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Let’s accept that Rishi Sunak is not Indian

When Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister of the UK, many Indians felt a sense of vindication — validation, even.

That old Winston Churchill quote was repeatedly retweeted, the one about how Indian leaders were “rogues, freebooters, men of low calibre….They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles.”


This was deliciously ironic because the Conservatives, Churchill's old party, had just elected their third leader in six weeks amongst endless political squabbles and fights for power. And the man they had chosen was of Indian origin though he was neither a ‘rogue’ nor a ‘man of low calibre’.


  Churchill said many other things of a similar nature. He had a visceral hatred of Indians —though he quite liked India itself as long as it remained British property. According to his colleague Leo Amery, he referred to Indians as a ‘beastly people with a beastly religion’. So the sound we heard as Rishi Sunak, a Hindu, walked into 10, Downing Street was Churchill's body spinning violently in its grave.


   As someone who loathes Churchill’s views on empire I am delighted to pull out those quotes. But let’s remember that Churchill’s objections to Indians had less to do with our culture and more to do with our race. In common with many champions of Empire, he doubted whether non-white people could be trusted to govern themselves. In that respect he was like Rudyard Kipling who wrote famously of the White Man’s Burden, regarding colonialism as a means of civilising the natives, a ‘burden to reign God’s empire on Earth.’


   So, much more than his heritage, it was Sunak’s colour that was the most unusual aspect of his election as Prime Minister. With the UK in a mess, he was finally going to pick up the Brown Man’s Burden.


   But, a few qualifiers. Let’s accept, first of all, that Sunak is not Indian. He is proudly British. Even the ‘Indian origin’ thing is a bit of a stretch: his parents are East African Asians. He seems more Indian to us because he is married to Narayan Murthy’s daughter, but let’s not forget that while she has held on to her Indian passport, he has always been British, a national by birth.


   Let’s also dispense with the Barack Obama parallels. Obama made much of being an African-American (in his case, literally), talked about racism and often focussed on racial issues. Sunak, on the other hand, is eager to be seen as just another Tory politician. He does not seem to think (or at least, admit) that his race matters much.


   Many Tory politicians of colour follow a racial agenda that is no different from that of white, right-wing politicians. As the writer Sathnam Sanghera wrote perceptively in The Times (London), when Sunak had to campaign in the shires for votes from Conservative party members (many of whom are right wing and possibly racist), he used the same rhetoric as the traditional Tory right, attacking ‘left-wing agitators’ for trying to ‘take a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values.’ At a time when many in the UK are taking a critical look at the country’s imperialist past, he announced that ‘vilifying the UK’ should be an offence.


"So yes, I am pleased that a brown man will lead the UK. But no, I don’t have any expectations of him from an Indian standpoint."

   Sanghera quotes Sayeeda Warsi, the former chairwoman of the Conservative party who told him in an interview that “it’s almost like ethnic minorities in the Tory party have had to be more right wing than the most extreme  right wing to be accepted. “


   Anyone who has followed the statements made by the appalling Suella Braverman, the India-baiting Home Secretary, who is partly of East African-Asian heritage will know what Warsi meant. Braverman referred to her parents as ‘proud children of Empire’, defended the glories of Empire and spoke of her ‘dream’ of deporting potential refugees to Rwanda by Christmas. No surprise then that though Braverman was sacked by Liz Truss over a security breach, Sunak quickly reinstated her on his first day in office.


   But two things need to be said in Sunak’s defence. First, he has never been as craven as Braverman or her predecessor as Home Secretary, Priti Patel. And second, why should he let his ethnic origin or his colour define his politics? He regards himself as British. Let him act like a British politician. Yes, some of his ancestors were born in India. But then, so were the ancestors of all of Pakistan’s politicians. Ancestry does not determine how pro-Indian you are.


   It is understandable for us to feel proud of brown people who succeed in politics abroad, but we need to recognise that while the Indian diaspora has strong cultural (and sometimes religious ) links with India, its members owe loyalty not to the land of their ancestors but to the countries they have chosen to call home.


   At some level, we do accept this. We know that people of Indian origin have risen to the top of the political structure in say, Mauritius. But we never doubt that their loyalty is to Mauritius, not India. So it is with the Caribbean. We don’t regard people of Indian origin in say, Guyana or Trinidad as being Indians or expect them to be pro-Indian.


   It is only when it comes to some Western countries that we have different expectations. Kamala Harris has cultural links with India because of her mother. But she is entirely American. Why should we expect her to lean towards India? And so it is with Sunak and the current generation of UK politicians. They are British. A cultural and ethnic identity does not make them Indian. And yet, we had people on Twitter hoping that Sunak would return the Kohinoor!


   Why do we find it so hard to accept that politicians of Indian origin in the West owe loyalty to the countries they live in and not to India? Perhaps because the rise of Indian-origin politicians in the West is still a relatively new phenomenon. And mostly because we have been so scarred by Empire, with the abuse hurled at us by the likes of Winston Churchill and the institutionalised racism of the Raj that we are thrilled by the spectacle of Brits being led by brown men and women.


   And partly it is because not all people of Indian origin with foreign nationalities who live in the West are ready to fully commit to the countries whose passports they carry. Many of them keep offering opinions on Indian politics, telling Indian nationals who actually live here, how India should be run. When it comes to politics, the bright ones — like Sunak — rise in the countries they now live in. The not-so-bright ones merely interfere in the politics of the country they left behind. Those who can succeed in politics, do. Those who can’t, tweet.


   So yes, I am pleased that a brown man will lead the UK. But no, I don’t have any expectations of him from an Indian standpoint. He has chosen his country. And now, he must serve its interests.



Posted On: 26 Oct 2022 07:27 PM
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