The Galvin at Windows restaurant on the 28th floor of the fashionable London Hilton was abuzz with excitement and noise. While some of the revellers were enjoying the fantastic view of the city from the raised central area, others were huddled around Vishal Ram who appeared relaxed and enjoying the French haute cuisine.

The Galvin at Windows restaurant on the 28th floor of the fashionable London Hilton was abuzz with excitement and noise. While some of the revellers were enjoying the fantastic view of the city from the raised central area, others were huddled around Vishal Ram who appeared relaxed and enjoying the French haute cuisine.

It had been a hectic roller-coaster day for Vishal, the scion of the richest business empire in India, owning some of the world’s largest petrochemical plants, textile mills, telecom and IT companies, automobile plants, a national airline and iron ore mines. After bids and counter-bids throughout the day, his company, Manohar Steel, finally made it. Vishal had successfully engineered the biggest takeover of a foreign firm in Indian history. With the takeover, his steel company got catapulted to the sixth spot in the world’s steel rankings. In an unexpected development, a Brazilian conglomerate had entered the fray a few days earlier, sending jitters down the board room of Manohar Steel. But Vishal’s bankers and fund managers, some of the world’s most renowned such as ABN Amro and Deutsche Bank, successfully warded off the threat. Television channels across the world kept repeating the cliff-hanger story throughout the day. “Vishal has once again demonstrated how shareholder’s wealth can be multiplied” cried the evening newspapers.

When Vishal went to bed that night he could not help thinking about the repulsive tactics that BSN, the Brazilian rival, had used to stall the takeover. They had planted a story in the Guardian that Vishal’s grandfather, Lala Ram Manohar, was a drug runner who exported opium to China and operated from Hong Kong. “What kind of disgusting rumours these desperados can spread” fumed Vishal. “As soon as I get back to India the first thing I should do is to hire a top-notch writer and straighten out my family history” he resolved. “My grandfather was a widely admired humanist businessman knighted by the British and revered by leaders no less than Gandhiji and Pandit Nehru. His spotless credentials have to be re-established”.


Lala Ram Manohar woke up with a start. The incessant battering of the rain had kept him half awake. Now, the deafening roar of the swirling Yamuna put an end to his sleep completely. A loud crash made him look out from the casement on the eastern side of the house. He could see several figures in the dark desperately trying to salvage a boat and some people in it. Peering a little bit more intently he could figure out that a British officer and his accomplices were trying to make a desperate getaway in a boat.

The news of the outbreak of the struggle against the British at Meerut had reached Etawah the day before, on May 12, 1857. A detachment of the 8th Irregulars and a wing of the 9th Infantry started challenging the British officers. The struggle escalated during the day and finally the officers had to run for their life. When the Lala ran out of his house to give a hand to Mathew Holden, the British officer on retreat, he could not have imagined how his life would change forever.

But that was to be expected in a way. The Lala hated the rebels as much as the rats in his cellar. “How can this riffraff and rabble, who call themselves mutineers and rebels, rule the country?” he wondered. He was absolutely clear that his future lay only with the British continuing to rule the country. He had, just a month back, applied for a license to export opium to China. The Second Opium War was on, and the Lala expected that at any time the Chinese would be defeated and the British would resume their lucrative opium trade.

When the Lala helped Mathew Holden to cross the river, the latter thanked him with all his heart. “Lala”, he said, “let me know how I can repay you this debt, if at all I can”. The Lala did not want to get the debt repaid immediately. He waited until the rebellion was put down and then requested an audience with Mathew Holden where he expressed his desire for the license. John Lawrence, one of the British ‘heroes’ who suppressed the Mutiny ruthlessly was later made Viceroy of India. He declared, “we have not been elected or placed in power by the people, but we are here through our moral superiority…”. The Lala could not agree with him more.

