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February - March 2009

Political News

Without Fear or Favour: Comments on Current Issues

by Satjit Singh

Another year bites the dust – good for some, not so for others and a mixed bag for most. Hopes raised and dashed seem to become the norm of late. The credit crunch and the terrorism were the obvious issues; however, something perhaps a little more obscure is not often discussed.

It was the fact that we are now a more selfish society with the focus clearly on numero uno. The process began some 25 years ago when Thatcher famously declared that, "there is no such thing as society" (these may not have been her exact words but the sentiments are captured). Since then, there have been two recessions (including the current one) and a change of government. Much was expected of the current government in terms of changing the tone of society. It may have done a lot of things, but it certainly did not succeed in making the U.K, a 'kinder, gentler society'. Some years ago, people at least had the decency to be hypocrites! When the health, education and transport services seemed to be in terminal decline, people sanctimoniously declared that they were ready to pay higher taxes to fund public services. The government, finally (despite being in hock to the readers of the Daily Mail), raised National Insurance by a measly 2% (1% each for employers and employees); after a short period of calm, the whinging about the levels of taxation began and have become shriller by the day. It is these people who complain the most about the state of the public services. Today they have thrown off even the pretence of wanting to pay for public services; it is all about ME and MY taxes – hence the reference to hypocrisy!

What is conveniently forgotten is that taxation in the UK is progressive i.e. only the higher earners pay a higher percentage of tax. To the fair-minded, and the vast majority of Britons are so, that is how it should be. However, for some reason, even this group appears to have been brainwashed by the relentless onslaught of the Daily Mail and others.

Interestingly, whilst the well off are happy to accept the rights and advantages associated with their status, they are less willing to accept the responsibilities that go with it. Noblesse oblige, something that was drilled into the ruling classes, appears today to be just another 'French expression' from a bygone era. In the armed forces, it was called OLQ – Officer-Like Qualities. These included putting the interests of your staff before your own; sadly something that is all too rare in today's world.

Even those from a previous gentler generation are not immune to this disease of 'me first'. The granny brigade is now more interested in their comforts and foreign holidays, to play the doting grandparents who are available for baby-sitting or helping the grandchildren with their studies.

This desire to have more for oneself, has led go greater pressure to spend and where individuals cannot afford to do so, to borrow. It is this pressure to borrow which in turn has led to the credit crunch which is the cause of so much misery today. It is only in such times that calls for a less self-absorbed society, are heard. Sadly, experience shows that these calls disappear as soon as economic circumstances improve.

This period also heralds the start of a new year; it is a time for individuals to reflect on their circumstances and the society in which they live. Making small efforts in the areas of thrift and recycling will not only put less strain on them, but will also improve the environment. It is easy to preach to others; the test is when individuals take it upon themselves to lead by example. It will be difficult and uncomfortable. However, as John Major said in response to a comment that the measures implemented by his government to combat the last recession were causing pain, "if it ain't hurting, it ain't working". They took the pleasure when times were good; they need to suffer the pain when they are bad. The key thing however, is to be better prepared to avoid a recurrence.

Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending. As Alex Tan said, "Perhaps our eyes need to be washed by our tears once in a while, so that we can see life with a clearer view again."

Amen to that.

In the interests of fairness...

The images of the destruction and loss of life in Gaza have been painful to watch. Quite rightly, there has been widespread criticism of Israeli actions, most notably by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other Western leaders. Thousands took to the streets in London and in other parts of the UK to protest against Israeli bombings; some indulged in the recently fashionable act of throwing shoes – this time at Downing Street. They were a mix of Arabs, South Asians and significant numbers of white and black British. I personally know some Jews who took part and who are scathing of Israeli actions. As someone who has worked in the West Bank and witnessed at first hand, how difficult life is for the Palestinians, I am instinctively sympathetic to their cause; I earnestly hope that these unfortunate people soon have a country of their own.

During the past few years, I have lost count of the number of demonstrations in London alone against the Iraq war. In February 2003, the biggest UK street march ever of over one million people took place in London, with politicians from across the political divide joined by actors, other entertainers and intellectuals coming together with other fair-minded Britons (the great unwashed and, the rest), against what they perceived was an unjust war. Reflecting on the pictures of both the attacks the related protests, I was struck by a few things:

The same western values, that these Jehadis are out to destroy, are what drive millions of people to stand up and protest against the injustice to the Palestinians. This is one occasion when the Jehadis are happy to be ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ with ‘Western Scum’ - perhaps these Jehadis and their supporters (silent or otherwise) don’t do irony!

Secondly, no one seems to have asked three basic questions: why Hamas broke the ceasefire, why it first fired the first rockets indiscriminately into Israel and why these same people use human shields by hiding in schools, hospitals and busy markets?

