Starting with this issue, NRI Achievers proposes to every now and then feature some of the more iconic among our Indian Diaspora, who have carved a place for themselves under the sun, doing their adoptive land proud, and while doing so, doing India proud as well. We start with some of the truly more iconic personalities, all of whom battled all odds to serve their communities, societies and countries, and hugely succeeded. Read on …
Khimji Ramdas is the progenitor of Khimji Ramdas aka the KR Group of Companies in Oman, which was established in the year 1870 and whose billboards and nameplates now dot the business districts of Muscat and other cities and towns in that country. The Khimji Ramdas saga dates back to the mid-19th century, when his father Ramdas Thackersey shifted to Oman along with the young Khimji in the 1860s from Mandvi, the Kutch coastal town of Gujarat, to start their commercial operations. The Gujarat coast in Kutch is one of the points in India closest to the Omani coast. It was a time when there were no nation-states as they exist today, nor were passports or visae in vogue. Neither were there cumbersome customs inspections, nor border checks. “Laissez passer” (Free Pasage) was the norm. Those were also the times when there was no electricity or clean drinking water. Medicines and medical facilities were scarce. Piracy at sea and pillages on land by brigands were not uncommon.
Ramdas undertook both wholesale and retail trade and also acted as a banker by financing trade deals. Their stock-in-trade consisted of imported grain, spices, coffee, tea and cotton goods from India and dates, limestone, and frankincense for export from Oman. The transport was by dhows moved by winds and steered by sailors manually. The payment was more often than not through barter. The commercial documentation was at best no more than a single piece of paper or hand-written chits or notes from the buyer and the seller, and transactions largely depended on trust and one’s honour. In that humble setting, Khimji Ramdas laid the foundation for the future billion-dollar eponymous corporate conglomerate that would give employment to hundreds of people and extend philanthropic support in setting up educational institutes for Indian students in Oman. This Khimji saga will shortly be passing by a milestone when the corporate set-up will complete 150 years of its life in 2019.
During the two world wars, the K R Group became a leading supplier of provisions for the allied forces stationed in Oman. When the oil-boom began and petro-dollars began to flow into the gulf countries beginning mid-1970s, Oman, under the present ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said, undertook massive infrastructure projects, a rapid industrialization programme and state investment into people’s education and health. The Khimji family, well groomed in soft skills and business acumen, became an essential part of this economic upturn in Oman. While Oman remained their principal business domain since inception, they have over time developed commercial presence in India and the UAE dating back to several decades. Later they further diversified into Iran and Turkey as well.
It is the character and soft skills of Khimji Ramdas like patience, hard work, integrity, business ethics, prudence, respect and adherence to local traditions, and philosophy of give and take that were imbibed by his succeeding generations that enabled them to face an increasingly competitive and challenging milieu. The soft power of the present day Khimjis – fourth generation descendants of Khimji Ramdas – has an unmistakable imprint of their forefather. These attributes helped them maintain cordial relations with the ruling family, governors, government officials and the public. When the Gulf countries commenced a policy of nativisation of the work force, variously called Saudiisation in Saudi Arabia, Emiratisation in the UAE and Omanisation in Oman, Khimjis were among the first to launch skill development for native people, groom them for responsible positions and create job placements for them. At the same time, the generational change over a century has not affected their social life. Despite their century long expatriation, they have remained steadfast to their ancestral customs and traditions and social mores. They remain vegetarians to this day in conformity with their family heritage. They displayed the quintessentially Indic trait of adaptation to local life, patience, family values, absorption of local community, inter-community connectivity and communication and social essentials without losing their own identity and Indian roots. They are said to maintain their ancestral Vaishnavite traditions and remain devotees of Lord Shreenathji.
Among the millions of present day PIOs (Persons of Indian Origin), Khimji Ramdas’ descendents stand unique. Kanaksi Khimji, now 80, took over in 1970 from his father Gokaldas, who was a son of Khimji Ramdas. He led the group in playing a role in the development plans of Oman. In recognition of this, Kanak bhai, as he is popularly known, was conferred two rare honours by the government of Oman. He was among the first to be offered the Omani citizenship, which in those days, was a rare honour for a non-local and non-Muslim. More importantly, in a historic first he was bestowed the title of Sheikh by the government of Oman, which was an unprecedented gesture. He is the only one among the entire Indian diaspora in the Middle-East to have been officially conferred the title of Sheikh. The term “Sheikh“ is an honoured social position in West Asia’s layered society that connotes respect and regard and informal authority. It reflects an acknowledgement of leadership of a tribe or community or clan. The title is generally hereditary though probably needs to be given official recognition at every generational change. Kanak Khimji, grandson of Khimji Ramdas, born in Muscat in 1936, the patriarch of the present day Khimji generation who took over the family control in 1970, is the one and only Hindu Sheikh in the entire world.
As for the honours in his ancestral country India, Kanak Khimji was among the ten overseas Indians chosen by the Government of India for the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in 2003, the very first year of its inception, in recognition of his extraordinary achievements and service to the community.
Present day Khimjis are into their fifth generation (counting from Ramdas Thackersey ). The Khimjis have played an admirable role in the service of their Janmabhoomi, that is Oman and Mathrubhumi, that is Bharat. In Oman, apart from their corporate role, they pioneered education by starting the first Indian school, with English as medium that now caters to various expatriate children, showing the way to others for starting more such schools to meet the needs of the growing number of expatriate families. There are now about 20 Indian schools in Oman imparting primary and secondary education to tens of thousands of children of different nationalities. And the Khimjis’ have extended this to India, where they run schools in Gujarat.
Oman and India have distinct historical connections. For millennia, Oman has been at the maritime cross-road between India and the Gulf. Vasco-da-Gama is said to have employed Omani sailors as navigators in his voyage to discover a sea route to India. The Malabar ruler, Zamorin, who died while on a voyage centuries ago, is believed to be lying buried at a place in the Omani seaboard on the Indian Ocean. From the 15th to the late 19th century, Oman, being located strategically in the shipping route from India to Europe, was coveted by Portugal, France and the UK for domination and control of the trade route, with the UK eventually succeeding in the mission. A sizeable number of Indian traders who had migrated to Oman, mainly from Gujarat, were dominant in Oman’s commerce. However, the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869 linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, cutting the nautical distance between India and Europe substantially and opening a new land route, affected the geo-economic importance of Oman.
As an expression of the trust and acceptance enjoyed over the generations by the Indian community in Oman, two temples were allowed to be built in the capital Muscat, the first and the only instance in the Gulf Arab countries until recently. There is also a locality in Muscat called Muttrah which is said to be named after Mathura, the famous Indian city near Agra. Also, another place in Muscat is called “Darsait,” which in Arabic means “House of Sait,” apparently indicating a wealthy Indian man had lived in that place. (Seth is a popular term for wealthy businessperson in Hindi and ‘dar’ in Arabic means house). In India, the ruling family of Oman has long association with Mayo College in Ajmer, Rajastan and as a mark have endowed a building there which stands named the House of Oman.