Pioneer, 7th May 2002
UK Hindus: paradigms of integration
By Sandhya Jain
Indians abroad, particularly those who left the country some generations
ago, are going through an interesting metamorphosis. For the sake of a
working definition, I would call it an intermediate stage of consciousness.
This is not wholly satisfactory because the communities, especially the
youth, are bursting with ideas and energy, and premature definitions tend to
confine rather than define the subject of the thesis.
Nonetheless, it was a rewarding experience to interact with youngsters from
the Indian community in Britain. While there have been indications of
ferment amongst youth of Indian origin in countries where they are a
sizeable number, it was only during the course of a recent visit to London
that I had a chance to witness first hand the sincerity and vigour of their
intellectual quest for identity and moorings in the traditions of their
This was an eye-opener because most British Indians are migrants
twice-removed from this country. Their forefathers went to Africa four or
five generations ago and though they did well there, they were forced to
migrate under pressure of repressive regimes such as Idi Amin's Uganda,
often with little or no funds. Their British passports enabled them to land
on that shore, and they availed of the opportunities to make a new life. At
the time of writing, London was anticipating a fresh influx of refugees from
Zimbabwe, where questionable elections have returned a discredited regime to
Now, a generation that has grown up in Britain, speaks the local lingo and
power dresses according to prevailing fashions, feels confident enough to
seek to assert a unique identity. This inevitably means a Hindu identity, as
the vast majority of UK Indians are Hindus, while Muslims there have come
from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, and other countries. This is surprising
because most of these youths don't speak a word of Hindi and can't follow an
ordinary conversation in the language. Nor do they have a very deep
understanding of the complex realities of India, which are baffling enough
for us here. Moreover, they do not have a bloated sense of grievance towards
white Englishmen; this means that the search for cultural roots is not a
reaction to real or perceived discrimination in that society.
Clearly, social scientists and scholars interested in ethnic communities
will one day investigate this phenomenon in depth and, I hope, with
sympathy. I believe that the quest for, and assertion of identity must be
viewed as intrinsically good for the foundational well-being of the human
being and the group. It should be accepted as an absolute value, like
freedom, as it determines the self-definition and self-esteem of the
individual and group, and affects his/its relationships with others.
British Indians are not rejecting their citizenship or the civic ethic of
their adopted fatherland. But they are not adopting western concepts
blindly, and are seeking their own solutions to problems of identity and
integration. To begin with, they want their link with Hindu dharma and India
to be respected, and are prickly about being clubbed as "Asians" along with
Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. I understand that some of them have taken up
cudgels with the mighty BBC in this regard. In fact, much of their ire
against Britain is focused on BBC reportage as mainstream newspapers are
regarded as more sober and less desirous of causing deliberate offence.
While it is still premature to speculate where all this will lead, an
emerging consciousness of Hindu-ness seems the most important paradigm of
Indian youth in Britain today. They have an inward awareness of the value of
their cultural-spiritual traditions, and wish to be rooted in them in a
pluralistic rather than sectarian fashion. I found to my astonishment that
the youth as also the older generation resent their religious leaders.
The most common complaint was that the swamis ensconced themselves
comfortably in their temples and protected their respective turfs by
promoting sectarianism in society. It was felt that this was the reason why
the various sampradayas (sects) did not interact with each other socially
and on religious occasions. People now want cross-sectarian affiliations and
intermixing, and they resent the exclusiveness practiced by the religious
hierarchy. Another sore point with UK Indians was that of late the Indian
High Commission had ceased to celebrate Diwali; they are keen to maintain
cultural ties with their mother country.
Even more positive was the thirst for information that will promote respect
for India. I was besieged with requests for references of history books that
depict the true history of India, for biographies of great Indian heroes,
for the best commentaries on the Gita and the Upanishads, and so on.
Needless to say, I was hardly prepared for the avalanche. I could readily
suggest sound commentaries and even identify possible sources where they
would be available. But I had to promise to get back with reliable source
books on history from reputable publishing houses as they were candidly
against "distorted" accounts of Marxist historians!
I did, however, suggest that they read good literature from all societies
and traditions to enrich themselves and their worldview, as an exclusive
diet of Hindu dharma, particularly in a non-Hindu country, could prove
restrictive and one-dimensional. Ironically, that would also be un-Hindu as
Vedic culture is intrinsically cosmic, well-rounded, inclusive, and
pluralistic. What is more, consciousness is like the flow of the river; it
accepts many streams and flows on, ever changing and ever eternal.
