How Hindutva hatred is jeopardising India’s Gulf ties (Part-VII)

DM Monitoring/
Talmiz Ahmad

Arabs came to southern India as merchants and travellers and were warmly welcomed by local rulers. The Arab traveller Ibn Batuta (1304-77), during his travels along India’s western coast, saw several Muslims from Persia and Yemen living in prosperous conditions.
Between the 8th and 15th centuries there were considerable cross-religious influences, particularly with the initiation of reform movements by Vaishnava and Shaivite saints. The scholar Dr Tarachand has written: “[It was in the south where] Islam came into contact with Hinduism and leavened the growing mass of Hindu thought.” This was reflected in the thinking and speculations of sages such as Ramanuja, Vishnuswami, Madhava and Nimbarka in the 12th and 13th centuries whose thought reflected a “closer parallelism” with Islam. Tarachand notes the following influences from Sufism: emphasis on monotheism; emotional worship; self-surrender (prapatti) and veneration of the teacher (guru-bhakti); loosening of the caste system, and indifference to mere ritualism.
Indian communities have been resident in the Gulf for at least the last millennium; there are records of Indians from Kutch residing in Muscat for the last 600 years. From the 15th century, it had colonies of Bhatias from Thatta, who were later followed by Kutchi Bhatias and Khojas from Sindh, known in Oman as Lawatis. A Kutchi merchant, Narottam, is believed to have supported an Omani uprising against the Portuguese in 1649; his descendants are honoured in Oman to this day. In 1765, the Dutch explorer Carsten Niebuhr wrote of Muscat thus:
“In no other Mahometan city are the Indians so numerous as in Muscat; their number in the city is no less than 1200. They are permitted to live agreeable to their own laws, to bring their wives hither, and to set up idols in their chambers, and to burn their dead.”
The Gulf communities imported foodstuffs, textiles, wood and metal from India, while Indians imported horses and pearls which were then made into jewellery and sold globally. The Indian rupee was used in the Gulf from the 16th century up to the 1960s. Today, in Oman, about a hundred Kutchi families have Omani nationality; they are headed by their own “Sheikh”, Kanakbhai Khimji.
As the British consolidated their political power over the Gulf from the early 19th century, the administration was entirely manned, financed and controlled from India. Resident Indian communities flourished as business persons, professionals, technicians, government officials and skilled workers. James Onley has in fact argued that the Gulf constituted the outer edge of the British Indian empire:
“For over 4000 years, Arabia fell within the economic and cultural orbit of India. During the British rule, it also fell within the political orbit of India. Between 1820 and 1947, its political affairs were dominated by the East India Company and its successor, the British Government of India. Arabia was the western-most frontier of the British Indian Empire.” India had a tremendous influence on the cultural life of people in the Gulf in terms of local architecture, clothing and cuisine. Gulf Arabs enjoy Indian curried lamb, biryani and seekh kabab and even the humble samosa is a delicacy to this day; the Indian “kadak chai” is an addiction. The Gulf countries are the main markets for India’s basmati rice.
With the influx of oil revenues, the Gulf went truly global – now major international corporations came to the region to execute high-value infrastructure, energy and manufacturing projects. India again rose to the challenge – it soon became the principal source of manpower to execute the projects. Commencing with just a million in the early 1980s, the Indian community expanded to three and a half million by 2000, six million by 2010 and now stands at over eight million. This community remits about $35 billion to India annually. Indians are the largest expatriate community in every country of the Gulf and are the majority in three countries – the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. The profile of the community has also changed: in 1990, it was 90% blue-collar; today, though six times larger, it is just about 65-70% blue-collar, with at least 20% being professionals – engineers, doctors, managers and accountants. Hundreds of Indian chartered accountants hold distinguished positions in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Oman and dominate the upper levels of the financial sector.
The last few decades have witnessed the emergence of entrepreneurs from within the community, from small business persons to tycoons of international standing in the areas of health, construction, education, infrastructure, finance and retail services. Over the last 20 years, India has become a major importer of hydrocarbons from the Gulf – 50% of its imported oil and gas comes from the GCC. The GCC countries collectively are among the top three of India’s trading partners in terms of blocs, while two GCC countries – the UAE and Saudi Arabia – are in the top five of India’s trade partners. The UAE is also India’s number two export destination, after the US.
To be Continued…