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"Does every generation have to prove itself in Britain?" Kavita Puri on the experiences of South Asians in Britain

In the latest series of Three Pounds in My Pocket, BBC journalist Kavita Puri explores the experiences of South Asians in Britain in the 1990s and beyond. Here she talks to Rob Attar about a golden age that couldn’t last

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Published: January 8, 2021 at 12:47 pm
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Rob Attar: The latest series of your documentaries on South Asians in Britain centres on the 1990s. Would it be fair to describe this as a golden age?


Kavita Puri: Yes, the 1990s were absolutely the golden age, and that’s how the people that I interviewed talked about it. The programme is called Three Pounds in My Pocket because when the generation that came over in the 1950s and 1960s arrived, they could only bring as little as £3. By the time you get to the nineties, it’s really the children of the £3 generation who are coming of age. They were in their twenties and had a very different relationship to Britain. Many were born here, this was their country, and by the nineties, they were navigating their way, and their identity, in Britain. For so many of them, it was a mixture of home life – which may still have had ties back to the mother country, whether it was India, Pakistan or Bangladesh – and also Britain. The 1990s was really a wonderful decade for expression in terms of music and film, and culture generally.

What were some of the main cultural expressions of the British South Asian community at this time?

In my last series, I talked about daytimers – underground clubs that British South Asians went to so they could listen to music and dance. But the events would take place in the middle of the day, partly because their parents might not have let them go to nightclubs, but also because people didn’t want British South Asians going to clubs as they thought there would be fights, or that their kind of ‘English’ punters wouldn’t turn up. They also thought British South Asians wouldn’t drink, so they wouldn’t make a lot of money.

By the early nineties, there were one-off gigs of Bhangra music or maybe a mixture of western and eastern music. But then in 1993 something really big happened: Bombay Jungle began at the Wag Club in Soho. Tuesday nights were dedicated to British South Asian music, and, from early on, hundreds of people were lining up to get in. It was a real mix: Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati – often university students. And people did drink, and they often wore western clothes. All these different communities dancing and listening to their music together was a really special time.

Listen: Kavita Puri discusses the experiences of British South Asians during the 1990s and early 2000s, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

Did the second generation of British South Asians see their dual identity as a positive thing, or did they find themselves caught between the two?

Everyone felt differently. What you’ve got to remember is that people who were coming of age in the 1990s had been living in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, which was a really hard time to be British South Asian. It was normal for people to be very overtly racist – whether that was people saying things, or the National Front chasing you down the street. And if your mum was wearing a sari, for example, you really stuck out, when many people just wanted to blend in. But by the 1990s, people had a bit more confidence in their identity, and, because a lot more money was going into the arts and culture sector, people from the second generation were meeting each other and sharing their experiences.

One of my interviewees talks about there being this kind of no man’s land where you weren’t like your parents, because you weren’t born on the Indian subcontinent, but you didn’t quite feel like the people who you were at school or university with, who had many generations in this country. So I think it was a time when people were trying to find their voice – for want of a better way of describing it – and they really, really did.

At the beginning of the 1990s, British South Asian culture was absolutely not part of the mainstream – nobody wanted to identify with being British South Asian. But by the end of the decade, I’m not saying it was mainstream, but many of my interviewees felt it was kind of cool: ‘Brimful of Asha’ [by Cornershop] was number one in the charts; Talvin Singh won the Mercury Music Prize; and everyone knew about Goodness Gracious Me. By the end of the decade, everyone – whether British South Asian or English – could identify with that culture, and it felt more natural to have that coexistence.

Did any tensions develop between the generation who had come to Britain, and their children who were assimilating more with mainstream British culture?

The generational aspect is really interesting, and something people rarely talk about. Generational differences are always big, but when you’re second generation from an immigrant family, you really feel it because your cultural references and your experiences are so very different from those of your parents. A lot of people in the second generation have never told their parents – to this day – about the kind of racist abuse they experienced, and a lot of people in the first generation never really talked about how hard it was for them when they arrived here. The first generation still held ties to the motherland, and they wanted to keep their heads down. They were happy to be here, but they wanted to survive here, whereas the second generation didn’t just want to survive. Why should they just survive? This was their country. They fought for their rights, and they were much more vocal about it.

