Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The making of the Gujarati diaspora

 Gujarat’s proximity to the Arabian Sea has been responsible for the ceaseless mercantile and maritime activities of its people. At the turn of the 19th century, many South Asians were imported by the British to work as indentured labourers in the construction of East African railways. As towns sprang up around railheads, Gujaratis of Patel, Lohana and Visha-Oshwal castes began migrating to East Africa and Madagascar where they established themselves in business. 

Within a couple of generations, they became very rich, lived by their caste and kinship ties, spoke Gujarati at home and their business and even set up Gujarati schools. After several African states gained their independence, a deliberate policy of Africanization made life increasingly difficult for Gujaratis and in the 1960s, they began to leave for Britain. Racial attacks, harsh economic conditions and the imposition of more stringent immigration laws in England resulted in many of them moving to Canada, US and Australia, joined later in 1972 by refugees fleeing from the Idi Amin regime in Uganda. Intially, discriminated against for good jobs, the Gujaratis gradually settled with jobs in sales, insurance and real estate. Some, with the advice and financial help of their kingship networks, were able to set up small businesses. This kind of chain help among relatives and friends with caste and village ties has resulted in the dramatic expansion of the Patel community’s hotel and motel business in the US where they control nearly 30% of the industry. 

In the 1970s and 80s, Jains from Palanpur migrated to Antwerp in Belgium where 90% of the world’s diamond trade is concentrated, successfully breaking the 500-year monopoly of Jews by taking over nearly 65% of the diamond trading market. Since the 1980s, many Gujarati students, professionals, doctors, lawyers and businessmen have migrated to the US seeking better jobs and opportunities. One in five Indians in the US is Gujarati. The Gujarati Diaspora maintains its emotional, cultural and economic relations with its motherland by establishing hospitals, schools, colleges, cultural and religious institutions and successfully lobbying in their host countries for foreign investment into Gujarat.

For more information on the migration pattern of Gujaratis, check out Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples by Paul R Magosci, Multicultural History Society of Ontario

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