Britain’s Asians

Neil Berry

In London, newsagents, sub-post offices and what used to be called grocers, with the three of them absorbed at times into a single unit, are now run almost exclusively by Asians. The same is true in other parts of Brittain: notably, Leicester, Coventry, Bradford, the West Midlands and some of the North-West. And this is just the most visible aspect of Asian business activity in this country. Asians are becoming prominent in all areas of commerce, though they are only around 2 per cent of the population. It’s said that the next generation of City accountants will nearly all be Asian; and there are observers who expect to see power in the City of London becoming increasingly concentrated in Asian hands.

This may seem a wild forecast, but twenty years ago who would have thought that before long nearly every newsagent’s in the whole of Greater London would be under Asian management? The Asian takeover of small trade – it’s hard to avoid the term ‘takeover’ – has been a phenomenon of the Seventies and Eighties in Britain. It has been one of the many changes to have occurred in a society which may be said to have been stunned by change. And perhaps this is why the attitude of the white majority to Asian shopkeepers is hard to gauge. On the whole, and at a guess, it appears to be one of grudging acceptance.

Yet many people must be impressed, albeit reluctantly, by the long hours worked by Asian shopkeepers, by their willingness to stay open seven days a week and by an obligingness which can verge on the preposterous. In Asian shops in parts of London these days you will find pay phones installed for the benefit of customers who cannot find a working phone on the street. And there are scores of Asian shopkeepers who seem to stock every household utensil known to man, and who will look acutely disappointed if you ask them for an item which they haven’t got.

Many whites have a vague idea that all Asians are called Patel; and that there are pages of Patels in the London phone book – nearly enough to rival the entries for the Smiths and Greens – is the stuff of saloon-bar jokes. But there curiosity seems to stall. It is as if to see Asian shopkeepers as other than shopkeepers, to respect them as people with their own past and their own identity, were too painful an effort. As shopkeepers, Asians can still, after all, be regarded as servants. It is far from being common knowledge, even among the otherwise well-informed, that a high proportion of the Asian business class in Britain are Gujarati, speakers of the language of Gujarat, the mainly Hindu area of North-West India whose most famous son was Mahatma Gandhi. Nor is it well-known that many of these Gujarati belonged to the exodus of Asians from East Africa in the late Sixties and early Seventies, precipitated by the growth of African nationalism. There are Gujarati settlers in Britain who have never set foot in India. Of the younger generation, the majority, perhaps, have never been there. Those who haven’t already been taken to India by their families often plan to visit the place at some point, though this isn’t always the case. ‘Why should I want to go there?’ a Gujarati teenager once said to me. ‘It’s so bloody hot.’

Gujarati have traditionally been traders. Commerce between Gujarat and the coast of East Africa stretches back two thousand years. But it was not until the latter part of the 19th century that Indians, attracted by the job opportunities created by the building of the Uganda railway, migrated to Africa in large numbers. From this period dates the development under British rule of Asian settlements in countries like Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya, in the last of which there is still a vibrant, if beleaguered Asian community. The majority of Asians were indentured labourers who returned to India when the railway was finished. Two groups remained: the already-established merchants and the small shopkeepers or duka-walas, many of them named Patel, who had been servicing the needs of Europeans and Africans alike. It is the descendants of the duka-walas who have become such a conspicuous feature of British high streets.

Most East African Gujarati are Hindus, though there is a small minority of Muslims. In East Africa Hindus kept up the caste system, with its hierarchies, clubs and arranged marriages, just as they do in Britain today. Derived originally from an agricultural caste, the Patels had been employed by the Moghuls in India as revenue collectors, which is what the name came to signify. In Africa under the British, they emerged as a subservient business and administrative class. A few Asians – not all of them called Patel – achieved spectacular commercial success, and Asian business went on expanding. So great was its scale in Uganda that after General Amin expelled the country’s Asians in 1972, the Ugandan economy virtually collapsed.

At the time of the expulsion, the late Shiva Naipaul wrote that East African Asians had been beguiled by possession of British passports into thinking they had a special relationship with Britain. No such illusion is entertained by younger Gujarati brought up in Britain. Though they feel British, they know that they are viewed as an alien minority; and, conscious of family origins in East Africa, they resent being seen as Indians.