Thirdly, why is Israel not allowed to act to defend the lives of its people or indeed its own national interests? After all, the rest of the world does it. When America vetoes a resolution against Israel, is it morally more unacceptable than Russia or China vetoing resolutions regarding Georgia, Ukraine, North Korea and Sudan?

Fourthly, when statistics of the numbers of civilians killed in Iraq are bandied about, why is no mention made of the fact that the overwhelming majority are killed by the Jehadis and not by Western forces. Why are these same people who take to the streets against every action of the West, not out in the hundreds of thousands protesting against the actions of these terrorists?

A ghastly attack took place in Bombay recently in which some 200 people died and property worth tens of millions of pounds was destroyed. This attack was carried out by Jehadis out to kill anyone who does not share their beliefs and values (I use the word ‘values’ somewhat loosely as I cannot think of any ‘value’ that calls for the wanton killing of innocents). I may have blinked and missed it, but I did not see the multitudes out on the streets calling for the destruction of the murderers. It certainly did not happen in the streets of Karachi, Kabul, Basra, Damascus, Tehran or Riyadh. The educated, articulate ‘westernised’ Islamic populations living in London, New York and Paris, were conspicuous by their silence as were their ‘liberal’ supporters.

Lastly, a fact little mentioned by either the press or indeed any of the interested parties, least of all by the West, is that most of aid pouring in to Palestine is not from the oil-rich Middle-East of the countries supporting and abetting the Jehadis, but from America, the European Union and Britain. Without this, aid, the plight of the Palestinians would have been unimaginable.

None of this justifies what is happening in Gaza, but it certainly should make us pause and think of the issues involved. Emotional responses are natural but not necessarily helpful. Of course, one can shrug shoulders and think that one cannot do anything anyway. I will remind these people of what Edmund Burke’s famous quote: “all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing”.

To those justifying this destruction on the basis of religion, Gandhi’s words are relevant.

“As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side”.

‘Talibanisation’ by any other name

Last weekend at a dinner party, I overheard a group of gentleman discussing what they said was an edict from the Siromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the governing body of all Gurudwaras (Sikh temples). The edict in summary said that only Sikhs could get married in the temple and they must have the 'Singh' as part of their name. Needless to say, this left me in considerable shock and fury.

"Talibanisation!" I thundered at the group, referring of course to the powers-that-be that had issued this edict. Using the term above, I referred to religious fundamentalism rather than to any particular religion. Brought up as I was to see the temple as a House of God, rather than a singularly Sikh place of worship, I was offended that the doors which have been open for the past five centuries to all-comers were now being shut. Did they not realise that this was an un-Sikh act of the greatest enormity. However, Sikh or not, I find the idea that one must embrace another religion to be married in a temple of that faith is offensive. If my daughter were to marry a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or indeed someone from another faith and, they wanted to get married in the Gurudwara, expecting any future son-in-law to embrace Sikhism would both be insulting to him and a source of shame for me; not because I am ashamed of my religion but that my bigotry would be more important than my humanity. Indeed several Hindus and some Christians I know married in the Gurudwara without having had to convert and it was never an issue; indeed I was proud that that they found the temple welcoming. Sadly, if news of this edict is true, it will no longer be the case and that is something that would make me ashamed.

Which brings me to my next point; the type of clergy we have. Unlike in Christianity, where the overwhelming majority of archbishops are PhDs in theology and where even the local church vicars are well educated and versed in the scriptures, Sikh and the wider South Asian clergy are by and large, people who became priests not out of choice but because they were not good enough to do anything else. That is reflected in both their teachings and their edicts.

Religious teaching, by its very nature tends to be inward looking and this is universally true of all faiths. Whilst many profess the oneness of God and pay lip service to 'all faiths being good and being about similar values', what they invariably mean is 'but ours is best' and therefore the one to follow! Getting brainwashed by such teachings is, sadly, not the sole preserve of the great unwashed; the middle class, educated and articulate are also prone to its charms. I have been surprised at how many people who grew up with staunchly secular values, are now succumbing to 'faith ghettoism'. The role of the clergy is achieving this is particularly relevant.

Returning to the narrower issue of non-Sikhs not being allowed to get married in the temple, I fear will make Sikhs like examine how it fits with their personal values of inclusivity. I am reminded of Peter O'Toole's quote from the Ruling Class when he said, "When did I realize I was God? Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself".

Journey to becoming British

Some weeks ago, I was at a large dinner party at an Indian friend’s house. As is the case with Asian gatherings, the food was way over the top both in terms of the quantity and the variety on offer. Fine wine flowed as did 12 year old scotch whiskey with East European waitresses serving in their smart black skirts and white blouses. Live music was playing, but as is also wont at Asian gatherings, only the committed few were listening. The rest were busy talking in loud voices, oblivious to the pained expression on the vocalist’s face. The host looked on in mild embarrassment.

