The incredible irony of an Indian MP lamenting racism in Britain

And Ashwini Vaishnav did his, and India’s, cause no favours by picking an unsuitable example to show up the British as racist.

ByJammi N Rao
The incredible irony of an Indian MP lamenting racism in Britain
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On March 15, during Zero Hour in the Rajya Sabha, Ashwini Vaishnav, BJP member from Odisha, spoke about racism in Britain, and how it affected the Indian diaspora. His speech drew a short reply from foreign minister S Jaishankar. No other speech made during the session elicited a ministerial response. Indeed, Jaishankar left soon after replying to his fellow BJP leader.

Vaishnav gave three examples of British racism. One, the sad case of Rashmi Samant. Two, Meghan and Harry’s revelations, in their Oprah Winfrey interview, of racist attitudes in the Royal household. Three, statistics from Public Health England of higher mortality from Covid among the country’s Black and Asian minority ethnic groups, or BAME.

I shall not add to the commentary about Meghan Markle. The health inequalities between White and BAME groups has been the subject of tomes of research and statistical analysis, and the PHE’s report on Covid morbidity and mortality is but the latest.

That Britain is racist is well known and widely acknowledged. I may return to it in another column.

The question I want to explore in this column is why now? Why did the BJP MP choose to raise the subject of British racism now? And was Samant’s experience really the best example of racism affecting the Indian diaspora in Britain today?

It shouldn’t take political genius to join the dots and conclude this was a tit-for-tat intervention in response to highly critical comments that British MPs had made in a debate about India recently. So let me start there.

On March 8, the e-Petitions Committee of Britain’s House of Commons held a debate in response to a public petition that had received around 1,15,000 signatures. The petition called on the British government to urge India “to ensure the safety of protesters and press freedom” in obvious reference to the ongoing farmer protests against the Modi government’s new agriculture laws.

The Indian press covered the debate far more prominently than the British media. You can watch the debate in full, or read the transcript, or even peruse the excellent research summary prepared by parliamentary research staff in the House of Commons Library.

Many MPs who spoke put out tweets drawing attention to their contribution to the parliamentary debate. Prominent among these were Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Virendra Sharma, Stephen Kinnock, and Naz Shah. They referred to recent events in Delhi where protests had been suppressed through violent and draconian measures, journalists beaten and arrested, and internet and basic services like water and sanitation shut down.

References were made to the farmers who had died during the protests, the journalists who had been arrested, the overreaction to a tweet by the American pop music star Rihanna, the arrest of activist Disha Ravi on trumped up charges of sedition, and the campaign to vilify the protesting farmers as supporters of a secessionist Khalistani movement.

British MPs were, of course, speaking up on behalf of their Indian diaspora constituents who had written to them and signed the e-petition. But it cannot be gainsaid that, to an extent, the MPs were playing to the gallery. It was mostly Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs who participated in the debate; Conservative MP Bob Blackman, a BJP supporter, didn’t speak.

The government’s response to the debate was given by Nigel Adams, the junior minister for Asia in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. His language was measured. The UK government, he said, respected India’s democratic processes, acknowledged that the farm laws were an internal matter for India’s parliament, but that freedom to protest peacefully and press freedom were vital for democracy to thrive. He also said the British government valued India as an important and influential partner in matters of global importance. As a trusted friend of India's, the UK government would raise matters such as the freezing of Amnesty International’s bank accounts in India.

India’s foreign ministry summoned the UK high commissioner for a dressing down, officially known as a demarche. The foreign secretary told the envoy that India strongly opposed “the unwarranted and tendentious discussion on agricultural reforms in India”, and viewed it as “gross interference in the politics of another democratic country”.

Clearly that wasn’t enough. The Rajya Sabha MP wanted an opportunity to flay Britain in public, and so Jaishankar was dragged into the frame. If the objective was to embarrass Britain, however, there were better subjects to talk about. Instead, Vaishnav chose to highlight the story of a student from Karnataka at Oxford University.

The story according to the short speech by Vaishnav was this: by dint of hard work Rashmi Samant, 22, gained admission to Oxford University to do an MSc in Energy Systems. She stood for president of the students union and won handsomely with 53 percent of the first preference votes. The Indian media was cock-a-hoop at the “first Indian woman president-elect'' of the prestigious university’s students union.

