Tucked away in a bylane in Bhuleshwar — among Mumbai’s oldest wholesale markets — is the low-profile Nyalchand Textiles. Set up before Independence, the shop captures the spirit of the city’s enterprising Gujarati community.

“The shop is named after my grandfather who came to Mumbai from Ahmedabad at the age of 16. He arrived with nothing, just a train ticket. He used to sell newspapers and work part-time at this shop which was owned by a British gentleman. He slept on the road outside,” says textile trader Rupesh Shah.

Impressed with the youngster, the owner left the shop to him when he returned to England. Today Nyalchand Textiles has expanded to thrice the size and employs 10 men.

“Without the Gujarati and Marwari communities, how will this city run?” asks Mr. Shah. Bhuleshwar is a major hub of Gujarati traders hawking cloth, steelware and imitation jewellery. It was here that the community’s most famous son, founder of Reliance Industries, Dhirubhai Ambani, once lived and worked. The Cotton Exchange — among Asia’s oldest commodity trading markets — was also located here.

Old links

The traders here have linkages to the city going back several generations. Parts of Gujarat and Maharashtra were once part of the same State: the Bombay Presidency. The community accounts for over 30 lakh people in the city with roughly 22 lakh voters.

Yet Gujaratis find themselves under sudden attack from pro-Marathi parties which have traditionally opposed migrants.

First, from the Shiv Sena and then from its political rival, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Both parties have Marathi voters at their core.

Last week, the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamna bitterly criticised Gujarati traders for milking Mumbai and giving it nothing in return. A stand that has surprised many since the Shiv Sena is in alliance with the BJP, which has a strong Gujarati following. It later claimed that the editorial was not endorsed by the party.

On Friday, Mr. Raj Thackeray’s party demanded that advertisements on public buses by the Sandesh newspaper, praising the Gujarati contribution to the city, be removed.

The traders here are not too worried about a Gujarati-Marathi divide, propelled by such rhetoric. “This is just politics. Both parties want to impress Marathi voters. It will settle down. We have never had trouble from political parties,” says Pradeep Jadeja from Aristo Metals. “The Shiv Sena will realise that our vote goes to them as well, since they are alliance partners of the BJP. This election, the alliance fielded a Shiv Sena candidate from here,” he adds.

Indispensable role

The community draws its security from its indispensable role in the city’s economic engine. The city’s grain, textile, paper and metal trade is dominated by Gujaratis. Ninety per cent of the diamond merchants in the city belong to the community.

The bullion trade also has strong links to the community.

“Gujaratis account for 30 per cent of the bullion traders,” says Prithviraj Kothari, former president of the Bombay Bullion Association.

The stockbroking field too draws many Gujaratis.

Gujaratis have also assimilated seamlessly into the city’s culture perhaps because of their historic connection to Mumbai and their large numbers here. “You cannot separate Marathis and Gujaratis in Mumbai because they are both woven into the city’s fabric,” says Deena Mehta, former president of the Bombay Stock Exchange, among the community’s prominent achievers.

Gujaratis in Mumbai, she says, have a stronger affinity to the city than to Gujarat.

“I don’t know how many second generation Gujaratis in Mumbai have even visited their native village in Gujarat. Our children read Marathi better than Gujarati,” she says.

Yet with the Assembly polls due in October, both Senas could play the competitive Marathi card and their attacks on the Gujarati community could well escalate.