Darcus Howe calls an Asian an Asian

To refer to Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, rather than Asians, undermines secularism

On 11 January, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a documentary titled Don't Call Me Asian, by Sarfraz Manzoor. He argued that Asian is a colonial term which was only ever a convenience. Now those who go under that label want to be Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, he says. "We have ditched race for religion," read the Guardian headline over a preview of the programme.

Yet, a day earlier, I had watched a one-day cricket international between Asia and the Rest of the World, played in Australia to raise funds for the Indian Ocean tsunami appeal. The titles of the teams were chosen by the International Cricket Council, where representatives of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have decisive votes. Should we have had Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs versus the Rest of the World?

My late father was an Anglican priest and I was christened an Anglican. Yet, outside a strictly religious context, I have never - not for a single moment - defined myself socially or politically as a Christian. And what of the vast number of young Asians who are Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims only in name and do not wish to be saddled with a religious label?

Manzoor is going down a rocky road. Those of us who came from former colonies to the UK first defined ourselves as black, presenting a united front as we entered the struggle against racism. Margaret Thatcher led the demonisation of our communities; she claimed that we had swamped this country with an alien culture. The pace of the struggle quickened, and successful Indians and Pakistanis demanded to be known as "brown". They were saying to our detractors that they were closer to white people than to us darkies and therefore merited better treatment.

I was disappointed, and so were comrades in the Labour Party who won seats under a campaign led by the "black sections". They included Keith Vaz, now the MP for Leicester East and a former minister.

The colour brown gradually faded and the description "Asian" gained favour. No one, bureaucrat or politician, defined these communities as Asian; that was a self-definition.

In attempting another redefinition, Manzoor cannot ignore how the Indian subcontinent has been scarred by millions of dead bodies - and Indira Gandhi, a prime minister of India, murdered - as a result of these religious labels. I hope the mass of British people of Asian origin (or of brown skin, as you please) won't accept it. Plainly and simply, it undermines the basis of our secular society.