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Race: The Only Scarlet Letter

The jackals who cry ‘go back home’ are reflective of a system that suppresses uncomfortable history and accepts citizens of foreign origin only gingerly

Race: The Only Scarlet Letter
Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, one of Trump’s ‘go back’ targets, with supporters
Photograph by Getty Images
Race: The Only Scarlet Letter
outlookindia.com
2019-08-02T10:39:02+0530

Donald Trump’s recent “Send them back” comments have ignited a debate here, in Great Britain, about what ‘immigrant communities’ should and should not say to the ‘host’ community. As Matthew Parris, a columnist for the Times put it: “We do still speak of ‘second generation immigrants’ and the expression has meaning…yes, there is such a thing as courtesy to a host country”.

Is it discourteous to be critical? Does it make a per­son less British, even if they were born here? As a so-called ‘second generation’, I think about these questions a lot. I am a political broadcaster covering current events and an author who writes about the British Raj. You might say I have skin in the game.

The ‘Go back to where you came from’ debate has rubbed raw some old scars. I was born in London in the ’70s, when the National Front—a far right political group—daubed their anti-immigrant manifestos, or rather their pithy summaries like: ‘Pakis go home’, ‘Get out’ on walls. My experience is by no means unique. Sajid Javid, Boris Johnson’s pick as chancellor of the exchequer, said of the Trump tweets: “I’m from an immigrant family, I know what it’s like to be told to go back.... We must confront the myths about immigration that extremists use to drive divisions.”

On the other side of the political divide, Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London, told a radio pro­­g­ramme: “Language like ‘go back to where you came from’ and ‘you don’t belong’ is the sort of language I’ve heard in my lifetime… I’ve heard it from rac­ists and fascists. Never from a mainstream politician”.

These phrases, ‘go back’, ‘go home’ and ‘get out’ made our parents frightened. It is a terrible thing to see that. That is why such phrases reach down deep into the psyches of British Asians today. Is it discourteous to talk about that discomfort?

Sathnam Sanghera is columnist born, like me, in the UK. Openly criticising Parris, his own Times stablemate, Sanghera insisted Parris’s words den­ied him: “…citizenship of the only country I have known and loved, because of my race. And if that ain’t racism, I really don’t know what is”.

We learnt of Tommies in trenches, not about Indians dying in them. It only was due to my family that I knew about Jallianwala Bagh and Udham Singh.

When I was at school, there was a lament carved into our wooden desks: “History is dead, and now it’s killing me…”  I sympathised, finding it hard to care about Romans and the wives of Henry VIII. There were more relevant histories left unt­ouched. We sat in the very epicentre of what was once the British Empire, yet India’s experience under the Raj was never discussed.

We wrote detailed essays about Tommies in tre­nches, but heard next to nothing about the Indians dying in the Western Front. It was thanks entirely to my father that I knew anything about uncomfortable facts. In particular, the events of April 13, 1919 were vivid. They brought history to life.

My grandfather, a mere boy then, was in Jallian­wala Bagh on the day of the massacre. Thanks to a quirk of fate, he left the Bagh to run an errand moments before Brigadier General Dyer and his men arrived. In ten long minutes, 1,650 bullets were fired; the Bagh ran red with blood. It continued to flow through the long night—due to the curfew imposed, Indians bled to death as their loved ones were forced to wait till the morning, desperate and helpless. My grandfather’s friends were among the dead.  

According to legend, a young, low-caste orphan named Udham Singh was shot and injured. He was supposedly driven mad by the sounds of suffering. As the curfew lifted with the first rays of the sun, he is said to have picked up a handful of blood-soaked earth, smeared it across his forehead and vowed to kill the men responsible.  

The truth is more complicated, but what is certain is that Udham dedicated the next 21 years of his life to revenge. He courted enemies of the Raj, learning all he could from them. Rex Dyer died of natural causes in 1927, so Udham Singh focussed his hatred on his boss, Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant-governor of Punjab. His obsession took him around the world; it would eventually take his life.

On March 13, 1940, Udham Singh walked calmly into a meeting in Westminster’s Caxton Hall and amidst some of the Raj’s great and good, pressed his gun into the fabric of O’Dwyer’s jacket and shot him twice through the heart. When the police came, he gave his name as ‘Mohammed Singh Azad’—a sign to his countrymen that he had done this for them.  

Most people in Britain had never heard of Udham Singh before I wrote The Patient Assassin. Records pertaining to Udham’s life, crime and death were sealed by the authorities in 1940, in the hope that the ugliness of the crime and its causes would never see the light of day. Perhaps it is understandable that the British did not know his name.

What is less easy to understand is how little the British know about the empire, and how it is that many Asians have made Britain their home. They see Maharajas, tiger hunts and heroes in pith helmets on television but there little else. Empire is about railways, not massacres. Little is said about the waves of immigration that came on the eddies of the Raj, nor the later immigration which filled post-war vacancies in a country trying to rebuild itself.

Trump’s words have raised the question: If people of foreign ancestry cannot criticise the present, what hope is there for evaluating the past?

Back in 2013, David Cameron became the first serving British prime minister to visit Jallianwala Bagh. He lay a wreath of white Gerberas at the foot of the towering, red stone martyr’s memorial and wrote the following in the condolence book: “…We must never forget what happened here….”

Cameron’s words fell far short of the apology. The matter was raised again in the House of Lords just five months ago. Baroness Annabel Goldie, then a government whip, continued to resist apo­logy and offered advice instead: “…history cannot be rewritten and it is important that we do not get trapped by the past”. Perhaps she felt it discourteous.

Donald Trump’s tweets and the reactions to them have raised important questions. If people of foreign ancestry can’t criticise the present, then what hope is there of properly evaluating the past? If we are always counted as ‘second’, ‘third’, ‘fourth’ generation Asians, do we ever count as simply British? If this is the ‘host’ community, will we ever be more than guests?

When I read ‘Go back to where you came from’ I have one place in mind—an old school desk in the Essex town of my childhood. I would like to carve a hackneyed epithet of my own in the scarred wood:  “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. And that isn’t just rude, it’s stupid.”


(A broadcaster and journalist, Anita Anand is the author of  The Patient Assassin)

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