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British Indians: A Victim of their own Success?

 In recent years, the British Conservative Party has drifted further and further to the right. Increased austerity measures, cracking down on peaceful protest and a draconian border policy, have alienated millions of voters. This wave of right-wing rhetoric is most curious when one examines the make-up of the Conservative front bench. Boris Johnson’s cabinet had four British Asians serving; Rishi Sunak, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Priti Patel as the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid as Health Secretary and Suella Braverman as Attorney General. 


How did these four second-generation immigrants become the leading figures in an increasingly nativist and isolated Conservative Party?


Following Johnson’s resignation, Sunak is now one of the favourites to win the leadership election. Unlike other right-wing parties across Europe, the British Conservatives are unique in their diverse make-up. But why has this happened, and why in Britain? The answer, of course, lies in the history books.


The Two Waves


There were two specific waves of Indian migration. The first was the post-war wave, from the late 1940s and 50s, directly from India. Similarly to the Windrush Generation, migrants from the Caribbean, the Indian immigrants were ‘welcomed’ to the country to fill the stark labour shortages, predominantly in the north of England. Many took jobs in the textile and manufacturing industries. They formed trade unions and community groups, learning their lessons from colonial rule back in India, and became vital members of the Labour Party’s grassroots movement. In 21st century Britain, areas in Leicester and Bradford are majority Indian and have formed a vibrant and close-knit community. 


The second generation, sometimes called the ‘twice migrants,’ have very different ideological roots. Emigrating from East Africa in the 1970s and 80s following the ascendancy of Idi Amin and the Asian expulsion, the Indians sought Britain as a refuge. However, their ideology, in many cases, differed from their predecessors. 


In 1895, the British Empire created the British East African Protectorate. The British imported Indians to fill various positions in colonial East Africa, including jobs as soldiers, police officers and prison staff. Simply put, their job was to subjugate black Africans and bend them to the Empire’s will. Additionally, Indians were also brought over to construct vital infrastructure projects such as railway lines and roads. Many decided to settle in the area, taking advantage of their education and land purchased from the British, becoming the de-facto ruling class in East Africa. In the early 1970s, whilst only making up 3% of the population, they owned up to 67% of the non-agricultural assets. This disparity in wealth created a great deal of ethnic tension, with many fleeing after Amin’s rise to power in Uganda. The purging of Indian businesses and livelihoods brought many to UK shores. 


Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sunak, Patel, Javid and Braverman all hail from the ‘twice migrant’ generation. 


If you can't Beat ‘em…


The 'twice migrants,' brought money, education and in some cases, hostility to black Africans. They benefitted from the English education they had received in East Africa, as well as any potential contacts and connections they had made there. In many ways, they were the blueprint for migrants to follow in Thatcher’s Britain. Able to engage in the ‘laissez-faire’ Thatcherite business world, British Indians became one of the most successful migrant groups, anywhere, everywhere. Sunak’s mother was a GP, working in the NHS, whilst Patel’s father joined UKIP, exemplifying the differences between the two different generations of immigrants.


Sunak, Patel, Javid and Braverman’s rise was not without warning. Thatcher knew that the African-Indian voting block was hers for the taking. The ‘twice migrants’ had settled in London and were fast becoming part of the educated elite. She remarked to the Indian Ambassador, “We welcome the resourceful Indian community here in Britain. You have brought the virtues of family, hard work and resolve to make a better life … you are displaying splendid qualities of enterprise and initiative, which benefit not just you and your families but the Indian community and indeed the nation as a whole.” 


By placing the Indians on a pedestal, Thatcher had created ‘the perfect’ migrant. Any other migrant groups which fell short were considered inferior and undesirable. 


Conservatism and Hindu Nationalism


In 2022, Indians are the most conservative migrant group in Britain. The right has maintained that support by engaging in specific ‘culture wars’. Following the ‘war on terror’ that dominated the noughties, Islamophobia became increasingly rampant. White conservatives and Indian Hindus now had a common enemy. As Indians were considered to be 'successful immigrants,' the establishment was able to underline the disparities between Hindus and Muslims. Meanwhile, back on the subcontinent, ethnic tensions were becoming increasingly fraught by the day. 


And from the zeitgeist emerged Narendra Modi. 


‘The war on terror,’ despite being a global phenomenon, was especially felt in India. Following the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, the Hindu population had become increasingly agitated toward Muslims. By 2014, the Hindutva, right-wing, Bharatiya Janata Party had come to power, destroying secularism in India. 


Relying on similar beliefs, Indian conservatives in the UK and India have sought each other's support. 


My parents arrived in the UK in the 1980s as schoolchildren and enrolled in elite boarding schools. Born in East Africa, my father in Tanzania and my mother in Kenya, they were wealthy in comparison with the black Africans who lived there. My mother is a big supporter of Modi and hangs on his every word. Perhaps her upbringing allowed her to fall for his charms. His anti-Muslim rhetoric certainly has parallels with the dogma of the Conservative Party. 


So, will the Indian immigrants, especially those from East Africa, become increasingly conservative? 


Will we finally see a British Indian Prime Minister? Perhaps. However, we might have one who makes it more difficult for any of his fellow migrants to succeed. 


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Tags: Migration Indians Demographics Nativism UK politics


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