It was an evening in May 1978. A 25 year old Bangladeshi man was walking his way to the bus stop after finishing work as a textile factory worker in Brick Lane, East London. He was chased along Brick Lane by three young racist thugs and was stabbed to death near Aldgate Tube Station. His name was Alta Ali. He did not die in vain.
The earliest records of people arriving in Britain from the region of what is now Bangladesh is 1873, as cooks and porters on ships of the East India Company. Author Caroline Adams records a curious incident in 1925 when a lost Bengali man asked a police officer where he could find other Bengali settlers in London. He received a reply, which would be by today’s standards, thoroughly racist and disgraceful.
However, until the end of the 2nd World War there could not have been more than a few thousand Bengali men in Britain, mainly working in the restaurant trade. It was in the 1950s and 60s when Britain needed manual workers to rebuild its war-torn economy, a chain migration of Bangladeshi men, mainly from the rural areas of Sylhet, begun. The changes in immigration laws in the 1960s and 70s enabled many to have their families join them in Britain.
It was a difficult period. These men and their families lived on the margins of British society. Their lack of skills and rudimentary level of English, together with widespread racism made their lives in Britain very challenging. There was a growing body of professional Bangladeshis who after completing their higher studies or professional qualifications chose to stay in Britain. But they were too few in numbers and they found it easier to mingle with the British middle classes than their fellow Bangladeshis in Britain.
The vast majority of Bangladeshi immigrants settled in London, particularly in the east end of London. They lived in poor or overcrowded housing conditions and had low income. Their tendencies to send a significant portion of that income back home further reduced their quality of life. They sent their children to school in Britain but nurtured no ambitions for them.
During the 1970s, a new wave of commonwealth immigrants in Britain increased racial tensions in the bigger cities and gave rise to the National Front, a fascist political organization. Bangladeshis, out of all immigrant communities, were seen by the racist elementsas a weak, voiceless and passive community, less likely to retaliate and therefore fair game.Their houses were vandalized, children were spitted on, and they were frequently assaulted to and from work. The institutional racism prevailing at the time meant that the police took no action. This is the context in which Altab Ali gave his life. And then the picture changed.
The murder provoked mass mobilization of the Bengali community in London. Young Bangladeshis were no longer willing to remain passive. Over 7,000 people mostly Bangladeshis marched behind Altab Ali’s coffin from the place where he was killed to Downing Street to demand justice and police protection of the community against the Nation Front and the skinhead thugs. Young Bangladeshis formed youth groups and were able to force the racist groups out of the east end of London. They started asserting themselves and their rights to live peacefully in Britain.
The 1981 national census shows there were just under 65,000 Bangladeshis in Britain. But the figure multiplied rapidly in that decade. Though still remained a deprived community, Bangladeshis started to find their feet in British Society. They worked hard in factories and restaurants, got involved in local politics and begun to aspire a better life for their sons and daughters growing up in the UK. Bangladeshis almost exclusively controlled the Indian restaurant trade in Britain and some Bangladeshis made a small fortune out of that.
In the same decade further help came from a very unexpected source – the Thatcher Government. Bangladeshis generally despised the Thatcher era for its right wing policies, in particular on immigration. However, her government, in much need of working class support, came up with the idea of selling council houses (local government owned properties rented out to poor working class people) to their tenants at a much discounted price. This probably helped Bangladeshis, as we will see later, more than any other communities in Britain (though that certainly was not the intention of the government!). Most Bangladeshis were council tenants, especially in the east end of London, at that time. Not to squander an opportunity to own their own home came naturally to them. Because back in Bangladesh, being of rural background, they had lived in their own homes, even if it was a mud house, it was still their own home. While other communities, especially the working class white British community hesitated as they had been comfortable for generations on social housing, Bangladeshi council tenants’ only concern was raising the initial deposit to change their status from being tenants to owner occupiers. Between the mid1980s and 90s thousands of properties came into the ownership of Bangladeshis, especially in East London.
