How Britain Hid Diversity

The UK’s Silent Majority: On the Origin of “British Asians”

In a previous IM—1776 article “How Britain Built Diversity” I explored the myth that has arisen in Britain regarding the origin of its black population. But the current political and cultural obsession with this group makes it easy to forget that people of Afro-Caribbean or Black African descent amount to a tiny proportion of the total population of Britain. We are also hosts to other, larger minority groups, many of which have a much greater impact on public life. The single biggest of these is the awkwardly named “British Asian,” or “South Asian” group.

“British Asian” is a fictional category which accommodates groups that have no desire to be grouped together. Indians in Britain tend to resent the term because it associates them with Pakistanis. And “British Asian” is itself a term adopted to mollify Pakistanis who were unhappy with being referred to by uncomprehending Britons as “Indian”. Most importantly, the term obscures the fact that there is no such thing as a “British Indian” or a “British Pakistani”. Both Pakistan and India are giant multiethnic countries, home to various different tribes, castes, and cultures that sometimes are less related to each other than any two European nations.

South Asians began permanently settling in Britain only after World War II, in two major periods of migration: the one which began in the late 1950s and was largely completed by the 1970s, and the one beginning at the turn of the millennium, which continues to this day. As of the 2021 census, there are well over 4 million people of South Asian origin living in Britain: 1.85 million Indians, 1.59 million Pakistanis, 630,000 Bangladeshis, plus a few hundred thousand Sri Lankans and Burmese: more than double the size of the Caribbean and African diasporas. Yet British Asians have not been nearly as mythologized as West Indians and black Africans, and are much less prominent in British culture.

Based solely on casting, it isn’t uncommon for foreigners watching British TV to conclude that a third to a half of the British population is black. In contrast, South Asians are conspicuous in their rarity. Partly this is because South Asian cultures are much more alien to British sensibilities. But it’s not the only reason. South Asians have also less interest in being part of the “national conversation” as a default stance.

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As with African and Caribbean immigrants, the majority of British Asians came largely to advance their economic positions. Two exceptional cohorts are the roughly 18,000 Indian and Pakistani doctors invited to Britain in 1963 by local hospital boards, which contributed to the origin of the modern folk belief that immigration was vital for the survival of the NHS, and the “African Asians” group, around 20,000 of whom applied for British citizenship and settled in the country as refugees of the ’60s/’70s “Africanisation” policies and expulsions in former British colonies of Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Despite India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh’s internal diversity, their diaspora communities in the United Kingdom are surprisingly monolithic. Of the roughly 1.85 million Indians living in Britain today, around 800,000, or 45%, are Gujarati, specifically Gujarati of the Kutchi ethnic group. A smaller percentage belongs to the related Memnon and an even smaller number to the Parsi, Zoroastrian descendants of Persians displaced by the Arab conquests of Iran.

Gujaratis were the most likely Indian group to be found in the service of the British Empire in its other colonies (and constituted the bulk of the African Asians who came to Britain in the ’70s). Today they are the largest single ethnic minority in Britain, and among the most successful, thanks no doubt to the long mercantile and industrial histories of their principal subgroups.

The second largest group (around 40-45% of British Indians) are Punjabis. Unlike the Gujarati community, which is confined mostly to West London and Leicester (with smaller populations in the North), Punjabi Indians (and Pakistanis) are spread throughout the capital and across both the North and the Midlands. 

The Punjabi diaspora in Britain originates from a large number of different tribes and castes, although most Indian Punjabis in Britain are Sikhs. Because of their wider dispersal, their culture has become much more visible to the population at large. Many things considered axiomatically “Indian” in Britain, including the most popular dishes in Indian cuisine and the most recognizable genres of Indian music, are Punjabi in origin, as is the current British Prime Minister.

For British Pakistanis, the story is similar: around a quarter to a third of Pakistanis living in Britain are of Punjabi Muslim origin. But the lion’s share by far (as much as 75% by some estimates) originates not just from a single region, but from a single urban district, namely Mirpur in Azad Kashmir. In many towns in the North and the Midlands, almost the entire Pakistani population is derived from this region.

This trend reaches its extreme in the Bangladeshi community. Virtually all British residents of Bangladeshi origin can trace their ancestry to the Sylhet Division in the country’s northeast. The Bangladeshi – more properly Sylheti – diaspora in the UK is heavily concentrated in the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Newham, Redbridge, Barking, Dagenham, and Camden, to the extent that British Bangladeshis are known by their non-expatriate kinsmen as “Londoni”. There are also smaller communities in Birmingham, Oldham, and Luton.

All these groups – together with several smaller counterparts, such as the large Goan community in Swindon – arrived in Britain as the result of chain migration. This pattern is particularly important in the Mirpuri Pakistani community and the Sylheti Bangladeshi community. 

For the Mirpuri diaspora, large-scale migration did not begin until the later 1960s, with the construction of the Mangla Dam. Around 110,000 people in 280 settlements were displaced by this project, and as part of an agreement with the Pakistani government, the British firm awarded the contract to construct the dam arranged work permits for a small number of the displaced. 

