When Humza Yousaf became First Minister of Scotland, he was the first person of Pakistani heritage to take up the role. It came hot on the heels of Rishi Sunak, someone of East African-Indian background and son-in-law of an Indian business magnate, becoming the first British Prime Minister of South Asian heritage. To the backdrop of Brexit and Scottish agitation for independence, there was a joke doing the rounds among those of us of South Asian heritage in the UK – in typical dark British humour – that a Pakistani-heritage first minister and an Indian-heritage prime minister might end up presiding over the Partition of Britain.
There is plenty of history, politics and identity wrapped up in that joke, not to mention some anticipatory schadenfreude on the part of some. What it absolutely points to is how intertwined the histories of Britain and India are, and how knowing the centuries-old backstory of the relationship is so vital. And what a backstory it is.
Also crucial is knowing that this backstory is a pillar of any future understanding of the identities, heritage and engagement of the UK’s South Asian-heritage people, to how and why India sees itself the way it does, and the connections and cultures of the many varied and geographically spread Indian diasporas.
In the UK, we are currently in a moment of the year attempting to do just that.
The events of 2020 – the murder of George Floyd, the anti-racism protests and conversations that followed – prompted shifts in the importance of stories that had been erased, overlooked or untold. While discussions of black communities were rightly centred, in the UK this also prompted a cry for its other minorities – which are also part of Britain’s complex colonial past and its diverse present – to open up space for their stories to be told too.
One of those initiatives is South Asian History month, which is taking place right now, running from July 18 to August 17. Eight countries are grouped under South Asia: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Afghanistan.
According to the UK’s 2021 census, 5.5 million people (or 9.3 per cent of the total population) were from Asian ethnic groups. About 1.9 million (or 3.1 per cent) of those identified with the Indian ethnic group, and 1.6 million (or 2.7 per cent) with the Pakistani ethnic group. And according to work I have led at WPP and Ogilvy, the world’s largest advertising and branding networks, the aggregate annual disposable income of the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage groups in the UK is more than £105 billion ($136 billion).
None of these astounding facts should be overlooked. But what, if anything, do we know of the stories of nearly 10 per cent of the UK population? Looking at an even bigger picture, what do we know of the stories of the people who make up the South Asian nations that total more than 25 per cent of the global population.
And that’s before we consider the size, spread and impact of the South Asian diasporas around the world.
As a child, the little snippets about Indian communities around the world fascinated and puzzled me.
My own heritage is in Tanzania, with origins in Gujarat. I didn’t realise until I was older the many and varied stories it is composed of. From piecing together my own family history, it seems my heritage in East Africa was for economic improvement as my forebears left India in the 19th and 20th centuries to find better lives, possibly to escape the famines in India, or to take advantage of bustling ports such as Aden and then on to the Swahili coast. Others came to build the railways and founded the city of Nairobi in the late 19th century.
Then I remember discovering in my twenties – by accident – about indentured labourers who had been shipped in servitude to East and South Africa. I still remember being knocked sideways by the book Jesus is Indian and Other South African Stories by the South African author Agnes Sam. The book had been discarded by the local library as no longer of interest to them. But in it unfolded the most extraordinary tales about Indians that I had never known before.
Today, I have discovered that after slavery was abolished in Britain in 1833, in need of cheap labour, indentured servitude was invented and one, possibly two, million Indians were shipped around the world.
I remember hearing that there were Indians in Trinidad; again, to the ears of a child this was a mystery. More recently, I have come across Indian communities in Fiji, still harvesting sugar cane, as they once would have done for the British.
When the 70th anniversary of Partition was marked in the UK in 2017, it was an eye-opening moment for the younger South Asian generations who knew little, if anything, of their family history. And the very kernel of a wider British discussion was planted about the relationship with India.
Fast-forward to today and South Asian countries have moved on in time. And as Britain itself has moved on, many of the (limited) ideas about the region and its people persist. And this is to the huge detriment of domestic culture and societal narratives as well as to Britain’s expression of itself in the world and its relationships with South Asian diasporas as well as the region itself.
But, perhaps, the most exciting and vital part of this moment in the calendar is the chance to “Tell Our Stories” – the theme of this year’s South Asian Heritage month. This is an invitation to understand our own backstories, our own powerful heritages, and our identities. There is no better gift than the gift of understanding of what has made us into the people we are, and what we bring to the world.