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In UK's Leicester, Diwali means more than triumph over evil

Take a walk down the arterial Belgrave Road in Leicester and you soon feel that the annual Diwali celebrations here mean much more than victory of good over evil – here it is also a celebration of the human spirit. Prasun Sonwalkar reports.

world Updated: Nov 02, 2013 18:53 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times
Belgrave Road,Leicester,Diwali

Take a walk down the arterial Belgrave Road in Leicester and you soon feel that the annual Diwali celebrations here mean much more than the symbolic victory of good over evil – here it is also a celebration of human spirit and survival against odds.

The situation in the east Midlands town today could not be more different from what it was in 1972, when nearly 10,000 people of Indian origin fled Idi Amin's Uganda and arrived in the economically depressed, deprived and unwelcoming town of Leicester on a cold, misty morning.

Officially, they were not welcome. That year, the Leicester City Council had asked them in a newspaper advertisement that it was "in your own interests and those of your family...not come to Leicester".

Cut to 2013 and the same council now celebrates diversity and exerts to make the once-unwelcome immigrants feel at home. It funds and organises many events, including the annual 'switching on' ceremony of Diwali lights.

The Diwali celebrations on Belgrave Road and Cossington Street recreation ground are attended by the 1972 immigrants and their descendants, and many more outside Leicester to be part of what is billed as the largest Diwali celebrations outside India. Diwali is celebrated widely across Britain, but the historical context adds to events in Leicester.

Leicester is now held up as an ideal of multiculturalism not only in Britain but also across Europe. And much of the credit of the town's prosperity goes to the influx of those immigrants from Uganda in the early 1970s.

It is today seen as one of the major success stories of the Indian diaspora anywhere in the world. The mostly educated Indians from Uganda had fled with nothing but literally built an empire in Leicester, with hard work and diligence.

Arriving in Leicester with minimal belongings and money, the community – predominantly of Gujarati origin – had been dispossessed of their houses and wealth after being told by Idi Amin to leave the country within 90 days and with no more than 55 pounds in cash.

Today, Leicester is Britain's multicultural poster town, with Indians and Asians holding top positions across professions. The same city council that advised them not to move to the town today hails their contribution and actively encourages multicultural activities.

The 'then and now' transformation of the town is symbolised by the large annual celebrations for Diwali.

Goa-origin Labour MP Keith Vaz, who represents Leicester East, is one of many representatives of the Asian community who hold top offices in local and national politics, business, bureaucracy and the arts (Parminder Nagra, star of Bend It Like Beckam, hails from Leicester).

In 2008, Ludhiana-born Manjula Sood became the first Asian woman to become the Lord Mayor when she was elected to the ceremonial post which has a history of over 800 years.

The city council, inspired by the Gujarati community's links back home, officially twinned Leicester with Rajkot in 1996.

Marking 40 years of that remarkable immigration last year, Leicester Mercury, a leading local daily, wrote of the change in the town's fortunes: "Forty years ago today, East African dictator Idi Amin made a decision that would change Leicester forever. In August 1972, the leader of Uganda decided to expel all the Asians living in his country – most of whom held British passports and boarded planes for England".

It added: "Leicester City Council's reaction was to place an advert in the Uganda Argus warning that Leicester was full of immigrants already and that they should not move here. However, between 6,000 and 10,000 Ugandan Asians came to the city. They brought with them a wealth of skills and business know-how that would boost Leicester's fortunes".

Passengers at the Leicester train station are greeted with welcome signs in Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati, among other languages, while local radio stations Sabras Radio and BBC Asian network belt out latest Bollywood numbers and interviewers with stars.

First Published: Nov 02, 2013 18:43 IST