Sometimes there were clashes – over obvious things like who you go out with, what you listen to, and all the kind of stuff that’s normal within generations. But it was much more pronounced within second generations of immigrant families. We had a conversation with one family which left us all in tears, because it brought home how differently the first and second generation see progress. Farah was in her early twenties in the 1990s, and progress for her was meeting some wonderful people from a writers’ collective with whom she could share her experiences of being British South Asian. She was in Liverpool while her parents were in London, and no one was telling her what she could and couldn’t do. But her mother, Runi, found it really difficult that Farah had left London to go to university and then decided after she graduated that she wouldn’t come back. Runi said that the phone call where her daughter told her she wouldn’t be returning left her heartbroken, because she had never imagined when she came to this country that her daughter would leave her. And she describes how she took herself off to Kent, to the sea, and wept.

How big a milestone was the 1997 general election?

A lot of the people I spoke to had grown up under Thatcher, and both her premiership and that of Major had seen big curbs on immigration. But when New Labour came in, there was a very different sense of what it was to be British. Tony Blair talked of the 21st century being a battle of progress against forces of conservatism, and in his early speeches he almost described a post-racial society. He was saying that to be British was not even about race anymore. And famously in 2001, foreign secretary Robin Cook talked about chicken tikka masala being the national dish. So to be British felt very inclusive. And a lot of British South Asians talk about feeling welcomed for the first time.

When New Labour came to power during the mid-nineties, there was a very different sense of what it was to be British

This is an era that’s often seen as the highpoint of multiculturalism, but was that always the case on the ground?

Not always, and it’s important to point out that the term ‘multiculturalism’ had been around in the 1980s as well. But in the nineties, while we talk about it being a golden period, there was always an undercurrent, and the murder of Stephen Lawrence [a black 18-year-old who was stabbed to death in London by a group of white youths] in 1993 was something that had a profound impact on people in the South Asian community. They felt that this could have been them, if they had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. All my interviewees remember it. One was just six at the time, and she recalls her father having the conversation with her about race: “You’re different. You look different. And if you ever get into trouble, you need to go into a shop or you need to look for an ally to protect you.”

The way people talked about Stephen Lawrence reminded me of an event in the second series when an 18-year-old Sikh boy called Gurdip Singh Chaggar was murdered in the streets of Southall in 1976. Every British South Asian remembers that, because it’s what they feared. So even though the 1990s were better, the Stephen Lawrence murder happened, and attacks were also on the rise in some areas where there were high numbers of British South Asians.

By 2001 it was clear that the Blair vision of a modern, post-racial Britain was not something felt by everyone – and not always felt by people within the British South Asian community. If you look at northern industrial towns, there were groups of people in places like Bradford or Oldham who didn’t feel that that Britain represented their Britain. We’re talking about places where there may have been up to 50 per cent unemployment. And there was another group who felt disenfranchised: people who flocked to the far right. They didn’t feel multicultural Britain was for them either.

In the late spring of 2001 riots broke out. The reasons are really, really complicated, but the report into the Oldham riots stated that there were these parallel groups of people living virtually segregated lives who had been let down by the authorities.

At the other side of the extremism axis, the 1990s saw the growth of Islamist fundamentalism in Britain. What do you see as the roots of that?

One of the people I interviewed was a man called Rashad from Sheffield, and he recalls [the fundamentalist Islamist group] Hizb ut-Tahrir coming to his school and giving an assembly, which I was quite surprised at. And he said that they weren’t talking about extremist things: they were talking about what it meant to be a Muslim. At this time questions were coming up for some Muslims about whether they were Muslim or part of the South Asian community. For people like Rashad, who was recruited while he was at school, he said it was very normal to have questions about Islam and Islamic ideology. It wasn’t a threat.

He was watching what was happening on the news, in places like the former Yugoslavia. He recalls leaflets being given out at his mosque using what happened in Srebrenica [where 7,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Bosnian Serbs] as a way to recruit people. I’m not talking about large numbers of people, but there were some within the South Asian Muslim community who identified more with Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya or Palestine than they sometimes did with their British South Asian brethren.

The 9/11 attack is a key moment in this narrative. What did it mean for the British South Asian community?

