On road to reclaiming the British Indian heartland for Labour

On road to reclaiming the British Indian heartland for Labour

Krish Raval is a leadership expert who works with corporations around the world. He is Director of Faith in Leadership, Britain's principal leadership development for all major faith communities.

Krish, who read law at the Universities of Sheffield and Cambridge and has a passion for youth work, was awarded an OBE for services to Leadership Education and to Inter-faith Cohesion in 2018.

In this special Guest Op-Ed for iGlobal, he shares his reflections from a recent event at the Bhaktivedanta Manor Hare Krishna Temple in Watford, where Opposition Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer offered prayers and met Indian High Commissioner to the UK Vikram Doraiswami.

I speak in a personal capacity as a Manor congregant who happens to be a member of the Labour Party. This is a significant occasion, that could be a historical one:

  1. By being here, and after years of drift, you are reclaiming the “British Indian” heartland for Labour

  2. Just moments ago, in the Old Prasadam Room, Keir took a major step in resetting his government-in-waiting’s relationship with New Delhi by meeting with the High Commissioner of India – for the first time.

And

  1. You are reemphasising a zero tolerance approach to hate: Anti-semitisim, Islamophobia, Afrophobia anti-black hatred and surely, Hinduphobia.

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Imagine, an obnoxious teenager: Socially awkward, frequently in trouble, resentful with his lot in life. This teenager could have easily sunk into oblivion. Instead here at Bhaktivedanta Manor - he could experience what it meant to be part of an ancient belief system that among many other things offered the best traditions of faith leadership, including non-judgementalism, inclusivism and love for all people. The discipline, diversity, agrarian beauty, philosophy, radical hospitality and deep care offered by the community of this sacred space naturally made him and thousands like him want to give back and actively contribute to society. When the closure of the Manor was enforced by the Conservative government in the 1990s - even in the face of folks objecting to what they referred to as ‘Pakis’ worshipping in this corner of the UK – it also taught this boy that justice could not be assumed, and that often, it has to be striven for. Sir Keir – you are a leading human rights lawyer and you have devoted your public life to championing anti-racism, equality and fairness – so we know that you, as much as anyone, can relate to this sentiment.

That obnoxious teenager was, of course, me. But I am part of an entire generation of British Indians whose political senses were awakened by Hindu-Phobic attitudes towards the Manor. The injustices facing the Manor led me to join the Labour party as an impassioned 16-year-old – and to mumble in a speech at Labour Party Conference a year later.

It was the Labour government in 1997 that reversed the decision to close the Manor and the community forgave the Conservatives – and successive Tory Prime Ministers – now regard Bhaktivedanta Manor as an indispensable national, civic and cultural treasure. Yet I believe, the Conservative party took advantage of this generosity and takes for granted support from upwardly mobile sections of our community. And now many Hindus are bitterly disappointed about Rishi Sunak’s failed bid to be Prime Minster.

But the unfortunate truth is that the Hindu community has also felt betrayed by Labour. Hindus are having a tough time. Research by the Oxford based 1928 Institute revealed that 80 per cent of British Indians have faced prejudice because of their Indian identity, with Hinduphobia the most prevalent. Believers are afraid to go out wearing their tilaks, bindis or to otherwise be open about their religion for fear of being branded extremists, and we were uncomfortable with the inaction of authorities during demonstrations outside the High Commission of India; dog whistle inaccuracies repeated from the stage at Conference and in incendiary campaign literature.

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In Parliament, on the Labour benches, we have only 1 veteran practicing Hindu Lord in his late eighties, and three hard-working Hindu MPs who thankfully punch above their weight. Two of them are here this evening: Seema Malhotra and Navendu Mishra – thanks for your distinguished service.

Yet, the sum total of Hindu parliamentarians in Labour is less than that of the Hindus who served on the front bench-alone, under the previous Prime Minister.

