A diaspora divided in the United Kingdom

The Indian diaspora in Britain has never been as divided and disjointed as it is at present. And yes, Narendra Modi is indeed the principal force, if not exactly the 'divider-in-chief'

Hindu leaders condemn anti-Muslim violence in in Leicester, UK, 20 Sept 2022. (Image courtesy: @doamuslims/ Twitter)
Hindu leaders condemn anti-Muslim violence in in Leicester, UK, 20 Sept 2022. (Image courtesy: @doamuslims/ Twitter)

Ashis Ray

In Britain, to which Indians have migrated for 400 years, the influx sped up significantly in the 1950s—with a working class influx from Punjab of largely Sikhs—and this trend has persisted in some form or the other.

The next major new source of immigration was East Africa in the early 1970s. This was principally a PIO relocation (for persons of Indian origin), mostly of Gujaratis who were British nationals and were effectively hounded out by post-colonial black regimes, especially by the tyrannical Idi Amin in Uganda.

The United Kingdom typically adopted a policy of divide and rule between its Indian subjects and Africans, arguably favouring the more compliant first and thereby causing resentment among the indigenous people. While East African Indians are predominant among the PIOs, others have come from the West Indies, South-East Asia and southern Africa.

The most recent movement of Indians has, of course, been that of a skilled workforce of bankers and managers and software specialists. They are the high-salaried, upwardly mobile post-1991 liberalisation generation.

Lastly, there is a section of students who attend higher studies at British universities, subsequently secure a job and succeed in staying back.

These various demographics have never been completely united, being culturally diverse, having language barriers and possessing different aspirations. In recent decades, their interests have coincided only in their enthusiasm for Bollywood films and the Indian cricket team.

Religion as a separator and a certain ghettoisation remain in evidence—Gujaratis grouping themselves in the north-west suburb of Wembley and the East Midlands city of Leicester; Sikhs in precincts like Southall and Hounslow, west of the British capital, and in urban areas of the West Midlands, where their forebears landed to be employed in the car manufacturing industry and where many are still engaged.

The Sikhs were previously always at the forefront of exuding an Indian nationalist spirit. Whether it was coming to the aid of the motherland during the wars inflicted on India in 1962, 1965 and 1971, times of food or foreign exchange shortages or cheering India in the sports field, they were conspicuously the most patriotic and selfless Indians.

Today, the same circle is severely divided. At least 20 per cent of them are estimated to be pro-Khalistan. They even wantonly cross what in Indian authorities’ eyes is the red line of hobnobbing with the Pakistan’s spy agency ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence).

Moreover, Narendra Modi managed to infuriate a cross-section of the UK-based Sikhs with his insensitive attitude towards Indian farmers, who protested on open roads in bitter winter and oppressive summer for a year to oppose a set of unfavourable farm laws.

Many of those demonstrators and affected farmers were relatives, friends or acquaintances of British Sikhs. The Overseas Friends of BJP in the UK, perceived to be an RSS front, is not known to parade a single Sikh or non-Hindu as a member. Indian diasporic Muslims hail from both India and other territories.

A protest by Sikhs outside the Indian High Commission in London, March 2023
A protest by Sikhs outside the Indian High Commission in London, March 2023

Those from India retain a firm link with their country of upbringing, in fact have family and friends back home, not to mention assets. The Indian Muslim Federation, founded in 1969 and relatively progressive, has not deviated from its allegiance to India, regardless of atrocities against Muslims during Modi’s rule.

The Indian High Commission in London has correspondingly pursued an inclusive policy towards Indian Muslims, historically. However, this relationship—shaken by Modi’s capture of power in Delhi—was recently fractured by a rather biased statement by the mission last September when Hindus and Muslims clashed in Leicester and Birmingham.

Indian-origin Hindus and Muslims from East Africa with a shared history of suffering persecution and arriving in Britain to seek refuge, notwithstanding their polarities of faith, had till now lived in peace and harmony, even camaraderie.

Last autumn, though, when the somewhat unusual violence broke out in Leicester, the Indian High Commission reacted by saying, “We strongly condemn the violence perpetrated against the Indian community in Leicester and vandalisation of premises and symbols of [the] Hindu religion.”

Inherent in this official position was a signal that the ‘Indian community’ meant Hindus. The statement was hardly apt for a secular State. At the same time, it was unsurprising given the current political masters in India and with Indian diplomats no longer enjoying the elbow room of political correctness.

Topmost on the agenda of almost every foreign trip by Modi has been interaction with the diaspora—the only overseas beings he is comfortable with. He has nothing in common with white, black or Far Eastern races. His meetings with his governmental counterparts are little more than photo opportunities, as he is unable to or unwilling to participate in substantive conversations on pressing bilateral or multilateral matters.

Since he is unable to communicate with confidence in English, he is also often a silent spectator in informal exchanges. On the other hand, Modi appears to be more at home with the diaspora than with people back in India.

The latter see through him, whereas East African Gujarati Hindus have been eating out of his hands since his days as an RSS pracharak and in fact bankrolled him after the 2002 riots. Admittedly, Modi brought a sense of pride and joy to NRIs as well as East African Gujarati Hindus when he emerged on top in 2014.

To the latter, the umbilical cord with India is not so much with the nation state, but with its aspect as the ‘holy land’, the home of Hinduism. Independent India’s democracy, secularism and values are of little consequence to them. These are the descendants of PIOs who were fertile ground for the RSS in East Africa; in Britain, they continue to be easy recruits into fundamentalism.

While Hindu extremism is not as widespread among people descending from other parts of India as it is among those of Gujarati lineage, a recent story in the UK’s mass-circulated Daily Mail claimed British prime minister Rishi Sunak’s grandfather Ramdas Sunak, a Punjabi from Gujranwala (now in Pakistan), was in Kenya a member of the RSS, which the paper described as a ‘Hindu supremacist outfit’ and one ‘which was modelled on fascist organisations like the Nazis’.

Until the Modi administration controversially legalised financial contributions from foreign entities towards Indian political parties, the Hindutva-leaning diaspora and the BJP broke the law with impunity — sending and receiving money any way.

A sizeable proportion of British and NRI Hindus’ rather shrill conduct and the importance extended to them by the Modi dispensation has alienated liberal Hindus, scheduled castes, Muslims and Sikhs of Indian descent living in Britain. While the hardcore still adore him, a growing minority have deciphered his duplicity and non-performance.

The BBC documentary on the Gujarat riots was a rude awakening for the younger generation, an explicit reminder for those who had brushed the issue under the carpet. A motley collection of less than 20 staged a token demonstration outside the broadcaster’s headquarters, perhaps indicating that the ardency of their earlier feeling of justification may have diminished.

The bottom line is: the Indian diaspora in Britain has never been as divided and disjointed as it is at present. And India’s vital interests — be they in Kashmir or in China — receive little solidarity as the community bicker in an atmosphere of sectarian divisiveness and ill-will.

(Ashis Ray is a journalist who has been India’s longest-serving foreign correspondent and was formerly a BBC broadcaster and consultant editor with CNN. He lives in London)

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