“Nothing succeeds like success.” ~ Alexandre Dumas
Bigotry is fueled by hatred informed through ignorance and misinformation. Xenophobic celebration over Rishi Sunak’s appointment as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is not limited to the Hindutva right wing, but spans across Indian Savarna population and Pakistan too. Addressing the simpler, stupider and most on-the-face hypocrisy of those celebrating an ‘Indian’ becoming the Prime Minister of the UK – most of whom almost rioted when the Indian parliamentary system threw the prime ministership on Sonia Gandhi on account of her ‘foreignness’ – Sunak’s ancestry, both from his paternal and maternal side can be traced to Punjab in Pakistan who migrated to Kenya and Tanganyika respectively and then to the UK. Sunak himself was born in UK, and held a US green card – till he was forced to give it up as the Chancellor of Exchequer – but not a Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card!
While Sunak’s father is a General Practitioner with the National Health Service and mother is a pharmacist running her own pharmacy at Southampton – Indian media couldn’t resist trying to make a rags to riches story about him – though it hasn’t caught on. The funniest of them all is Times of India’s claim that Sunak worked as a waiter at a point of time in his career – pandering to the Indian casteist mindset which tries to glorify Savarna poverty and invisibilizes Bahujan poverty and also conveniently leaving out that unlike India – people across classes like to support themselves in the UK and across classes most people don’t mind doing menial work to earn. India today screamed that Sunak was proudly displaying his sacred thread, except that the picture that accompanied showed a kautuka and not a janeu. There are even attempts to sell Sunak as a vegetarian, which clearly he is not.
There have been 31 South Asians who have been heads of state of various countries across the world from Seewoosagur Ramgoolam of Mauritius in 1968 to Sunak today. Of these, eight are still currently in power including in Portugal, the first European power to colonize South Asia. So, why wasn’t there as much excitement about these as the vice-presidential candidacy of Kamala Harris and Sunak’s prime ministership? The answer lies in the fact that South Asians are so serious about their caste identity that they carry it with them even if they emigrate. While there is clarity on the caste origins of both Kamala Harris’ mother and Sunak’s ancestors, the other heads of states are either non-Hindus or of doubtful caste ancestry. While Harris’ mother broke her caste by marrying a man of Afro-Jamaican and Irish-Jamaican descent, she came from an Iyengar family. Rishi Sunak’s family, both from his paternal and maternal side, are Punjabi Khatri and his generation is the first (they are British) to break caste to the extent of marrying a Savarna from another caste and linguistic ancestry.
While the reaction of the Hindutva right wing is easy to read, what is much more dangerous is the bigotry of the Savarna liberal masquerading as secular through careful sophistry. Shashi Tharoor could be held up as a typical example of this. Despite his nationalist and binary critique of British rule in India, he suddenly magnanimously declares that Britain has outgrown its racism because it elected Sunak. Apart from being the kind of rhetoric that informs the Savarna discourse, this also flies against facts. As late as August 31st, 2022, Britain’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that two out of five Black and Minority Ethnic workers in Britain faced racial discrimination at workplace. The UK government recorded a 26% increase in hate crimes for the year ending March, 2022 in England and Wales at a staggering 155,841 reported incidents.
Given that the recent Parliament is the most diverse ever in the history of Great Britain, it is not surprising that Sunak’s cabinet itself is multi-ethnic and multi-religious and significantly, as the government is headed by Sunak, the Conservative Party is headed by Nadhim Zahawi, a first generation Briton, a Kurd born in Baghdad, a fact that Savarna chest thumpers miss. Sunak’s position on Brexit and more importantly immigration, that reeks of xenophobia and racism, is instrumental in his meteoric rise within the Conservative party. In a case of being more loyal than the King, Sunak has re-appointed Suella Braverman, who believes, “The unexamined drive towards multiculturalism as an end in itself combined with the corrosive aspects of identity politics has led us astray,” as the Home Secretary. Braverman is one of the multi-ethnic faces of the Sunak government and her political position is on the rightward fringe of the Tories. So much for the British having outgrown their racism!
Shashi Tharoor further celebrates Sunak’s appointment as “even more breathtaking than Barack Obama’s ascent,” belittling the anti-racist movement and politics of the United States. Regardless of what Barack Obama finally represents, the United States got people of color into positions of power thanks to the anti-racism movement, while Sunak has piggy-backed supporting status quoist and racist politics. Further, this is definitely a reductionist rhetoric demonstrating either Tharoor’s lack of understanding of politics and history or deliberate brinkmanship. Whatever it may be, it is misleading and needs to be exposed. Despite the system of electoral college and the convoluted oligarchic democracy followed in the United States, the Presidential race is still a popularity contest. At his beginning of his presidency in 2009, Obama had an approval rating of 68%. On the other hand, according to YouGov, co-founded by Sunak’s colleague and party boss Nadim Zahawi, Sunak has a popularity of 25%, while 51% dislike him. The point is that unlike US or even India, where personalities are invested into becoming larger than life political icons – even unpopular candidates become prime ministers of the UK – especially when prime ministerial changes happen mid-term, what is required is the confidence of the majority of the members of the House of Commons. (Unlike India, where this confidence is dictated by dictatorial whips, in the UK, whips can only direct a member to be present and vote – how s/he votes is up to her and a candidate can lose the confidence of her own party members – so the parliamentary party isn’t a toothless puppet).
