Suella Braverman has been reappointed as the home secretary of the United Kingdom in the newly formed Rishi Sunak cabinet. She was recently in news for speaking on the issue of Indian migrants. She said: “Look at migration in this country – the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants.” Although it is too early to comment or predict the immigration policy of the Sunak government, by reappointing Braverman, the UK PM has certainly given a signal that he wants to rein in immigration numbers.
This can be bad news for prospective immigrants to the UK from South Asia, especially from India and Pakistan, as they will be the biggest losers if Britain brings policy to control immigration and restrict issuing visas.
Prior to Sunak coming to power, former home secretary Priti Patel tried to restrict migration by implementing a “pushback policy”, which planned to force people in small boats back to France. This policy was abandoned because Boris Johnson feared backlash from the judiciary. Like Braverman, Patel is also considered a hardliner as far as immigration is concerned. Sunak, Patel, and Braverman — all three are considered strong Brexiteers.
One more and quite interesting similarity between the three is that all have Indian-origin parentages from both sides. Rishi Sunak’s ancestors migrated from undivided India and settled in Kenya. His parents migrated to Britain in the ’60s. Braverman’s father was from Goa, and he came to Britain via Kenya. Her mother, also of Indian ancestry, came to Britain from another African country, Mauritius. Both of them migrated to the UK in the ’60s. Patel’s Indian-origin parents also came from Uganda in the same decade.
In sociological terms, all of them can be clubbed under the category of ‘twice migrants’. Although they are placed in the broad South Asian diaspora category, East African Asians in the UK are distinct and different from other South Asian immigrants in many ways. I would like to understand their antipathy, almost amounting to hatred, towards ‘new migrants’, not as their individual traits but as a social fact.
Indian migration to Africa
Indian migration to African countries happened in many phases. Early migration was in the form of indentured labourers transported to various colonies by European imperialists, mostly for sugar plantations. Mauritius and Natal in present-day South Africa were the sites for this phase of migration. Many of these labourers, later on, decided to stay back, while some of them were forced to stay back. Interestingly, it is not this Indian or Asian group from Africa that migrated to the UK and the US in the ’60s and ’70s in large numbers.
The great migration of Asians, mostly Indians in the ’60s and ’70s happened mostly from East African countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, and Tanzania.
Indians, mostly from Gujarat and Punjab, started settling in East African countries, especially where the British were ruling. The first batch of the migrants went there as railroad workers. Later on, professionals such as lawyers, accountants, doctors, clerks, and small traders went to these countries and settled mostly in cities and towns. Most of them held British passports at that time.
In the ’60s, when anti-colonial struggles started rising in these counties, comparatively prosperous Indians were seen as imperial collaborators. In his paper titled Indian Diversity in the UK: An Overview of a Complex and Varied Population, Leonard Williams argues that “The South Asians had long held an ambiguous position in these societies, somewhere between the British rulers and the African natives. Asians often worked in government and bureaucratic posts, as well as a small number of businessmen who held large monopolies on industry in these countries.” Their position in society was such that they became targets of the freedom movement in these countries.
When these countries gained independence, ‘Africanisation’ policies started setting in. The newly formed governments tried to ensure that power structure, business, and other influential positions were filled by native Africans while colonialists and their Asian collaborators leave. New land ownership Acts were promulgated. These steps, and the general anger of the native populace, made life difficult for Indians, thereby forcing many of them to leave. The process was gradual and slow in Kenya and Tanzania and quite brutal in Uganda, where, in 1972, General Idi Amin Dada set a deadline for all Asians to leave the country or face the consequences.
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Those were not the days of PIO (Persons of Indian Origin) cards and Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. The Indian community was in distress, but they were not welcome in India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was aggressively pursuing the policy of non-alignment and South-South collaboration and trying to position himself and India as the leader of newly decolonised countries. Regarding overseas Indians, he followed a policy of studied indifference and no interference. Gretchen Heuberger, a scholar at the University of Colorado Boulder, sees this as a major setback for the Indian diaspora in Africa. He writes, “Due to new foreign policy concerns that focused on the rights of native Africans and a diminished political use for Indians abroad, the independent Indian government was less engaged in the cause of the diaspora than its colonial counterpart had been. The loss of support from India caused Indians overseas to shift away from India.”
This is the backdrop in which Sunak, Patel, and Braverman families came to Britain.
One thing must be kept in mind that unlike many of the direct migrants, the community of ‘twice migrants’ was comparatively rich, educated, and well-connected. They benefited from the fact that they were close to the colonialists and many of them were part of the administration and public service. Vaughan Robinson, professor at King’s College, London, in his paper Marching into the Middle Classes: The Long-term Resettlement of East African Asians in the UK studied this phenomenon and concluded that this group conveniently adjusted to the new situation. Many of them have family and caste connections in the UK, which helped them settle in their jobs and businesses. Soon, they became one of the most prosperous communities in the UK. Unlike many of the direct immigrants, East African Indians came with families that helped them with the new challenges. As the British government was helping them settle, it became easy for them to reproduce their privileges and endowments.
Another important difference is that many of the direct immigrants have their umbilical cords intact with villages or cities in India. Many of them still have something called their ‘home’ or village in India and quite a few spend a part of their income on their families and relatives in India. On the other hand, South African Indian immigrants mostly left India three, four, or five generations back, and they lack robust orientation to India or, as some scholars say, the concept of the “myth of return”. They are entirely invested in improving their life in Britain.
Blessed with such endowments and privileges, politicians and public intellectuals from East African Indian immigrants want to be identified as British only. In this quest to prove themselves more British, they may become more aggressive in opposing new immigrants. Please keep an eye on the Sunak government’s immigration policies.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine and has authored books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)