Among Britain’s Gujarati business class, however, it is not hard to find Asians who think that the British are freer from prejudice than most. Arunbhai Patel, one of Britain’s hundred-plus Asian millionaires, who recently bought out a newsagent’s chain for a ‘consideration’ of £20 million, speaks of how much he and his family owe to this country. And J.B. Joshi, President of the National Congress of Gujarati Organisations, has a similar attitude. ‘What other nation,’ he asks, ‘would have shown such a sense of responsibility to its former colonial subjects?’

Mr Joshi and his extended family, three generations of them, inhabit the same South London house. Affluent and articulate, the Joshi look like well-adjusted British Asians. Not that they regard Britain as paradise, or feel entirely at home. Since the older Mr Joshi brought the family here from Malawi in 1972, half-expecting to find a nation of Lord Mountbattens, their view of Britain has inevitably changed. The Joshi find it irritating that the British media go on so much about rich Asians – as though all Asians were Arunbhai Patels. Mr Joshi and his father appear to be doing well out of retailing watches, but they wish people realised that for most Gujarati, in business or not, life here is hard. They wish, too, it was more widely acknowledged that Asian business is usually based on corporate family endeavour, on pooling resources and on hard work. Mr Joshi senior rises at five in the morning, and the whole family are devout Hindus who worship their household gods and neither drink nor smoke.

Many native British people might well think that the Joshi lead a joyless existence. Yet they seem a contented family. As Brahmins, they have a busy social life revolving round their caste. There are regular Hindu festivals to attend, and many of the Joshis’ weekends are taken up with going to caste weddings. Indeed, a lot of their money is spent on wedding presents. Mr Joshi’s 27-year-old daughter – an accountant, with seven English staff working under her – says she has had to stop telling colleagues who ask her what she is doing at the weekend: ‘I’m going to a wedding.’ They have begun to suspect she’s making it up.

When I remarked that they were a society within a society, the Joshi nodded eagerly. They seem to regret that they do not have more contact with the British, but a lot of things about the British baffle them. They are not used to the lack of neighbourliness. Mr Joshi senior recalls how in India and in East Africa neighbours treated each other as friends – he still keeps in touch with neighbours in the village of his birth in India, which he left forty years ago. But in Wimbledon it is not the same. Although they have business acquaintances – they invite their solicitor to dinner – the Joshi appear resigned to the existence of a gulf between them and the remainder of non-Gujarati Britain. ‘You will go away and write about us,’ said the older Mr Joshi, ‘and we will never hear from you again.’

The Joshi are a close family – closer, perhaps, than many Asian families in Britain these days. Under the prevailing social pressures the cohesion of the extended Asian family is showing signs of weakening. Young Asians are straining to become independent, and jibbing at the custom of arranged marriage. ‘I’m sorry I can’t meet you today,’ one man said to me recently, ‘I’ve got to attend some arranged marriage bullshit.’ There are those, too, including Gujarati, who are unemployed and are turning to petty crime and to drug-taking and selling. Nevertheless, the Joshi represent an ideal of family unity and commitment to work which is still widely upheld by Gujarati in Britain, not least by East African Gujarati, who, according to a recent study, because of their dynamic progress in East Africa, came to Britain with higher expectations than Asians generally.

Vaughan Robinson, author of the densely anthropological study in question,[*] stresses the importance for understanding East African Gujarati of their mercantile heritage and their merchant ideology. What he fails to make clear, however, is the extent to which this ideology was shaped by Hinduism. For the image of Hinduism as otherworldly is misleading. As Hindus, Gujarati subscribe to a religious ethic which encourages devotion not only to work but also to the accumulation of wealth. It is not entirely fanciful to say that the position once occupied in British culture by the Protestant work ethic is now occupied by the Hindu work ethic. When Mr Joshi rises at five in the morning, a lot of other Gujarati in Britain, some less successful, some considerably more so, are rising with him. Indeed, if Mrs Thatcher’s belief in Victorian thrift has any obvious embodiments in Britain today, it is surely among the Gujarati.

