Reflecting on the true meaning of celebrating Independence Day
Today, as I write this, India celebrates her 74th Independence Day from the British colonial rule. My phone and social media have been abuzz with messages from around the world with one common theme - a strong sense of being a “Proud Indian”. Of course, there were also messages from many British colleagues and diplomats wishing Indians a Happy Independence Day, which made me smile.
But as I write this, I am also reminded of August last year. On 2 August 2019, I visited Kashmir to send off my daughter on her final journey by dispersing her ashes in a confluence of streams - Lidder, Veshov and Vitasta (Jhelum) - by the Shadipora Ghats along the Bandipora road in Kashmir. A much revered place of worship and faith among Kashmiris and a privilege not many Kashmiri Hindus have easy access to today. A few days later on 5 August, as I boarded the flight to return to India, I watched the news of the landmark abrogation of Article 370 that brought Jammu and Kashmir in line with the rest of India, news that brought joy to many of us in the Kashmiri diaspora based in Britain.
Then on 15 August last year, I walked over to the High Commission of India in London, just like every year, to participate in the Independence Day celebrations, witness the cultural programme, exchange greetings and hoist the Indian tricolour.
As I made my way to India House, I saw an angry mob surrounding it from three sides and frozen bottles, shoes and various other objects being thrown at the 60-70 people gathered to celebrate, including women, children and elderly people. The angry mob got more violent and closed in on us so that we were surrounded on the fourth and the only remaining side at the rear of the building, where children were performing.
In order to try and prevent the crowd from closing in, I tried to step forward when to my horror a middle-aged angry-looking man swore at me and tried to pull my saree with the threat of “raping” me. I was fortunate that nothing untoward beyond this happened as I stepped back and was quickly assisted by police officials.
Eventually the Indian diaspora group under siege was rescued into India House, where they sought refuge. However, ultimately the Western media, many of whose reporters were also caught up in these violent attacks, reported it as a protest and a counter-protest between Indian and Pakistani diaspora groups. To classify this as an insignificant protest instead of recognising it as a “hate crime” or indeed an “act of terrorism” is to my mind a misrepresentation.
A fellow Kashmiri lady, who was at this programme with her children, walked up to me in a pained voice: “Will we now be thrown out of our homes in London too, after Kashmir? I did not think I will live to have my daughter witness the horrors I experienced in 1990 in Kashmir.”
As global Indians, our connect to India is via celebrations and community gatherings. As hard working, tax-paying and law-abiding citizens or residents of the UK, to then be on the receiving end of apathy, hate and aggression was indeed a shock.
In the aftermath, many of you will recall images of the High Commission of India staff and community members cleaning up the mess that was left behind by the mob in the spirit of civic duty and harmony. Having organised programmes and protests in the past, I am aware of the specific permissions that ought to be sought, registrations as well as insurance and commitment to not cause damage to public property. Therefore, I wonder why the authorities did not claim heavy damages from the organisers, something they were obviously liable to cover?
In that mob, there were banners of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a proscribed terrorist organisation that was banned under anti-terror laws by India last year. Yet this organisation remains a fully functional body with a registered UK and International Office at Cannon Street in London. This was the same organisation linked with the kidnapping and later murder of Ravinder Mhatre, an Indian diplomat in the UK.
If the diplomatic mission of a country and its diplomat can come under attack, then does it not raise some serious questions over the safety of individuals?
Acts of aggression
I, just like many of you, call England our home. Incidents such as the one on 15 August 2019 was unfortunately not a one off. There have been a series of attacks and violent protests, threats on social media and pure acts of aggression against India and its diaspora in the UK.
Those of you celebrating Independence Day on 15 August or for that matter on 14 August - Pakistan's Independence Day - will also recall the great tragedy of Partition. That mindset of “separatism” continues to spur hatred and cause suffering. This geopolitical war may be seen as being fought on the borders of India and Pakistan but those who experience such acts of aggression in the UK would know that this war is on our doorstep.
Indians have contributed immensely to the nation-building of this country and India is now the second-largest foreign direct investor in the UK. With a very desi Cabinet and a Prime Minister who has an affinity for India as the UK's most natural ally and friend, the diaspora must feel truly safe and at home in Britain.
And, as acknowledged by the Indian High Commission in reference to similar, rather diminished, protests by separatists groups at this year's Independence Day on Saturday, the authorities have taken some steps to ensure that anyone with violent intentions is kept barricaded away from India House to protect the mission and its staff, as well as any guests. But while there have been some measures put in place, much still remains to be done to avert the misappropriation of democratic and libertarian mechanisms.
For, the true meaning of Independence Day must be a sense of freedom and safety for one and all.
Lakshmi Kaul is the London-based UK Head & Representative at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and an active Indian diaspora campaigner. In this regular Talking Point column for 'iGlobal', she will focus on issues that deserve spotlighting within the Global Indian community, referencing her personal experiences.