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Restoring the British South Asian community’s solidarity and activism

It Is Especially Important Today That This Broad But Fragmented Community Work Together To Overcome Reactionary Division In A State That Thrives On Racism.

major role

British South Asians have historically played a major role in the fight against racism, particularly between the 1940s and 1980s. Their activism in the sixties and seventies changed the political and cultural landscape and led to the introduction of anti-racist laws, which allowed people of colour to enter public venues and challenge discrimination in housing, employment and immigration. It also helped curtail the surge of murderous far-right activity, ultimately saving lives.

One notable cohort was what came to be known as Asian Youth Movements (AYM), which formed in boroughs and cities in response to racist abuse and murders. Some, such as the Indian Progressive Youth Association in Bradford, initially defined themselves according to their own or their parents’ national and ethnic heritage. However, they quickly recognised the perils of this and broadened out to include South Asians as a whole, reforming themselves as the Bradford Asian Youth Movement. The AYMs were an alliance that included not only Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lanka but one that also worked in solidarity with Afro-Caribbeans to fight all forms of racism.

Today the situation is very different. The British Home Secretary is a woman of South Asian origin pushing for some of the most draconian laws in decades, which will disproportionately impact racialised minorities. Solidarity regarding racial justice amongst this large and diverse ethnic group has been superseded by reactionary attitudes in which divisive religious identity takes precedence. 

Demographic transformation

Since the 1980s, there has been an increasing divergence between South Asian communities, and this has been partly instigated and capitalised on by the state and far-right racists. 

One factor was the arrival of East African Indians to Britain. In 1895, the British Empire hired Indians to build railways and work in colonial administration in Uganda and Kenya. They were placed above local Blacks in a racial hierarchy. 

By the 1970s, they had risen to economic dominance and faced expulsion by nationalist regimes. When many East African Indians came to Britain, they were on the radar of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, who recognised the racism, bourgeois elitism and ruthless drive for wealth – core Conservative values – that had shaped their lives in Africa. (It is worth noting the parents of both current Home Secretary Priti Patel and Chancellor Rishi Sunak come from this background.) 

Over the decades the party successfully wooed this demographic, and by 2017, 40 percent of British Indians were voting Tory – the second-largest minority group to do so, after Jews.

As this was happening, a crucial shift was taking place in AYM management. Starting in the mid-80s, the state began funding the organisations. They then became more accountable to the very institutions they were supposed to be fighting against. This created fissures in these organisations. 

Those who didn’t leave to form new and often short-lived groups ended up being co-opted by the state, working in local councils and even going on to become members of parliament. Their revolutionary views were replaced by state-defined notions of justice that didn’t always match the needs of their communities.

Then the government started offering funding to separate minority groups, often defined by religion. These newer organisations often lacked the anti-imperialist and diverse outlooks that had unified the AYMs. Competing for state funds, they ended up disrupting the groups that had once protected them from discrimination and abuse. 

In other words, the South Asian community of Britain became a victim of the imperial divide and rule strategy. 

Finally, the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment with the so-called “War on Terror” has pushed Muslim South Asians to prioritise activism on religious rather than racial grounds.

Diasporic religious nationalism 

The state’s funding, co-opting, softening, and ultimately sabotaging of the once inclusive, anti-imperial, anti-racist organisations, whilst simultaneously grooming parochial, right-wing South Asians, has led to a toxic cultural climate today.

Influential figures and religious organisations within the latter group are more concerned with spreading the far-right Hindutva (Hindu supremacy) politics of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even in the UK. Thus, in common with the governing right-wing Conservative Party, they have a disdain for Muslims, most of whom in the UK are of South Asian origin.  As a result, many British South Asians have been turned against their own.

Right-wing Hindu groups like the National Council of Hindu Temples, supported by Conservative MPs, have hosted far-right speakers such as Tapan Ghosh in parliament. At the event, Ghosh claimed Muslims were an existential threat to Hindus. He’d previously said the United Nations should control the Muslim birth rate, and Muslim refugees should not be allowed safe havens in other countries unless they abandon their faith.

Hardline Hindu groups like the Overseas Friends of the BJP (Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party) have also campaigned for British Hindu voters to boycott the Labour Party for condemning New Delhi's repressive actions in India-administered Kashmir. Though the majority of Hindus in the UK do not share the same views as these Hindutva inspired groups, a vocal minority has posted anti-Muslim speech on social media.

Muslims are not the only target of the rising tide of ultra-right Hindu nationalism threatening communal relations in Britain.

Indian nationalists have also sought to intimidate British Sikhs, through planned rallies, harassment, and threatening social media posts. Dalits and other designated “lower-caste” Hindus have also been bearing the brunt of the Hindu right and its increasingly cosy relationship with the government.

Although the British government said in 2013 that it would amend the Equality Act of 2010 to make caste-based discrimination illegal, it backtracked in 2018 after lobbying from right-wing Hindu groups.

It may seem odd that elements of a religious minority, made up largely of people of colour, are forming close ties a governing party that has been accused of institutional racism. However, both white and Hindu supremacy have a history of idealising the “Aryan race.”

Divisive diasporic religious nationalism amongst South Asians is not exclusive to the Hindu right. When the issue of working to build solidarity is brought up, some British Pakistanis (mostly of older generations) deny any common ground between themselves and Hindus on the basis of religion. 

Some British Pakistanis deride the persecution of Muslims in India, saying such treatment is deserved for them being “disloyal” to Pakistan by remaining in India after the partition. Whilst these views are not in the majority, it won’t take much for them to spread like wildfire in such polarised times.

Sikhs have been harassed by puritan factions within their community for attending interfaith dinners with Muslims and Hindus. There have also been ambushes of Gurdwaras hosting interfaith marriages.

Moving forward

Competition for state recognition, influence and funds between religious minorities, particularly the reactionary elements within them, help racism thrive. A way out of the current situation is possible, but it will have to take place outside of politics, where the community is pigeonholed.

One such area is music. In the nineties and early noughties, British Asian musicians of various genres began expanding their audiences, both underground and mainstream. One of the musicians to emerge from that era is rapper Riz Ahmed, who says in the documentary “British Asian Sound Systems:” “There is a question which can be really annoying… when someone says ‘where you from?’... There is something always a bit uncomfortable about being asked that question. You are asking me to define myself… I can’t do that for you cos I don’t know. The British Asian music scene was answering that question with a ‘f**k you’. [sic]”

Within the underground music scene, and amongst recently formed artistic collectives such as Daytimers, an organic, grassroots commonality is flourishing, transcending silos of puritan religion, caste and diasporic nationalism. One of its members, DJ Chande, says the British South Asian scene is “doubling down on inclusiveness… we’re gonna stand together… and [we’re] unlearning colonialist stratifications.”

Let’s see if this can be one step towards bringing together more of Britain’s youthful, energetic and progressive South Asians, sparking waves of social change which transform the community and help overturn the sycophantic tribalism the British state has bolstered. It won’t be easy. The old ‘divide and conquer’ tactics will be deployed, possibly with greater subtlety. But this generation of British South Asians is dancing to a different beat. 

Nafees Mahmud is a freelance journalist who has written for The Guardian and Middle East Eye.