The Asian Community in Great Britain

J. K. Buda

Since prehistoric times, the British Isles have received wave upon wave of human migration from both the adjacent continent of Europe, and from much farther overseas. The second half of the twentieth century in particular has witnessed several such mass-movements of immigrants seeking refuge from social or political oppression, or simply in quest of a better life for themselves and their descendants.

The years after the Second World War brought a large influx of East Europeans displaced by the wholesale ingestion of several sovereign states into the Russian sphere of political and economic interest, a situation caused partly by aggressive Soviet expansionism, and partly by the pusillanimity of the Allied powers at the Yalta Conference. Although such immigrants (mostly Poles, with significant numbers of Ukrainians and Estonians) did not have any automatic right to settle in Great Britain, they were nevertheless made welcome because of their contribution to the Allied war effort, and also because many of them had been left legally stateless, the possessors of passports and documents issued by governments that had ceased to exist.

In the 1950s a large number of West Indians from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, and from the mainland territories of British Honduras and British Guiana (later to become Belize and Guyana respectively) came to Britain in search of a higher standard of living than could be offered by their own resource-deficient countries. The status of these countries as either colonies of the Crown, or later as members of the British Commonwealth, gave their citizens free entry into Great Britain.

The same right of entry was exercised by many thousands of immigrants from Indian and Pakistan, particularly in the early years of the 1960s.

One of the great tragedies of British rule in India was its failure to hand over power to a united sub-continent. Independence in 1947 brought a division of the old Indian Empire into the two new Commonwealth states of India and Pakistan. East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971, and became the republic of Bangladesh. In the following year Pakistan withdrew from the Commonwealth.

By 1962 the huge numbers of Indians and Pakistanis arriving almost daily in Great Britain were beginning to cause consternation among certain conservative politicians, who feared that the uncontrolled influx of so many Asians of completely different social, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds would have a destabilizing effect upon British society. The most notable of these politicians was Enoch Powell, a soft-spoken former academic whose audacity in daring to bring up this subject in the House of Commons earned him undying opprobrium and the epithet of Britain’s most hated and vilified racialist. Not wishing to be tarred with the same brush, the Government of the time refused to acknowledge that any problem existed, and, after much political pressure, finally released immigration figures which seem to support this contention. These figures were immediately called into question, not only by numerous immigration officials who claimed that they bore no correspondence to the numbers of new entrants they were processing daily, but also by the Government’s action in suddenly applying immigration restrictions in 1962. These restrictions were extended in 1968, and made formal by the Immigration Act of 1971. As a result of these measures, Commonwealth citizenship, or for that matter a British passport issued overseas, no longer gave automatic right of entry. Exception was, however, made on humanitarian grounds to relatives and dependents of immigrants already resident in the British Isles. Almost overnight thousands of Asian residents in Great Britain suddenly and miraculously acquired enormous families of wives, children, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins living in India and Pakistan. A fear that even this exception to the restrictions might soon be removed prompted most of these purported relatives to apply for permission to join their kin in Britain. Coming for the most part from rural areas with no systematic family registers, they found it difficult to prove their identity or relationship, and many genuine relatives and dependents were refused entry by overzealous immigration officials. This, in turn, produced the appalling phenomenon of trade in human cargo, with many hopeful immigrants arriving in Belgium, Holland, and Germany, and then paying smugglers enormous sums of money—their entire life savings in some cases—to carry them by boat or light aircraft across the North Sea to England. Many of these illegal immigrants promptly fell into the hands of Asian gangsters, who offered sanctuary and ‘protection’ from the immigration authorities in return for wretched overcrowded accommodation and virtual slave labour in secret factories and workshops. Countless offers of complete amnesty to such illegal immigrants have had little effect, the paranoia instilled by those who stand to profit from such slave labour proving too strong.

As the new immigration laws began to take effect, and the numbers of dependents able to prove their kinship with U.K. residents began to tail off, Idi Amin’s decision to oust all Asians from Uganda in 1972 left hundreds of thousands of African Asians stateless. Britain was forced to accept most of them on humanitarian grounds, and the second great wave of Asian immigration hit the British Isles. Most of these East African Asians were the descendants of Punjabi and Gujarati settlers who left India at the beginning of this century to take part in the opening up of the African interior, either as merchants and businessmen, or as labourers on the new railroads being constructed.