From the early 1980s onwards, the British South Asian community had been starting to fragment for various reasons. There was the Amritsar massacre in 1984 [where thousands of Sikhs in India were murdered following the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard] that saw some Sikhs separate themselves from other parts of the community. And then when the protests happened against Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses [in 1988], some Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus wanted to differentiate themselves from the Muslims who were protesting. But what you see with 2001 is the British Hindus and Sikhs really moving away.

Some of our contributors who are Muslim can recall that very distinctly. One of my interviewees, who’d arrived in Britain in 1957, told me something very interesting. He said: “When we arrived, we were seen as black, because blacks and South Asians were all kind of lumped together. And then I was seen as Asian, a kind of amorphous word. And then I was seen as Muslim. But when 9/11 happened, I was seen as a terrorist.”

After 9/11, people recoiled again. Whether you were Muslim, Sikh or Hindu, you didn’t want to put your head above the parapet

So we see these splits happen, but we also see the end of the golden period, this flourishing when people were proud to wear their British South Asian identity on their sleeves. After 9/11, people recoiled again. Whether you were Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, you didn’t want to put your head above the parapet. There was a backlash against the Muslim community, but initially there was also a backlash against the Sikh community. If you had brown skin, people didn’t ask whether you were Muslim, Sikh or Hindu. All the kinds of things that people had heard before came back again. It really did reverse the clock in terms of the progress that had been made up until that point.

How do you think the dramatic events of the past few years have affected the British South Asian community?

Some of these events have made people question their place in Britain. It’s worth noting that a significant minority of British South Asians voted for Brexit, but after the referendum there was an uptick in attacks. And people I spoke to said that things they hadn’t heard for a long time – like “go home”– started to reappear. A question that emerges from the programmes I’ve been making is whether progress is linear, or does each generation have to prove itself in Britain? And there is a sense that maybe it’s the latter, because you think you’re settled and things are going well and then 9/11 or Brexit happens, and you have to prove yourself once more.

Then something else we couldn’t have anticipated – the Black Lives Matter movement – happened, and this has changed things in a way I hadn’t expected. One of my interviewees said the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter had the same profound effect on his daughter as the murder of Stephen Lawrence had had on him growing up in the 1990s. It prompted the conversation about being different in this country, looking different and what that means. But his daughter also wanted to know, interestingly, about her history, which he couldn’t answer.

This is the kind of conversation Black Lives Matter has thrown up for British South Asians. Battles were fought and won by the first and second generations, and legislation is on the statute book, but what is happening now – which is something one of my regular contributors, Professor Gurharpal Singh, always talks about – is a kind of post-colonial struggle where everything is up for grabs. He says it’s not just about anti-discrimination, but it’s now part of the so-called culture war. We’re really talking about what Britain is and the stories that it tells itself. What does it mean to be British?

When Professor Singh talks about everything being up for grabs, I think he’s referring to things like decolonising the curriculum: whose version of history are we telling? I feel that this is the next phase of race relations, and a big part of it, funnily enough, is about the kind of history I’ve been telling with this series, which, as I have always argued, is British history.

Black Lives Matter has brought a lot more attention on to black history in Britain. Do we also need a similar focus on British South Asian history?

We do. In the last census, there were over 3 million British South Asians in our country, and the histories of Britain and the Indian subcontinent are so intertwined over many centuries. To me, it is inevitable that at some point we have to learn about British South Asian history, because it’s British history. How can you talk about why there are so many British South Asians if you don’t understand about empire? Because if you don’t understand empire, you don’t understand why the migration happened, or know about the 1948 Nationality Act that meant every single member of the empire and the Commonwealth was automatically a British citizen – which remained the case until 1962.

So I think it is inevitable – whether it’s in five years or it’s in 10 years. We have to learn about it because we all need to know about this history.

Kavita Puri is a BBC journalist and broadcaster. As well as the radio documentary Three Pounds in My Pocket, she also presented the BBC Radio 4 series Partition Voices and authored an accompanying book of the same name

Series 4 of Three Pounds in My Pocket (produced by Ant Adeane) begins on BBC Radio 4 on 8 January. You can catch-up with the previous three series, available now


This article was first published in the January 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine


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