Initially, only around 5,000 workers made the trip to Britain. However, in short order, many had used government compensation and still-relaxed British immigration laws to support the relocation of their extended families. As of today, there are around three-quarters of a million people of Mirpuri descent living in Britain. Mirpur itself is home to over 100,000 Pakistanis born in Britain, and is locally referred to as “Little England”.

Anti-immigration protest in London, 1973

Contra fashionable pieties, there can be no realistic expectation that these groups will “integrate” with the indigenous population. Indeed, the latest census data for England and Wales makes clear that areas of towns and cities with large immigrant populations tend to be heavily segregated along ethnic lines.

The concept of integration itself only persists thanks to a highly antiquated notion of the nature of travel. In a world where high-speed internet is ubiquitous and international airlines can deposit an individual on the other side of the world in just 24 hours, for the cost of two weeks’ worth of groceries, immigration is trivial. Especially when large extended family networks will pool the cost of transport and housing. 

Furthermore, South Asian communities are highly homogenous groups created by chain migration of extended families and in some cases entire villages. They maintain close links to their compatriots in their country of origin. It is not at all uncommon for South Asians living in Britain to send their children to school “back home”, or to visit or live there for extended periods. Remittances from British Asians to their compatriots have been historically responsible for a number of economic booms in their regions of origin. It is also common – especially in the Bangladeshi and Pakistani diasporas – for marriages to be arranged internationally; a pattern which has been the cause of a great deal of angst in British immigration law.

Beyond “integration”, the patterns of migration from all three of these countries – but most importantly Pakistan and Bangladesh – complicate the main economic and social arguments usually offered for immigration to western countries. Economists still tend to insist that immigration is always an economic net positive regardless of region. This view can only be maintained if one considers the size of the economy to be the purest metric of that economy’s robustness while discounting productivity, spending power, and quality of life.

One crucial point that economic defenders of immigration consistently fail to acknowledge is that immigrants also get old. They also frequently bring dependents with them who contribute less economically. As recent research from Denmark shows, even the most productive class of immigrants only ceases to be a net drain on their host country after three generations. Among British Asians: only 58% of people ages 16-64 of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin in Britain are employed, lagging behind other ethnic groups.

With respect to healthcare, we must seriously consider the impact of generations of consanguineous marriage in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. Around half of all marriages in the Pakistani community in Britain are between first cousins. In the Bangladeshi community, the practice is believed to be less common, but also widespread. 

Children born to Pakistani mothers in Britain are 38 times as likely to be born stillborn or to die within their first year of life. They are also 2-3 times more likely to be born with complex multiple disabilities. These factors mean that these communities place outsized pressure on the healthcare system by their very nature. This leads to a perverse irony in which, in many areas of the country (particularly in the Midlands and North East), the only way the NHS can provide necessary care to the immigrant population is by importing even greater numbers of immigrant staff.

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As India and Pakistan themselves show, communities of different ethnicities and cultures living in close proximity often exist in an atmosphere of widespread distrust, exploitation, and low-level civil unrest. This can take the form of long-running abuses (as characterized by the so-called “grooming gang” scandal, which took place within the context of a larger network of co-conspirators). It can take the form of flashpoints of communal violence (as recently witnessed in the conflicts between Indians and Pakistanis in Leicester). And it can also produce more situational and bizarre cases such as that of Shamima Begum, whose tight-knit Tower Hamlets Bangladeshi community’s pleas of ignorance stretch credulity to the breaking point.

The absurdity of the notion that “integration” is possible has always been apparent to anyone familiar with the nature of these diaspora communities. MP Norman Panned had already articulated the basic problem in Parliament as early as the 1960s: 

“They come from countries with ancient civilisations, are proud of their heritage, are devoted to their religions, have no desire to lose their identity and have no wish to be absorbed by the people of this country, even if there were any desire on our part to absorb them, of which there is no evidence… Most of them get jobs and, being of frugal habits, they save money and eventually bring their relatives from India or Pakistan. They congregate in certain quarters of our cities — like attracts like — and soon they come to dominate those quarters. The indigenous inhabitants retreat before the flood.”

Panned’s words were a description of a phenomenon already clear to anyone who cared to look. Although at the time this speech was given mass migration was confined to Southall and parts of Birmingham, the pattern was already clear. Sixty years later, British people are a minority population in three major British cities: London, Birmingham, and Leicester, as well as in many smaller towns like Luton and Slough.

The state’s unwillingness and incapacity to address these issues is by this point obvious, even if shocking. But what should shock us more is that the state – to say nothing of the public at large – appears to have no real capacity to understand these issues at all. Almost nothing about the complexity of this situation is grasped by the public at large, and everyone seems content to let it remain this way.

In the absence of integration, we are forced to contend with the specter of “multiculturalism”, the increasingly desperate insistence that people should try to live together despite the qualities that obviously separate us.

Read also: How Britain Built Diversity

Lin Manuel is a writer from the U.K.


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