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23 October 2000

Not such a bad home

The Runnymede report presents a politically correct version of Britain as racist. It does not reflec

By Swapan Dasgupta

Six years ago, when the non-proliferation lobby was on a high and going great guns, I wrote a series of rather carping articles in an Indian newspaper on the over-intrusive dimensions of US foreign policy. A few days after they were published, I was buttonholed at a reception in New Delhi by a senior American diplomat. A model of tact, he didn’t broach the subject directly. Instead, he quizzed me at length over my background, only to discover that I had spent an inordinately long period of my youth in Britain. “Aha,” he burst out, “that explains everything. You must have had a bad experience.”

Frankly, I did not. The ten years or so I spent in London and Oxford were intensely enjoyable and have left a lasting impression. So much so that at an Indo-British Association roundtable earlier this month, the British chairman Lord (Swraj) Paul chided me gently for being as much British as Indian. It did not hurt my national pride. Nor was I offended at a dinner in London last summer when an earnest Asian member of the House of Lords took umbrage at my observations on the destructive potential of the race relations industry in Britain. “Do you know what we call people like you?” she asked, her voice dripping with disapproval. “Oh yes,” I replied, “coconuts. But that’s a statement of fact not an indictment.” She was not amused.

She wouldn’t be. What bound the American diplomat in Delhi and the baroness in London was a stereotype garnished in prevailing doctrines of political correctness. Britain, it is immensely fashionable to argue, is class-ridden, racist and exclusionary. The prevailing image, as the Runnymede Trust report The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain put it unambiguously, is “England-centred, indeed southern England-centred, and leaves millions of people out of the picture”. Its underlying “whiteness” negates the possibility of non-whites (the more evocative term “foreigners” appears to have disappeared from contemporary usage) having either a good time or enjoying the optimum benefits of citizenship.

That Britain has an image problem is undeniable. India is a country whose links with Britain are both long-standing and formidable. The relationship between the two is defined by what Enoch Powell, a closet Indophile, once described to me 15 years ago as “a shared infatuation”. Apart from history, Britain and India are linked by trade, travel, networking and sheer familiarity. London remains India’s gateway to the entire western world, and the capital has been an important relocating point for bankers and multinational executives since the early Eighties. In the past five years, there has also been a significant trickle of entrepreneurs from India to Britain.

And yet there is an image problem.

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Nowhere is this more acutely reflected than in the English media in India. Despite overwhelming familiarity – all the major newspapers have correspondents in London, the BBC enjoys an awesome reputation and there are syndication arrangements with nearly all the British broadsheets – the editorial classes persist with a stereotype of Britain that is not terribly dissimilar to Lord (Bhikhu) Parekh’s contentious report for the Runnymede Trust. Almost no editorial on Britain is complete without a snide reference to a “colonial hangover” and institutional racism. Three years ago, when the then Indian prime minister, Inder Gujral, spoke disparagingly of Britain as a “third-rate power”, he was applauded. If modern Britain shows all the signs of harbouring a sense of post-imperial guilt, a section of the Indian Establishment revels in post-colonial recrimination.

The politically correct perception of Britain in India is a mirror-image of the British hard-left view of its own society. With multiculturalism and post-colonial studies being thriving industries across the Atlantic, where funding is extremely generous, there is an understandable trend in India to follow the prevailing fashion.

If British nationhood is painted as essentially racist and excessively English, notions of Indian nationhood are decried as being overwhelmingly upper-caste Hindu and tinged with high culture. Just as multiculturalism has been made into a fetish in Britain, there have been attempts to overdo the celebration of “composite culture” in India. If English is a term of abuse for the Runnymede report, Hindu has pejorative connotations for the trust’s counterparts in India. Britain, says the report, should be redefined as a “community of citizens and communities”; India, insists the chattering left, is a series of disparate nationalities, an ethnic menagerie. The constitution of India gives religious minorities the right to run their own educational institutions with state funding and maintain their personal laws but there is an unstated obligation to adhere to a common nationhood. In both countries, it is this nationhood that is under assault.

