Valli Arunachalam does not care if she is called ‘unwomanly’. She has been fighting a lone battle against the men in her extended family who run the board of Ambadi Investments Ltd (AIL), the holding company of one of India’s oldest business houses — the 120-year-old Murugappa Group. All that the 59-year-old scientist wants– is a place on the board that her father was a part of.
Three years after the death of the conglomerate’s former executive chairman, late MV Murugappan– Valli, her sister, and their mother– have not been inducted to the board.
Last week, Valli, the great-granddaughter of Murugappa Group founder Dewan Bahadur A M Murugappa Chettiar, second-cousin to Murugappa Group executive chairman MM Murugappan, and cousin to former executive chairman A Vellayan, was voted to be kept out of the board of the holding company.
“I pity the group,” Valli said in an interview to News18.com.
“It is shocking that in this day and age when women are breaking barriers in numerous fields, the so-called Titans of South Indian Business have such utter disregard for women in their own family. Their promoters, for self-serving reasons, are depriving the group of the value that qualified family women can bring on the board,” she said.
At the company’s AGM held on Monday, 91 percent of the board voted against Valli.
The website of the Rs 381-billion Murugappa Group features a list of founders and a family tree — it doesn’t feature a single woman. “Generations of the Murugappa family have guided the Group through India’s chequered business history, laying the cornerstones of growth built on tradition, togetherness, ethical values, innovation and discipline,” the note on ‘Founder’ section read.
Valli, the fourth-generation scion, is leaving no stone unturned in attempting to change the age-old practice of not inducting women into its board. “A look at the Murugappa Group Website Founders page is enough to showcase the male chauvinism of the group. In the business hierarchy tree that spans five generations of the 119-year old history there is not a single woman. I strongly suspect that there is a cult of personality around the elders in the family who are some of the most socially regressive individuals that I know. Some of the senior family members have even made public statements to that effect,” said the 59-year-old nuclear scientist, who is based in New York.
Headquartered in Chennai, Murugappa Group was founded in 1900 and has over two dozen businesses, from farm to finance, including nine listed companies.
The Murugappa Group’s patriarchal practice came to a test in 2017 when, MV Murugappan, grandson of the group’s founder Dewan Bahadur A M Murugappa Chettiar, died leaving no male heirs. Since then, for three years now, Valli has been fighting to get her or her sister a place on the board, or get the company to buy their stake at “fair price”. Valli, her sister Vellachi Murugappan and their mother M.V. Valli Murugappan, collectively hold 8.15 percent stake in Ambadi, a stake they inherited from MV Murugappan.
“Their voting en-masse against my appointment is yet another evidence of the fact that all male members of the family are against women coming on the board,” Valli said.
Soon after the voting, Valli released a strongly-worded statement, hinting that she may be forced to look at legal avenues to realize her claim to a position at the board. Her statement pointed out the in-your-face hypocrisy in the company. “A female heir with a doctorate degree, 24 years work experience in fortune 500 multinational companies, and numerous patents and publications to her name cannot be inducted to the board, even three years after her father’s death, despite being representative of the same shareholding, whilst a 23-year old male heir with a master’s degree and no job experience can be inducted to the board soon after his father’s passing,” the statement read.
The rejection of her appointment by the Murugappa family, she said, has failed to provide due representation to a significant promoter shareholder of the company. “Their decision is evidently discriminatory, and gender biased. It is very unfortunate that AIL’s current board is not able to understand what contributions women can make on the board. With the same shareholding, my father was on the board,” she said. Valli believes had there been a male heir, this wouldn’t have been the case. “I am definitely more qualified than some of the past and present directors, who are incidentally all male family members,” she said.
Back in January, Valli had hoped that the issue would be resolved amicably. She put in efforts for over two years. “We offered numerous means, including neutral third party mediation, by which this matter could have been settled amicably, out of court and out of the media glare. Sadly, all our proposals were summarily rejected by the family,” she said.
We have reached out to Murugappa Group. So far, they have responded to any of the queries.