We urgently need fairer representation in Parliament for everyone’s sake. It is madness, that some of our country’s brightest, most socially responsible, creative, collaborative, innovative, brilliant, compassionate young trailblazers - of the kind nurtured here by the Manor’s Pandava Sena or by the Yog Foundation’s brilliant Varchasva Leadership Programme – have felt the door is firmly closed for them in Labour just because of their faith, while the other Party actively talent spots, incubates and mobilises them as superstar candidates in safe seats.

But we sense a turning of the page. I think the fact that you are here Keir, with so many of your top aides means that we are on the verge of translating words into action. And that for the sake of everyone’s future, we are returning to an era of normal British Indian-Labour relations under your inclusive leadership.

It was wonderful that you celebrated the final night of Navratri last week. You even created a bit of a stir by joining in some garba moves!

I need to report, that this was such a hit, Sir Keir, that hopes are now raised, that next year, you will practice the full dandiya three-step. It’s a secret plan to secure the entirety of the Gujarati vote! And I think they’re onto something.

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Navaratri, like Diwali, is a festival that celebrates the importance of resilience in the face of adversity and change. You highlighted the need for Britain to stand tall again and to chart a new course. You emphasised the role of hard-working communities like ours, and movingly, like your own family, in ensuring that British people are not held back by their circumstances.

In parallel, we look forward to your Labour government strengthening ties between the UK and India – an imminent superpower that is growing in relevance to everyone’s life. Keir has already welcomed the reestablishment of the Labour Convention of Indian Organisations which will help Britain fortify existing cultural and trade connections – and in this we have a living bridge between the countries. Labour Mayors are leading the way in British Indian investment, innovation, technology, fintech and other trade. Indian students form the highest number of foreign learners in the UK and we have a common history, language and cuisine. We also have ties, as epitomised by this Temple, in the realm of faith, mindfulness and spirituality – which is growing among the British population. There are infinite possibilities to be shared!

On top of the benefits of bilateral relations, these two countries have a shared agenda on the global stage in an era of fragmentation. India will soon assume the presidency of the G20 offering, among other things, an unparalleled opportunity for the UK and India to deliver on the SDGs for the benefit of the entire world.

The Manor teaches us the importance of duty, and I have a duty ensure that we get to our second course. So let me enter the final part of my remarks by thanking you, Keir, for calling out the scourge of Hinduphobia:

Your emphatic rejection of Hinduphobia is so deeply appreciated and we know we can rely on you to root out this hate, as you are doing with anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and all other forms of racism. We need a healthy plurality. We can’t have faith groups divided along party political lines. The organisation I serve, Faith in Leadership, recognises that community cohesion is not a zero sum game, and by being fair to Hindus you are not undermining our brothers and sisters in Islam, Judaism or any other belief system. On the contrary, our freedoms are also their freedoms.

Frustratingly, we find ourselves once more, in the midst of a crisis. We share your sadness at the division that we’ve seen on the streets of Leicester and Birmingham in recent weeks. Violence and hatred stoked by dangerous people exploiting social media. I can report first-hand that we have more that unites us than divides us. But the inconvenient truth is that without genuinely trusting relationships - of the kind being built in London by Bishop Lusa here or over meals such as this one - diversity can drive wedges between groups in society. Faith in Leadership, convenes the most senior and emerging religious and lay leaders from all our faith groups to master the art of disagreeing well to build community cohesion.

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So-too must a Labour government build bridges across divides to reap the benefits of our diverse society. And it can best do that – if it has ever deepening, wise and even handed relationships with all of Britain’s wonderful communities.

For these reasons, this could be a historic day. I feel moved to recall His Grace Shruti Dharma prabhu, the former President of Bhaktivedanta Manor, who was taken away from us 3 years ago. A beloved teacher, mentor and saintly visionary who oversaw the growth of the Manor into the Temple it is now; he embodied to countless people - of all backgrounds -the idea that this life was for serving others and in many ways, he defined modern British Hinduism itself. I pray that he would approve of and even bless this representation before the next Prime Minister of our country.

Thank you Sir Keir for joining us with your top LOTO team at this crucial time. You are the first Labour leader to visit the Manor. We see a number of signs coming together that point to a new era for British Indian Labour party relations and we look forward to supporting you in droves to achieve it. Hare Krishna!

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