Britain has come a long way since Dadabhai Naoroji became the first Indian and Asian to be elected to the House of Commons in 1892, but Indian-origin candidates in British elections continue to face instances of racism and discrimination.
Calling for improved measures to curb such instances, a new report by an all-party parliamentary inquiry has said that “despite broad consensus that racism and discrimination have no place in election campaigns, the evidence…indicates that incidents continue to occur covertly and without appropriate redress”.
Parmjit Dhanda, 42, who was the Labour MP from Gloucester from 2001 to 2010 and the first British minister of Indian parentage, told HT: “Politicians with minority backgrounds have issues, we are visible, stand out and become easier targets because of visibility”.
In his evidence to the parliamentary committee, Dhanda recounted an incident of how his children found a severed pig’s head outside his house after his election defeat in 2010. Dhanda, however, said such incidents were rare.
“Fortunately such incidents do not happen very often, but we do get hate mail, politics is a tough business. But 99.9% people are decent, otherwise I would not have been elected from Gloucester”.
Gloucester, which has a majority white population, elected Dhanda twice. For a long time, he said, whites have represented consituencies with large minority populations, and added: “You can do the other way too”. He is likely to contest the 2015 election from London.
Dhanda’s parents came to Britain in 1960 from villages near Jalandhar and settled in Southall. His mother was a cleaner in Ealing Hospital and father a truck driver. The youngest of three children, Dhanda was elected a Labour party councillor in the London borough of Hillingdon in 1998 and after election to parliament, held ministerial roles in the Labour government.
In his submission to the parliamentary committee, Dhanda recalled the challenges he faced during elections: “Although I was made aware of remarks like: ‘I’ll bet his grandfather wasn’t in Dunkirk’, made by a Conservative Councillor, I thought it best to bite my lip and concentrate my campaigning on bread and butter issues in the constituency”.
He added: “For the record, my grandfather was part of the bearded and turbaned Sikh army fighting with the British Army in Burma in the Second World War. He was in the Royal Bengal Engineers”.
Dhanda said the parliamentary report had raised the profile of the problem faced by Asian and Afro-Caribbean politicians during election campaigning here. He added that there were nearly 1 million Sikhs in Britain, but they did not have commensurate representation in politics.
Currently, Indian-origin MPs in the House of Commons include Priti Patel (Conservative), Keith Vaz (Labour), Virendra Sharma (Labour) and Paul Uppal (Conservative).
The parliamentary committee’s report said: “The UK should operate a zero tolerance policy for racism and discrimination, the agencies which deliver, monitor and safeguard our electoral processes should be models of good practice and set the standard against which other countries are judged. The potential to do so is undeniable but the practice is somewhat lacking. Only through a joint effort of all the relevant stakeholders can further progress be made”.