From humble to huge: Diwali lights spark new high in UK town | world-news | Hindustan Times
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From humble to huge: Diwali lights spark new high in UK town

world Updated: Oct 09, 2017 18:35 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Thousands of people gathered for the Diwali lights switch-on ceremony in Leicester on Sunday night.

Thousands of people gathered for the Diwali lights switch-on ceremony in Leicester on Sunday night.(Courtesy: Leicester City Council)

More than 40,000 people gathered on Sunday night to mark the beginning of Diwali festivities in Leicester, where the festival had humble origins in the 1950s but has now become mainstream and hailed as one of the east Midlands city's poster events. 

Billed as one of the largest Diwali celebrations outside India, the event attracted people from different parts of Britain and from several religions and communities. The arterial Belgrave Road and its environs turn into an Indian district during the two-week festivities. 

Sunday’s event was to switch on 6,000 lights along the road, sponsored by the Leicester City Council. It was followed by a prolonged fireworks display as people enjoyed some of the finest Indian cuisine in the UK to the accompaniment of Bollywood music and dance. Another major fireworks display is scheduled for October 19.

The event underscored the distance the city has travelled in the area of immigration and community integration. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent increased after independence in 1947, but reached a new high after Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda in 1972, when many arrived in Leicester.

That year, the same council that today celebrates Diwali took out a newspaper advertisement in Uganda to advise the thousands of Indians facing expulsion that said: “In your own interests and those of your family you should...not come to Leicester.” 

A Leicester City Council spokesperson told Hindustan Times that attendance at this year's event was more than 40,000. Festivities included a range of workshops, music, drama, talks and live performances in a specially created “Diwali Village” near Belgrave Road, the hub of Asian business and culture where several Indian banks have branches.

The large gathering at the switch on ceremony was addressed by Leicester mayor Peter Soulsby, Leicester Hindu Festival Council president Maganbhai P Patel and deputy mayor Piara Singh-Clair.

A major fireworks display marked the Diwali lights switch on ceremony in Leicester on Sunday. (Courtesy: Leicester City Council)

Singh-Clair said: “Even though we have been holding Diwali celebrations in Leicester for many years, there is still a huge sense of anticipation and excitement in the city as the nights draw in and the Festival of Light approaches. 

“I am pleased to welcome back the Diwali Village and the Wheel of Light which were so popular last year, and have spectacular aerial firework displays for both the switch-on ceremony and Diwali day (October 19).” 

Increasingly seen as a mainstream festival in the UK, major Diwali events are reported and planned in public places in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and other cities. This year, the iconic London Eye will be lit up on October 15 in an event called “Light Up London – Diwali”. 

Sunday’s event at Leicester reminded many of the trepidation with which early Indian migrants celebrated Diwali in their homes. The scale of celebrations gradually came into the open since the early 1970s after Indians expelled from Uganda arrived.

The 1972 resettlement of Uganda Indians involved more than 27,000 people, who were given 90 days to leave the country by Idi Amin. They left, leaving behind all their possessions, with only £50 that they were allowed to take, and arrived at Stansted and other airports facing an uncertain future. 

Today, that resettlement is seen as the most successful in Britain’s immigration history. After arriving at cold, windswept airports in August 1972, the disrupted lives of thousands were restored amid racism and other issues with hard work, persistence and determination over the decades. Most were educated and possessed skills.

The families – many of Gujarati origin – and their descendants revitalised local economies in places such as Leicester and integrated in British society so well that their achievements in public spheres are now seen as normal.   

Leicester, now held up as an example of Britain’s policy of multiculturalism, is official twinned with the Gujarat city of Rajkot.