and Jumani, Jyoti, The Concise Oxford History of Indian Business (New Delhi, 2007); for research on the “new capitalists” of India, see Damodaran, Harish, India's New Capitalists: Caste, Business, and Industry in a Modern Nation (Delhi, 2008).

66 The case of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw was discussed in an earlier section.

67 Wipro was founded as Western India Vegetable Products Limited in 1945 in Mumbai.

68 Buhari Syed Abdur Rahman (1927–2015) does not feature on the Forbes list but created a large business empire (Emirates Trading Agency, or ETA) with diversified interests in West Asia and India. Born in Tamil Nadu, he worked in Sri Lanka and Hong Kong in the diamond business before moving to Dubai in the 1970s.

69 Upadhya, Carol, “A New Transnational Capitalist Class? Capital Flows, Business Networks and Entrepreneurs in the Indian Software Industry,” Economic and Political Weekly 39, no. 48 (2004): 5141–51.

70 Of the top one hundred Indian companies by net sales in 2014, around 70 percent are private companies and 55 percent are family-owned private companies (author's estimates). There is close congruence between these companies and the names on the Forbes 100 rich list.

The author thanks participants of the South Asian Business History panel at the World Economic History Congress (Kyoto) in 2015, two anonymous referees for valuable comments on the paper, and Vrunda Pathare and Sanghamitra Sen for assistance at the Godrej Archives in Mumbai.

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