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Who are the British Asians?

There is no such thing as the "Asian community". The label was imposed on a generation of migrants a

Walk for miles in parts of Birmingham and you will see mostly "Asian" faces. But look for the "Asian community" and you will be disappointed. No matter how often we use the term, the fact is that it does not exist.

Birmingham supports one of the largest groups of "Asians" in Britain, but like every other city across the country, what it houses is an elaborate variety of communities. Kashmiri Pakistanis in Sparkbrook. Bengalis in Perry Barr. Hindus in Sutton Coldfield. For these people, Asia is a continent, not an identity. "Asian" holds no hint of their conception of themselves as distinct peoples; with different cultures, speaking different languages, with different histories and different outlooks. By the standard biological classification system, the vast majority of migrants from the Indian subcontinent are Caucasians. The label "Asian" was imposed on them after their arrival in Britain.

The enigma of the British "Asian community", I discovered while travelling across Britain, is its immense variety. British Asians have come to Britain from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. So we have four national identities. But in so far as these "nations" are imaginary constructions, they also serve as overlapping identities. Most Pakistanis migrated from India in the great upheaval of Partition. So many older Pakistanis also see themselves as Indian: they lay claim not to "India" the nation state but to "India" the civilisation that existed over millennia, of which the distinct variety of "Indian Islam" is an integral part. Punjabis, who come from the province of Punjab, can be either Indian or Pakistanis, just as Bengalis can be either Bangladeshi or Indian. So within the national identities we have a host of ethnic identities, from Punjabis to Kashmiris, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Bengalis, Beharis, Tamil and Singhalese. Often these ethnicities were in conflict back in the subcontinent; and most British Asians have brought their conflicts to Britain.

Then, of course, we have religious diversities - ranging from Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Christianity, to numerous varieties of Islam. Each has a different world view, with a distinctive arrangement of norms and values. Moreover, Asians exist not as individual isolated units of nuclear families but as communities of extended families. Every Asian family in Britain has large numbers of relatives on the subcontinent. Thus the family bestrides Britain and the subcontinent; visits are frequent and family responsibilities are fulfilled no matter where family members live. What happens on the subcontinent has a direct bearing on what happens on the streets of Birmingham or Manchester.

The kind of life they lived on the subcontinent also plays an important part in the diverse outlook of British Asians. Those who came from rural areas tend to be more traditional than those who came from an urban background. Families from isolated village communities are almost always exceptionally conservative and adhere strictly to their tribal customs.

All these differences and variations play an important part in how Asian communities relate to each other, and how they see their future in Britain.

Those born in Britain grow up speaking English, but they still grow up as Bangladeshi or Pakistani, Mirpuri or Punjabis, as Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus. They are still part of an extended family. They are loyal to Britain, but they are always concerned with the fate of the land where their fathers and grandfathers were born, and where a large part of their extended family lives.

Loyalty itself has different meanings in different parts of Britain. Asians in Scotland, particularly those born in Scotland, describe themselves as Scots and tend to be more loyal to Scotland than Britain. The bulk of the Muslims in Scotland now support the SNP and back the demand for an independent Scotland. Asians in Wales also describe themselves as Welsh Asians and appear comfortable with their Welsh identity. In contrast, Asians in England tend to describe themselves as British Asians; and see Englishness as an exclusive identity that is closed to them. Their local loyalty belongs to Britain as a whole and many regard the demands of their Scottish Asian brothers and sisters across the border for an independent Scotland as treason.

The variations among Asians can be seen from city to city. The distribution of "Indian restaurants", which tend not to be "Indian", is a good illustration. London has more Bangladeshi restaurants than Pakistani or Indian ones. Go north and Bangladeshi restaurants decrease as the number of Pakistani ones increase. Birmingham has more Pakistani restaurants than Bangladeshi. By the time you reach Bradford and Manchester, the restaurateurs are almost entirely Pakistani, Kashmiri in particular. By Glasgow, the concentration is exclusively that of Pakistani and Punjabi.

