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Posted at: Jul 1, 2016, 12:44 AM; last updated: Jul 1, 2016, 12:44 AM (IST)

Why Indians voted ‘Leave’

Shinder Singh Thandi
Diaspora may not have the same opportunities as before
Why Indians voted ‘Leave’
moving on: Indian communities have become more and more politicised.
THE only clear winner in Britain’s last week referendum is Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, a fiercely anti-EU and anti-immigration party. Whereas the ‘Remain’ campaign focused on more broad range of costs and benefits of leaving the EU, the ‘Leave’ campaign totally embraced the xenophobic and hate-filled anti-EU agenda which UKIP had been pursuing for several years, but with only limited success. At the last general election in May 2015, UKIP got 4 million votes, but given the nature of British parliamentary system, they only succeeded in getting one MP. But in this referendum, every vote counted and the ‘Leave’ campaign rallied over 17 million voters across all political parties, all classes and all regions.  Thousands of British-Indians also obliged by voting for ‘Leave’ and given the close nature of the overall result, it would not be surprising if Britain’s Indian diaspora helped in tilting the balance. But why would British-Indians belonging to different socio-economic groups and with varying religious affiliations choose to ‘Vote Leave’?

First-generation immigrants throughout the world, irrespective of their reasons of migration, generally receive a hostile reception rather than a welcome. This hostility is even greater where immigrants are non-white and perceived by the receiving country as a burden and liability. They are demonised for taking over jobs or for bringing down wages, increasing crime or sexual violence.  Sometimes this demonisation erupts into violence against them. We saw this hostility against pioneer Sikhs in the USA when in 1907, in a small town of Bellingham, Washington, hundreds of them were brutally attacked at night and forced to flee the area by white exclusionist “immigrants” who thought Sikhs were driving down their wages. In 1972 President Idi Amin of Uganda scapegoated Indian immigrants for his own failures, expelling thousands and forcing them to leave within 90 days to escape threat to their lives. Many other Indians settled in East African countries such as Kenya, fearing a similar backlash, also began to flee. They were not welcomed in Britain, despite having overseas British passports. There are many other stories of outright hostility towards first-generation immigrants.

Luckily for African-Asians, liberal and humanitarian voices prevailed and they were reluctantly allowed in, subsequently making a significant contribution to the UK economy. But many of these twice migrants, along with the thousands of direct migrants from different parts of India and their second and third-generation children,  now voted to keep out the immigrants from the EU as well as from non-EU countries. In many conversations with different Indians it became clear that there were as many supporting ‘Remain’ as ‘Leave’. Families and friends were on opposite sides and media representations reflected these contrasting views. It seemed a pathetic scene to see many Sikhs, for instance, on ‘Leave’ platforms. Surely many white people who hate their presence in Britain, don’t like their gurdwaras and turbans, can’t also be their friends? But now they had a common enemy.

So what creates the conditions where immigrant communities themselves turn on other newer immigrants, seeing them as enemies to their livelihoods? Why did thousands of Indians — Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Christian — decided to ‘Vote Leave’ than ‘Remain’? Why the lack of empathy among a large number of them? Was it a question of their British identity trumping their pan-European identity? Was it a case of self-interest and self-preservation which was threatened by the new immigrants? Or did their decision reflect the general Islamophobia whipped up by relentless anti-refugee/anti-Muslim propagandist rhetoric over the past several years? OK, maybe, for long settled Indians the decision had nothing to do with EU immigration but was a general anti-EU stance. But it’s hard to believe the real issue was not immigration with a tinge of Islamophobia. A more nuanced understanding 

is required.

Ethnic minorities in Britain in general and Indian communities in particular have become more politicised than ever before, whether this involved invoking identity politics, religious symbols, caste or inter-religious tensions. They participate actively in politics at local, national and European levels and seem reasonably well represented in many regions as local councillors and MPs, although a greater representation is being sought. All political parties, especially the Conservatives and Labour, vie for their support. The recent election of Sajid Khan as London Lord Mayor has given a further boost to political aspirations. 

However, despite the rise of the Indian middle class and good vibes on degrees of integration with mainstream society, the vast majority of British-Indians still live in relatively segregated and income-poor inner-city neighbourhoods where they compete with other recently-arrived immigrants for jobs, for housing, for education and for health and other public services which have become more and more difficult to access after six years of austerity. Under these difficult circumstances, just as it has been the case with white working class and other Britishers who found UKIP’s case appealing, thousands bought into the same narrative: their woes are the fault of the new immigrants and EU’s policy of free movement of labour. The British right-wing tabloid press, along with some leading ‘Vote Leave’ politicians, fed this narrative daily with scare stories about EU and non-EU immigrants forming a queue to enter Britain, including those from Turkey even though Turkey’s application to join the EU had been blocked several times before, even in calmer political climate than that prevailing in Europe over the last three years.   Voting ‘Leave’ would remove the disease. 

The British government and other politicians will never admit the ‘Leave’ vote was a vote against uncontrolled immigration and the irony is that any future trade treaty is likely to involve allowing free movement of labour, albeit with some limited ability to control it. Another important irony is that if the predicted prolonged recession becomes a reality, it will be the many Indian immigrants who will disproportionately bear the brunt just as it happened in the early 1980s when the Thatcher government decimated manufacturing industries in which many of them were employed, especially in the West Midlands. Whether the UK economy will fully recover from the recession and whether a truncated Britain will slowly slide into post-imperial and post-industrial oblivion in the global economy, remains to be seen. But don’t expect the Indian diaspora to have the same opportunities as before for upward mobility.

The writer is Kapany Visiting Professor, University of California 

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