NEW DELHI: India may soon get its first foreign Islamic bank with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) seeking government approval to allow Turkey’s Bank Asya to offer Shariah-compliant lending in the country. Shariah, or the Islamic law, bans interest on financing. Bank Asya is keen to start its Indian operations through a representative office in Mumbai. “So far the bank has only sought permission to open a representative office,” a finance ministry official said. “We are considering their application .”
RBI has requested the government to consider the Turkish bank’s application within 45 days. Launched in 1996, Bank Asya aims to develop interest-free banking products, according to its charter. It has 179 branches in Turkey. The current statutory and regulatory framework in India does not allow banks to undertake Islamic banking activities. But the Committee on Financial Sector Reforms, constituted by the Planning Commission, had in a report in 2008 recommended delivery of interest-free finance on a larger scale, including through the banking system. Last year during a visit to Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said that he would ask RBI to look into the demand for establishing Islamic banking in India.
Bank Asya had in 2009 received clearance from Turkey’s banking regulator to open a representative office in India. Its proposal has been pending with RBI for over a year. “After the global economic crisis, RBI has been stringent with allowing foreign banks in the country,” the finance ministry official said. “As a part of its liberalised policy for foreign banks, it has now granted permission to Bank Asya.” Global financial centers, such as Singapore , Hong Kong, Geneva, Zurich and London, have made changes in their regulations to accommodate Islamic finance industry that is now worth about $1 trillion.
The case for Islamic banking got a boost in India last month when the Kerala high court dismissed writ petitions challenging the government sanction for starting a nonbanking finance company by the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation, based on the Shariah. The petitioners had argued that the government sanction amounted to favouring Islam, and that setting up such a company with co-ownership of the state was antithetical to equal treatment for all religions. But the court said the petitioners could not demonstrate how the sanction had the effect of directly promoting a particular religion. India had committed to the World Trade Organization in 1997 to issue 12 new branch licenses to foreign banks every year, a number it has exceeded almost every year since. The finance ministry has said that there are 18 foreign banks, which are looking to set up their branches or representative offices in the country and their applications are at various stages of progress. At present, there are 32 foreign banks in the country.