Will the British legacy of multiculturalism prevail post Brexit?

  • HT Correspondents, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jul 10, 2016 12:12 IST
(L-R) Journalist and author Shrabani Basu, Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin, economist Lord Meghnad Desai and entrepreneur Lord Karan Bilimoria .

Hindustan Times asked four residents of South Asian origin if they felt insecure post-Brexit or if the British legacy of multiculturalism would stay strong


A Pakistani writer Mohsin divides her time between Lahore and London, she is a freelance journalist and an author

After Brexit, does the new debate about national identity make you nervous as a South Asian?

A lot has been reported about the increase in racist sentiment post Brexit. But I also know that there has been widespread condemnation of it in parliament, in the media, and in the public at large. So yes, I’m aware of it but not nervous.

After decades of settling into being a multicultural society, have you been shocked again while facing/hearing of friends facing racism on British streets? Is it any different now, post-Brexit, from the past?

Xenophobia is a persistent unacknowledged undercurrent in most societies. The nastiness voiced during the Brexit debate has emboldened closet racists in Britain. I’m disappointed but not shocked that it’s reared its ugly head again. Personally, neither I nor my family have experienced any change of attitude since Britain voted to leave the EU. That said, I live in London, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world, has a very popular South Asian mayor and voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. So perhaps I am insulated in London from the mood in the rest of the UK.

Read: With the post-Brexit spike in racism, should the Indians in the UK be worried?

Have you heard it said that Asians are eating into British jobs?

Most British people who voted out because of their concerns about migration were more worried about EU migrants than South Asian ones. But I’ve also heard it said about Asians over the years. I don’t think that particular narrative has become more intensified post Brexit. But again, I live in London and I am self employed so I’m not at the sharp end of the stick.

Is the nature of racism faced by all Asians equal in the UK?

I think, among South Asians, Muslims receive the worst of it. Women in hijab, for instance, have been the butt of racist taunts recently far more than other South Asian women.

— Poonam Saxena

A journalist and an author Basu has written books (Spy Princess – The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, For King and another Country, Victoria & Abdul) on the shared histories of India and Britain. She lives in London with her daughters.

In the time of Brexit, when the UK is forced into a new debate about national identity, how does this churn affect a British Indian in England now?

Most people in Britain have multiple identities. I moved here when I was 25, so I see myself as an Indian who is very comfortable living in London. My daughters, who were born here, have more of a British Asian identity. There has never been any conflict with all of this. London is a cosmopolitan city, eight out of ten people in a tube carriage are from different countries. This is what makes the city so vibrant, and one of the best places to live. Recently, London elected its first Asian Muslim Mayor. His deputy is of Indian origin. This is why Londoners were stunned with the result. There have been large demonstrations in favour of Europe in the city after the Brexit result. It is a truly international city. You can probably taste the cuisine of every nation in the world sitting in London. But having said that, there are always stray racist elements in every place, and there were racist incidents in London as well.

The UK is considered among the best equal opportunity employers of the world. But post-Brexit what are the challenges for an Indian at the workplace? What do you think you may now have to do better or more, or what can you no longer take for granted?

I have Indian friends who are married to Europeans, and everyone was in shock after the result. A close friend’s husband is half-German and half-Spanish. She herself is half-Bengali and half Punjabi. The day the results came out she was really depressed. She told me that for the first time in thirty years she felt like an outsider in Britain. Her husband said he might have to return to Germany if things got bad.

That evening we went to eat dosas in a cafe in Harrow and, of course, the waiting staff were mainly from East Europe. Only in London would you find an Indian restaurant where the waitresses are from Poland and Latvia, serving up sambar and dosas! These young girls were feeling insecure about their future.

Have you ever experienced racism in any public place recently? If yes, how different or blatant is its expression now from the past?

I have never faced racism on the streets or public place, but then I live in London, which is very different from the rest of the UK. London is a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures.

Have you heard this said openly or indirectly that Asians are eating into British jobs?

I have heard the sentiment on television programmes. However, the anti-immigration sentiments seems to be focused more sharply against East European migrants rather than Indians.

