Another India-Pak partition - this time in Britain

A COLUMN in the Hindu last week sparked off an interesting discussion: do Indians resent being 'lumped with Asians' in the British media? And is this translating itself into a Hindu-Muslim, even Indo-Pak divide?

By Saeed Naqvi (Indian Express)

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Published: Thu 26 Aug 2004, 9:20 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:54 AM

Some intellectuals from among immigrants from the West Indies have advanced the theory that the previous generation of immigrants had struggled to find their place in the sun against common odds posed by a predominantly white society.

Like all generalisations, this one applies imperfectly to the situation on the ground. The disturbing truth is that we Indians are inherently racist as the eternal search for the 'fair bride' indicates. This is one of the elements, which determines a mindset, which seeks approximation with the 'fair' (white) and, on most occasions, an almost knee-jerk distancing from the opposite of 'fair', namely Blacks. Even Mahatma Gandhi's struggle in South Africa was for Indians, not blacks.

So, the West Indies and African experience in Britain is essentially different from the Asian experience. When Enoch Powell made his famous 'rivers of blood' speech in 1968, the immediate provocation was from some aggressive elements from the Caribbean. The entire street in Wolverhampton, where Powell lived, had been taken over by Caribbean immigrants. All the 'Whites' had moved out except Powell who doggedly retained his premises.

Race relations took a turn for the worse when the booming '60s yielded place to the shrinking economic pie of the '70s. That is when the term 'Paki bashing' gained currency. Since Pakistanis and Indians looked similar on Britain's streets, Indians mistaken to be 'Pakis' were also occasional recipients of this bashing. That was when being lumped with Pakistanis and termed Asians began to be inconvenient for Indians.

Why did 'Pakis' and not Indians incur the wrath of the working class British youth on the streets of Bradford, Birmingham, Manchester, Southhall? Until the 50s and 60s, the ordinary Britisher was not even aware of a new nation called Pakistan. The first time Pakistan burst on consciousness here was in 1954 when Fazal Mehmood, almost single handedly, defeated England at the Oval. Over a decade later, the 1965 Indo-Pak war and Harold Wilson's statements unhelpful to New Delhi, confirmed the Pakistani profile.

An interesting fact, is the early acceptability gained by Sikhs at the working class level. Despite obviously looking different in their turbans, there were several reasons, which endeared them to their mates. First, the Sikh worked hard and after work turned up at the pub, the only place where the Englishman socialised those days. The Sikh was a hearty drinker. Second, with commendable ingenuity, he arranged for his wife and children to join him. This commitment to the family earned him bonus points for 'family values'. Third, he did not disturb the neighborhood institution of the butcher shop. He bought his 'jhatka' meat from the existing outlets. The 'Paki' failed his English mate on all three counts. He did not visit the pub. He claimed he had a family in Mirpur Khas or wherever but it never materialised. The absence of the family may not have been held against him had the 'Paki' curbed his enthusiasm for the 'gori mem'.

In those days the British High Commissions on the subcontinent produced a guidebook for newcomers to Britain with amusing instructions: 'In the UK women are independent and often live by themselves. You may be invited for tea or a meal.' The guidebook then advised the visitor conclusively: 'Such invitations must not be taken for License'. Perceptions and realities were often mixed up in those early decades of the 'Asian' presence in Britain.

For instance, Indian restaurants and craze for curry escalated exponentially quite independent of the negative media attention on race relations. It was only in '69 that a story on the features page of the Sunday Times first informed the British public that most of the Indian restaurants were actually owned by people from one district of what was then East Pakistan Sylhet. Subsequently, the evolution of India and Pakistan as distinct societies, pursuing different models, was reflected in the quality of the respective communities in Britain. Democracy, egalitarianism, a growing and educated middle class created an upwardly mobile professional, entrepreneurial diaspora. The Pakistani ruling elite kept a grip on levers of power at home. Less educated classes made the bulk of the 'Pakis' in the UK.

The other day Shekhar Gupta of Indian Express, in walk the Talk interviewed cricketer Javgal Srinath. It was an eye opener. A sensitive, thinking man, articulate man! This triggered off an appraisal of the rising education levels in our cricket team. Saurav Ganguly, Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid are more articulate than any world cricketer. Educationally, the weakest links in the team are probably Mohammad Kaif, Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan which probably reflects on education among Indian Muslims. But sheer peer pressure has imparted a degree of sophistication that is uniformly spread across the team. The team is from among India's 300 million strong middle class. In contrast, the Pak team reflects the absence of a middle class of this quality. The power elite, of which Imran Khan was the last representative, does not get selected any longer. Indeed, in speech and manner, the Pakistani cricket team resembles our hockey team, which says something of the sociological equation between cricket and hockey. In some ways, immigrant communities are a microcosm of the subcontinent's social architecture. Little wonder, the upwardly mobile Indians, mostly Hindus are a notch above the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in sheer achievement.

Being lumped, as 'Asians' would be additionally inconvenient when Muslims are a targeted community in this insensitively conducted war on terrorism. For Pakistani immigrants to catch up, drastic reforms are needed at home. Pakistan must break out of its feudal mould. Egalitarianism is a precondition for enlarging the size of the educated middle class capable of coping with competition within the diaspora. Without that sociological change taking place in Pakistan even the quest for sub continental peace may prove elusive.

Saeed Naqvi is a former editor of Indian Express and a political analyst.


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