A call to construct a shared secular South Asian identity, overriding identities that currently separate South Asians was made by Lord Meghnad Desai in an address to the South Asia Forum convened at the House of Commons earlier this month.

The public meeting was hosted by Dr. Ashok Kumar, MP for South Middlesbrough and East Cleveland, who said that it was time for a secular South Asian voice to be heard at the Government’s policy tables, not just religion-based community groups.

While Indian origin communities had advanced in all walks of British life, certain South Asian communities were being left behind, and the wider community and racist elements were driving wedges between communities on the basis of religion, said Professor Waqar Ahmed, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Middlesex University, speaking on the same occasion.

South Asians in themselves were not a united people said Lord Desai. He pointed to the European Union as an example of warring peoples of yesteryear who had now created unity out of division. He wished South Asia was a single union of South Asian countries, but alas, South Asia, which used to be a unity had now divided. He warned that South Asians were a tolerated minority in Britain and ought not to “continue misbehaving like they do back home in South Asia”, lest the majority reach the limits of their tolerance. Though a Christian monarchy, Britain wore its Christianity lightly, and that was the sort of tolerance South Asians had to incorporate in their religious sphere. South Asians’ strength came from a joint culture, rather than from separate cultures, a syncretic, synthetic multi-faith multi-culture on which strength they had to play to “show folks back there how to live together successfully”.

The experience of South Asians in Britain was diverse, observed Professor Waqar Ahmed, the second guest speaker on the occasion. The Indian population in most walks of life encountered experiences increasingly similar to the white population, but the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities were being left behind. The Department of Communities and Local Government, in going for a national Britishness holiday, citizenship tests, citizenship passing out parades, and ending provision of interpretation services, had failed to see the realities of the day: increasing disenfranchisement and exclusion felt by British-born Pakistani and Bangladeshi youth. None of these interventions mattered without the provision of education, jobs, better housing, access to good health care and better representation. Mere policy rhetoric made not the slightest difference, he said, but “tackling the real inequalities has gone out of fashion”. South Asian communities shared much, both through a common origin and the British experience. However, diversity and hostility were also a part of that story. And now, the wider community, including racist elements, was beginning to drive a wedge between Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. There was much to be proud of in the Indian community contrasted with the Bangladeshi and Pakistani populations who continued to suffer persistent disadvantage.

Dr. Ashok Kumar, MP declared that he supported the South Asia Forum initiative because he felt that those who were inclusive, integrated and not driven by religious dogma needed a voice. There is room, and a need for an open-minded secular approach, he said, and “for this reason, the South Asia Forum should be at the table of the newly formed Commission for Integration and Social Cohesion”.

Chair of the meeting, Suhas Khale explained that the South Asia Forum does not see itself as “yet another South Asian organisation” affiliated to a particular ideology or political party. Neither was there any religious or social bias. The SAF, he said, would function as an autonomous policy level pressure group to debate and discuss objectively the wide array of issues and concerns across the South Asian communities in the UK, and arrive at pragmatic solutions and call for their implementation. He solicited the support of community leaders, MPs and NGOs in the tasks ahead.

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