Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Labour MP for Slough, speaks to the media outside the Houses of Parliament in London.(Photo: AP)
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Labour MP for Slough, speaks to the media outside the Houses of Parliament in London.(Photo: AP)

When Labour’s Sikh MP put PM Boris on the back foot

Dhesi, the first turban-wearing Sikh MP in British history, raised the issue of Islamophobia and racism faced by non-white people in the UK and recalled former journalist Johnson’s controversial description that allegedly fuelled hate crime.
By Prasun Sonwalkar | Hindustan Times, London
UPDATED ON SEP 05, 2019 10:29 AM IST

The usually voluble Prime Minister Boris Johnson was momentarily at a loss for words on Wednesday when Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi passionately intervened in the House of Commons, asking him to apologise for describing veiled Muslim women as ‘letter boxes’ in one of his past columns.

Dhesi, the first turban-wearing Sikh MP in British history, raised the issue of Islamophobia and racism faced by non-white people in the UK and recalled former journalist Johnson’s controversial description that allegedly fuelled hate crime.

Dhesi said during Prime Minister’s Question Time: “Mr Speaker, if I decide to wear a turban, you decide to wear a cross, or he decides to wear a skull cap or she decides to wear a hijab or a burqa, does that mean that it is open season for right honourable members of this house to make derogatory and divisive remarks about our appearance”.

“For those of us who from a young age have had to endure and face up to being called names, we can appreciate full well the hurt and pain felt by Muslim women when they are described as bank robbers and letter boxes”.

“So rather than hide behind sham and whitewash investigations, when will the prime minister finally apologise for his derogatory and racist remarks which have led to a spike in hate crime? When will he finally order an inquiry into Islamophobia within the Conservative party,” he asked.

Dhesi’s intervention was applauded and led to the rare spectacle of clapping in the House, which is usually not resorted to under parliamentary decorum. Johnson was visibly shaken by the question and took a while to respond, unlike his usual alacrity.

He said: “If he took the trouble to read the article in question, he would see that it was a strong liberal defence as he began his question by saying that everybody has rights to wear whatever they want in this country”.

“And I speak as somebody who is not only proud to have Muslim ancestors but to be related to Sikhs such as himself. And I am also proud that under this government we have the most diverse cabinet in the history of this country. We truly reflect modern Britain”.

Johnson, who has Turkish ancestry and was married to Indian-origin Marina Wheeler, a Sikh related to Khushwant Singh’s family, did not apologise, and refused to do so again when Liberal Democrats leader Jo Swinson followed up Dhesi’s question.

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