Not Such a Bad Home

By Dasgupta, Swapan | New Statesman (1996), October 23, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Not Such a Bad Home

Dasgupta, Swapan, New Statesman (1996)

The Runnymede report presents a politically correct version of Britain as racist. It does not reflect the feelings of most Asians living here.

Six years ago, when the non-proliferation lobby was on a high and going great guns, I wrote a series of rather carping articles in an Indian newspaper on the over-intrusive dimensions of US foreign policy. A few days after they were published, I was buttonholed at a reception in New Delhi by a senior American diplomat. A model of tact, he didn't broach the subject directly. Instead, he quizzed me at length over my background, only to discover that I had spent an inordinately long period of my youth in Britain. "Aha," he burst out, "that explains everything. You must have had a bad experience."

Frankly, I did not. The ten years or so I spent in London and Oxford were intensely enjoyable and have left a lasting impression. So much so that at an Indo-British Association roundtable earlier this month, the British chairman Lord (Swraj) Paul chided me gently for being as much British as Indian. It did not hurt my national pride. Nor was I offended at a dinner in London last summer when an earnest Asian member of the House of Lords took umbrage at my observations on the destructive potential of the race relations industry in Britain. "Do you know what we call people like you?" she asked, her voice dripping with disapproval. "Oh yes," I replied, "coconuts. But that's a statement of fact not an indictment." She was not amused.

She wouldn't be. What bound the American diplomat in Delhi and the baroness in London was a stereotype garnished in prevailing doctrines of political correctness. Britain, it is immensely fashionable to argue, is class-ridden, racist and exclusionary. The prevailing image, as the Runnymede Trust report The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain put it unambiguously, is "England-centred, indeed southern England-centred, and leaves millions of people out of the picture". Its underlying "whiteness" negates the possibility of non-whites (the more evocative term "foreigners" appears to have disappeared from contemporary usage) having either a good time or enjoying the optimum benefits of citizenship.

That Britain has an image problem is undeniable. India is a country whose links with Britain are both long-standing and formidable. The relationship between the two is defined by what Enoch Powell, a closet Indophile, once described to me 15 years ago as "a shared infatuation". Apart from history, Britain and India are linked by trade, travel, networking and sheer familiarity. London remains India's gateway to the entire western world, and the capital has been an important relocating point for bankers and multinational executives since the early Eighties. In the past five years, there has also been a significant trickle of entrepreneurs from India to Britain.

And yet there is an image problem.

Nowhere is this more acutely reflected than in the English media in India. Despite overwhelming familiarity -- all the major newspapers have correspondents in London, the BBC enjoys an awesome reputation and there are syndication arrangements with nearly all the British broadsheets-the editorial classes persist with a stereotype of Britain that is not terribly dissimilar to Lord (Bhikhu) Parekh's contentious report for the Runnymede Trust. Almost no editorial on Britain is complete without a snide reference to a "colonial hangover" and institutional racism. Three years ago, when the then Indian prime minister, Inder Gujral, spoke disparagingly of Britain as a "third-rate power", he was applauded. If modern Britain shows all the signs of harbouring a sense of post-imperial guilt, a section of the Indian Establishment revels in post-colonial recrimination.

The politically correct perception of Britain in India is a mirror-image of the British hard-left view of its own society. With multiculturalism and post-colonial studies being thriving industries across the Atlantic, where funding is extremely generous, there is an understandable trend in India to follow the prevailing fashion.

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