Dhirubhai and Shanti bhen (not their real names) are elderly Hindus from Gujarat, settled in Coventry, who to this day remember with deep fondness and affection their close friendship with my (Muslim) parents who came to England from the same part of India in the late 1950's. Dhirubhai still holds back tears at the memory of the youthful early years spent befriending my father and mother - both of whom had died by 1970. My own memories of growing up in Coventry are of close school friends with names like Rakesh,Sudhir, Parveen, Balraj, Baldev, Sunil, Jagjit, Deep and so it went on... reflecting some of the diversity of India's cultures, religions, regions and languages of India.
So it with deep sadness then that I came across a letter printed in 'The Times' on 5th March 2015 "Sexual grooming and the culture of denial" with signatories including the Network of Sikh Organisations and Anil Bhanot, of the Hindu Council (UK), someone who leads the once respected Ethnic Minority Foundation.
Their letter to 'The Times' is a dangerously ill judged. It starts from a perfectly reasonable place; posing hard questions about the serious nature of child sexual grooming but then moves quickly to cast insult and aspersions on whole groups of people (notably Muslim men of Pakistani heritage). For the avoidance of doubt and suggestions that I too am in denial, let me say that there is clearly an identified problem with child sexual abuse in this country. A problem so serious, the Home Secretary has asked for a judge lead public enquiry; probing historic allegations that reach far beyond the actions of groups of just Pakistani men. Its scope touches the highest levels of the British political establishment apparently, of course some well known celebrities, the Catholic Church, private and state schools, the BBC and even places where children are meant to be kept safe such as care homes and hospitals.
By acting in concert, prominent figures from a few national Hindu and Sikh organisations in the UK have made a crude and dangerous extension to make the grooming and abuse of young children, a matter particular to one faith or ethnic group. This is palpably not the case, and by doing so they are parting away from a long held consensus that to this day in this country, we have more in common as Asians who originated from the Indian sub-continent than any one thing that may separate us. This shared sense of belonging has deep roots, and has given us common cause in promoting generally good race and community relations across all communities since the day we arrive en masse. It is characterised in the positive friendships and experiences we largely enjoy and whilst international political realities and the actions of violent extremists may challenge our beliefs and core values from time to time, their behaviour by its very nature represents nobody but the actions of a few. History has taught us time and again in our quest to fight injustice, that united we stand.
Whether Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, Asian communities in the UK and their national organisations have proven resilient over decades against the forces of division that are more akin to Indian sub continent communal politics and loyalties. India was founded on principles of pluralism and diversity; principles lauded by the likes of Nehru and Gandhi and which we should cherish today. It seems our forebears as first generation immigrants were more resilient than we are at resisting this nasty, tragic legacy of empire. It has no place within the ideals and values of modern life in either India or Britain.
I therefore appeal with a very heavy heart to the Hindu and Sikh representatives behind the letter to The Times, and ask that they resist the temptation of pointing fingers at an entire faith or community (of Muslims and Pakistanis) especially around the touchy subject of treating women badly. It is the wrong bandwagon and the wrong target. As a man of Indian heritage I need look no further than to India itself to understand how misogyny and violence against women has oppressed and brutalised them; its perpetrators are mainly Hindu and its victims too, but there it stops. We know India is a country where more remains to be done to promote women's rights and protect women from being abused. Yet it would be completely inappropriate, indeed absurd to suggest, as has happened recently at Leipzig University in Germany, where an Indian male student was apparently rejected for an internship on the basis of a gross generalisation about entire Indian society and Indian men in particular, by one professor. She has since apologised.
So it is the case in the generalisations and inferences drawn by the prominent leaders of Sikh and Hindu organisations in the UK on the matter of sexual exploitation of young girls.
Our journey as immigrants who came from the Indian sub-continent to Britain is defined by many things; kinship, shared cultures, languages, music, food and yes, hard fought battles against racial discrimination and fights for justice in this country. Let us not forget the ties that bind us together. Here we are, in a country that places tolerance and diversity at the forefront of its conversation about what defines modern "British" values and so, we must stand united when these are challenged across all faith groups and ethnic identities. We must resist the steady march towards the end of tolerance and diversity, certainly towards Muslims, who as a group, appear to be today's fair game for casual insult or worse, a spreading group think that fuels islamophobia.
It is a time instead to pause and reflect. For the sake of our children, we need to rediscover some old virtues that our parents came to this country with. Their attitudes and affection brought and keep Dhiru bhai and Shanti bhen close to my family's hearts. We must instead set a better example for future generations surely, not by building divisions amongst us, but by coming together. Instead of writing such letters I say respectfully to Mr. Bhanot in particular, turn your attention to giving stronger leadership at the other national charity of which you are Chairman. The Ethnic Minority Foundation has "..building a cohesive society.." in its mission statement. Presumably this includes British Muslims too?