There are very specific reasons why certain Asian communities are concentrated in certain cities of Britain. Most of the Bengalis in the UK live in the borough of Tower Hamlets in east London. This is largely because the generations that first came to Britain worked as seamen on merchant ships. Almost half of all seamen employed in the engine rooms of British merchant ships were Lascars from Bengal. When the ships docked in east London, they settled there. The fact that many were cooks enabled them to open restaurants.

Asians in the industrial cities of the north were recruited to work the night shift when Britain retooled its textile industry after the Second World War. There is irony here. The British textile industry was created behind excessive tariff barriers purposely designed to undermine India's textile tradition. Those recruited to service Britain's dark satanic mills were from families no longer needed as recruits for Britain's once vast Indian army. They stayed only to see their employment possibilities migrate once more. The bulk of the Asians in Leicester are Punjabi Sikhs, who came to Britain during the Seventies. Many were former British soldiers or had fathers or grandfathers who joined the British army and fought in the First and Second World Wars. But they didn't just join the British army - they joined the Leicestershire Regiment, which served in pre-Partition India from 1840 to 1947. So they came to settle in the home of the regiment.

Leicester evokes a fierce sense of loyalty from its Asian inhabitants. It is also a good example of a city where the Asian communities are well integrated. You can see a gurdwara, a temple and a mosque in the same neighbourhood. But in some other cities, Asians exist in isolated enclaves. In Oldham, for example, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis live in separate parts of the city and seldom come together.

I went to Oldham after I received an anonymous call on the morning of 24 May 2001. "If you want to witness a riot," the caller said, "come to Oldham." The town had been in the news ever since the Mirror published the photograph of 76-year-old Walter Chamberlain under the headline "Beaten for being white". I turned up in Oldham in the middle of a full- blown riot.

The racial origins of the riot were obvious, but I discovered that the riot had as much to do with the overall state of the town. Oldham was invented for and by the Industrial Revolution. That revolution had gone; and the population, white and Asian, was stranded on a deserted outcrop of globalisation. Platt Brothers of Oldham - once the world's leading manufacturers of textile machinery - closed in 1982. For the people of Oldham the textile industry's decline had harsh physical and social consequences, whether they were white or Asian.

Bradford, meanwhile, has came to personify the sum of all fears we associate with Asians and Muslims. The town is home to around 85,000 British Asians: there are 5,000 Hindus, and as many Sikhs; but the bulk of Asians, 75,000, are predominantly from a single area in Azad Kashmir: Mirpur. The district of Mirpur, which is divided into three sub-divisions (Mirpur, Chaksawariand and Dadiyal) is so small it is hard to find in most atlases. In some towns, like Keighley, the Asians are not just from Mirpur but from villages within three miles of each other. And they belong to a couple of clans, or biradari. Not surprisingly, they follow the customs and traditions of their biradari.

Reinventing tradition

Tradition is a double-edged sword. The biradari custom of generosity and supporting each other enabled the Mirpuris to establish themselves in Bradford. But some aspects of biradari tradition, such as forced marriage and honour killings, are obnoxious.

Thankfully, change is afoot. The young British Asians of Bradford are reinventing tradition, infusing it with modern spirit, developing an amalgam that tries to incorporate the best of both worlds. When they succeed, they manage to change things while remaining true to the positive spirit of tradition. They still tend to go for arranged marriages - but now they arrange their marriages themselves. They have a strong confidence in themselves and a strong sense of belonging to Britain, and in some cases to Scotland and Wales, that is refreshing to see.

Britain created a false catch-all identity when citizens of its former Empire arrived in the homeland. "British Asians" displaces history, the shared history by which Britain reconstructed India as much as the making of modern Britain - impossible without the constant influence and presence of India. Embracing our history of mutual belonging is the only way to recover the positives: to realise the contribution of the multiple, diverse compound British identities we can make the basis of living, working and contributing together to our national life.

There is a dynamism thriving among the many young British Asians I have met. They synthesise their varied inheritances and put them to work through political activism and community development as well as music, art, film and, increasingly, literature. The generation now in its early-twenties will bring out the best British Asians have to offer. Britain should be delighted to embrace them as truly its own.

Ziauddin Sardar's latest book, "Balti Britain: a Journey Through the British Asian Experience", is published by Granta Books (£20)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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