‘Little India’ is an appellation attached to variegated corners on earth which, like giant footprints, record the voyages of the Indian diaspora. It may refer to a building — Hong Kong’s Chung King Mansion in Kowloon, for instance — or a snarl of flats and shops peddling stuff from electronic goods and ‘authentic’ imitation perfumes that is New York’s Jackson Heights.
Of all these places, it is the town of Southall — at first comprising just four square miles in Middlesex and now part of Greater London — that best reflects the fervid passions of a people in search of its identity, its roots, its rights. There are many Southalls, of course. The Southall of the fifties and sixties saw the community struggling for a place of its own. The seventies and eighties witnessed ferment. The Southall of the nineties and early 21st century has seen prosperity, consolidation, even as old struggles continue.
Some ten years ago, I interviewed Vishnu Sharma in his Southall home. He had been the general secretary of the Indian Workers’ Association for years, and was an early settler. Sharma died some time ago but his reminiscences are a valuable record of an enterprise that was sought to be celebrated by New Delhi recently through its Pravasi Divas bash.
Most people who came to Southall initially were Punjabis. Those from West Indies, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh arrived years later. Partition had left Punjab’s economy in a shambles, resettlement had put great pressure on the land, and many were forced to fend for themselves in cold, grey Britain.
They made their way from P&O liners, their worldly possessions tied up in a burlap bag, to an earlier settlement in the Aldgate area, that bordered Southall. There was one rubber factory in Hayes, R. Wolfe Rubber Pvt Co, which had employed a retired Indian police officer. It was he who began recruiting Punjabis. Each shift was at least nine hours, wages were poor, conditions terrible — slippery floors, toxic fumes.
When I came in February 1957, there were just a few hundred of us, mostly bachelors — the families followed, mostly in the sixties. We tended to hang together. The 15-20 houses in Southall that were Indian-owned were so overcrowded that people slept in shifts! It was not that we wanted to live like pigs, but we had little choice. Some of us were rough, unacquainted with city life — pissing in the garden, for instance. White people didn’t want us around and landladies put up little notices saying ‘No Coloureds’. So we crowded into the few houses that were there. Most didn’t know English. I did and once remember addressing an old lady on a rainy day with a hearty ‘Good afternoon’. ‘Really?’ was her reply!
On March 3, 1957, we came together to formed the Southall branch of the Indian Workers’ Association. One of our first decisions was to reach out to people who needed help. Every weekend we sat in to assist those who needed to fill forms, buy things, see doctors. Interpreters were in great demand, as were English classes. Since news from home was missed, we ensured that copies of Milap, Tribune and Ajit were available in the community centre we set up. We also hired the local Dominion Cinema every Sunday to show Hindi, Punjabi films. This was perhaps the only indulgence people permitted themselves. They knew they were there to make money.
They hawked clothes, dry groceries, vegetables. Wives manned shops until their men relieved them after sleeping off the effects of the night shift. Small sweatshops mushroomed and nearby Heathrow Airport became one of the largest employers of Southall labour.
This, in fact, was the beginning of many large fortune. Even the ones that today have grown much beyond Southall, T.R. Sutherwala, Bombay Halwa, Noon Products, started with food, grocery and garments.
Apart from struggles on the shopfloor, we began to consciously document the racism we faced and briefed sympathetic MPs like Fenner Brockway. There were no emigration laws to start with. The 1965 White Paper stopped entry vouchers for unskilled workers.
In 1968, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed. In 1971, commonwealth citizens with work vouchers were denied right of entry for settlement. Things changed radically after this, the Tories were in power and very inflammatory political rhetoric was used. The local councils were also not sympathetic.
They sent us notices about overcrowding. We protested, defying them to throw us out. We suddenly took interest in housing laws and demanded alternative accommodation.
In early 1979, a teacher from Delhi was subjected to a virginity test at Heathrow, after a no-objection statement was taken from her. Her husband contacted us and before long we had the whole story in the newspapers. Even Tories condemned the move, and the issue figured both in the House of Commons and the Indian Parliament! There were physical battles, too. On April 23, 1979, for instance, the National Front was allowed to hold an election meeting at the Town Hall. We used Gandhian tactics and organised peaceful sit-ins. The police cordoned off the area. When people started breaking the cordon, 242 people were charged. Some were badly beaten and thrown out of the area. There other incidents, too, like the 1981 Hambrough Tavern incident.
When 50 or 60 Skinheads roamed Southall’s streets terrorising people, Indian youth retaliated by setting the tavern on fire.
Slowly, over the years, the community grew, got more self-confident, established itself in business, in various professions, became British citizens. Today there are over 30 millionaires in Southall. But we are far from perfect. We couldn’t put the caste system behind us, for instance. Many young people got criminalised. Domestic violence was an ever-present issue, the elderly were sometimes thrown out of their own homes by their children. There was also an unhappy resurgence of religious fundamentalism. To this day the community still grapples with how to manage modernity and tradition.
Yet, with all the inadequacies, it gives me satisfaction that we, the pioneers, were there when the community needed us. It was we who pointed out that just talking about race relations was not enough — racial discrimination needed to be made a criminal offence. That if someone shouted filthy racist abuse at you, it should be deemed a criminal act. We pointed out that the equal opportunity policy was okay in books but that it was not being implemented. Above all we gave homeless, faceless, rootless people, a sense of community.
In many ways, brave Little India can teach Big India a thing or two: about how a sense of community can bind variegated people, how injustice and hate crimes needed to be countered at every point, how there can be no place in a civilised society for a state that tramples upon people’s basic rights.
If only Pravasi Bharatiya Divas had celebrated these principles as well!