The tale of two cities can’t be similar, they shouldn’t even be as recounting similar narratives could be insipid. I belonged to the city of Patna which basked in the glory of India’s antiquity; I came to the city of Ahmedabad which envisioned the future of India. My coming to Gujarat from Bihar during the early 1990s could have been accidental but later the decision to settle in Ahmedabad, the city of blooming promises, was a conscious one. Unlike thousands of Biharis who found Delhi as their naturalized second home during the large scale migration in the 1980s and 1990s due to regressive growth and social insecurity, I found greater acceptability, opportunities, better infrastructure and a congenial atmosphere for growth in Gujarat. Which is why I chose to settle in Ahmedabad and make Gujarat my karmabhoomi.
I have no regrets whatsoever.
Inland migration in search of opportunity has created a new class of modern day girmitiyas (a euphemism for the migrant Bihari labourers who built Mauritius, Fiji and Surinam, so-called after the contracts of the indentured labourers, which they called GIRMIT or agreement). Today it comprises of both blue and white collar migrant workforce from the state. Of all the places it’s Gujarat which has adopted this class with far more openness and affection. While the ugly politics of regional identity often keeps intimidating the girmitiyas elsewhere off and on, Gujarat has ensured opportunity with security and dignity. Today, these modern girmitiyas are Gujarat’s most ardent spokespersons and brand ambassadors. They feel safe, secure and are not discriminated against on the basis of linguistic or cultural identity. Submergence of identity is not a precondition for allegiance in Gujarat. If you can’t speak Gujarati, it doesn’t matter. The conversation can still go on in Hindi and Gujarati. Interestingly, there may be occasions when your local maid or vegetable vendor would insist on Hindi even if you can converse in Gujarati. The much touted Gujarati Asmita (Gujarati pride) is not an assertion of any sub-national identity. Therefore, your ‘otherliness’ is not a source of misery for you; neither socially nor politically. So instead of feeling like a migrant, you feel like a naturalized citizen in the state; one who has a stake in its growth and development. After some time you realize as if your stake holding is more emotional than practical.
It’s a peculiar state. It thrives under crisis and possesses an uncanny tenacity to bounce back. The 1994 plague epidemic devastated Surat. But when it overcame the crisis the city transformed from a badsurat (filthy) to a khoobsurat (beautiful) city. In 2008-09 Surat was rated the best performing city and best mega city under Urban Infrastructure and Governance (UIG) Sub-Mission of Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). The state rose from rubbles after the shattering earthquake of 2001 in a matter of few years. Those of us who survived this disaster, having seen buildings crumbling like a house of cards, never imagined the state would overcome this crisis and rebuild itself in such a way as if the calamity never happened. The 2002 riots were most unfortunate no doubt, but even worse was the endless outcry in media and ceaseless political onslaught on the image of Gujarat which didn’t allow an early reconciliation. The most traumatic was the experience of being branded communal the moment you uttered anything positive about Gujarat. Nevertheless, the state moved on and set an enviable track record of development.
I find the true reflection of Gujarati asmita in its entrepreneurial spirit; something many Indian states often lack. In a broader perspective, entrepreneurship in Gujarat is not only about doing business; it’s about daring to do things that are challenging. It’s about social innovation, about creation and co-creation of brands, institutions, organizations. How can we describe Amul for example— as a business enterprise or a social innovation which transformed the society at the grassroot level? Can we ignore its spirit of economic pluralism which helped achieve social justice, ensured poverty alleviation and empowered communities with little focus on economic gain? How should we rate revered Ila Ben’s renowned social organization SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) which helps women not just learn skill but become empowered— as a business or a social enterprise? Enterprise can thrive when there’s a culture of social acceptance to risk taking and cooperation. Business is no charity, true. It’s driven by self-interest. But when businesses grow they become social enterprise involving people, creating networks, touching millions of life. That is when self- interest becomes enlightened. It reflects in Gujarat’s tradition of social philanthropy. Unfortunately the incessant communal-secular discourse and high-pitched political battle of decades have covered up its virtues. It must be uncovered.
To me the Gujarat Model in its true sense is the model of cooperation, co-existence and enlightened self-interest which includes all and excludes none. Surely the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi also means that.
Mihir Bholey is a senior faculty of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Views are personal.