But a week is a long time even in student politics. Samant stepped down within days of her election, complaining of intolerable social media scrutiny and criticism.

In Vaishnav’s telling of the sorry saga, instead of celebrating the rich diversity of having an Indian woman as president, the British subjected her to racist cyberbullying and attacked her parents' Hindu beliefs.

But what really was the story behind Samant’s ordeal? And was it anti-India and Hinduphobic racism on the part of the university?

According to Samant’s Linkedin page, her campaign material played up her Indian origin. She described herself as “a BAME woman from a former British colony” who, as a consequence, possessed empathy for “struggles faced by marginalised groups”. Her plan was to “campaign for removal of imperialist statues”, “decolonise the syllabus”, encourage the teaching of “diverse scholarly voices”, and “tackle institutional homophobia and transphobia”.

Her environment and sustainability campaign pledges – a university-wide sustainability strategy as well as divestment of all university wealth funds out of fossil fuels – would have earned Greta Thunberg’s respect and Disha Ravi’s envy.

Students love such stuff. Samant was obviously charismatic and persuaded her voters to elect her. Obviously, her Indian origin did not count against her. So what went wrong?

The answer is the long memory of social media combined with the meanness of one’s student peers.

An article on Cherwell, student news magazine of the university, claims that Samant resigned when she was criticised for her controversial social media posts from before she joined Oxford University. They were interpreted as racist, antisemitic, and transphobic. You will have to read the article as well as an interview she gave to the Times of India to judge for yourself whether they were indeed all that her detractors claimed they were. Samant has apologised for them, claiming they were from when she was much younger, did not fully understand the nuance of the language, and that she had since learned, matured, and changed.

What about the allegation of hateful comments having been made about Samant’s parents and their Hindu faith. The only definite evidence I could find is on the Facebook page of the university’s thriving Hindu Society where they categorically call upon a certain Dr Abhijit Sarkar, a postdoctoral History researcher at New College, to apologise to Samant and quit his faculty position for his social media posts attacking her.

Allegedly, one of Sarkar’s posts mentions Samant’s parents and carries a “Hinduphobic caption” claiming “a follower of Sanatan Dharma should not be allowed to become president of the students union”.

But equally, the Hindu Society refutes the allegations in the Indian press that Samant was a victim of racism. Rather they assert that Samant’s old social media posts were “racially insensitive” to East Asian, Jewish and trans communities.

They deny the allegation that calls for Samant’s resignation were rooted in anti-India or anti-Hindu sentiments. They also accuse Indian media of distorting the focus from Samant’s evasion of accountability for her past actions by portraying “the Oxford student community as a brutally intolerant place”, pointing to several other BAME and Indian Hindu women who were elected.

The point of all this is that both the Rajya Sabha MP and the foreign minister clearly had not done their research, so they ended up picking a poor example to show up Britain as a racist society.

So where does this leave the two parliaments?

The foreign ministry clearly overreacted to the parliamentary debate because they felt Britain was interfering in its internal affairs. The MPs who participated in the March 8 debate, many of them of Indian origin, did so because that is what their constituents wanted when they signed the petition. As a sovereign power, India should have maintained a studied silence, and merely noted that the debate did nothing to change the British government’s position on its ties with India.

Instead, by issuing a press release, the Indian government betrayed the fact that some of the critical statements had touched a raw nerve. I predict that Britain will do precisely nothing in response to Vaishnav’s speech and Jaishankar’s response. I don’t expect the Indian envoy in London to be called in for a dressing down.

The irony for Britain is that a week after a debate in which MPs criticised India’s crackdown on protesting farmers, its parliament voted through the second reading of a bill to give police greater powers to stop protests – draconian powers that “would make a dictator blush”. Britain appeared to be taking a leaf out of the Indian method.

The irony for India must be that when the foreign minister stated on the floor of the Rajya Sabha that “we will always champion the fight against racism and other forms of intolerance”, he was talking about racism in Britain and not about the many facets and layers of discrimination, hate and violence, both official and societal, that pervades Indian society, and blights many hundreds of millions of lives.

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