By 1991 Bangladeshis in Britain numbered just under 200,000 according to the national census that year.This was the decadewhen Bangladeshis started to develop their unique identity: British Bangladeshis. Tony Blair’s mantra: “education, education, education” captured the imagination of the British Bangladeshis. Going to university became the norm for young Bangladeshi boys and girls. Many, after gaining their first degrees, aspired to gain highly competitive professional qualifications. They entered white collar job market in hundreds for the first time.
First forward to 2016, today the community stands at 750,000 strong representing more than 1% of the total population of Britain.It is reliably estimated that by 2021 the number of British Bangladeshis would exceed the 1 million mark.
Only 25 years ago children of Bangladeshi origin were languishing at the bottom, along with the children of Pakistani and Turkish origin, of the league table of school performances of various ethnic groups in Britain. The latest such report published in the Times on 4th April 2016 shows that Bangladeshi children have overtaken the white British children and are occupying the third position from the top in the school league table, only marginally behind the Indian and Chinese children.
This is an unprecedented success story. Today thousands of miles away from their roots Bangladeshis sit in the British Houses of Parliament. They sit in judgment in British courts and tribunals. They grill British politicians and world leaders on prime time television as top journalists.They work as advisors to heavyweight British politicians, as important government scientists and represent British Government as top diplomats abroad. There are hundreds of them teaching a wide range of subjects in British schools and universities. They work as doctors, consultants and surgeons at hundreds of British hospitals. They hold the posts of CEOs in major British companies.
British Bangladeshis are an innovative community. It can truly claim the credit for introducing curry to every kitchen in Britain. The chicken Tikka Masala, now a British national dish, is a unique innovation of British Bangladeshi restauranteurs.
British Bangladeshis are also an entrepreneurial and affluent community. It is no longer unusual to see names of Bangladeshis included in Times yearly top 1000 rich list. The number of British Bangladeshi millionaires now run into tens of thousands, many having made their money in the restaurant trade, but increasingly in other areas of business too. Booming house prices, especially in inner London, turned thousands of Bangladeshis who bought their council houses in the 80s and 90s into property millionaires. Writing about the success of Bangladeshis, the Economist on 21 February 2015 declared: “In Britain Bangladeshis have overtaken Pakistanis.”
While I have carefully avoided mentioning any specific names because there are many, one particular name if not cited this unique success story would be incomplete. That name is of course NadiyaHussain. She alone personifies the British Bangladeshi. The daughter of a Bangladeshi waiter her extraordinary talent not only won the BBC’s the Great British Bake off competition 2015, but her witty one liners and infectious Bangladeshi smile also won the hearts of millions of Britons of all classes and races. The final show was watched by a record 14.5 million viewers. The whole country was mesmerized as she baked the winning Union Jack themed wedding cake wrapped in a Bangladeshi sari. The next day there appeared a consensus among the British media that Nadiya Hussain has done more for the race-relations in Britain than any other person or institution. It did not take long for the Prime Minister David Cameron to declare that he is one of Nadiya Hussain fans, and for her to be invited to bake the Queen’s 90th Birthday Cake.
British Bangladeshis have truly come of age. It is no wonder that the community has been hailed by prominent personalities and heavyweight newspapers as worthy of emulation world over.
The question now is what should Bangladesh make of its resourcefuldiaspora in Britain and indeed similar diasporas in the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia? To discuss this, it is necessary to understand the current trend in world diaspora politics.
On 25/06/2015 the Economist in an article entitled “What Countries Want from Their Diasporas” wrote: “Not so long ago, countries mostly ignored their diasporas. But, now like alumni relation offers, diasporas ministries and departments are popping up around the world.” It explains that governments all over the world now increasingly realising that their citizens living abroad can improve their country’s reputation, increasing tourism, consumption of exports and more. The article also explains, with examples, how these citizens can lobby the countries they live in to pursue the interests of the country of their origin. It also describes how the skills, culture, expertise and new ideas acquired by being embedded in other countries could be used to lead the way in modernisation and prosperity of their ancestral countries.