A middle aged gentleman came across to speak with me and introduced himself as Amjad Khan. He was very well spoken and came across as an interesting and cultured. As is often the case in Asian gatherings nowadays, the talk turned to the issue of an immigrant’s identity in his adopted country. “Who do you consider yourself to be – British or Indian?” he asked. I replied I was British. “How can you as a Sikh call yourself British he asked?” “Simple”, I said, “I am a British Sikh”, just like there are British Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims”.

Amjad asked me if I was ashamed of being Indian; not waiting for my reply, he carried on talking. He said was a Muslim who happened to have British passport; he considered himself a Pakistani to and he was proud of his heritage. I was not surprised at his outburst; so many immigrants had said similar things to me over the past few years.

Was I really ashamed of my Indian roots and was I covering up for it by saying I was British? I began wondering if it was true. When I came to live in the UK nearly a quarter of a century ago, I was sometimes embarrassed about Indian mannerisms which seemed out of place in genteel Britain; the fact that I too had several of those attributes, never occurred to me - it was always the others! Over the years, as I assimilated into the British way of life, my embarrassment at the ways of some Asians, gave way to an admiration of many things British and I began to love the quintessential British way of life.

But the point still remains: who am I? I was born and brought up in India, the son of an army officer who had fought in Burma with the Allied Forces. I was educated in Irish Christian Brothers’ schools. They taught me all I know and I am clear in my mind that I owe whatever little I have achieved, to dedicated Christian Missionaries who stayed in India, away from their families to spread good education amongst us. Till the age of 15, I used to go to a Gurudwara (Sikh temple) and recite the Lord’s prayers because I did not know a Sikh prayer. Yet, it made me a better Sikh that I would otherwise have done. The Missionaries did not teach Christianity; they taught good values. For that I remain truly grateful.

Coming to the UK in my 20s, I began swiftly to realise why there was a ‘Great’ prefixing Britain. Where I had been fed stories of racism by other Asians, I saw only acceptance and tolerance of my very ‘different’ ways. I was brown, bearded and turbaned, not to mention my strange accent, but it made no difference to my ability to find jobs. It did not mean that I got every job; my physical attributes and accent were however, not at issue.

It was nearly ten years after I was eligible to get a British passport did I apply for one. I wanted to be sure that it was not a passport of convenience. I would only get one, I thought, if I was ready to die for this country; twelve years ago, I decided I was. A fascinating discovery awaited me. All these years I was here, I had enjoyed the same rights as a British citizen, save the visa-free travel in Europe. I was astounded. I cannot think of another country where I could have voted as a foreign citizen; certainly not in India where I am disenfranchised having taken a British passport!

So what is it that prevents so many especially, though not exclusively, Asian people from becoming British, rather that jus being British Passport holders? The colour of their skin means that immediately they are identified by ethnic Brits as not being ‘one of them’. To that extent the white Jews have it easier. Immigrants from South Asia are still relatively new compared with those from Europe, therefore, a significant proportion still speak English in accents of their country of birth. So not only do they look different, they also speak different. This is enough to set them apart.

But probably the most important difference is religion and most importantly, the part that religion plays in their lives. Whilst Christians and Jews in the UK, have managed to keep their religion whilst being culturally British, some belonging to predominantly South Asian religions have not been as successful. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs (amongst others) have cultures and religions so intertwined that they are unable to tell one from the other.

In particular, it seems that Muslims not only face a conflict of their religion with the culture of Britain, but they also face a conflict of loyalty with their adopted homeland. Their highest calling seems to be their religion, not country. Also perhaps more than others, they have difficulty with debates which may challenge any aspect of Islam. Criticism and parody are both no go areas. Contrast this with Christians in the UK. Those familiar with the programme Spitting Image in the 1980s will remember an episode where Christ was shown as an unemployed drunken lay-about. By all yardsticks, that was offensive to all Christians. The response: ITV put out a statement “40 people called to complain about this programme. We would like to say that we did not mean to offend”. It went on to air a similar programme the following week. In the British way, displeasure was registered by calling and writing in and in the British way, it was accepted by all that journalistic freedoms were important. Contrast this with some of the protests in recent years when those from other religions have felt aggrieved at press reporting and we begin to understand the part that culture plays.

It is the strength of the Western (not just British) culture that it can withstand such attacks. This is because, the attacks are non-violent and the response similarly so. Their ability to withstand such attacks gives these religions the stature of mighty oaks in a storm. Gandhi and Martin Luther King showed us that that violence is not essential to the achievement of goals, nor is coercion the tool of choice.

Returning to my identity, I realised that not only do I consider myself British, but I do not find it to be a conflict with my religion or indeed my Indian roots. If anything, it gives me an extra string to my bow with the added richness of the British culture. I came here of my own free will and having sought membership of Club Britain, it is only right that, once admitted, I follow the rules of Club Britain - I am better for it. So Mr Amjad Khan, I would just like to say “ I am not ashamed of my Indian roots – I am however, very proud to be British”.

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