Oldham, Burnley, Bradford and Leeds are less than three hours’ drive from the unassuming city of Leicester in the East Midlands, but that physical proximity conceals a vast social distance. Since April this year, these towns have become symbols of race trouble in Britain, prompting fears of riots spreading elsewhere and also reminding many of the high tide of racism of the early 1970s. But Leicester, with the highest population percentage of non-whites in Britain and projected to soon become the first European city with a non-white majority, presents a rare picture of multicultural harmony. Indeed, its picture of ethnic co-existence has become the subject of study for many European cities with ethnically diverse populations. Until recently, Leicester was known as the home of the Attenborough brothers (Richard and David), Gary Lineker the footballer, Thomas Cook (who took the first group of tourists from Leicester to Loughborough in 1841). It was also known for its university and traditional manufacturing industries. Now, it is held up as an example of how a multicultural society works in the age of globalisation.
Leicester last witnessed. Oldham- like trouble in 1972, when the racist National Front tried to evict the thousands of Asian immigrants who arrived here on being expelled from East Africa, mainly by Uganda’s Idi Amin. Today, Leicester evokes a fierce sense of loyalty among non-whites who do not feel as comfortable or safe anywhere else in Britain. Ethnic diversity appears to be the cornerstone of its harmony. Leicester, as a recent City Council document put it, has “The joy of being a truly diverse society… (with the) potential to become the UK role model for cultural diversity and inclusion.” The city is considered as the birthplace of English language, where warring Anglo-Saxons and Vikings set aside their differences and lived peacefully, sharing their trade and languages. Leicester has also had a long history of prosperity, having been a major commercial centre since Roman times. It attracted people from all over the world, but the massive immigration of Asians of East African origin disturbed the underpinnings of harmony.
In 1972, the City Council, worried that “the entire fabric of our city is at risk” from immigrants, inserted a tersely worded advertisement in a Ugandan daily, warning potential immigrants: “In your own interests and those of your family you should…not come to Leicester”. But come they did, and the 1991 census recorded that ethnic minorities constituted 28.5 percent of Leicester’s population, the highest in any British city. The City Council now expects this figure to go up to 35 percent in the 2001 census. But according to Paul Winstone, “race relations policy officer” of the City Council: “Already 50 percent of school children of five years’ age are non-white, and by 2011 we are talking of a non-white majority. Nowhere has this happened peacefully, and we are proud of what we have achieved in Leicester over the last 30 years. We don’t want anybody to see this as a threat to the English way of life, since the majority will consist of several minorities. Leicester is now a permanently multicultural society. Today the Asians have political power, economic power and cultural discipline. The sky is the limit for them.”
In Britain, some city neighbourhoods have had minority white populations for decades, but unlike the US, there are not yet whole towns or cities in which the ethnic minorities constitute the majority. This explains the wide interest in Leicester’s success in race relations. All the City Council documents are published in Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Urdu besides English. The welcome sign at Leicester railway station too carries all these languages. Says Robert Coils of the University of Leicester: “Good race relations is like good cricket—simple, easy, not trying too hard. It hasn’t been self-conscious; it just crept on us over the last 30 years. Leicester grows in your esteem when you visit American cities divided by racial tensions.”
Leicester has ethnic minority representation at the highest levels: an Asian MP (Keith Vaz), and Asians as the deputy chief of police, chief executive of the City Council, lord mayor and deputy to the lord lieutenant. A third of the councilors are non-white. In 1979, two percent of the City Council employees were from the ethnic minorities. Today the figure is 22 per cent, and growing. Asians own over 3000 small and medium enterprises, accounting for nearly a half of the city’s commercial turnover. These Asian businessmen include at least six millionaires. Leicester is a city relaxed with itself, comfortable with the idea that it has actually overcome the trauma of racial conflict of the 1970s, and has come out the other side. There is little of the edgy energy of Coventry or Birmingham or Manchester. Its city motto is a testament to its unassuming steadiness “Semper Eadem”—Always the Same.
The crucial reason for this success in race relations is the atmosphere of dialogue that was promoted and the very characteristic of the East African immigrants. As Winstone says: “We were lucky we got a commercial class of Gujarati Hindus from East Africa between 1968 and 1975. Their sheer business culture has saved us.” Winstone’s point is that the Gujarati Hindus, as the dominant community, were flexible, hard-working, and trying to fit into the larger society, while preserving their own cultural institutions.
