Queen Elizabeth mentioned 2019 as ‘quite bumpy’ in her Christmas Eve message, referring to convulsions on Brexit, but from violent protests on Kashmir to the record election of 15 Indian-origin MPs in the House of Commons, the year was equally rocking for the Indian community in the UK.
It was the year when the ‘British Indian vote’ asserted itself. Until recently, the 1.5 million-strong community rarely figured in mainstream British news discourse, but Labour’s position on Kashmir seen as ‘anti-India’ and the reactions it provoked hit the headlines during elections.
The new group of Indian-origin MPs after the December 12 election is the latest example of the diaspora’s growing participation in politics in various countries. It is also a British success story, despite continuing concerns about racism prompted by Brexit divisions.
In a country where racism marked the experiences of generations of Indian immigrants, such normalisation of Indians in the frontline of British politics is the result of laws and initiatives by stakeholders to make parliament more representative of the British society. On Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet table sit three Indian-origin ministers.
It was significant that on December 15, two days after the election results, BBC’s flagship Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning featured extended interviews with Lisa Nandy on behalf of Labour and Rishi Sunak for the Conservative party that won a big majority.
The fact remains that while many take pride in the growing success of the diaspora, the 15 MPs are essentially British, tuned to British concerns, ideas and idealism; not so much to India’s. Most do not join India-related debates in parliament, nor push New Delhi’s stand on key issues.
The election saw Labour veteran Keith Vaz step down in controversial circumstances after 32 years in the House of Commons. He was the first Indian or Asian origin MP in contemporary Britain, first elected in 1987, going on to play key roles in the community and India-UK ties.
Violence outside the Indian high commission on August 15 and September 3 over the Indian parliament’s scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special privileges was a dubious record of sorts, but strong official protests prevented repeats. “They now know the cost of allowing such protests”, a senior community leader remarked.
Labour’s position on Kashmir riled many in the community, but that is the least of its concerns now as an inquest begins on its fourth electoral defeat since 2010. Nandy, daughter of an Indian academic and a British mother, may well re-build bridges if elected to replace party leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2020.
Remarks about India and Indo-UK relations by leading lights of the British government are often marked by platitudes, but it remains to be seen to what extent the country figures in the Johnson government’s plans in the post-Brexit scenario. A free trade agreement with India is often mentioned, but the ones with the EU and the US are on top of the agenda.
Besides the Indian high commission’s growing community outreach, the year saw major events to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in London and across the UK.
While Gandhi is widely known in the UK (a new statue was installed in Manchester), the Guru Nanak events attracted people from various sections of society, raising awareness of the founder of Sikhism and highlighting his message of peace, syncretism and service.
During the year, two individuals wanted in India for major financial offences – Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi – went through various stages of the extradition process. While the high court allowed Mallya to appeal against extradition, Modi, who is in jail since his arrest in March, was refused bail four times. The courts will hear them again in early 2020.
India and the UK are forever entwined by history. The year 2019 saw this reflected at various levels: the good, the bad and the ugly, setting the stage for another year of symbiosis in 2020 as the Johnson government begins to define the UK’s direction of travel after Brexit.