I heard a young Asian filmmaker on television saying that she was crossing the road and a car did not stop till it was inches from her. When she threw up her hands in a gesture saying, “What are you doing?”, he rolled down his window and yelled “Paki, go home” at her! She said she has lived in London most of her life and never been called a ‘Paki’.

There were also clips on social media showing a woman in a hijab on a bus being harassed and a newsagent’s shop was fire-bombed in Walsall near Birmingham. The Polish cultural centre in Hammersmith in London was covered in racist graffiti. But the positive side was that people took flowers to the Centre as well, and there were some English people who apologised on behalf of their countrymen. Thankfully, these incidents seem to have died down now, so hopefully they were a one-off in the days immediately after the result.

Is the nature of racism faced by all Asians equal in the UK?

Those making racist remarks or taunts on a street and public place don’t know the difference between Indians, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis. They are a uniform block. However, a woman in hijab is more likely to face racist taunts, so that boils down to prejudice against Muslims.

How openly can you state your position on Brexit among friends and among colleagues?

I have no problem stating my stand on Brexit. London voted for Remain, and most people are shocked and dismayed at the result.

— Paramita Ghosh

Desai is an Indian-born, British economist and a member of the UK House of Lords

What are your views on Brexit?

I had voted to remain. UK had been a part of the EU for years and I felt it should have continued to be a part of it.

There have been reports of increased hate crimes against immigrants since Brexit...

There is no doubt that Brexit has inspired an increase in hate crimes against immigrants. There is a feeling among some, especially among the right wingers, that all foreigners should go. But I have no doubt that it is a temporary phase and will soon be checked.

So you think UK’s multicultural past can survive this?

Definitely. As I said, I believe this to be a temporary phase

Do you think Brexit has created a rift within the Asian community in the UK?

The Asian community in the UK never was united. There were always differences among them. But there were few outright cases of violence. There is some antagonism against certain communities today because of terror attacks across the world. Muslims and East Europeans have to bear the brunt of it. But having said that, we also have Muslims in very respected and influential positions. So it will be wrong to say that all Muslims are targeted.

Many Indians go to study and work in the UK. Do you foresee problems for them post-Brexit?

We do not know yet what immigration policies will be post Brexit. Immigrants from all parts of the world might get affected. It does seem possible though that policies for Indians will not get any easier, if they do not get tougher. But I can’t say now what it will be.

— Poulomi Banerjee

Bilimoria is an Indian-origin entrepreneur and founder of Cobra Beer and a member of the UK House of Lords

What do you think of Brexit. Do you support the move?

Brexit will hugely damage our economy, our businesses, our citizens, our stability and our standing in the world. I voted to remain in the EU, and – far from being Independence Day – I believe June 23 was the day that the UK shot itself in the foot.

As part of the EU, the UK had the best of both worlds and has retained its sovereignty. We have been in the EU but not in the Euro, we have been in the EU but not in Schengen, we pour our beer in pints, we measure our roads in miles.

Leaving the EU, we face ongoing uncertainty, lower growth and looser monetary policy. The Governor of the Bank of England is already talking of economic post-traumatic stress disorder, whilst the Economist Intelligence Unit projects a 6 per cent contraction in the economy by 2020.

We have lessons to learn here — the younger generations in the UK simply must turn out to vote for their futures. In this referendum, 72 per cent of voters under 25 wanted to remain in the European Union but, sadly, just over one-third of them turned out to vote, whereas 83 per cent of those over 65 turned out to vote and they overwhelmingly voted to leave.

How do you think Brexit will affect Indian business interests in the UK?

Indians are the largest ethnic minority population in the UK and the most successful by far. Many Indians come here to study and do business, and we must keep our doors wide open to these people.

Measures to reduce net migration in the UK would deter Indians from coming to the UK and this would threaten our economy’s global reach and our standing in the world.

Many Indian businesses view the UK as their gateway to Europe. There is no doubt that the UK within the EU is a much more attractive trading partner for Indian businesses, providing access to the largest single market in the world.

— Poulomi Banerjee

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