Recently, Valli’s mother wrote letters to all the shareholders– all senior family members– reminding them of the contributions made by her husband. In the letter, she asked them to reconsider their “biased approach against us” and “settle the matter amicably”, presenting their father’s will– that deems them legal and rightful shareholders. “Not even one family member bothered to reply,” she said. “The family is more concerned about getting confrontational and protecting its hopelessly outdated perspectives and practices, even if it means forcing us to take the battle to courts.”
“My family has been rendered helpless outsiders by virtue of my father having only female heirs,” she said. But, she said, they are not looking for any support from a “male-dominated family with a sexist mentality”.
It was in August when the Supreme Court, while clarifying the 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, said that a daughter would have an equal share of the inheritance as a son regardless of when she was born and whether her father was alive when the Act was amended. “I for one benefitted from the 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, which gave daughters equal rights to ancestral property and the right to become the karta of the HUF (Hindu Undivided Family) if their father died after the act was enforced. Being the eldest child, I was able to become the karta of my father’s HUF and continue the affairs of the HUF,” she had said in an interview. Valli now signs her name, with a footnote that reads, ‘Karta of MV Murugappan HUF’.
For the last 120 years, every branch of the Murugappa family has had at least one son who became the heir. The inheritance pathway was traditionally, and has always been, from fathers to sons. There were only two family branches without male heirs. One of them adopted a son just to pass on the reins. The other was Valli’s father, the conglomerate’s former executive chairman late MV Murugappan.
“My father defied the system and chose not to adopt a son and instead passed on his entire estate to his wife and daughters. Education was top priority in our family. My father encouraged us to pursue our dreams, and establish ourselves in our own right and that is what both my sister and I did. We are both very well educated, and have gone on to have very successful careers,” Valli said.
Valli believes that she and her sister are well qualified to take on any role in business, but the company’s primary reason for denying a board seat is their ‘regressive mentality’ that she said is ‘totally out of sync with the current times’. She isn’t surprised though. “It has always been a boys-only club at the Murugappa Group and they are bent on keeping it that way,” she said. She said she heard a senior family member once say, “We keep the women out of the business”.
The irony, she said, is that she didn’t face gender discrimination in her 24-year-long career but within her own family.
Often, fighting against the family, under the same roof, is the most difficult battle for many women. But Valli remains undeterred. “Growing up, I have been taught by my parents to stand up for my rights and fight for what is right. I don’t see any issue in fighting a battle for justice and equality against a family that is on the face of it discriminatory and sexist in its practices and approach,” she said.
In fact, Valli also sees her fight as a responsibility. “Being a woman with means, I see it as my responsibility to stand up on behalf of all women who face gender discrimination at the hands of men, especially in India. I have no fears about this battle getting lonely or messy – I have my faith in god, my family and legal advisors by my side. I can also feel the support of the general public and other women in business who believe that it is time to put an end to male-dominated boardrooms,” she said.
At the end of every response, Valli persisted that she is not going to give up. “I will continue to fight, and the decision taken by the family will not deter our efforts to seek justice and gender equality.”
Despite the conversations on gender equality, Valli said that the mentality surrounding gender discrimination against women is still embedded within male-dominated businesses in India where women are provided limited roles and responsibility. “It is upsetting to see that women who are often greatly capable of running businesses are not provided adequate opportunities.”
She said, women are groomed to fit a certain ‘mould’ in our patriarchal society. Breaking that mould, irrespective of right and wrong, she said, is considered to be “un-womanly and arrogant”.
“They are afraid to break out of that mould for fear of retribution. So far no woman in the family has had the guts to stand up and fight for her rights for fear of retribution by the elders and of being shunned by the family,” she said, adding, “My intention is to take this battle to its logical conclusion and not let it be reduced to a battle on paper.”
Calling it ‘grave injustice’, Valli said, “It is not our fault that we do not have a brother and that we are two daughters. My father, of his own will, left his entire estate to us, and as his sole heirs we have every right to be part of the family business like our male counterparts.”
“I pity that the group is being deprived of the value and experience that qualified women can bring on the board,” the woman with a doctorate degree and 24-year-of experience as a scientist and technologist in the US said.