It is indeed difficult to give any accurate figures of the numbers of Asian residents in the United Kingdom. Several reasons exist for this. One is the patent official falsification of immigration figures in the 1960s. Some estimate the real numbers to be as much as double those reported by the government. Another is the existence of indeterminate numbers of underground illegal immigrants, as mentioned earlier. But perhaps the greatest reason is that the acquisition of British nationality confers the same status as that of any other British citizen, and the acute consciousness of the problems of race relations and racial discrimination has generated a profound resistance toward any attempt to sub-divide British nationals into ethnic categories. In contrast to Japan, where the koseki system ensures that family background remains forever a matter of public record, all British nationals are, theoretically, undifferentiatable. For this very reason, the 1971 national census included a question as to parental country of birth, presumably in a devious attempt to determine how many U.K. citizens-by-birth were, in fact, of ‘ethnic’ origin, i.e. non-white. The storm produced by the inclusion of this question showed just how sensitive people were to any attempt to define ethnic origin, and resulted in its expunction from the 1981 census.

All statistics of U.K. residents of ethnic origin are extrapolated, therefore, from the highly suspect figures of the 1971 census. Perhaps the most recent and reliable figures available are those published in the Central Statistical Office’s Social Trends 15 (1985), and reproduced below. These figures are, in turn, taken from the Labour Force Survey of 1983 conducted by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. The size of the figures in the ‘n.a.’ (not available) category bears ample witness to the difficulty of compiling any such statistics.

Population of Great Britain by Ethnic Origin and Birthplace 1983

figures in thousands

Ethnic Origin Birthplace Total
U.K. Non-U.K. n.a.
White 48,728 1,792 254 50,774
West Indian 248 257 4 510
Indian 263 513 14 789
Pakistani 139 210 4 353
Bangladeshi 26 55 1 83
Chinese 21 83 - 105
African 32 58 2 92
Arab 10 58 1 69
Mixed 149 47 1 198
Other 24 86 - 110
n.a. 656 34 261 952
ALL 50,297 3,196 541 54,035

These figures show that the Asian community is the single largest ethnic group in Great Britain, comprising 38% of all non-white U.K. citizens, and 2.3% of the population as a whole. Although the Immigration Act has had a marked effect in reducing the numbers of new immigrants from the Indian sub-continent (24,130 in 1979; 22,220 in 1980; 21,370 in 1981; 20,180 in 1982; 16,690 in 1983), the overall size of the Asian community continues to grow much faster than these figures would suggest, the relatively young age structure of the community, combined with a cultural predisposition to large families, resulting in the phenomenon of a social group comprising a little over 2% of the population being responsible for approximately 8% of total births, and 1% of total deaths.

Like almost all other ethnic groups, the Asian community is predominantly urban, with particularly large settlements in the Greater London area (notably Southall), the Central and West Midlands (Leicester, Loughborough, Birmingham, Wolverhampton), and the industrialized North (Bradford, Leeds). Unlike other ethnic groups, fundamental differences c language, religion and culture within the Asian community itself, together with a widespread lack of English language ability in the fir generation of settlers, has resulted in the growth of specific sub-communities within the community at large. New arrivals have tended t settle in areas already occupied by immigrants from the same geographic area, and have built up small townships with, in many cases, their own banks, medical facilities, shops, cinemas, and even politicians.

The largest of these groups is the Punjabi community, mainly Sikh followed by Hindu Gujaratis, of whom most are adherents of the reformist Swami Narayan Sect. Both of these communities speak their own languages (Punjabi and Gujarati respectively), and have their own distinct cultures. Other sizeable communities are Urdu-speaking Moslems from Pakistan, and Bengali-speaking Moslems from Bangladesh. The sheer profusion of such cultural groups, and a certain measure of animosity among them, has led to the widespread use of the convenient blanket term ‘Asian’ to cover them all, though the relatively low-profile Chinese community in the U.K. does not seem to be included. Most Pakistanis would, for example, be extremely offended at being referred to as ‘Indians’, and the public rejoicing in the streets of Southall at the news of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi led to fears of reprisals against the Sikh community there. Despite this, relations between the different groups have been restrained and peaceful, all the more remarkable for the history of strife and bloodshed that has often separated them. The medium-sized provincial city of Leicester, for example, has two large Asian communities living in close proximity to each other: the Gujarati community in the Belgrave area, and the Punjabi community in Highfields.

