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Image of Gujaratis as tolerant damaged after 2002 riots, may "affect" ethnic entrepreneurial tradition

The front page of an Indian daily
By Our Representative
Top British journal “The Economist” has wondered whether Gujaratis, qualified as the world’s “best businesspeople”, would continue to enjoy the same reputation in the future, especially when their image of “religious and ethnic tolerance on which so much of their commercial ethos was built” stands damaged.
The reason for asking this question is, the influential weekly says, “The state their forebears came from has seen an uptick in sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims in recent years, particularly in 2002”. It underlines, “There is a risk that divisions in India may, in time, spread to the diaspora.”
“There is also the fear”, the journal says, “that in the age of ‘knowledge economies’ their utilitarian approach to learning might become a disadvantage; it is Bangalore and Hyderabad that have pulled ahead in India’s latest high-tech businesses.”
However, “The Economist” hopes, this is a passing phenomenon. “As the Gujaratis like to point out, they do the business, not the tech. As there have been gaps in the market during the past millennium, so there will be gaps during the next millennium—and Gujaratis will be there to exploit them.”
Despite the recent aberration, the journal points towards how, historically, the accommodative nature of Gujaratis played a role in the development of Gujarati mercantilism. Praising the institution of majahans, the weekly says, it “developed in the early Mughal period, in the 16th century.”
It says, the mahajans “regulated trade and settled disputes within the various trading communities, such as the cloth or grain merchants”, even as providing “a system of self-regulation.”
Quoting SP Hinduja, a professor of sociology at Delhi University, the weekly says, the mahajani institutions were “multi-ethnic and multi-religious, binding together the Muslims, Hindus, Jains and others into one commercial class.”
Contrasting it with Protestantism, which is “often been associated with the rise of Anglo-Saxon capitalism”, the weekly says “Gujarati capitalism was much more a fusion of influences. Ethnic and religious diversity became a source of strength, multiplying the trading networks that each community could exploit.”
“Pragmatism and flexibility over identity, and a willingness to accommodate, perhaps inherited from the mahajans, are strong Gujarati traits”, "The Economist" argues quoting Edward Simpson of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
“Ethical business practices based on fair trade and honest dealings gave Gujarati traders a reputation of being trustworthy,” The Economist quotes Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth, two Gujarat-based historians, adding, “When the Portuguese, Dutch and then the British started arriving in India from the 16th century they used Gujaratis as their principal trading partners.”
“The headquarters of the British East India Company was originally at Surat. It was the Gujaratis’ relationships with the East India Company, and later the British crown, that were the biggest influences in shaping their contemporary trading empire”, it says.
Calling this as the “secret” behind Gujaratis becoming as one of the world’s most successful businesspeople across the world, the 3,000 word feature, published in “The Economist’s” December 19 edition, suggests, this nature alone is responsible for Gujaratis having spread out across all the countries of world, except for “very small, undeveloped or are merely small islands without much business opportunity”.
In the US, the journal says, 1960s onwards, “Gujaratis now run about a third of all its hotels and motels”, which was achieved “mostly by just one group, essentially an extended family, the Patels, who hail originally from a string of villages between the industrial cities of Baroda (or Vadodara) and Surat.”
“They have the added knack of turning a degree into a business opportunity. They own almost half (12,000) of America’s independent pharmacies (as well as one of the biggest chains in Britain, Day Lewis). There are thousands of Gujarati doctors in America, and they are quicker than most to start up their own practices”, the daily says.
“Around the globe, they have come to wield huge influence in the diamond business. An impressive 90% of the world’s rough diamonds are cut and polished in the Gujarati city of Surat, a business worth about $13 billion a year, and Indians, predominantly Gujaratis, control almost three-quarters of Antwerp’s diamond industry”, the weekly says.
“Unsurprisingly, given their success abroad, they have been at the forefront of India’s own recent economic surge, too. The three wealthiest Indian businesspeople—Mukesh Ambani, Dilip Shanghvi and Azim Premji—are Gujarati”, the weekly says.

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