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.
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)