Yet it is of their own truncated history in East Africa that a great many of the older Gujarati living in Britain are bound to be conscious – rather than of anything that went on in Victorian Britain. The pervasiveness of Asian business activity in East Africa is being reproduced in Britain in an astonishingly short space of time. What guarantee do East Africans have, though, that ultimately they will be any safer here than they were there? Unmesh Desai, an astute young Gujarati, believes that, however settled they may appear, Asians in Britain have every reason to feel insecure. Involved for several years in monitoring racist attacks, Desai says that already the true level of such attacks is vastly in excess of the official national figure. And he believes that there is much worse to come when North Sea Oil runs out and when the present government runs out of public assets to sell off. Once there is no longer even the appearance of a booming economy, all Asians, Desai thinks, will be at risk of victimisation by bitter, impoverished whites, ready to regard them as leeches. I said he was describing a nightmare. ‘I’d say I was being realistic,’ he replied.

Settled in comparatively safe suburbs, middle-class Gujarati have hitherto escaped the sharp end of British racism. For the Bengali of Tower Hamlets in the East End of London, one of Britain’s most deprived boroughs, it is a different story. Mostly poor Muslims from rural Bangladesh, the Bengali have been suffering racism on a scale which amounts to persecution. After a phase of persistent white racial aggression against the community in the late Seventies, much of it orchestrated by the Far Right, the younger generation of British-born Bengali began to organise themselves, and it appeared that they had faced down the racist menace. But in 1987 the borough has been witnessing a furious recrudescence of racial violence, with white working-class gangs terrorising the decaying council estates where the majority of Bengali live. At present an action group known as THARE (Tower Hamlets Association for Racial Equality) is receiving as many as twenty reports per week of racial attacks.

Bengali families are under siege. Last month a gang used an altercation between a Bengali boy and a white girl as a pretext to declare war on the boy’s family. Twenty-odd young whites converged on the family’s house, smashed windows, broke down the front door and ransacked the interior. A small girl was severely beaten; the children’s mother was punched. When the father, who had been out, came back, he too was beaten up. The Police had been called, but they were late in arriving. Observers claimed that when they did arrive they did nothing and that in their presence the gang went on snatching at the family and threatening to kill them. Refused police protection, the family were moved into a hotel. In their absence, neighbours saw the gang make further attacks on the house.

Such harassment has become commonplace in Tower Hamlets, and there are Bengali families which are cracking under the strain. The other day one Bengali family, broken by months of verbal and physical intimidation, fled London to take refuge with relatives in the North of England. A Bengali community leader, whose hand was smashed with a hammer while he was waiting for a take-away, says that no Bengali can lead a normal life in Tower Hamlets. The precincts of super-markets are danger zones, even in broad daylight; children are at peril on the way to and from school; and every arrangement, every meeting, every single thing you do, has to be assessed in relation to its safety. The Police are no longer seen as being much help, if any. It is a standard complaint that their response to reports of racial attack is dilatory; and it is true that arrests are rarely made and that police officers will often explain what seems to the Bengali concerned like blatant racial violence as a mere neighbourhood dispute.

Further east in Newham, another deprived borough where Pakistanis are intermixed with the white working class, racism is at least as virulent. Already this year the Newham Monitoring Project, a unit which logs instances of racial violence, has recorded over three hundred cases of racial attack. Even the Newham Police, often sceptical about NMP’s claims, report a 250 per cent increase in attacks compared with 1986. Indeed, Newham is like a macabre laboratory for studying the hideous cruelties which whites are capable of inflicting on people of a different colour. Nobody in the area will quickly forget the case of the Kassam family, several of whom died when their house was gutted in an arson attack in July 1985. Soon afterwards this horror was nearly replicated when a Pakistani butcher’s was bombed out in the small hours one morning, though in this instance the family, who lived above the shop, lost only their business. Last year there were four arson attacks in a single Newham street. For the moment – for reasons perhaps not unconnected with the departure from the area of a prominent member of the National Front – the attacks have abated: but it may only be a matter of time before an entire Asian family gets burned to death.

Gratuitous, Clockwork Orange-style violence is constantly meted out to Asians on the streets of Newham. One evening just over a year ago a Sikh, emerging from a pub, spotted a white youth urinating on his car. Before he could intervene, he had been beaten into a stupor by a gang who had been lurking in the shadows. It was only later, after he had been picked up by an ambulance, that he realised that he had been knifed all over his stomach with elaborate precision. Two months later an Asian father and his son were set upon by fifteen white youths carrying knives, sticks and broken bottles. The father was knocked to the ground and slashed across the face with a knife. He also received a broken nose, spinal injuries which require regular examination from a specialist, and a head wound. His son suffered injuries to the head and a broken hand.

