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The so-called Indian origin ministers don’t necessarily have any empathy with Indians

When Rishi Sunak very nearly became leader of Britain’s Conservative Party and, therefore, Prime Minister (PM), many of us in India felt pride at his achievement.

How amazing was it, we asked ourselves, that after centuries of colonisation and decades of racism, the United Kingdom (UK) was looking for leadership from people of Indian origin.


Personally, I had hoped that Sunak would make it so that we could say that while Queen Elizabeth II began her reign with that old racist, Winston Churchill as PM, she ended it with a brown man as her last PM. (Yes, even when the Tory leadership election was on, it was clear that the Queen did not have long to go though nobody expected the inevitable to happen quite so soon.)


   But now, on reflection, after I have seen the most racially-mixed cabinet in the UK’s history take office, I think that it is time for us to pause and reconsider our positions.


   What we cannot deny is that the diversity at the top of British politics reflects extremely well on that country. From the 1950s onwards, when large scale immigration to the UK began, there has been racism at all levels of British society. Some of that racism still endures (the police, for instance, are frequently accused of racist behaviour), but it is clear that in the last two decades Britain has made tremendous strides towards racial equality. The current UK government, you could well argue, has greater minority representation than India’s current cabinet does.


   But when we use the term ‘people of Indian origin’, we may be deluding ourselves. In the US, the term is applied to people who, even if they were born in America, had parents with strong links to India. Kamala Harris’s Tamil mother kept in touch with her family in India. Huma Abedin’s parents always made her conscious of their sub-continental heritage. Preet Bharara was born in Firozpur. Ro Khanna’s parents were relatively recent immigrants from India when he was born.


   This is not true of UK politicians. Many of the better known ones are Pakistanis: Sadiq Khan and Sajid Javed, for instance. And even the ones we think of as ‘Indian’ are actually from Africa. Priti Patel, the former home secretary, was born to a Gujarati family from Uganda. Rishi Sunak’s parents were born and brought up in Kenya and Tanzania. Suella Braverman, the current home secretary, may have a Goan maiden name (Fernandes), but her father grew up in Kenya and her mother is from Mauritius.


   It would be going too far to say that the British politicians we describe as being of Indian origin are only as Indian as Sunil Narine is or VS Naipaul was. But it is fair to say that Africa is better represented in Liz Truss’s cabinet than India. Apart from these African-Asians, there is the chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng whose parents came from Ghana and foreign secretary James Cleverly whose mother is from Sierra Leone.


   Does all this make a difference? Well, yes and no. When it comes to issues that have a strong racial component (say immigration) it could possibly make a difference if a person of colour is making the decisions rather than a white person.


   But so far, at least, it doesn’t seem to have made much difference — in fact, people of colour may have taken harder positions on immigration than white ministers have in the past. When Priti Patel was home secretary, she fought to have possible illegal immigrants and asylum seekers sent to Rwanda. The plan was heavily criticised (and ran into legal obstacles) and had it been pushed by a white person, it may well have drawn accusations of racism. With Patel pushing it, that charge was harder to sustain.


 "At the Tory party conference, Braverman called for more controls on immigration and played the I-am-a-brown-person-myself card."

   One consequence of the lack of any real connect with India, other than ancestors who lived in the subcontinent generations ago, is that the so-called Indian origin ministers do not necessarily have any empathy with Indians or with India itself. Last week, the government of India (through the Indian High Commission in London) took issue with Suella Braverman’s statements about a UK-India deal that PM Liz Truss is negotiating.


   The deal is essentially about trade but it requires the UK to give more visas to Indian businessmen and students. For its part, India has said that it will take back illegal immigrants and those Indians who have overstayed their visas.


   This seemed uncontroversial enough till Braverman (possibly breaching the convention that the cabinet speaks in one voice) told a British magazine that she was opposed to elements of the deal. “Look at migrants”, she said, “the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants.” She added: “I have concerns about having an open border migration policy with India because I don’t think that’s what people voted for with Brexit.”


   In fact, only 4.4% of Indians overstayed their visas, a lower proportion than many other nationalities.


   At the Tory party conference, Braverman called for more controls on immigration and played the I-am-a-brown-person-myself card.


   “It is not racist for anyone, ethnic minority or otherwise to want to control our borders,” she declared. Her own parents, she boasted, had “embraced British values.”


   At other forums, she has said that she is proud of the British Empire. According to her, “the Empire brought infrastructure, the legal system, the civil service, the military” to the colonies. Her parents, she said, were “proud of being children of the British Empire.”


   She has also said that her dream is to be able to deport refugees to Rwanda by Christmas, an unusual Christmas wish that Santa Claus may have difficulty granting.


   Much of what she said has appalled many people in the UK and would probably appall most Indians if she was better known here and her statements given wider publicity. It has certainly outraged the Indian government.


   Braverman’s motives may be suspect. Sunak lost the Tory leadership race partly because members in the shires wanted an old-fashioned Conservative, not a brown-skinned, sharp-suited, silver-tongued smoothie. Could it be that when Truss goes (as she must, sooner or later) Braverman wants to stand to replace her by assuring traditional Tories that she can give voice to any racist or reactionary views they may hold without being accused of racism because she is herself brown?


   It is too early to be sure. But that hypothesis certainly makes some sense. And it reminds us that we should not be so pleased when anyone who appears to be of Indian origin gets ahead in British politics. Firstly, they are often not very Indian to begin with. Secondly, they have no kinship with India or Indians.


   And thirdly, they may use race to their advantage: Happily singing the racist tunes that some Tories love only so that they can advance their own careers.




  • Hiten Thakkar 14 Oct 2022

    I think it is same in US too. Neither Kamla Harris nor any of Indian origin senators, cabinet have any empathy irrespective have any empathy towards India irrespective of Presidency. It's only when the US Trade delegation is led by US President because defense contractors need to sell we see the Presidents, or First Lady dancing with the school children or the indigenous people and a photo -op with Taj in Background.

Posted On: 09 Oct 2022 08:00 PM
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