South Asians in Britain

By Parekh, Bhikhu | History Today, September 1997 | Go to article overview

South Asians in Britain


Parekh, Bhikhu, History Today


Although South Asians had been coming to Britain during the colonial period as students, cricketers, visitors, pedlars, housemaids, governesses, entertainers and political supplicants, and some had even settled here, their number was extremely small. The picture changed radically after the Second World War when Britain, after exhausting European sources, turned to South Asia and the West Indies to recruit labour it desperately needed to regenerate its economy. Even as late as 1956 it had 174,000 more unfilled vacancies than unemployed workers. Thousands of semi-skilled and unskilled South Asians came to work in the textile and steel industries, at first alone and later joined by their wives and children. They were followed by skilled workers and professionals, especially the doctors whose services were badly needed to run the National Health Service. As their numbers increased, pressure for immigration control mounted, leading at first to various kinds of restrictions and to a virtual halt of primary migration in 1971.

As Britain began to decolonise its African empire from the 1960s onwards, South Asians, whom it had recruited to help run the empire and its economy, felt insecure. Their sense of insecurity increased when the newly independent African countries, especially those in East Africa, embarked on a programme of giving preferential treatment to their own people. South Asians from Kenya, many with British passports, started coming to Britain. As their number increased, the Labour Government under James Callaghan passed a law in 1968 denying them entry. The news of the impending legislation caused a panic, and resulted in the arrival of several thousands, including those who had otherwise no intention of coming to Britain. When Idi Amin came to power in Uganda, South Asians were harassed and began to arrive in Britain in small numbers. In 1972 when Amin expelled all British passport-holding South Asians, Britain asked the world to 'share the burden' and was helped by Canada, Australia and India. Over time it gracefully accepted and resettled over 27,000 of them.

Thanks to the three phases of immigration, South Asians in Britain are a somewhat heterogeneous group. Some came directly from South Asia, some from different parts of Africa but mainly East Africa, and a few from Fiji, Mauritius, the West Indies and other parts of the erstwhile British Empire. Although they share in common broad cultural traits, a common place of origin, an the experience of living under a single empire, they belong to different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups and bring with them different fears and historical memories. Even the apparently homogeneous East African Asians differ among themselves in several respects. South Asians in Kenya evolved different forms of cultural and social life, enjoyed somewhat different types of relations with South Asia, and arrived in Britain with different expectations and fears to those from Uganda or Tanzania. A connoisseur of South Asian culture generally has little difficulty identifying and distinguishing them.

According to the 1991 census, South Asians in Britain number 1.5 million, about 2.7 per cent of the population. Indians, just over 840,000, are the largest group, followed by Pakistanis (477,000) and Bangladeshis (163,000). Since the census had no category to identify East African Asians, their precise number is unknown, and is estimated at between 110,000 and 150,000. Among South Asians, Muslims number just over three quarters of a million, Hindus just under half a million, and Sikhs just over half that number. Demographers calculate that over the new few years, the South Asian population in Britain will stabilise at 2.3 million, just under 5 per cent of the estimated total population at the time.

South Asians have carved out a distinct niche for themselves in certain areas of the economy, in some of which they are a significant presence. Although they represent just under 3 per cent of the population, they provide about 16 per cent of the total number of GPs, nearly 20 per cent of hospital doctors, and about 12 per cent of pharmacists. …

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