Given the anti-immigrant rhetoric I had heard in Rome and elsewhere in Europe, the headline was refreshing. Even more noticeable was the name of the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, the third-highest ranked member of Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet who had reversed policy with the statement which formed the headline.
The 48-year-old son of Pakistani migrants who started business with a 500 pound bank loan had already established his “clubability” with the Conservative Party when he became Managing Director of Deutsche Bank.
Of comparable agility in the political race is the high profile Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, of the Labour party. He is only 41 but has already graduated through a stint in the cabinet as Transport Minister. “I am the first Muslim in Britain to have attended cabinet meetings,” Khan said with pride.
One of the obstacles in the way of Donald Trump making a state visit in 2017, a banquet with the Queen et al, was the Conservative Party’s very bipartisan objection: How can we host a US President who has imposed restrictions on citizens of Muslim countries? “We have a Muslim mayor and therefore a state visit by Trump is out of the question.”
“There are two Muslims in this country who are positioned to make a bid for the Prime Minister’s post,” said Lord Meghnad Desai. He was chairing a discussion on “India at 70: Nehru to Modi” in Committee Room 1 of the House of Lords. Instantly a question surfaced: Can a Muslim nurse such aspirations back home where he has a history for a 1,000 years?
Last year, at a similar seminar at King’s College, London, someone pointed to the presence of four Muslims in the English cricket team. This time I find that even the ever-present Moeen Ali, with a beard longer than W.G. Grace’s, is not in the squad. This waxing and waning is itself proof of a consistent quest for merit. It is not just a blanket upward mobility that Muslims have acquired: A process of distillation is taking place.
The post-9/11 war on terror which distorted most democracies by transferring extraordinary powers to the Deep State did not leave Britain unscathed. But persistent reliance on the Rule of Law has kept prejudice from taking root at an institutional level. The brief travel I have undertaken from London to Manchester has been something of an eye-opener.
A distinguished psychiatrist with the National Health Service married to my sister has been bed-ridden with a stroke he suffered three years ago. The care he has received in hospitals has to be seen to be believed. He is under 24/7 observation. The four very English “carers” who visit him round the clock have virtually become members of the family. It would be malicious to put it down to the aromatic cuisines my sister rustles up every time the carers arrive.
One evening I was invited to a “All Faith”, post-Iftar talk on a theme which surprised me because of its incongruity: “Wave of Populism in Europe”. It was all very graceful.
Earlier, in London, I had seen Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the local Rabbi and Priests of various churches breaking bread with their hosts at a “street Iftar Party” outside Finsbury Park mosque. The enthusiastic white, English participation in the event was heartwarming.
The war on terror with its random targets did cast the Muslim in an unfortunate image, particularly during the Tony Blair years. But excesses of those years also filled the ordinary people with a sense of guilt and compassion.
This somewhat exclusive focus on the Muslim in Britain must not obscure the overall south Asian profile in the country. A recent study produced a very negative image of Pakistanis among the public. A total of 1,668 British adults were asked last month to indicate the extent to which Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis made a positive or negative contribution to life in UK. The image of Indians was by far the most positive. 25 percent of those asked thought that Indians made a positive contribution. When positive and the negative figures were placed side by side for Bangladeshis and Pakistanis their score was -4 (minus four) and -3 (minus three), respectively.
Obviously proportionate to their population in the country, there are fewer Muslims in the high aspirational bracket than there are Indians, mostly Hindus in diverse careers. This imbalance can be traced to India’s social history. The majority community took to western education in late 19th century itself while Muslims remained anchored to feudal nostalgia and their rich Urdu culture.
I, in my earlier years, have seen this country rattled by Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant speech in 1968, exactly 50 years ago: “Like the Roman, I see the Tiber foaming with blood.” The Liberal press reached out for Powell’s jugular and for a while Powellism appeared to be receding. But soon enough the country experienced another bout of street racism. “Paki bashing” became the war cry in the run-down parts of the country. But such upheavals never unhinged Britain from its basic anchor: The Rule of Law. It is this anchor which has been the primary enabling factor in Sajid Javid and Sadiq Khan’s rise.
It may be instructive for us in India that Britain is a very resilient Protestant monarchy which overseas secularism tied with hoops of steel to the Rule of Law.
It would be absurd to compare apples and oranges. The bewildering variety of our civilisational tapestry is unique. Even so our trajectory could have borne some resemblance to “genuine equal rights”, a phenomena Britain can boast of. Instead our politicians dissembled at the very outset leading us into a messy path. I shall explain.