And do you live in London, sir?” the woman behind the ticket booth asked.
“Yes, he does, he lives in London,” the older daughter piped up, lying.
“Here are your tickets then, sir,” replied the woman.
After paying for Orwell’s 1984—the play’s worth every penny—I asked the woman, trying to keep my voice from rising to a pitch, but anxious nonetheless to gauge the racial mood in the backdrop of Brexit, “And what if I did not live in London? Would it matter to you? Would it?”
“Not the slightest, love,” she smiled back. “You’re just another colour in the pie chart. We just read from a script you know.”
“Just another colour in the pie chart…” the daughter laughed. “Love it. Must use it in the book or a headline or something.”
I calmed instantly. Nothing’s changed in my adopted city, I thought: Leicester Square, smiling on a sunny bank holiday, just as I left you. And she must be Labour.
But the colours of the pie chart are changing, bringing new fault lines in London’s and England’s social make-up, new dangers of friction as the nation negotiates its departure from the European Union.
While I was in the UK visiting the daughters, news broke that Indians have been beaten to second place in the ranks of foreign-born ethnic minorities in the UK. We have been beaten by the Poles, who now make up the largest foreign-born community in the UK, according to the independent Office of National Statistics.
They’ve beaten us by a handsome margin, too. There were 831,000 Polish-born people living in Britain at the end of 2015, compared with 795,000 Indian-born residents out of a total of 8.6 million foreign-born people in the UK.
This, however, does not mean that there are more Poles than Indians in the UK—far from it. Ethnic Indians in the UK (the total number may be around 1.7 million) today mostly are UK-born, a thriving second- and third-generation of predominantly Gujarati- and Punjabi-speaking immigrants.
But what a strange time to break the news—just when right-wing Brexit fanatics, having won the referendum, are lining up to show Europeans the way to the door.
I’d written, with optimism, about how Indians in the UK were not likely to vote for Brexit. We are assimilationists and traders, I wrote, leaving was not in our interest. Turns out I may have been wrong. Turns out a lot of Indians, especially middle-class, second-generation Indians, don’t like Europeans much. It’s all anecdotal, of course, but everybody knows an Indian who thinks the very idea of Europe is nonsense and EU a non-starter. I, too, know some.
Who knows how large this voting community would turn out to be if you totted them all up. That study will be done, I’m sure. But there were some pointers already in the run-up to the 23 June leave or remain referendum. While polls did show that ethnic minorities were for remaining in the EU, they also revealed that ethnic minorities were less likely to turn out to vote than Whites.
Already, in 2015, Indians polled in a survey emerged as the ethnic minority community most likely to vote leave—around 27% and the second behind whites (41%). In the year to the vote, the ranks of Brexiters would have swollen.
However, Indians were not entirely sure they’d turn out to vote—some 56% said they would, compared with around 80% of whites—so, the evidence isn’t all that clear. If one goes by the narrative of the 2015 general election, whose surprise outcome (a Tory win) has been put down by some to the Indian vote, then, perhaps, the same was true of the EU referendum: it’s the Indian that won it?
This Indocentric view misses the larger picture and feeds a narrative of multiple prejudices that you find among Indians not only in India but also abroad—widespread prejudices of gender, caste, religion and race.
The larger picture, beyond one of misplaced notions of self-preservation and promotion, is this: just as Indian immigration has immeasurably enriched life in the UK, so, too, has Polish migration. The external factors may have changed: Indian immigration was absorbed, firstly as labour and then in small business, when Britain was growing or needed labour. Just like the Indians, who were made to feel unwelcome by a minority of racists, Poles who began emigrating in an uncertain climate, too, suffer appalling racism despite making valuable contributions to the British economy.
On the night of 27 August, Arkadiusz Jozwik, a 39-year-old Polish man, went out with two friends to a pizza takeaway in the town of Harlow, around 50km from London. In the course of an argument with a group of teenagers, Jozwik received a single punch to his head, causing him to fall with his head hitting the ground. Jozwik died two days later as a result of that punch that police say was a hate crime.
The kind of statistics that parts of the British media like to play up stoke the fire: more than 40,000 Poles arrived in the UK between 2014 and 2015, we are told. Nearly one in 10 foreign-born people in the UK is now a Pole.
Early in September, hundreds of people marched in silence through the town of Harlow, just as the Marathas have been marching in towns across Maharashtra to protest against the rape and killing of a Maratha girl in July.
But unlike the marches in Maharashtra, which are aimed at highlighting alleged caste differences, the marchers in Harlow were joined by anti-racists and common folk from other towns and cities, even Edinburgh in Scotland.
That pie chart the ticket booth lady was talking about—it needs colouring.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1