The complication of heritage

Written for the Workforce Race Equality Network (WREN) blog article for Leeds & York Partnership Foundation Trust.

“A just society is that society in which ascending sense of reverence and descending sense of contempt is dissolved into the creation of a compassionate society”

— B.R. Ambedkar

The South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM) was initiated this year and it runs from 18th July to 17th August with the purposes of commemorating and celebrating South Asian heritage and cultures within the context of their contemporary and historical relationship with the United Kingdom.

The socio-political discourse of two distinct geographical areas on a map, namely, the UK and South Asia have forced individuals, groups and entire nations to consider the issue of identity at various points in history – I certainly am no exception to this query of “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?”. Unfortunately, just by being born and nurtured in this country has not automatically afforded me the luxury of confidently claiming to be “British”, without being challenged. Compartmentalising and categorising my existence exclusively to a British or Pakistani framework are an impossible and an unfair ask. The truth, and perhaps the essence of my identity, is somewhere in between and thus both must be acknowledged.

The celebration of my heritage does not merely start in Balochistan or Punjab, where my parents were born. Rather, it starts long before the British colonised India, where my ancestry lies. The Indian subcontinent was the epicentre of one of the oldest civilisations in the world, the Indus Valley. The region has rich tradition in the fields of language, literature, music and contributions to the earth, basic, medical and social sciences.  Similarly, my complicated relationship with my British heritage is a direct result of the colonisation of my ancestral home and its aftermath.

The British rule over India lasted over two hundred years and ended with the Partition of India and formation of East (present day Bangladesh) and West Pakistan. The Partition is one of the biggest mass migrations in world history, which left one million dead and over twelve million people displaced. The contributions, albeit non-consensual and enforced, of British India to the Crown have been great. India provided raw materials to Britain that were used to flood the world market and thus providing an astronomical amount of wealth to Britain whilst concurrently destabilising the Indian economy. Economists believe had the region not suffered this economic setback at the time of independence, the region’s economy would not be in the dire state it is today. The native manpower also provided a backbone for the British army and saw the largest contributions from India to both the world war efforts.

Following British withdrawal from its colonies and the aftermath of WW2, the UK had a severe labour shortage and thus encouraged economic migration and promised British citizenship to those from Commonwealth nations.

As my forefathers joined other immigrants to work in various British sectors, they faced racial discrimination and violence. My parents were told on many occasions to “go back to where you came from”, whilst my school contemporaries found it acceptable to scribble in my workbook “dirty paki”. The shame I felt for being brown, dressing differently and speaking languages other than English led to anxiety and a withdrawal during core schooling years. Unfortunately, these experiences are not unique to my situation. Countless young individuals unnecessarily hated and repressed a rich, beautiful and vibrant heritage during their formative years. The generation who migrated felt the brunt of the othering process, whilst another generation stands here today perhaps questioning why home does not feel like home at times? What are we? Who are we? If not here, where do we and to whom do we belong?

Prejudice and discrimination remain insidiously embedded in British society and can be found in housing, education, health access and job recruitment, retention and promotion. A recent YouGov poll reports that two thirds of Black Britons experienced racial slurs; three quarters had been asked “Where are you REALLY from?” and half believed their career development had been hindered. The Lammy, Timpson and McGregor-Smith Reviews identified and provided scrutiny of the practices that need review and reform with relation to racial disparities within the criminal justice system, school exclusion and directly relevant to us, race in the workplace.

Whilst the SAHM provides a rightful platform of celebrating the South Asian diaspora’s heritage and contribution to British Society, it must also become a platform recognising the sacrifices, losses and pain which were woven into narratives through the historical association with the British Empire. As individuals and institutions, we must strive for diversity, equality and true inclusivity in order to create not only a just workspace but a just society for the generations to come. By no means an easy path but most certainly one to celebrate.

I will gladly provide the original sources of factual information referred to in this blog, upon request.