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Culture and Festivals
Many of the students coming to Britain from the late 19th century had been exposed to nationalist and revolutionary politics in India. Association with other Indian students in Oxbridge Indian societies, such as the Majlis, India League and Communist Party of Great Britain, resulted in increased radicalisation. Britain became a centre for Indian nationalism through its mouthpiece, the British Committee of the Indian National Congress in 1889.
Political developments in India were often reflected in Britain. The rise of revolutionary politics, sparked off by the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905 led to the establishment of India House in Highgate, the headquarters of a group of revolutionary Indian students under the leadership of Shyamji Krishnavarma. Student agitation reached a peak in July 1909 when a student named Madan Lal Dhingra assassinated the political aide-de-camp Sir William Curzon Wyllie in London. Dhingra was hanged in Pentonville prison a month later.
The 'Indian student problem', as it became known, attracted a great deal of official attention and students were put under Scotland Yard surveillance. India Office files give details of the student informers.
The British government continued to monitor the political activities of Indians in Britain up until the end of British rule in India. Files of the Indian Political Intelligence (IPI) unit cover the period 1915 to 1945. The records contain files on individuals such as Rajaini Palme Dutt, leading member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and less well-known journalists and minor political activists/students. The activities of a multitude of societies such as the Indian Information Bureau, the Indian Workers' Association, the Indian Freedom Association and the Progressive Writers' Association all attracted the attention of Indian political intelligence. Although based in Britain the intelligence also had operatives in Europe, India and America - home of the anti-British Ghadr movement.
Although lascars had been a significant presence in Britain since the 18th century, it was not until the inter-war period that any attempts were made to organise them into a union. After several name changes, the title International Oriental Seafarers Union or Union of Eastern Seamen was adopted.
However, it was not until the Second World War that lascars began to show signs of challenging their inferior position by orchestrating a series of strikes for better pay and conditions. Many were locked up in British prisons, and workers were forced to accept a 25% increase, significantly lower than they had originally demanded. Despite this hollow victory the episode does mark the beginning of South Asian trade union activity in Britain.
The 1970s also witnessed increased militancy among Asian workers in Britain, which was played out particularly in the Grunwick dispute of 1977, where a predominately East African Asian female workforce fought for trade union recognition.
South Asians also formed coalitions with other ethnic minorities to fight against immigration restrictions and racial discrimination through organisations like CARD, The Campaign against Racial Discrimination.
The rise of far right politics of the British National Party on the back of Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech and the increase in racial harassment against Asians spilled over into clashes between young Asians, the police and Skinheads in Britain's inner cities.
Numerous grassroots South Asian political organisations emerged in the 1980s, such as the Bangladeshi Youth Movement for Equal Rights, Newham Monitoring Project and Southall Black Sisters. As a feminist pressure group Southall Black Sisters campaigned on issues concerning South Asian women, from virginity tests, domestic violence and, more recently, forced marriages. These women continued the tradition of South Asian women's involvement in British politics, begun by Indian suffragettes like Sophia Duleep Singh.
South Asian involvement in parliamentary politics dates back to the end of the 19th century. The first Indian MP to win a seat in parliament was Dadabhai Naoroji, elected liberal MP for Finsbury Central in London in 1892, losing the seat three years later in 1895.
In the same year Mancherjee Bhownagree became Conservative MP for Bethnal Green. He was re-elected in 1900, but unlike his fellow Parsi, Naoroji, Bhownagree was a supporter of British rule in India and opposed the campaign for home rule. The third Indian elected to parliament was Shapurji Saklatvala. In 1922, Saklatvala was elected Labour MP for Battersea North. He narrowly lost his seat in 1923 but was re-elected as a communist in 1924 and served as an MP until 1929. Between them these three men represented the whole political spectrum.
A leaflet issued in support of Shapurji Saklatvala during the 1922 general election. Saklatvala (1874 - 1936) was born in Bombay, the son of a wealthy Parsi merchant. After qualifying as a lawyer he came to England in 1905.
It was not until 1987 that another South Asian MP, Keith Vaz, of Goan origin, entered the House of Commons. In 1992 there were two additional MPs, Piara Khabra (Labour) and Niranjan Deva (Conservative). There were also three Asian Peers in 1996.
South Asians have also entered local politics. Krishna Menon was councillor for St Pancras for 14 years from 1934 till 1947. Britain's first Asian Mayor took office in 1938. There are currently approximately 300 councillors. Despite these gains, Asian and ethnic minority presence in parliament still remains low with regard to the number of MPs needed to make Westminster representative of Britain's racially mixed population.
Creators: Dr. Shompa Lahiri
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