The remarkable feature of these exercises in competitive self- flagellation is their complete divorce from public opinion. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, was understandably anxious to distance his government from the Runnymede report, but British Asians could say what they thought. Yet the letters columns of the newspapers are full of offerings by indignant notables suggesting there is absolutely no mismatch between their British and ethnic identities. Rarely has a report been so vociferously opposed by the very people whose interests it claims to champion.

The reasons are not all that difficult to fathom. The colonial legacy is not quite as black and white as it is made out to be. The British Raj in India produced contradictory responses. The lack of representative government was deeply resented, as was the obnoxious racism of Britons in their privileged enclaves. However, this was coupled with a genuine respect for British institutions and admiration of what is still described in India as the “English character”. The rule of law, parliamentary democracy, public schools, the cricketing code, gentleman’s clubs and the British sense of fair play remain aspirational benchmarks in India, even 53 years after the Union Jack was finally lowered.

Recently, I read Roger Scruton’s England: an elegy, a tribute to the idea of England. Without exaggeration, I find that there is much in his sentimental Englishness that many uninhibited British Asians would instinctively endorse. Girish Karnad, an eminent Indian playwright now serving as the director of the Nehru Institute in London (an Indian variant of the British Council), told me of his experience when he first sailed to Britain from India in the Sixties. As the passengers caught sight of the white cliffs of Dover, there was a mad scramble to be on deck. All around him, he could see moist eyes. And he was not surprised to find his own eyes moist.

Karnad was not unique. Regardless of whether or not it is fashionable to say so now, Britain has always held a mystical appeal for Asians of the Indian subcontinent. For those who migrated and became British Asians, the appeal has not diminished, despite brutal encounters with white racism. It has been translated into a tremendous desire to belong to the country of adoption and to be successful. It is these impulses of which the authors of the Runnymede report have been insufficiently mindful.

The popular TV comedy series Goodness Gracious Me rightly lampoons the more ridiculous facets of British Asian Anglophilia, but at least recognises that it is central to the community’s aspirations. No wonder Asian parents go through incredible self-denial to place their children in fee-paying schools. Even those Asians unable to muster the resources for a private education put intense parental pressure on their children to make the grade. The idea is to acquire both the educational and social skills to make it in Britain. There is a morbid dread of professional failure and a wariness of social rejection.

The Runnymede report stresses the importance of the “multiple identities” of the ethnic minorities. The implication is that a prevailing white culture will somehow overwhelm the many Asian identities in existence in Britain and create social dislocation.

This is an unduly simplistic view which fails to take into account the multiple identities that Asians have always held. India boasts a diversity at every conceivable level – language, class, caste, religion and region – and occasional bouts of sectarian conflict centred on these differences. But there is an overarching commonality based on the Indian ability to be many things at the same time. Gujaratis in Wembley perceive nothing odd in being British while speaking their native tongue and maintaining a strict vegetarian diet at home. They would be horrified if their intensely private communal identity was made a subject of official state policy. It may please some multiculturalists to have a Vedic invocation during the coronation of the next monarch. I am not sure the average British Hindu would find the gesture strictly necessary.

Britain is today a genuinely multiracial and multicultural society. It became that way not through dollops of tokenism, but because Britishness involves a spirit of fair play and generous accommodation. British Asians worked extremely hard to get where they are, just as they did in America to match the well-entrenched Jewish Americans in per capita income. The last thing they desire is for some silly activists who make a living out of race relations to jeopardise their position by projecting them as unreasonable and wildly out of tune with national sentiment. The cause of multiculturalism is best served by ensuring equality of opportunity and leaving people alone to get on with their lives. And by not rewriting history to suit expediency.

Swapan Dasgupta is deputy editor of India Today, based in Delhi

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