Sunday, May 28, 2023

What’s in a surname: The origins of ‘Modi’, its caste links

The Modi surname does not denote any specific community or caste. Modis can be Hindu, Muslim, or Parsi. Some Modis are OBCs, others aren’t. Besides Gujarat, Modis live in Rajasthan, UP, and Bihar.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally.In Gujarat, the Modi surname is used by Hindus, Muslims, and Parsis. (Express file photo by Abhisek Saha)
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What’s in a surname: The origins of ‘Modi’, its caste links
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Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who has been unseated from Parliament after his conviction and two-year sentence for defamation triggered Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, argued before the magistrate’s court in Surat that he had caused no personal damage to the petitioner, BJP MLA Purnesh Modi — and there was, in fact, no specific community called “Modi” in the country.

At an election rally in Kolar, Karnataka, on April 13, 2019, Rahul referred to fugitive businessmen Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and asked, “Why do all thieves have the surname Modi?”
The next day, Purnesh Modi filed a private complaint before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Surat, accusing Rahul of having defamed everyone with the name Modi.

“Any person with the surname Modi across India belongs to the Modi Samaj-Modhvanik community and is found in the whole of Gujarat as a whole, and this community is also present in other states apart from in Gujarat… The accused by insulting the Modi surname of current Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, has insulted the 13 crore Modi surnamed people by calling them ‘chor’ for political selfishness,” Purnesh Modi said.

Rahul Gandhi’s lawyer Kirit Panwala argued in court that there is no “identifiable and determinate” community called ‘Modi’. “It is Purnesh Modi who terms the Modhvanik community as the ‘Modi’ community; there is [actually] no evidence of it (the ‘Modi’ community). If the ‘Modi’ community comprises 13 crore people, it is not an identifiable and determinate community,” he told The Indian Express.

“Only one sentence should not be taken as defamatory. He (Rahul) has not insulted any community. The Modi surname [does not belong to] only the Modhvanik community but also to [people from] other castes. If proper identity is established, [only] then this case is maintainable…here, identity is not established,” Panwala said.

Who are the people with the Modi surname in Gujarat?

Although many people use the surname Modi, it does not denote any specific community or caste. In Gujarat, the Modi surname is used by Hindus, Muslims, and Parsis. There are people with the Modi surname among Vaishnavas (Baniyas), Kharwas (fishermen from Porbandar), and Lohanas (who are a community of traders).

Purnesh Modi, the complainant in the Rahul Gandhi case, belongs to the Modhvanik community of Surat, as does Hasmukh Lalwala, who was Purnesh Modi’s lawyer earlier, and Kirit Panwala, counsel for Rahul.


Members of the Modhvanik clan worship Modheshwari Mata, whose temple is near the Modhera Sun Temple in Mehsana district. Prime Minister Modi visited the Modheshwari temple in October last year, ahead of the Assembly elections in Gujarat.

According to Lalwala, there are around 10 lakh Modhvaniks in Gujarat. They live everywhere in the state, though mainly in North and South Gujarat.

Do all Modis belong to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs)?

No, they don’t. In fact, there is no community or caste by the name “Modi” in the central list of OBCs for reservation in jobs and education.


Entry no 23 in the central list of 104 communities of OBCs from Gujarat reads: “Ghanchi (Muslim), Teli, Modh Ghanchi, Teli-Sahu, Teli-Rathod, Teli-Rathore.” All these communities have traditionally engaged in activities related to the extraction and trade of edible oils.

Members of these communities who live in Eastern Uttar Pradesh usually use the surname Gupta and often, Modi as well.

In the 136 communities from Bihar listed in the central list of OBCs, there is no “Modi”, even though there is a “Teli” (entry no 53 in Bihar’s central list of OBCs). The most prominent BJP leader in Bihar, Sushil Kumar Modi, has filed a separate case of defamation against Rahul.

In the list of 68 communities of Rajasthan in the central OBC list, there is “Teli” as the 51st entry, but there is no community listed as “Modi”.

When were these communities in Gujarat included in the central OBC list?

Some were in the central list of OBCs from the beginning — when the first central list of OBCs was notified in 1993 after the implementation of the ‘Mandal’ reservations.


On October 27, 1999, the Muslim Ghanchi community was added to the central list of OBCs, along with some other similar communities from other states. Subsequently, by a notification dated April 4, 2000, other communities from Gujarat such as “Teli”, “Modh Ganchi”, “Teli Sahu”, “Teli Rathod”, and “Teli Rathore” were added to the central list of OBCs.

Thus, the caste to which Prime Minister Modi belongs — Ghanchi — was included in the central list of OBCs almost 18 months before Modi first became Chief Minister of Gujarat (on October 7, 2001).


Where else (other than Gujarat) do people with the Modi surname live?

As mentioned above, there are Modis in UP and Bihar.

This surname is also widely used by Marwaris, who are from the stock of Agrawals, who are said to belong to Agroha in Hisar, Haryana, and subsequently spread to districts like Mahendragarh of Haryana and Jhunjhunu and Sikar of Rajasthan.


The grandfather of former IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi, Rai Bahadur Gujar Mal Modi, moved from Mahendragarh to settle near Meerut, and the town was later renamed as Modinagar.

The fugitive diamantaire Nirav Modi hails from Gujarat’s Jamnagar, from a community that has been traditionally engaged in the diamond trade.

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First published on: 28-03-2023 at 07:06 IST
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