Desis in Europa

People marked as 'South Asians' in Great Britain

'Indian' corner shops, Currys and lots of Patels – all these belong to the image 'Europeans' have of Great Britain just as much as the Queen, Big Ben and Fish ‘n Chips. Looking at the number of 'South Asian' nationals in Britain they might thus be rather surprised to see such low figures. Considering ethnicised groups as 'foreigners' many continental 'Europeans' fail to understand the difference between citizenship and ethnicisation. Looking at Britain this, however, is a major misunderstanding as due to the legacy of the 'British Empire' and its nationality law most of the ethnicised 'South Asians' in the country have long been 'British' citizens . Just as their legal status their presence as such is a direct result of the colonial past. Shared history (even though in considerably different positions) and language have brought many migrants from the 'Indian' subcontinent to the 'British' Isles.

The first 'Indians' will have been brought to Britain by 'British' merchants, soldiers and officials. The latter took them back to the centre of the Empire as souvenirs or servants. Little will have been thought about their own views on the journey. Few 'Indians' had the resources and the chance of travelling independently. But there were always some sons of the upper class families, such as Gandhi or Nehru, who went to study in Britain. Most of whom returned to 'British India' either to join the civil service or the fight for independence.

By the end of the 19th century 'Indian' seamen started to be hired on 'British' ships, travelled to Britain and while waiting for re-employment took accommodation in its ports. They thus founded the first small 'Indian' settlements, which could later serve as bridgeheads for further migrants. (Ballard 1994, 5) During the world wars then 'Indian' soldiers fought and died also in Europe for the 'British' army. Some of those surviving will have settled in Britain.

But only after the second world war 'South Asian' migration to Britain developed into a mass phenomenon. The 'British' economy was up to the 1970s acutely short of labour and encouraged the entry of many workers from the former colonies around the world. In the beginning single young men came to work. Most of them knew already someone who had come earlier and could rely on a network of contacts. They lived in simple and crowded accommodation, worked long hours under poor conditions and saved for their families back home. They came as sojourners with no intention of settling, thus they were willing to accept the poor living conditions and refrained from establishing their own 'ethnic' and in particular religious communities. But gradually the stay in Britain was extended, wives and children were brought to Britain, 'South Asian' communities started to develop.

In the early 1970s they were joined by a different sort of migrants. During the Empire not only indentured labourers had been brought from 'British India' to the 'British' colonies in Africa, also many merchants and professionals had gone there. They had acquired a status between the 'white' rulers and the indigenous population and now feared the independence of the colonies. Especially in Uganda this went along with a policy of Africanisation, which often meant persecution for those marked as 'South Asians'. Being subjects of the crown many of those marked as 'South Asians' decided to go to Britain rather than to India. In contrast to the labour migrants they came in complete family structures and with higher self-confidence.

The more 'South Asians' entered Britain and the more the economic situation deteriorated, the more racism was shown openly. The government increasingly restricted entry regulations by changing the nationality law and introducing, for example, the carriers liability and the primary purpose rule . Today it is even for family members difficult to join their relatives in Britain.

Nonetheless, the 'South Asian communities' in Britain grow further as already the third and fourth generation is living in the country. They are concentrated especially in the urban centres of England, forming in some areas the majority of the population. Major concentrations are in Southall and Brick Lane in London ('Punjabis' and 'Bangladeshis') as well as Leicester (refugees from Africa). By now they have constructed their own communities on their own terms, their Desh Pardesh as Ballard (1994) calls it. Even though many of the second and following generations know South Asia at the best from occasional holidays there, they like their parents keep and foster their 'ethnic' and religious identities. They thus stay or become Sikh or 'Kashmiri' nationalists, are convinced 'Gujaratis' or 'Bengalis'. They adapt to the 'British' environment and it's mechanisms of exclusion.  Pearl and Menski (1998) speak of the development of  Angrezi Shariat.

Part of the construction of Desh Pardesh is the development of an own 'Anlgo South Asian' culture. Elements of this are the Asian underground music, literature like ‘Anita and me’ by Meera Syal, films like ‘Bhaji on the Beach’ or ‘East is East’ and the comedy serial ‘Goodness Gracious Me’. These reach an audience also among the 'South Asians' in continental Europe and thus Britain develops to a point of reference in the latter’s identity formation as well.


© Urmila Goel, / Europa or english / europe 2002/2007