Some can't wait, some sceptical: UK diaspora eyes Modi visit

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: Sep 08, 2015 15:11 IST

If ‘Madison Square Garden’ set the standard for an Indian community receiving Prime Minister Narendra Modi, organisers of a similar event in London believe that after 13 November, ‘Wembley’ will become another benchmark with an ‘Olympic-style’ event.

But what the UK diaspora thinks of Modi’s visit depends on who you ask. First generation British Indians can’t wait, the second generation is sceptical and the third watch it all with some amusement.

The range of support and opposition to Modi evident in India is also reflected in the large number of Indian professionals who migrated to Britain in the last decade or two. Their views are closer to the public opinion in India than those of the Indians who settled on these shores years earlier.

Sociologists point to the ways in which the internet, television and films have sustained and deepened the diaspora’s links with the homeland. Marie Gillespie, professor of Sociology at Open University and an expert on south Asian diaspora, adds cheap travel to the various forms of media that have helped the Indian diaspora reaffirm and cement connections with India.

“A key turning point was the broadcasting of Ramayana and Mahabharata in the 1990s. They played an important role in reawakening and reinventing Hindu consciousness for a Global Hindu India. Hindu India or Hindutva slowly and steadily strengthened its hold and began to permeate every domain of social and political life. Modi epitomises a Hindu India in which a poor man can take power,” Gillespie told HT.

Another reason Modi can be assured of a rocking reception is the fact that Gujaratis constitute nearly half of the Indian community in Britain; many arrived here via east Africa after Idi Amin expelled Asians in the early 1970s.

A close-knit community, Gujaratis wield considerable influence in British politics, business, medicine and financial sectors. Their lobbying paid off in late 2013 when the David Cameron government ended a British boycott of Modi that had been put in place after the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

Before the 2014 India elections, the community celebrated ‘Gujarat Day’ in the House of Commons on May 1, led by Conservative Priti Patel (who went on to become employment minister after this year’s elections) and attended by a foreign office minister.

But those associated with the Wembley event are at pains to explain that it will be an ‘Indian’ event and not a ‘Gujarati’ event. Organisers have publicised welcoming comments by leaders of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu communities. Over 300 community organisations have registered as ‘Welcome Partners’ for the event; each will allocated quotas for the invitation-only event (70,000 people are expected).

Uday Dholakia, the Leicester-based chairman of National Asian Business Association, said: “The overall impression (about the Modi visit) is upbeat. The first generation are most impressed with the dignity, respect and candour in which Modi’s leadership has put India’s trajectory on the global stage.”

He added: “He personifies their aspirations and dreams of seeing India achieve global status for the right economic reasons. This generation still celebrates the Indian Independence and Republic days with passion and emotion.”

However, Dholakia said the second generation remained a “tad sceptical” after witnessing political expediency, corruption and discrimination in India: they will not flock to Wembley but will see the “jamboree” on television and make their own assessment.

“This generation judges corporate governance, justice and equity by their UK experiences. They, to a large extent, have no real grasp of the diversity and absolute size and complexity of India” he said.

The average third generation British Indian will not get overly excited with Modi’s visit.

Dholakia said: “The third generation British Asians gauges Modi in context of the Obama phenomenon. Pride and satisfaction that the country of their forefathers have a charismatic and capable leader, be it an African-American or a modest purveyor of tea, who have risen to the highest positions in the land.”

“This restores they somewhat dented faith that meritocracy still prevails. Obama and Modi are social media savvy, this resonates with them. This generation will be enthusiastic and critical with the same degree of ferocity. Wembley will no doubt resonate with young people,” he added.

Arun Photay, a councillor in Wolverhampton, said: “As a second generation Briton of Indian heritage, this is an exciting time where we look forward to strengthening our historical links through trade and development. Our Prime Minister David Cameron has shown his commitment by visiting India four times in the last Parliament.”

Slowly but surely, the buzz around the Wembley event has been growing, as reflected in the Asian/Indian press, preparations by community organisations and individuals across Britain. These include several women putting together a large number of 3” X 3” crochets with different designs to be stitched together as a large blanket that would be auctioned for charity after presenting it to Modi.

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