Sanskriti – Retrieving Lost Pride

Salvinder Dhillon, continues reflecting on his experiences as an immigrant in the UK and his encounters with historical prejudices.

(See the last issue for the first part of these recollections)

Salvinder Dhillon, continues reflecting on his experiences as an immigrant in the UK and his encounters with historical prejudices.

(See the last issue for the first part of these recollections)

Despite the pressure to be wary of communists I decided to attend the meeting organised by the Indian Progressive Study Group. The meeting called ‘Colonialism and Imperialism the cause of famines in India’ was held in London in 1970. For a person yearning to find the answers to poverty in my motherland it was an eye opener. Hardial Bains was the main speaker. He gave a detailed account of how India was colonized, the uprooting of traditional agriculture and industry, the creation of collaborative propertied classes to establish agriculture and industry serving the colonial interests. He pointed out that India had faced only 50 famines from the 11th century to the 18th century compared to Europe suffering from 200 famines in the same period. However famines had become a common feature as a result of colonial destruction of the old village system. The myth that India was always a backward poor country began to erode as new facts began to counter my indoctrination in history in my schooling in Britain.

The speech was followed by open discussions with opportunity to exchange opinions and ask questions. Skepticism at this new perspective of history began to give way to acceptance as the facts began to replace previous teachings.

Gradually a sense of lost pride began to emerge in my mind. It was like taking a fresh breath of air. I began to feel that being an Indian was not necessarily something to be ashamed of. My motherland had a proud tradition and history. This new learning stood in contrast to what I had been taught in the British school system. In place of an inferiority complex a sense of pride grew. Previously, racist remarks that we were from a country of beggars and should ‘go back’ would be very hurtful; now I felt I could hold my head high and counter racist taunting with pride and dignity.

This new beginning aroused a passion for knowledge in understanding real history and the proud struggles for freedom from oppression of my own people as well as those from other countries. I began to attend more meetings and study literature from progressive organizations.

This new found pride served me well in dealing with situations of racial abuse and countering the Eurocentric teaching of history to our generation abroad. It was during my postgraduate studies, in the summer vacation of 1974, that I realized how people of other colonised countries could make racist remarks without understanding their own history. I was working at an electronics company in a small town near Southampton. I was the only non-white person working there. I stood in a queue in the canteen during the lunch break, when suddenly a lady behind me made racist remarks.

"Why don’t you go back to your country, you black wog", along with other abusive comments. I was shocked and horrified but remained composed. Normally I would have replied angrily and put a stop to racist abuse straightaway. On this occasion I realized from the accent that the lady was of Irish origin and decided to remain calm. I replied with dignity and confidence. "Madam, I sense an Irish accent, I would like you to join me for coffee and I will be happy to share my reasons for being here and you will find we have a lot more in common than you may think."

She grunted a bit but allowed me to sit on her table and start a conversation.

I started by making comparisons of Irish colonial history and Indian colonial history.

It took a number of lunch breaks to complete the comparisons. Reluctantly she gave me the time to exchange information and views and often expressed skepticism

Gradually she began to accept the view that we had a common history and her racist opinions were largely due to not being aware of history in the manner we had discussed. She had been led to believe that she was British and I was an immigrant threatening her livelihood.

I went on to add that we were both working for a living and our lack of unity helps the owners of companies. By fighting with each other, we cannot succeed in efforts to improve our work conditions and ensure security of livelihood.

A person who was initially hostile gradually became a friend. Like me earlier, she was a victim of a Eurocentric perspective of history. I also discussed the patriotic Irish struggles for freedom from colonial rule. I began to sense that her pride began to grow.

The importance of knowing one’s own history from a factual perspective cannot be underestimated. Three years ago I was given an opportunity to take a history class in a school in Acton, London. More than half of the pupils were of South Asian origin. The subject was the history of Clive of India. I quickly browsed through the chapter in the history text book. I was angered to find that the murderer and tyrant Robert Clive was portrayed as a capable administrator and a hero. I instructed the students to close their book for 20 minutes and gave my account of the history of Robert Clive and the role he played in the conquest and colonization of India. I then asked the students to read the text book version of history and draw their own conclusions. Most of the students portrayed Robert Clive as a butcher and tyrant. They wrote their conclusions in their note books.

The following week the history teacher called me up to complain that I had deviated from the text book. I was a lecturer in IT and not a history teacher. I replied that even being a lecturer in IT, I knew more factual history than he did. I asked him to elaborate what was incorrect in my account. He could not provide convincing arguments. I finished by saying that I was fortunate I knew my history from my own findings. What of the poor pupils being taught false accounts of history from school text books without questioning the validity of the facts being taught?

These children are our future, what kind of future are we creating?

It is our duty to seek the facts and I am proud of what I did.

I asked the history teacher to do likewise.

Salvinder Dhillon is a UK based teacher and a rights activist

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