They came with some capital and complete families. They had a sense of commerce, having been businessmen or skilled workers in East Africa. A very different group went to places like Oldham or Bradford, who were mainly rural, poorly educated Muslims, who became unemployable when mills closed down. Leicester, on the other hand, offered jobs in the textile industry, cheap housing, and it did not take long for Gujarati Hindus to accumulate capital. Says Winstone, “In the 1970s, they were treated like dirt, and kept their heads down. But the 1980s saw them striking out on their own. Today they employ whites or have bought the very places where they once worked. For all these reasons, the British National Party never got off the ground here.”
The Asians from east Africa were well practised at blending in. Unlike the mostly Urdu-speaking Muslim population of cities like Bradford, Leicester’s Gujarati and Punjabi population were on the second leg of their long journey from India. They had already developed strategies for integrating, as a minority ethnic culture, into an alien society. Leicester has thus come to be termed a Gujarati city, and the City Council aptly has a “twinning” arrangement with the local government of Rajkot in Gujarat. It is therefore not surprising that Leicester alone contributed 3 million pounds for Gujarat earthquake relief, compared to the British government’s 11 million pounds.
Unlike elsewhere in Britain, there were no incidents in Leicester after the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992. Most Muslims are involved in trade and in partnerships with Hindus. The multi-religious character is evident from the number of religious places in Leicester
Relations between the Hindu and Muslim communities are less tense than in the Indian Subcontinent, and this has prompted Professor Richard Bonney, director of the Centre for the History of Religious and Political Pluralism, University of Leicester, to propose an Institute for the Study of Indo-Pakistan Relations in Leicester. Bonney says, “Here Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs get on together pretty well and many of them are successful in business. Good community relations are good for business.”
Belgrave Road is a prime example of the power of Asian business. It was a derelict district when the Gujarati Hindus arrived, but has since been turned into a throbbing commercial centre, showcasing the latest in Indian food, music and fashion. A branch of the Bank of India reinforces the dominant Indian presence. The City Council has several plans for the Road, called the “Golden Mile”, including promoting ethnic tourism. Leicester has two Asian radio stations, is the headquarters of the BBC Asian Network and Sabras, while Midlands Asian TV (MATV) has become Britain’s first Asian terrestrial channel. Three cinema halls show Bonywood films exclusively.
The City Council’s positive ap7 proach has been crucial in assimilating the ethnic minorities over the years. In the 1980s, every ethnic group was given large amounts of, money for cultural activities. Winstone admits it amounted to bribery, but says that those days are now gone, with the community being encouraged to help themselves. “But we do take care of major projects like lighting during Diwali, swimming pool, etc,” says Winstone. According to Laksmi Datta of Shama Women’s Centre, a local voluntary organisation:
“The City Council has been very cooperative. They have funded our centre for the past 15 years, which has enabled us to provide vital educational, social and leisure services to ethnic minority communities”.
Prabin Hazarika, brother of noted singer-musician Bhupen Hazarika, was among those who arrived here from East Africa. He remembers the hostile reception of the immigrants when they arrived. Even those who had been educated in Britain were denied jobs, but later government initiatives helped build bridges with the white population, primarily through the establishment of race bodies. But the immigrants too contributed to this process. As Hazarika says, “We were peace-loving, resilient, wanted to survive and do well. We were aware that to live in a foreign country we have to abide by their rules.” Bonney says a generation has come up reading an inclusive school curriculum. He points out that the younger generation of whites are now used to faiths other than their own, and the teenagers of today have experience of multicultural schooling. Says Bonney, “Today, when we go to parts of England that are white bastions, my daughters are saddened at the absence of anyone from the Indian Subcontinent.” School-going Asians are taken aback when asked about whether they face any racism or problem from white colleagues. Narinder, 15, is out shopping with three white schoolmates, and looks completely blank, even scornful, when asked about racism. He has never experienced any, neither has anyone in his family. Says his friend Roger, “We have grown up with each other. We don’t see each other as Asian or white. Maybe that’s a problem in London, but it isn’t here.”
However, the larger picture of harmony hides smaller ones of ennui among the disadvantaged population who have seen their Asian neighbours grow economically and politically. Winstone says the Afro-Caribbeans often complain of neglect, of having become the underclass. “Not everyone like the Gujarati Hindus is a winner here. The Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are way behind them. It is curious that even though Muslims here are mostly from India, there is some distrust. Of the five gurdwaras in Leicester, two are pro-India, two remain pro- `Khalistan’, whose leaders seem to be living in a time warp. That is why I say that if there is a riot or a clash in Leicester, it will be among the non-whites and not between the whites and Asians or Afro-Caribbeans.”
For now, the picture of harmony promises to hold good. But even the most optimistic are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping that Leicester remains untouched by the fires of Oldham or Burnley.