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British press praises Piara Khabra

india Updated: Jun 22, 2007 12:13 IST
Piara Singh Khabra

The British press has paid fulsome tributes to Piara Singh Khabra, the oldest MP in the House of Commons, who died earlier this week at the age of 82.

Three major newspapers - The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent - published lengthy obituaries that detailed Khabra's colourful and controversial life and times - beginning in the state of Punjab and spanning decades and continents.

Khabra was an outspoken Labour MP from Ealing Southall. He was a significant and symbolic political figure for the Asian community in Britain and specifically for his role in the complexities of interracial community relationships in west London.

The Guardian wrote: "He both assisted the transition of a generation of older Asian immigrants into an involvement in the politics of their adopted homeland, and encouraged active participation in Labour politics among those members of the younger generations born in Britain.

"Khabra's political life was inevitably controversial. He had a reputation, as a fierce champion of equality, and as a 'secular Sikh' - as he described himself - was able to move among different communities to pursue his political ambitions. But there were many competing interests, and it was a measure of his skill that he retained sufficient support to remain an MP for so long.

"In his first years as an MP he habitually sat behind Tony Blair after he became prime minister and was very upset to be asked by the whips' office to move from that position so a more photogenic woman MP could take his place."

The Independent recalled that after studying in the Khalsa High School in Punjab, Khabra volunteered for the Indian Army as an 18-year-old in 1942. He had good experiences of British officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers) and had taken part in some of the fighting that took place when the Japanese armies threatened Assam.

The newspaper's obituary said: "He was interested in the negotiations for independence with the British government, which was a time of great excitement for the whole of India, in particular young people. However, he was concerned about the role of businessmen in politics who were, as he saw it, robbing the economy of India.

"It was for this reason that he joined the Communist Party of India, a movement ideologically committed to socialism and fair distribution of wealth".

The Daily Telegraph said that Khabra was a loyal Blairite, but he sometimes complained of feeling unwelcome in image-obsessed New Labour. Its obituary noted that he earned a reputation for the quiet diligence with which he handled the largest immigration and asylum caseload of any MP.

"While he won respect for campaigning against racial discrimination, he was sometimes seen as partisan when mediating between the different groups in his constituency. In 1997 he blamed an upsurge in intra-Asian violence on 'provocative acts from Pakistanis, like waving their flags during Sikh religious festivals'."

"Five years later, he was accused by local community groups of 'stoking the flames of prejudice' when he blamed Somali youths for an increase in crime and said that Asians would be justified in taking the law into their own hands if the police failed to protect them."