The Indian community in Britain. How Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

The Indian community is very deeply integrated in the UK. Its representatives are willing to serve in the police, military, public administration, and judiciary. In other social groups, including the African community, the figure is lower, says political scientist Professor Aleksander Głogowski.

TYGODNIK.TVP: Britain's new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, is the first head of government from an ethnic minority. How have British Indians and members of other nations from their region been able to integrate into the local politics?

: The Indian community – people from the Indian subcontinent – have integrated quite well in Britain, due to the fact that English is the lingua franca in India, and British culture had already been very well ingrained among the elite of the subcontinent. These people were quite well adapted to the British way of life even before coming to the UK.

Following WWII, the British community was quite closed and hostile towards immigrants. Members of the Polish community experienced this too. It was only in later years that it started to change. Indians and Sikhs began holding important positions in large corporations and banks in the City of London. They entered politics as a natural progression, since they had proven themselves to be good bankers, managers, and industrialists, so it was a natural step to include them in politics.

Was this a cross-party process or were these immigrants primarily welcomed by the left?

It is not as simple as that. The Labour Party is not the only natural setting for a political career for immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and their descendants. Sadiq Khan, a Pakistani, is the Mayor of London and represents the Labour party. But Indians are also strongly represented within the Conservative Party, as best evidenced by the current Prime Minister. Previously, the head of the British Conservative faction in the European Parliament was a politician of Pakistani origin.

When did this process – of immigrants joining the British political elite – begin?

Following [independence from British rule in] 1947, and the first wave of emigration that took place, British politics started seeing its first Indian players. The 1960s and 1970s saw the first city councillors from these communities. By the 1980s and 1990s things had picked up speed, as many of these political activists who now sit in Westminster began their careers.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is of Indian descent. What was the process of the Pakistani communities entering British politics like?

It was harder for them because there is a large religious barrier. Stereotypes about Muslims play a negative role, especially after the terrorist attacks in London. From my conversations with Britons of Indian background, it seems that these negative stereotypes radiated to them as well. People with a South Asian appearance were often equated with Pakistanis. The conclusions were clear-cut: a Pakistani is a Taliban, with all the worst associations linked with them.

Another barrier is the issue of women's emancipation. Pakistani households still hold on to the maxim that the man works and the woman sits at home. It is therefore much harder for them to break into politics than for Indians.

Unfortunately, negative stereotypes also applied to Sikhs, who have nothing to do with Muslims [Sikhism is a syncretic religion that draws its roots from Islam and Hinduism and rejects religiously motivated armed conflicts - ed], but because of their characteristic headgear [their religion requires them to grow a beard and wear a turban - ed], people who have no idea of their culture identify them with fundamentalist Islam.

Are fundamentalist Islamists in the UK only Pakistanis?

No, they include people of European or British ancestry. One of the attackers from the group that killed people on Westminster Bridge was a Jamaican who had embraced Islam in prison. The problem is very complex. It cannot be stereotyped and reduced to one or a few nations.

Is the traditional caste system still relevant among Indians in the UK?
Sikhs from Middlesbrough during a parade to mark the anniversary of the birth of the eighth Guru of the Sikh faith, Sri Guru Harkrishan Sahib Ji. Fot. Ian Forsyth/Getty Image
For the middle class, it is just a form of tradition, a sense of identity and belonging that does not translate into everyday ways of life. Of course, there are also more traditional families. However, in general, the Indian community is very open. Mixed marriages are proof of this. In my family, a British woman with strong Polish roots married an Indian man born in Coventry. In this case, his Hindu background only manifested itself in the fact that they had two weddings, a Hindu one and an Anglican one.

  The “Indian identity” can resonate very strongly, even among people who were born in Great Britain, when there is an India-England cricket match, or India is playing against Pakistan. During such events, walking through the neighbourhoods inhabited by such communities, you can see who identifies with whom.

How do ideological divisions run among Indians in England?

Sympathies are spread more or less equally, between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. But ideological divisions, religion, or ethnicity play less of a role than material status. The Tories are traditionally a middle-class party. If someone identifies with this class, they vote Conservative, even if their family comes from the Indian subcontinent. In contrast, Poles in the UK vote Tory, even though sometimes their social status would suggest different sympathies, but they do so because of their values.