When the Second Opium War ended with the Treaty of Tianjin, the Lala was given the license to trade in opium. Within a few years, he had become a member of the Hong Kong-based Opium Importers and Wholesale Opium Merchants along with monopolies such as David Sassoon and Sons. From then on, Lala rose like a meteor among the new class of Indian capitalists that the British colonialists had started creating.  The Lala exemplified that class which Cornwallis talked about when he advised the British empire that “we must create a class in whose interest it will be to support the British”.

By the end of the 19th century, the Lala had diversified into more “respectable” businesses such as textiles and mining. When he set up a huge textile mill in Delhi, in 1887, the day Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, the media “admired” him for daring to enter into a business which had been the sole monopoly of the British invaders. But then, the British rulers seemed to like it. The Lala was the apple of the eye not only of the British rulers but also of eminent Congress leaders who considered him the representative of the new breed of Indian capitalists, the breed which was destined to take over the reins from the British some day. The words of John Lawrence guided the Lala’s thought and actions – “In doing the best we can do for the people, we are bound by our conscience and not theirs”.

Sir Lala Ram Manohar’s meteoric rise was not all that easy. He had to reckon with many competitors and keep himself in the rulers’ good books. But what troubled him often was the resistance of the peoples, which he dealt with in his characteristic ruthless style.

Whole forest areas had to be cleared for setting up Lala’s steel plant. In one instance, when the Lala took over an area for mining iron ore, the local adivasis refused to work their mines. To tame them, the Lala ordered the mowing down of the Kosam trees which were the lifeline of the adivasis who collected lac from the lacworms that nested on those trees. The Lala’s steel collieries and coal washeries constantly smothered river beds and killed rivers. When thousands of cases of respiratory tract infections and nasal sputum ulcers were reported in Orissa due to contamination of the streams because of chromium leaching from his ore dumps, Lala used his enormous clout in the government and media to put the wraps on the proposed investigation. To make amends the Lala made statements now and then supporting the independence struggle and the newly formed Indian National Congress. After all, several of his friends were its leading lights. Soon at the ripe age of 1000 moons, the Lala passed away. There was much grief in the family. His sons and nephews were however keen to take over and carry on from where he had left.


The glittering book release function at the Taj in Mumbai was the talk of the town. No less than the Prime Minister was the chief guest. “Brand India has begun to make its mark on the world stage” he commented jubilantly in his speech referring to the recent takeover of a British steel company by the business empire built by the Lala.

One of the highlights discussed in Lala’s biography was the largest takeover bid organised successfully by his grandson. The author had dubbed the takeover as a “reverse colonisation”. It made reference to Sir Frederick, the then Commissioner of Indian Railways in 1912, who had commented that he would eat every pound of steel rail that the Lala’s steel plant manufactured, if they met British specifications.

Vishal had expected trouble at the function. A group of activists from Maharashtra had gathered outside the five-star hotel and were shouting slogans protesting against the setting up of SEZs by his company in Navi Mumbai. There were also tribals from Orissa who had come there to express their opposition to a steel plant that would endanger their forests and evict them from their environment. A group of protestors from Bengal had also landed up to let the media know about their opposition to the automobile plant that was being planned in their district. But the Mumbai police had everything under control. Vishal’s own security guards were giving one more level of cover for the respectable guests. The protesters were detained much in advance to ‘prevent public disorder’. A few who escaped and tried to reach the venue could only reach the check points set up a couple of miles away from the resplendent Gateway of India. After all, the home minister, home secretary and the police commissioner were all honoured guests at the function and were basking in the reflected glory of the first family of Indian business, no doubt thinking about their post-retirement plans and about getting some position in one the many companies owned by the Family.

Vishal looked intently at the huge throng of guests — ministers, film stars, business leaders and columnists and editors. “My grandfather had a vision” he declared. “That was to make India and Indians take their rightful place in world affairs. If he had been alive today he would have rejoiced to find that vision taking shape slowly. Our country is on its way to becoming a major power”. “We are doing the best we can for our people” he affirmed eloquently at the end of his speech. “And in this we are guided by our conscience”.             

by S. Raghavan

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