It is virtually impossible to escape being aware of the presence of the Asian community in Great Britain. Many City Councils now print all their official documents and publications in two or three languages, and most Britons have become used to the indecipherable Arabic and Devanagari scripts covering large areas of pension forms, utility bills, and other such communications. Several large provincial newspapers such as the Telegraph and Argus of Bradford have long been bilingual. Singh and Patel have replaced Smith and Jones as the most common names in British telephone directories, and both the B.B.C. and commercial stations broadcast a limited number of radio and television programmes in Asian languages. This relatively small ‘official’ output is supplemented by pirate FM stations which, in addition to an almost continuous flow of exotic Indian film music, provide a valuable social service in advertising local services and events.

Perhaps the greatest influence of the Asian community has been its economic impact upon the nation as a whole. Though far from wealthy, members of the community have striven to establish a sound economic base for further growth, and one indication of this tendency is the fact that 70% of Asians are owner-occupiers, as against a national average of 54%, whilst corresponding figures for West Indians show that nearly 50% live in public sector housing, the national average being 30%. Expansion within the Asian community has been largely self-financed, and the large numbers of branches of major Indian banks in such small towns as Preston and Huddersfield attest to the economic viability of the community, and to the large sums of money still being transferred to relatives in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

To drive through one of these Asian communities is an extraordinary experience. Within the space of a few city blocks one is transported from the gentile squalor of British suburbia to sights, sounds, smells and sensations more appropriate to Lahore, Bombay, or Calcutta. Dress shops awash with multi-coloured saris, sweet shops full of gulab jamun and barfi, hardware stores glittering with oddly-shaped brass and stainless steel utensils, cinemas plastered with posters for Bombay movies, their art-deco foyers now encrusted with thousands of postcard photographs of virile heroes and voluptuous heroines. Grocery stores exuding a dizzying olfactory aura of spices and condiments spill trays of strange vegetables out onto the streets, whilst numberless jewellery shops glitter and sparkle with gold and silver ornaments and accessories. The Victorian schools and church halls have been converted into mosques and temples, the civic welfare centres named after leading members of the Asian community.

Nor does one have to venture into these Asian townships to come into contact with the Asian community. Once upon a time almost every High Street in the land had its Indian restaurant; now to these have been added the inevitable Indian surgery and the surprisingly ubiquitous Asian newsagent. Advertisements in community publications reveal just how many businesses with English-sounding names are really managed by Asians—the likes of ‘B. K. Patel and Family, trading as Harrow Superstores’ echoing like a euphonious refrain through page after page.

But what of the future? The Asian community has hitherto always distanced itself from such outbreaks of racial unrest and rioting as have occurred in Notting Hill Gate, Toxteth, and Tottenham, severe provocation notwithstanding. The ‘paki-bashing’ of the sixties and seventies has escalated in recent years into horrific and murderous arson attacks upon Asian mothers and their children, but apart from talk of vigilante patrols, the Asian community has not responded. One reason might be relative differences in the level and extent of racial prejudice and oppression directed at specific ethnic communities, but perhaps the simpler and less comforting reason is that 65% of Asians in the U.K. are still first-generation immigrants, and the first generation of any immigrant group has always been known for its stoic and silent passivity in the face of oppression and prejudice. Social and economic insecurity, and a consciousness of having come from another land, all contribute to this negative frame of mind. The second generation, born and raised within the U.K., has no such reservations, and the children of immigrants cannot see why they should suffer as second-class citizens because of the colour of their skin. A case in point is the West Indian community, where a distinct cultural gap has opened up between the first and second generations, the first having resigned itself to its disillusionment, the second bitterly resentful of the first’s apathy and impotence. Nearly 50°/O of the West Indian community was born in the U.K., and as the equivalent percentage of the Asian community grows inexorably toward that figure, there is a distinct possibility that race relations may take the same unfortunate turn for the worse.

It has been said that every great empire of history has had to pay the price for its economic imperialism by accepting in return large numbers of immigrants from its exploited colonies (Japan would seem to be the exception). The immigration of large numbers of West Indians and Asians into Britain can be viewed, therefore, as a perfectly natural and unavoidable phenomenon. Far from destabilizing British society, these immigrant communities have injected new life into a stagnant and self-satisfied nation grown weak and narcissistic within the protective cocoon of a stifling welfare system, cushioned from economic reality by invisible earnings from overseas, and by the serendipitous flow of North Sea oil. Even the most optimistic estimates give only a few more years before the latter dries up, and the ancien regime mentality of the old social order shows no sign of being able to lead the nation through the inevitable trauma that awaits it. The only hope may prove to be in the unavoidable restructuring of British society that is taking place as a result, in no small part, of the presence within the British Isles of a vigorous and thriving community of well over a million Asians.

Source: Otsuma Review No. 19, 1986