Indeed, an increasing number of countries have experienced the benefit of recognising that theirdiasporas are an extension of their own population within their own territories. Voting rights for diasporas in the country of their origin is now a common phenomenon. Countries as diverse as France, Italy, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Croatia, Algeria, Angola, Mozambique, Portugal and several others recognise their diasporas as electoralconstituencies with reserved seats in their parliaments. It is well documented that the phenomenal level of foreign investment that China has been enjoying was initiated by the Chinese diaspora in the USA. Professor Zhiqun Zhu of university of Bridgeport, Connecticut, in a recent article narrates the significant impact of diasporas in Chinese political economy due to the country’s relentless wooing of its expatriates, especially in the USA. One of the examples he gives is the crucial part played by Chinese Americans by lobbying their adopted country to grant the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trade status to China during the 1990s. The governments of China, Taiwanand many African countries provide significant incentives to attract scientists and other experts living abroad to return home at least for a short period to share their skills and knowledge. A well-known UN Development Programme now established in some 50 countries (Bangladesh does not appear to be one of them) supports thousands of emigrant nationals with professional expertise to return to their countries of origin and work for a few weeks or months to transfer their skills at no costs to the receiving countries.
It is noteworthy that India, after decades of indifference, has begun wooing its diasporas in the developed world. In 2000 the government of India established a high level committee to study “the problems and difficulties, the hopes and expectations of the overseas Indian Communities”. Since 2003 the Indian government has been hosting yearly gatherings of “global Indians”. In appreciation of the contributions that the diasporas make, the 9th January, the day Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, is celebrated each year as the Non-resident India Day. There have been gradual easing of overseas investment rules both for private sectors and individuals. From a status akin to that of foreigners, Indiandiasporas, since 2015, have been enjoy the status of Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) with significant property, travel and other rights. Many expect that it is now only a matter of time before India decides to amend its Constitution to give its overseas citizens’ rights at par with its home citizens. These steps, though taken hesitantly, have helped Indian economy and its standing abroad enormously. Billions of dollars have been poured into its economy by its diasporas. Many experts now believe that Indian-American lobby in the USA is just as strong as Chinese-American and may even be as strong as Jewish-American lobby.
As regards Bangladesh, it does not appear that there has been any substantial study of its diasporas by the successive governments. It has no cabinet level diasporas ministry or department (the ProbashiKallynMontronaloy of Bangladesh has neither the remit nor the expertise to deal with the diaspora issues). There is no realeffort to connect with diaspora investors or expertise. Many British Bangladeshis have their fingers burnt trying to invest in Bangladesh, yet their feedback has fallen into deaf ears. When the Finance Minister of Bangladesh states that the biggest challenge Bangladesh faces is attracting foreign investment and then wonders what the solution is, he should be respectfully reminded that the Chinese, Taiwanese and many other countries’ experiences show this: a country needs to be able to accommodate its own “foreign” investors first before it can expect other foreign investors to march in. When the Trade Minister of the countrydespairs that Bangladesh would not be able to regain the MFN trade status in America until the Judgement Day, he should be gently reminded that many other countries have not had to wait that long because they successfully utilised their American diaspora to gain expert advice in fulfilling the conditions, and in lobbying their adopted country’s administration.
One particular matter which accentuates Bangladesh’s on goingindifferencetowards itsdiasporas is its proposed Citizenship Act 2016 which received the Cabinet’s approval on 1st February 2016. The Bill severely restricts the citizenship rights of Bangladeshis living abroad and purports to deny citizenships to second and successive generations of Bangladeshis abroad.
These measures are certainly not calculated to woo the Bangladeshis living abroad. While the world tide is firmly in favour of tapping into the diaspora resources to gain competitive edge, the reasons for Bangladeshi policy makers’ decision to jettison its diasporas in the developed world is beyond comprehension. It may be that Bangladesh needs a wake-up call. Who better to make that call than a community which has firmly come of age: British Bangladeshis!
The author, a British Bangladeshi, is a Barrister and a Part-time Tribunal Judge in England. firstname.lastname@example.org