What I found most striking about the youngsters was their clarity of vision
and daring in some respects - they are formally converting white boys and
girls who are attracted to Hindu dharma and wish to share its essence. This
is truly dramatic because hitherto most Indian gurus and spiritual orders
have resisted official conversions and have permitted everyone to share the
treasures of the sanatana dharma, such as yoga, various meditation
techniques and Hindu philosophy, without renouncing their native faiths.
Initially this practice did not pose a problem. However, of late, American
Hindus have found to their consternation that prominent western individuals
and groups have started "cannibalizing" Hindu traditions such as yoga and
philosophy by appropriating them without acknowledging the original source.
Indeed, the term "Hindu" is virtually taboo in US academia, and the Infinity
Foundation and other groups are now battling to reverse this unfortunate
development. US Hindus feel that the attitude of not accepting those who
were drawn towards the Indic tradition and wished to be formally accepted in
it was a mistake. They also feel that the claim that all religions are equal
is specious as it denies the uniqueness of each tradition, and tilts the
balance towards faiths that indulge in conversions by force, fraud or other
forms of coercion. Clearly the UK youngsters are leagues ahead in this
respect; I met a young Greek girl who teaches yoga!
One problem youngsters have to resolve themselves is the issue of dating and
marriage. In India, the college or workplace romance followed by marriage is
a route well travelled in urban areas; in UK Hindu society few dates lead to
marriage, to the chagrin of young girls who rightly feel that the practice
of 'importing' brides from India must end. Indian families as a whole need
to grow up in this regard and accept the social mores of the society and
times in which they live.
End of matter
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do
nothing." --- British Parliamentarian Edmund Burke
"The problem is that Hindus seem to have inherited a dominant "ashamed
to be Hindu" gene from our parents and it is the pride that we need
to restore."---- Anupasyati, in a discussion board.
Interesting article. I have a few comments to make (I'm British,
atheist, liberal, white, BTW):
First, Indian integration into British society has been successful.
British Indians, as a whole, score highest marks in school tests
(along with British Chinese), land themselves good jobs, are perceived
to work hard (if that doesn't sound patronising) and as far as I know
are - with one exception - associated with criminality or political or
I think it's fair to say that Indian culture is gaining popularity in
British society as a whole: the film Bend It like Beckham (about a
football-loving Sikh girl in west London) was the no1 movie in England
recently and Bollywood is making inroads into mainstream US-dominated
British cinemas; the Kumars at No42, a chat show satire involving a
fake Brindian (British Indian) family is prime-time TV fare; Andrew
Lloyd-Weber will shortly produce a west-end Bollywood musical: it's
bound to be a hit. Indian artists and writers are well-known and
popular. I don't need to mention Britain's most popular cuisine.
Straws in the wind, maybe, but welcome ones, IMO. I think (to
generalise enormously) Indians are pretty well-liked and respected by
Britons - the racist minority excepted -and (it has to be said) the
girls are very sexy. There are aspects to Hindu culture that are
disliked in Britain, and the west generally. The caste system - the
position of untouchables in particular - being an obvious one, and the
practice of arranged marriages another.
I didn't know the BBC was unpopular in the Brit/Indian community - I
would assume this is because of coverage of India, rather than the
community itself. The biggest anxiety of a host community, obviously,
is over the extent to which any particular ethnic community identifies
itself with the new country or the old one. I can understand that some
people in India are most interested in strengthening BritIndian
identification with India and Hinduism; by the same token most Britons
want to strengthen their identification with Britain and secularism.
What we don't want is seperation.
I'm surprised to hear that there is any animosity toward 'white'
people in India. Why should that be, after all this time? Right from
the beginning of the imperial period Britain's ruling and middle
classes had immense respect and fascination - and even love - for
India, which to an extent remains to this day. I can understand,
perhaps, residual feelings of humiliation about the simple fact of
colonialism, but surely by now the advantages of colonialism - use of
English as a second language and the success of the British Indian
community being two obvious examples in the circumstances - are at
least as apparant as the disadvantages?
Finally, the one area of life in which the BritIndian community has
been associated with criminality is in its relationship, in some parts
of London in particular, with the Pak/Bang Muslim community. Without
wanting to get involved in the rights and wrongs of this, it would be
a shame if the relative success of the Indian diaspora relative to
others should become yet another reason for animosity between India
and Pakistan, or Hindus and Muslims. There's enough of that already.