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Showcasing Gujarat, abroad

By Sunanda K Datta-Ray
April 27, 2009 14:35 IST
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Rajiv Shah's appointment as Barack Obama's Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics reminds us that there isn't any comprehensive study of the Gujarati diaspora.

Though Shah's news sent the Ahmedabad editions of national newspapers into a tizzy of excitement over NRGs -- Non-Resident Gujaratis -- the locals I spoke to were not enthused. They had no idea of the overall number or estimated wealth of their overseas jatbhais.

The authorities, too, seem ambivalent with no sign of Narendra Modi's promised PIO (People of Indian Origin) university. "Gujarat is the only state," he told the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, "which created a separate ministry for diaspora and this needs to be replicated at the Centre and in several other states."

But no one in Ahmedabad could direct me to the ministry. The BJP spokesman said a department or, rather, a cell in a department had, indeed, been created some years ago, but didn't exist any longer.

Perhaps expatriate Gujaratis are played down because of the chief minister's travel problems. The US refuses him a visa; the European Union is markedly cold; Lord Adam Patel and the Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force will make things hot for him in Britain.

Yet, if the noblest prospect for a Scotsman is the highroad to England, quoting Dr Johnson, for a Gujarati it is the airport international departure lounge. Previously, it was the docks from where ships left.

I am told that every family, save Dalits and Adivasis, has a diasporic connection, Patidars and Banias being the most enterprising. Bearing out the old joke about "potels" (motels in the US owned by Patels), the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary today in Washington DC, represents more than 22,000 establishments worth more than $60 billion.

Ahmedabad is plastered with hoardings advertising low-fare flights and "Study, Work, Settle" facilities in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. One shows a face painted with the Union Jack.

A hotel lobby was crowded with young men in their Sunday best waiting for British Council tests and interviews. The fortnightly Immigration Times is compulsory reading.

Emigration from Gujarat is an old tradition and has always been qualitatively different from emigration from Kerala, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab or Tamil Nadu. Gujaratis are merchants and shopkeepers, not labourers. No one forces them to go abroad: They follow the lodestar of commercial opportunity to Aden and Zanzibar, Hongkong and Africa.

India committed a grave mistake in the 1960s by pressing Britain to accept Gujaratis whom the indigenous rulers of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika threw out. "You've got us by the short and curly", David Ennals, the British home secretary, told me then, referring to India's legalistic arguments. He felt the community's proven capacity for hard work and accumulated capital could be of immense benefit to India.

But socialist India wasn't interested in individual enterprise in a free market. Pressuring the British government was a major achievement. And so London's corner shops bloomed and blossomed. India's loss was Britain's gain. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame might otherwise have been Indian.

International Gujaratis can claim formidable achievements in cinema, sports, science and politics. As expected, the basket also holds a few rotten apples. The Gujarati owner of a Florida snacks store was recently indicted for food stamp fraud.

Qatar's deportation of four men led to the arrest of an entrepreneur accused of making a fortune from forging passports. Australia's Jamnagar-born "Dr Death" is facing trial over the death of three patients. However, it says much for Gujarati bonding that a fellow Gujarati doctor has promised support from distant Texas.

Amidst reports of Ahmedabad city's MoU with Shanghai, a fair in Spain and the release of Mehul Shah's Bollywood Beats in Dallas, I read about 28-year-old Vadodara school drop-out, Shyam Galatiya, already with an ice slush (gola) outlet in Singapore, planning to storm the US market.

He won't lack customers for Gujaratis cling to their lifestyle. In a hotel bar in Christchurch, New Zealand, I once bumped into a local cricket team celebrating a victory, a young Gujarati among them.

He asked me home to dinner where we sat in the front parlour while his mother and wife toiled away in the kitchen. I didn't set eyes on either. A slight shuffle outside the parlour door and my host would go out to collect the hot puris.

Given that orthodoxy, Galatiya's gola will do well. In fact, Gujaratis will conquer the world before other Indians, thanks to Krishna Bhanji aka Ben Kingsley who plays Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, both, of course, NRIs, sorry, NRGs.

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Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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