Do other ethnic and national minorities integrate as well in the UK as Indians?

I once wrote a research paper on the involvement of ethnic minorities in UK society and on minority crime. The Indian community has integrated itself very deeply into the UK. Its representatives are willing to serve in the police, military, public administration, and judiciary. The figure is higher than that found in the African community, for example.

Does this stem from the fact that India is part of the British Commonwealth? >

Definitely yes. If you go to India or northern Pakistan, you can see a strong British influence there. This is particularly relevant in India, whose political system could be considered a constitutional continuity of the colonial system. The administration is similar to the British, and the judiciary is based on British precedents.

Neither India nor Pakistan has succeeded in banishing the English language from public administration. Laws and regulations are written not only in the national languages but also in English. The move to the UK is not, especially for Indians, a culture shock.

This can also be observed in the business world. Indian magnate Lakshmi Mittal has taken over all the steel mills in the UK. He was one of the sponsors of the 2012 London Olympics. A reminder of his involvement is the Mittal Tower, a monument in the Olympic village.

Has this been achieved thanks to the Labour Party, which has always supported the integration of immigrants?

Not necessarily. Labour also discussed tightening immigration policies when the influx of outsiders hit impoverished working-class communities. Immigration started to increase when there was unemployment in Britain. Britain only became a rich country when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Before that, Britain was spoken of as the ‘sick man of Europe’. There were very serious ethnic and racial conflicts associated with the skinhead movement.

In 1958, race riots broke out in London's Notting Hill.

Yes. When you read or listen to the memoirs of Polish wartime immigrants, you can see that after the war they were not treated very well by the British. They were met with aggression and the English used to peel off patches with the word “Poland” written on them from people they had previously bought beers for. The Brits used to say, “You already have a homeland. Go back.”

The Labour Party reached out to this white radicalised electorate. There was also the far right, which was trying to win support for itself, but fortunately, the British political system managed to keep its representatives out of Westminster.
However, as far as the Tories were concerned, religion was an important issue. At the very beginning, they were a Protestant party. People who were not Anglicans or Scottish Protestants were treated with suspicion. The watershed years were the 1980s and 1990s, when Britain was secularised and Protestantism ceased to be an important political factor. A symbolic moment was the end of Prime Minister Tony Blair's rule.

What happened then?

Under Blair, the legal provision that said only a Protestant could be Prime Minister was removed. Tony Blair himself only converted to Catholicism after leaving Downing Street in 2007. He made revolutionary changes but chose not to change his religion while Prime Minister. He did not want to shock public opinion. But this was the moment that opened Rishi Sunak's path to the premiership.

What might the involvement of national minorities in UK politics look like in the future?

This will depend on demographics. These families have many more children compared with traditional British families. If there are more of them, they will necessarily also be more numerous in politics and social activities. They are heavily involved at the local level. There are already city councils dominated by people from the Indian subcontinent.

So the factors at play are not only a growing community but also self-organisation and activity?

To some extent, yes. But the fact that there is no ‘Indian party’, but merely Indian members of old British political parties, holding top positions in them, is further evidence that they are fully integrated.

Are Poles also present in British politics?

The political activity of Poles in the political arena is slowly increasing. The importance of our countrymen in British politics will grow steadily over time. Many of them accepted British passports after Brexit, gaining full political rights. Some members of the UK political scene are also proud of their Polish heritage, such as Daniel Kawczynski [a homosexual Conservative politician born in Poland in 1972, advocating restrictions on abortion and the legalisation of fox hunting - ed.]

I hope that Poles will become more and more actively involved in political life, starting from the local community level. If there are a significant number of Poles in a constituency, efforts should be made to influence British parties to field our candidates there. Polish lobbying will also be important on issues relevant to bilateral relations between Poland and the UK.

I think British-Indian relations will benefit from having an Indian as the Prime Minister of the UK.

– Interview by Tomasz Plaskota

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–Translated by Roberto Galea
Main photo: Rishi Sunak on 25 October 2022 during an audience with King Charles III at Buckingham Palace, where the monarch invited the newly elected Conservative Party leader to become Prime Minister. Fot. POOL / Reuters / Forum
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