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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2760

British Asians: Hindus, ‘Desis’ or What

By Atul Cowshish : Syndicate Features

A government-aided survey in Britain says that British Indians do not want to be known by the omnibus moniker of ‘Asians’, preferring one of the three options: British Indians, Hindus, or simply ‘desis’ which designates their Indian origin. After all, the Chinese in Britain, also part of the Asian community, are generally called Chinese. In both Britain and India, opinion seems to be divided whether it is good for the Indians living in the UK to de-link themselves from other ‘Asians’. But it is almost certain that the Indians in Britain would not have resented the label ‘Asian’ if they did not have to share the opprobrium from the white British directed towards the ‘troublesome’ section of the ‘brown’ Asians, especially after terrorist attacks in the US and the UK.

It is no secret that certain ‘brown’ Asians in Britain, the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, have a large segment of extremists and frequently protest loudly and violently over real and imaginary grievances. On the other hand, the Indians as a community are known to be generally a peaceful lot who rarely create trouble in the country, unlike the people from India’s eastern and western neighbourhood. But the ordinary whites in Britain club all brown-skinned people as ‘Asians’ and do not care to know if some of them are ‘good’.

When angry, a white British chooses the term ‘Paki’ for the brown ‘Asian’. ‘Paki’ has been a derogatory term in circulation for 40 years, when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan. But then ‘Paki’ is a four-letter word. It would appear that the white British had somehow formed a different opinion about the Pakistani immigrants and associated them with acts of violence over four decades ago. Had these ‘troublesome’ folks been Indians or from any other parts, the word ‘Paki’ would probably not have been coined and become a four-letter word!

A leading Hindu organisation in the UK had a major role in facilitating the survey on British Indians, arranging contacts with 800 British Hindus physically and getting many more on line. Considering that the ‘Indian’ population in Britain is generally estimated to be at least 600,000 some people will doubt if the survey truly reflects the opinion of the majority of ‘Indians’ or Hindus in Britain.

That, however, does not take away the fact that the Hindus in Britain do have at least some legitimate grievances which need to be addressed by Her Majesty’s government. More over, the scholarly Lord Bhikhu Parekh had a key role in writing the report and, therefore, its conclusions cannot be taken lightly.

Some of the findings of the survey, called Connecting British Hindus, contradict the general image of the Indian immigrants in Britain—one of a well integrated, fairly prosperous and progressive community. The survey, however, says that the Hindu community in Britain feels ‘marginalised, misunderstood and neglected’, and that they are generally kept out of most racial contact programmes of the government.

The Hindus also feel aggrieved because their religious, social and cultural sensitivities are not respected as much as those of the Christians, Muslims and Jews. As proof, it has been mentioned that government hospitals in the UK cater to ‘halal’ meat for Muslims and ‘kosher’ meat for the Jews but pay no heed to the special Hindu diets—vegetarian and without onion and garlic etc.

The British government has ignored the demand for Hindu crematoria in the island. This prevents the Hindu families from performing the full rites and rituals at the time of the cremation of their dead as delineated in their religion. The Hindu in Britain has to share his last resting place with those of the other faith. Perhaps, it is the ultimate testimony to the famous (infamous?) Hindu tolerance!

Whenever ‘minority’ religious group leaders are called for a racial dialogue they would come from the Muslim and the Jewish communities. This, despite the fact that the Hindus outnumber the Jews in Britain. ‘Multi-religious’ gatherings and dialogues are becoming frequent in Britain as the country struggles to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Muslims. Presumably, other religious groups have neither the ‘heart’ nor the ‘mind’. Maybe, the Hindus are not represented at such gatherings because they do not take to streets to demand recognition and redress of their ‘grievances’. It would also appear that officials in Britain do not care much about the Hindu (and perhaps also the Buddhist) religion. The more understanding officials may be aware of ‘exotic’ rituals they think the Hindus and the Buddhists follow on certain occasions but do not reckon that they actually follow two different and ancient religions, each with a following of about a billion.

The Hindus in Britain have for long been content to be the followers of a ‘silent’ religion. They have acquiesced in the fact that they will remain politically ‘invisible’ as a result of which they are under-represented in the British parliament—two Hindu members in the lower House which has nearly 600 members. But with other communities from the sub-continent becoming more and more assertive and louder, probably the younger lot among the British Hindus feels the need to establish an identity separate from the other communities, if only to register presence on the political map.

To pursue that goal certain things have to be kept in mind. If the majority of Hindus in India find it perfectly alright to be known as Indians, rather than by their religion, why should the Hindus in Britain seek a communal tag? But can ‘British Indians’ be an acceptable choice? Well, that too may create problems in Britain where a lot of people of Indian origin actually arrived from other lands such as Africa (Kenya and Uganda in particular), the Caribbean islands (Trinidad and Guyana), Fiji, Mauritius and even smaller neighbours like Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Can they all be correctly called ‘British Indians’? Or, should they be called Caribbean Hindus, African Hindus etc? What about their opinion? The people of Indian origin in the Caribbean islands have been out of contact with the ‘mother’ country for generations and as far as knows many of the rigid and orthodox ways of the present-day Hindus are unknown to them.

The choice a nomenclature to distinguish their identity from other ‘browns’ will have to be made by the Indians in Britain very carefully, making sure that it does not become a tool for creating divisions in their community. In any case, the term ‘British Hindus’ cannot be applied to all those who trace their origin to this country. There are Muslims, Sikhs and Parsis, among others, who have gone to Britain before and after India became independent. Secular India respects each of these communities equally. There is no reason why the Hindus in Britain should not show the same sentiments for their fellow citizens of other religions who migrated from Mother India. In any case, a debate on a different label for Indians in Britain should not lead to sowing seeds of divisions in the Diaspora.

- Syndicate Features -

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