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UK polls: Elected MP twice, 'Punjabi munda' stopped by racism

world Updated: Apr 24, 2015 19:41 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times


It's a story the former Labour MP from the "white, cathedral city" of Gloucester says wryly is worthy of a Bollywood film, but Parmjit Dhanda is in no hurry to return to parliamentary politics after a racist incident that put him off being a candidate in the May 7 elections.

Dhanda, who calls himself a "Punjabi munda from Southall", was riding high after being elected MP from the south-west England constituency of Gloucester in 2001 at 29. He was elected from there again in 2005, but lost in 2010. "I was a brown face representing a white area, was presented as a darling of the Labour party, since I went against the narrative. But I kept many things bottled up while I was an MP. There are real elements of racism in Britain today," Dhanda said during a conversation with members of the Indian Journalists Association here.

Dhanda's profile reflects the familiar yet unique story of many hardy first-generation Indian immigrants struggling to survive and raise their children with the best possible education (he has an engineering degree from Nottingham) and opportunities.

Born to Sikh immigrants from the village of Dhanda in Punjab, he was born in 1971 in a London hospital where his mother was a cleaner. His father was a lorry driver, and Dhanda grew up in Southall that was being transformed by waves of immigration from Asia.

Seen as a rising star in the Labour party after winning elections twice, Dhanda held several key positions in the Tony Blair governments and ensured that major multi-million pound projects were sanctioned for Gloucester. But the 'turning point', he said, was an incident on December 12, 2010, months after he had lost the election. On that Sunday, Dhanda was woken up by a local resident who alerted him to a severed pig's head thrown on his car in the driveway.

Dhanda said: "To my knowledge, there'd never been a UK minister of Indian parentage until Tony Blair promoted me. I'd worked so hard for this constituency… it was almost comical that they thought the best way to offend me was by leaving a pig's head on my drive because they assumed I was a Muslim. The subtlety of these people to know the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim would have been a bit much to expect, I guess… nine years. I gave you my heart and soul for nine years. And you gave me this."

The incident, he said, bruised him, and it was the tipping point of all the "accumulated things" over the years. After facing "a number of racist incidents while I was an MP", he said his wife, Rupi, had had enough, and it was then that he decided to "walk away" from it all.

Pain shared in a book

Dhanda remains a member of the party. "I took it (the pig's head incident) personally, perhaps I need to develop a thick skin, but you never know what the future holds. Racism is still an issue but not like it was when my parents arrived," he said.

Dhanda has detailed his experience as an MP and his Indian background in a new book, "My Political Race", which is seen as a rare insight contributing to the discourse of racism in multicultural Britain at a time when parties woo the Indian community for votes.