Dazzle at downing, colour at commons

Published: 25 October, 2011 10:34 IST | Amit Roy |

British leaders from across the political spectrum salute the Hindu community as they talk tradition and focus on their contribution at Diwali celebrations

British leaders from across the political spectrum salute the Hindu community as they talk tradition and focus on their contribution at Diwali celebrations

There are about a million Hindus in the United Kingdom (UK) but for much of the year they are so quiet and law abiding that hardly anyone notices their collective presence. They certainly do not lobby governments. Another reason why they attract little attention is that most Hindus get on with their daily jobs and don't define themselves by their religion. An accountant will say he is an accountant, for example, not a Hindu accountant or that he is Hindu unless specifically asked about his religion.

House full: A long queue for the Diwali party at House of Commons as
Oliver Cromwell looks down from his high plinth

The one time in the year, when politicians sit up and recognise the enormous contribution of Hindus is during the festival of Diwali. David Cameron, giving his second Diwali party at 10, Downing Street on October 20, was seen with hands folded, eyes closed in prayer, after he had lit the ceremonial diya. One wonders what Winston Churchill would have made of the scene. He is the wartime leader who had declared he hadn't become His Majesty's First Minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire. In contrast, Cameron showed off his grasp of the Ramayana by comparing Muammar Gaddafi with Ravan because earlier in the day the Libyan leader had been caught by rebels and killed. The British prime minister's quip was perhaps not entirely in good taste given the manner of Gaddafi's bloody execution, "Obviously Diwali being the festival of a triumph of good over evil, and also celebrating the death of a devil, perhaps there's a little resonance in what I'm saying tonight." He praised the "great contribution" Hindus were making to the UK, singling out the ArcelorMittal Orbit designed by Anish Kapoor and funded by Lakshmi Mittal. "I want to share this celebration with you, to celebrate what British Hindus do and the great contribution you make to our country," he said. "And also warn you that in a minute my children will arrive because of all the parties we have in Downing Street, they actually think that Diwali is by far the most exciting because of the lights, because of the colour, because of the flowers, because of the sweet drinks. They've almost converted, so probably tonight could be the key moment."

Hey, even I was there: Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities
and Local Government at the mike

Over at the House of Commons, politicians of all parties had gathered on October 19 to pay their own tributes to British Hindus at a Diwali celebration organised jointly by a number of MPs and the Hindu Forum of Britain. There was a long line of Indians who queued patiently for an hour to go through security checks. The statue of Oliver Cromwell, perched high on a plinth, appeared to be not entirely happy at the sight of so many Indians. The highlight inside was the arrival of the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, who announced, "This is a very, very important event and it has become a very important fixture in the parliamentary calendar."

"We can celebrate the great things represented by the Hindu community," he went on. He had felt Labour was not giving sufficient attention to Hindus which is why, "I changed my party's relationship with the Hindu community. It is so important that we are representative of all parts of the United Kingdom, in the parliamentary representation we have, in the representation of councillors we have."

Labour of love: A Diwali greeting for Yvette Cooper, Labour's shadow
Home Secretary

Miliband, whose parents were refugees from Poland, made a personal point. "I am a second generation immigrant and I know many of the challenges that immigrant communities face. It is so important that in everything we say as politicians that we remember our diversity is our strength economically, culturally and socially and that immigrant communities add an enormous contribution to the life of our country." Unlike Bharat who worshipped his elder brother's kharram (wooden sandals) for 14 years while Ram was sent off to exile, Ed, now 41, successfully challenged his elder brother David, five years his senior, to seize the Labour Party leadership.

Miliband was introduced to the Hindu faithful by Keith Vaz, Labour MP for Leicester East since 1987 and now chairman of the powerful Home Affairs select committee.  He had been one of David Miliband's principal backers during the Labour Party leadership battle last year.

VAZMATAZZ: Keith Vaz(right), Labour MP with Ed Miliband

A Goan Catholic who was born in Aden, Vaz reminded people that this was the 10th year Diwali was being celebrated in the Commons. "These celebrations have become the most important as far as parliaments in the world are concerned," said Vaz. "When we began there were no Diwali celebrations in any other parliament. This was followed by celebrations in the White House and in the French parliament. But we were the first."