Shashi Tharoor then goes on to make a tall claim that if it were India, Sunak would still be a backbencher obfuscating the fact that social location of candidates that often defines the political clout of many politicians. There are examples of many Indian politicians who became part of the ruling dispensation on the cusp of their political career. For example, Y. S. Jaganmohan Reddy, who became the Chief Minister of Andhra within a decade of entering politics. Tharoor himself occupied the treasury benches as a Minister of State for External Affairs on his maiden election to the Lok Sabha. Ranked 222nd richest couple in UK, the richest member of the House of Commons and along with his wife being almost twice as rich as the monarch of the UK, I suppose Sunak’s social location is conducive to a meteoric political rise.
But what demonstrates Savarna prejudice best is Tharoor’s query whether it is possible for a member of visible minority to be elevated to the most powerful office in India. What doesn’t cross a Savarna’s mind, regardless of how educated or intelligent he is, is the fact that Brahmins are the most visible minority in India and also the most powerful and are people who have occupied the most powerful positions within the Indian state for maximum time. This isn’t a paradox given that Brahmins have controlled knowledge and knowledge production for millennia. It is not surprising that Tharoor does not consider Manmohan Singh a visible minority, given that despite his Sikhism, he belongs to Khatri caste, the same caste as Sunak, and in Savarna values caste overrides religion. Tharoor’s clarification in this regard is enlightening, where he wants a practicing Muslim or Christian (non-Indic religion) to become the Prime Minister entrapping the discourse into a binary convenient for the Hindutva Juggernaut.
And finally one of his compliments for Sunak is an interesting assumption that I quote below:
“Some Britons have wondered how a Hindu will preside over the government of a country that has an established religion (Christianity as practised by the Anglican Church), and where the then Prime Minister read aloud from the Bible at the Queen’s funeral service earlier this year. Would Sunak be able to do that on a similar occasion if required? (Though he has not said so, I imagine that like most Hindus he would answer “Yes” since Hindus generally have no difficulty venerating the beliefs and the sacred texts of other faiths).”
Conveniently omitting the fact that the major voter base of BJP, the party that is responsible for getting India into the list of ‘Countries of Particular Concern’, tagging it as one of the worst violators of religious freedoms in 2020 by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), is Savarna Hindu and the United Kingdom ranks 3rd in the World Religious Freedom Index.
While a few commentators have accurately observed that Sunak is a conservative British politician who would be driven by British interests and it would be precisely these interests that would determine his government’s attitude towards South Asia, what is sad is that, Sunak’s appointment as Prime Minister was a ripe opportunity to study the emergence and diversity of South Asian Britons as a political society. Unfortunately, their respective locational limitations have resulted in a convoluted reading of British South Asian political society. Though I am no expert on the subject, it would be imperative to take a brief look at South Asian political society in Britain to round up this essay.
There seems to be an uninformed consensus among political commentators, both British and Savarna South Asians that Hindus are gravitating toward Conservative Party, while Sikh and Muslim voters remain with echoing the communal binary being rolled out by Sangh Parivar in India. This binary is very important to camouflage the actual hegemony that defines South Asian society – caste.
In a report, the Carnegie Endowment admits that its thesis British ‘Indian’ votes are gravitating from Labour to Conservative is based on anecdotal evidence and limited survey data. This prodded me to look at facts and figures in public space. Thirty South Asians are currently members of the House of Commons. Of these, 15 are Muslims, 8 Hindus, 5 Christians and 2 Sikhs. 17 belong to Labour, one Liberal Democrat and the rest of the 12 Conservative. The Conservative Party has 5 Muslims, 2 Christians and 5 Hindus, the Labour, 9 Muslims, 2 Christians, both the Sikhs and 5 Hindus and the lone Liberal Democrat is a Christian. But what is fascinating is that, Hindus across party lines and the Sikh members of the House of Commons, all carry Savarna surnames. While it is impossible to find caste locations from Europeanized Christian surnames, it is slightly difficult in the case of Muslims. However, from their profiles and some from surnames, I could identify that out of the 15 Muslim MPs, at least 10 are Savarna, and it includes all 5 Conservative MPs.
Mihir Bose, while wrongly attributing Sunak’s appointment to some kind of Tory-Hindu ideological metamorphosis, does capture part of the politics pointing out the complexity of (South) Asian migration categorizing them into two. Direct flight migrants, mostly rural working class population, in the aftermath of decolonization and partition of South Asia – whose loyalty was with Labour and the migrants from Africa fleeing persecution from newly independent African nations like Kenya and Uganda – whose entry into UK was facilitated by Tories. I would add a third, albeit minor, wave of migrants, particularly in the neo-liberal epoch – being privileged enough to “legally” migrate in search of better opportunities – like Sunak’s spouse, Akshata Murthy.
Like I mentioned earlier, South Asians carry their identity, even when they migrate.
While I do not have caste data (and there seems hardly any on South Asian diaspora), social locations of those elected to the House of Commons seems to suggest that party affiliation is more based on class interests rather than religious interests (from existing data). Conservative party is being backed by the well-heeled, Savarna South Asian, regardless of religion, while the stories of most Labour politicians seem to begin from working class neighborhoods. In other words, religion is not driving British South Asian politics. This is not to deny the tremendous (and often successful) efforts being made by Hindutva right wing to push their agenda in the forefront of British politics. However, the most important takeaway is that leadership of British South Asian polity across party lines seems firmly ensconced within the caste system! And insofar as the British polity is concerned, I will believe it has outgrown its racism (and other bigotry that the institution of monarchy, constitutional or otherwise, can be associated with), if the adopted child of a future monarch’s queer consortship with an indigenous American/Australian ascends to the British throne. All other talk is mere garrulous unctuousness!
“Free elections of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves” ~ Herbert Marcuse.
Bobby Kunhu is a lawyer, researcher and writer.
Image courtesy: the internet.