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The new Jews of Antwerp

Ruled by the Jews once, the hub of Europe?s diamond industry in Belgium now has about 400 Indian families breaking the monopoly.

india Updated: Nov 27, 2006 17:45 IST
Upala Sen

"We have seen Don and Umrao Jaan in the theatre,” lets in a smiling Sapna Mehta. Wondering why so much ado about Bollywood’s new releases? Simply because when you are talking about the Indian scene in Antwerp, you cannot skip mentioning Bollywood. According to Sapna, there are 23 cinemas in Antwerp where Hindi movies are regularly screened. These movies have a robust fan following in the neighbouring Moroccan community and also the Surinamese from Holland. But the stoutest fan base rests with the Indians of the area. And just who might they be?

They are the Gujarati diamond merchants. “Diamond trade in Belgium is controlled by two communities — the Jews and the Gujaratis,” says an official in the Ministry of External Affairs. Starting from the 15th century, diamond trade of the area was concentrated largely in the hands of the Jewish cutters and traders. And then one day, some time in the 1930s and ’40s, the Nawab of Palanpur, a small farming town in Gujarat, sent his Jain administrators to Antwerp to buy diamonds. Visits led to more visits, all of which generated a strong business interest.

“Today the Indian-Jew trade ratio in Antwerp is 60:40,” says Sachin D Mehta of Eurostar Diamond Traders. Sachin himself is a third generation diamond merchant hailing from Coimbatore. But these are not the only two communities involved in dia mond trading. Raj Mehta, senior vice president of Rosy Blue (another diamond giant), says there are also the Lebanese traders. But the two big players are decidedly the Jews and the Indians.

Acknowledging the contribution of the 400-plus Indian families engaged in the trade, Sonia Gandhi had said in a speech at BOZAR, the Centre for Fine Arts, “Belgium is the second largest trading part ner for India within the EU. Our bilateral trade crossed 8 billion euros in 2005, much of it contributed by the diamond trade. And here I would like to express my apprecia tion of the contribution that the Indian community in Belgium has made to our eco nomic relations and to the Belgian economy.” The growing economic clout is also evident in the increasing political recognition within Belgium. Earlier this year, diamond merchants from India won five out of 12 seats on the board of the HRD — Hoge Raad voor Diamant or Diamond High Council — breaking what was until now the monopoly of Jewish traders.

Also, Dilip Mehta, CEO of Rosy Blue, was awarded Belgium’s highest civilian honour. He became the first person of Indian origin to be titled Baron. The State Bank of India and ICICI have already set up shop in Antwerp and the coming months will see some other Indian banks also entering the country.

Culturally too, there is a growing awareness of Indianness. As Sapna points out, “We maintain very close ties with India. There is a paathshala every weekend where the children are apprised of their language and culture. Even local restaurateurs are now aware of our culinary tastes. Earlier, a vegetarian meal in Europe was a tough find. Now, not only do you get vegetarian food, a lot of places in Belgium also have a Jain menu.” For Antwerp’s Gujarati diamond merchants, that is just another reason to say, “Saru che!”