As someone who had spent nearly a quarter of a century in the Commons, it gave him great pride "to see the Hindu community play such a vital part in the life of our country". When the Diwali lights were switched on in Leicester a few days ago, "40,000 Indians turned up for that celebration," Vaz said proudly. The city could also boast a new Swaminarayan temple built at a cost of Pound1m. Other Labour politicians who spoke at the function included Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary.

India is a great nation: Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairman,
Conservative Party (just returned from a visit to India)

The Tories were represented by several senior figures, among then Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The minister invited Asians to make greater use of the Palace of Westminster. "I want you to know this is your palace. Do feel it is part of your right and heritage to use this building."

The historic room in which Pickles was speaking overlooked the River Thames. "I wanted to say thank you to the Hindu community," Pickles said. "It is a community that gives a lot to the UK. That we have British Hindus, British Sikhs, British Muslims gives us an enormous advantage over other places in the world for it gives us an introduction to the biggest growing market in the world. That gives us an advantage other European countries don't have. At a time when we are looking at economic difficulties, the fact that British Asians have a commitment to this country is a great asset."

Sombre note: Coptic Christian spokesman in the UK, Bishop Angaelos (left)

There are now several Indians in the House of Lords, among them Baroness (Sandip, commonly called 'Sandi') Verma, who holds a number of government appointments in the upper chamber -- government Whip and "spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, International Development and Equalities and Women's Issues".

"Diwali is about sharing, it is about remembering and more than anything else it is being able to give back," she reminded the gathering. "And the Asian community is particularly good at giving back. While we are celebrating India's successes and celebrating Diwali we have a duty to mankind. The real evil is poverty (and not Ravana)--whilst India is recognised as a booming economy most of us know that more than 70 per cent live below the poverty line."

Another speaker was the chairman of the Conservative Party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Pakistani origin woman who appears to have enjoyed her first trip to India. She was in India in mid-September this year.
"I had my very first experience of India which is clearly the home of Diwali," she remarked. "So much of what Diwali is all about is embodied when you go and visit such a great nation. People say Diwali is a Hindu festival, it is a Sikh festival, it is a Jain festival, I actually say Diwali is an international festival," she declared, to much applause.

She also demanded "real diyas", since naked flames are banned this year on health and safety grounds and small battery operated lights are to be used. Warsi was taken to the Golden Temple in Amritsar and had found it "actually a nation of nations. It is not just a holy place for the Sikh community, it is for people of all backgrounds".

The Indian government does have a policy of hosting MPs from all over the world so that they return with a better understanding of India. Simon Hughes, the deputy leader in the Commons of the Liberal Democratic Party, made a joking reference to posters put up by the State Bank of the India, one of the sponsors of the function. "I notice the event is sponsored by a bank," quipped Hughes, who revealed he was wearing a brand new yellow tie. "The celebration of Diwali is partly to say prayers to Lakshmi to bring wealth and prosperity to the new financial year --Britain needs wealth and prosperity. Open your windows, open your doors, and allow the spirit of Diwali to give us the prosperity. I have to say that if we need to look anywhere for prosperity, look to the Indian and the Hindu community."

A sombre note was struck by a member of the Coptic Christian community, 26 of whose members were killed during clashes in Cairo. "Egypt now faces its own problems," began Bishop Angaelos, of the Coptic Orthodox Church Centre in the UK. "India shows a great example of how people can live together.  We can take a very significant leaf out of India's books, so that we can one day have the very wonderful elements of your community." London sometimes provides a window on the world --in this case, two million Hindus spread in 33 of the 54 countries in Africa. Copies of a very informative book, Hindus in Africa, were gifted to the dignitaries by Muljibhai Pindolia, president Hindu Council of Africa who had flown from Kenya. Now 70, he was born in India, went to Africa at the age of 11 and is now a businessman in Nairobi . He wants to build a better future for Hindus in Africa. They had numbered 250,000 in 1963 in Kenya but this had declined to 70,000. Only South Africa and Mauritius has more Hindus, while Togo has 500. He said the Hindu Council of Africa was set up 12 years ago to convince everyone that Hindus were in Africa not only to make money but also to train and work for benefit of the indigenous population. Pindolia's Diwali message was, "We must be useful to the countries we have adopted. That is in our scriptures. We must change the attitude that we are here only to earn money. This is what we are teaching our young." As the sound of "Om" emanated from the room as Hindus joined in prayer, the lesson from Africa seemed an appropriate one for 30 million Indians scattered across the

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