Migration & Multiculturalism – A British Indian Perspective

Photo from The Sunday Times

Photo from The Sunday Times

Immigration has been on my mind a lot recently due to a range of things; conversations with my mum about post-partition in India, constant headlines about it in the news, and a project I am working on about Punjab-UK marriage and integration. The unit on the theories and politics of multiculturalism during my MSc was definitely worth it!

India ‘Breaks’ Free

In 1947 India and Pakistan gained independence as the British Raj finally came to an end since its inception in 1858. As the British made their exit they approved the partition of colonial India into two separate states, one with a Muslim majority (Pakistan) and the other with a Hindu majority (India). It was far from a happy ending or positive start, but came with the largest mass migration in human history of some 10 million. About one million civilians died in the accompanying riots and local level fighting, mainly in the Western region of Punjab that was cut in two by the border.

Migration and my family

In 1947 My father was 3 years old, and mum was born three years later. Mum’s family who were landowners and farmers were on the Pakistan side of Punjab so had to leave. My grandparents, their two sons aged 3 and 1 years old, and my great-grandmother were ordered by the police to leave their home and get on a train to the other side. They boarded the train with only the clothes on their backs. Their money, possessions and jewels were all left behind. The Pakistani driver stopped the train half-way as he feared being killed at the other end. The train stood still for the rest of the day-there was no food or water for anyone. They went to my grandad’s village for 3 months in Jalandhar with a relative. During this time there were two Pakistani families still living in the village, and my granddad let them stay-he told the entire village not to tell anyone and keep it a secret from the police. My family were given a place to live and also received some land in Jalandhar, and mum was subsequently born there in 1950. When mum was 6 months old they moved to another house with the same amount of land as they had had on the other side. This was only possible through the connections, mum’s grandmother had with legal people that had moved over from Lahore, in Jalandhar. Her husband before he died had been a well-respected lawyer. Before this tragedy my grandfather did not believe the partition would ever happen, but some people already gathered their things and moved on. Lots of people commit suicide during this time. People respected each other Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, and lived side by side peacefully. After partition things never went back to the way they were. Many people never recovered the land they had in Pakistan. It took my family one-year to get what we were owed.

Britain Beacons

Since then many Punjabi’s have left India to find better prospects in other countries around the world, including my family. My grandfather came to the UK in 1950. It took 15 days to travel by boat, you couldn’t afford to fly in those days. My grandmother, aunts, uncles and father soon followed when dad was 9 years old. My parents had an arranged marriage in Punjab and settled in Smethwick in the West Midlands in the 1960s. They had not had the opportunity to take up further education and worked hard in factories to give me and my four siblings the best they could in life. We didn’t grow up with any loans or unpaid bills. Dad was never ‘off sick’ or claiming benefits. Like many families coming over from the Punjab that migrated to the Midlands or London, our parents worked damn hard, dreaming of seeing their children with a better life and education. I was the first member of my family to make it to university. The 80s were fun. We ate well, did a lot of social activities with relatives, friends and in the community. We screamed and called everyone into the TV room if a black or brown person appeared on TV, especially a man in a turban. Life was not always easy being a minority, being called a Paki. We’re Indians you fools.

Multiculturalism – was it ever alive?

Its not easy migrating to a new land where the language, food, weather, skin colour and so many things are different. Ethnic minority politics have developed in EU countries differently. Such policies are developed in relation to migratory flows, colonial pasts, demands of disadvantaged minorities and social, political and economical factors on a national and international scale. Exclusionary models such as those enforced in Germany and Japan exacerbate xenophobia and divide societies. They can come over and work, but we’re not granting them citizenship, any welfare, or the right to vote. Assimilation in France fails to acknowledge the cultural and social situation of settlers, and can breach human rights and increase Islamaphobia. Muslim women have been denied the opportunity to wear the hijab in French schools. Much of the debate around multiculturalism as a failure and criticism of it is fundamentally around anxieties that exist about Muslims. Such anxieties have grown in more recent years due to international conflicts and insecurity on the rise in between Western and Islamic states. Islam has replaced communism as the main threat to Western civilization and is emasculated in secular multicultural societies.

Pluralism which I am proud to say has been strong in Britain, encourages access through recognition and participation. But it is not policies alone that enable minority groups to succeed in the countries they move to. Any direct gain from policies in relation to ethnicity is questionable as additional group demographics play a part and groups are not homogenous, so gain is immeasurable. Success in economy, employment and education by some minorities is not necessarily directly linked with politics, but this definitely has an impact. These policies and ideas have been something Britain can be proud of compared with its neighbouring countries in Western Europe, but they are under constant attack and threatened by growing concerns about immigration today.

Fear of the infected ‘other’

Immigration is increasingly a hot topic in the news and there is a rising fear amongst the nation of new migrants entering the country and stealing jobs and taking advantage of benefits. This rising fear and hysteria through the media creates hostility and xenophobia. All migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are thrown into one box and referred to as some sort of infection or disease, not the human beings that they are. How did it come to this? I’ve been doing some research for the University of Bristol on marriage, migration and integration, looking specifically at the experience and effect of this on Punjabi people moving to the UK following marriage, and the impact on integration into wider society. It is indeed a hot topic and many variables come into play to determine the success of failure of migrants in a new country.

Moi Cosmopolitan?

As cities such as London, Melbourne and New York continue to diversify as cultural melting pots, and growing numbers of people travel for work and leisure experiencing different cultures, Cosmopolitanism is on the rise, not defined by citizenship, language or religion. This approach goes beyond identity politics, reducing tensions between groups and allowing for embracement of modernity and diversity. The growing minority group in the UK is that of mixed race individuals. But this thinking and experience is still held by a minority including myself, and cannot be forced upon those wanting to make their identity a prominent part of public life. There was a time when a Sikh could marry a non-Sikh in a Gurdwara, but recent development s suggest this is about to change and will no longer be a possibility. Humanism or Cosmopolitanism cannot escape the fact that racism continues to exist, as with the rise of the right-wing Eurosceptic UK Independence Party, who fear the loss of British national identity. Multiculturalism has not been able to rise above these problems; human nature’s strong inclination to treat difference with fear and competition, in order to survive.


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