Such barbarities may not always be the work of card-carrying fascists. What is certain, however, is that the National Front and other factions of the Far Right are once more on the warpath, and that they have been growing in strength since native fascists began co-operating with their counterparts outside Britain. For some time now, King’s Cross, with its main-line station and welter of hotels, has been serving as a reception area for young fascists from all over Europe and Scandinavia. Eligible under Common Market arrangements to claim board and lodging benefits, they come to London to make contact with senior British fascists and to enrol here as full-time foot soldiers in the movement. The anti-fascist monthly Searchlight reports a disturbing increase in concerted activity by the Far Right in both King’s Cross and Camden Town, where there have recently been vicious attacks on Asians and one savage murder, now sub judice. A pub close to King’s Cross Station – and a stone’s throw from the offices of the London Review of Books – which is allegedly a venue for white-power rock bands, has, it appears, sometimes served as a rendezvous for crop-headed young men who wear swastikas and carry fascist news sheets, and for seasoned organisers of racial violence. Local police purport to be keeping an eye on the situation, though they seem doubtful whether there is any serious cause for concern. There has already been one anti-fascist rally in Camden, and there is soon to be a march on the pub.

Violence against Asians is not restricted to London. It is occurring in Coventry, Bradford, Leeds and Glasgow, the last a city which has a long-established Pakistani community and which used to be renowned for good race relations. Unmesh Desai says that if the problem of racial violence in Britain (most of which is directed against Asians) is not checked this year, there is going to be a ‘massive, nationwide explosion’. In Newham at least, the signs are that some Asians are prepared to take the law into their own hands. They are ‘tooled up’, ready for trouble, and the Police routinely stop cars driven by Asians and demand to see what is in the boot. Some observers are convinced that in such areas Asians (and West Indians) are being deliberately criminalised as part of a hidden agenda designed, along with increasingly stringent immigration laws, to teach the lesson that white Britain has no room for dark skins.

Are the affluent Gujarati turning a blind eye to all this? During the recent General Election, Praful Patel, a voluble Gujarati businessman, who was to be a disappointed Labour candidate for the Tory-held seat of Brent North, told the journalist Ian Jack that Gujarati are too preoccupied with caste rivalry and feuding to give any attention to wider issues. And there are certainly Gujarati so wrapped up in making money as to have little time for anything else. Yet most Gujarati are mindful of the example of Gandhi and continue to support the traditional ideals of the British Labour Party. Moreover, it was a Gujarati businessman, C.B. Patel, who, to promote the cause not just of Gujarati but of Asians in Britain in general, established the weekly paper New Life – after the Asian Times the most visible British/Asian newspaper. Every day at his office in East London, ‘C.B.’ receives a stream of visitors who want publicity for their stories and their problems.

The depth of the anguish felt by Asians about immigration restrictions, about inter-generational conflict and about racism is only hinted at by the British media. Nor is much understanding shown of the sheer diversity of the Asian community. So it is not surprising that there is a flourishing Asian-language press in this country, with titles in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu. There is even a daily Urdu paper based in South London and selling to Pakistanis all over Britain. Yet to the white majority, it seems, Asians remain a blur, and British newspapers, even the more literate ones, convey the impression that Asians and West Indians alike are here on sufferance. Last year Peregrine Worsthorne, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, published a Blimpish article in which, after deploring Brittain’s decline into shabbiness and vulgarity, he remarked that he could not feel ‘any sense of fellowship whatsoever’ with this country’s Commonwealth immigrants. The article evoked a rapturous response and was later reprinted in the Sun, a paper which will not be remembered for encouraging racial harmony. The fastidious, impeccably patriotic Mr Worsthorne – who, incidentally, is of Belgian extraction – had struck a powerful chord.

Many Gujarati depend for their livelihoods on selling newspapers which project a xenophobic, white-British outlook and which pander to racial prejudice. ‘This paper,’ remarked Mr Patel, my local newsagent, one morning, as he leafed through the Sun, ‘is outrageous and disgusting.’ He also complained about shortfalls in delivery which were damaging to his business. Thousands of Patels face the same dilemma. Britain’s Asians are living in interesting times.

[*] Transients, Settlers and Refugees (Oxford, 264 pp., £25, 13 February 1986, 0 19 878009 5).