By now you’ve probably seen Zac Goldsmith’s election material aimed specifically at various South Asian communities in London. The fliers, delivered last week to people’s homes and aimed at British Indians, Tamils, and Sikhs list Goldsmith’s support for controversial Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with his “record of engagement with the Indian community” through celebrating Diwali and “having spent time in Rajasthan, Dehra Dun and Delhi.” They explicitly target Sadiq Khan, his rival in the London mayoral race, for failing to attend an event to welcome Modi to the UK, and for belonging to a party that “SUPPORTS A WEALTH TAX on family jewellery” (caps in the original). A spokesperson for the campaign has confirmed to the Guardian that the fliers were approved for official use
The fliers assume that mainstream campaign promises relating to housing and the environment are of no interest to London’s South Asians. Instead, brown people are targeted with a litany that combines Goldsmith’s support for Modi with a series of South Asian stereotypes and shallow promises. They range from the offensive – our apparent obsession with jewellery and heirlooms, to the downright patronizing – Goldsmith thought it was significant to mention he brought Boris Johnson to celebrate Pongal at Wimbledon Temple. Can you imagine the reaction if Goldsmith went to his constituency of Richmond and asked for their support based on that time he brought Boris Johnson to an Easter lunch? Are these the crumbs of institutional support or government attention with which South Asians are meant to be content?
Even the execution of this flier campaign was clumsy: many Sikh voters were targeted with the “generic” flier for British Indians. They came under fire then for conflating Sikh and Hindu communities; the Sikh-specific flier has also been criticized, in particular for its references to the Golden Temple. As Jasvir Singh put it, “In case you don’t know where the holiest of Sikh shrines is located, it is some 4,000 miles outside of the M25. I don’t believe that the London Mayor’s remit extends that far, but I could be mistaken.”
Most dangerously, the fliers subtly use coded language to emphasise the divide between their targets – British Indian (read: Hindu), Tamil, Sikh – and Goldsmith’s British Pakistani Muslim opponent. Goldsmith mentions that he celebrates Diwali; this information is given to us free of context and without any corresponding information about Khan’s stance on Diwali. The suggestion is that celebrating Diwali is something that separates him from his (Muslim) opponent. Khan has a long history of celebrating Diwali, though, from this 2008 video to these photos from last year actually showing him doing puja with the pandit at Willesden Temple (which is frankly even more than I did for Diwali).
Let’s be clear – the fliers steer decisively away from inclusive terminology like “British South Asian” because they are not aimed at the British South Asian community, of which Khan is most decisively a member. They are aimed at undermining any sense of solidarity different South Asian communities might feel with each other, to draw a line between British Indians and British Pakistanis. They aim to paint Khan as a candidate who has not advocated for British Indian or Sikh causes, and explicitly accuse him of ignoring Tamil causes, although this is not the case.
Goldsmith’s divisive approach to the “ethnic vote” is part of a historical continuum of white leaders taking advantage of religious and ethnic tensions for their own gains, and echoes the tactics of imperial rule in South Asia in its fear-mongering and ethnic categorizing. These categories have their roots in British imperial rule in South Asia, and in British conceptions of “Martial Races” like Sikhs and Pathans, industrious Hindus, and violent Muslims. Targeting Hindus with references to businesses is disturbing because it suggests Goldsmith has not moved on from these colonial categories.
Goldsmith has earlier engaged in other coded attacks on Khan, including calling him “radical”, while Secretary of Defense Michael Fallon has attempted to discredit Khan by linking him with Islamic “extremists”. This despite the fact that Khan, a practicing Muslim, has such liberal politics that he has spoken out against religious radicalization and extremism, voted in favour of gay marriage, taken action against anti-Semitism and – this is real – campaigned vigorously to prevent the closure of a local pub in his Tooting constituency even though he himself does not drink.
What we are seeing here are Islamophobic attacks (both subtle and obvious) on Khan combined with the suggestion that Goldsmith is a safe and neutral alternative as a leader: a model not unlike that deployed by the British establishment during their period of rule in India. As Churchill and other imperialist politicians suggested, the presence of religious conflict in South Asia justified not only policies of force in their ruling, but their very presence in the region as “the impartial rule of Britain”. And frankly, trying to exploit the deep hurt between Indians and Pakistanis, or the deep hurt in the Sikh community over the 1984 storming of the Golden Temple, for your own political gain is tasteless and inappropriate.
The Tory party is not a party that has some special insight or understanding into what it means to be a British South Asian. This is the party whose councillor tweeted about Khan last year saying “Your next London Mayor? You think his corner shop would be open on a Saturday?” (Get it? It’s funny because all brown people run corner shops! Sorry, I mean “family-owned businesses”). This is the party that sent “Go home or face arrest” vans into London boroughs. This is a party that, having targeted minority groups with the “Go home” rhetoric of the National Front, is now targeting us with the tactics of the colonial state. This is the party of which Churchill said in 1931, “One would have thought that if there was one cause in the world which the Conservative party would have hastened to defend, it would be the cause of the British Empire in India.” In the same speech, he said, “Side by side with this Brahmin theocracy and the immense Hindu population…there dwell in India seventy millions of Moslems, a race of far greater physical vigour and fierceness, armed with a religion which lends itself only too readily to war and conquest.” Some people are still playing the same old game of Hindus vs. Muslims in Britain.
I object to the breathtaking arrogance of a white British man who claims he has better ties with the South Asian community than a man who is actually of our community. Zac Goldsmith is every white guy who went to India on his gap year and then corrected me on a point of Indian culture. Zac Goldsmith is every white guy who went for a Diwali party that one time and hasn’t shut up about it since. Perhaps even more dangerously, he has allied himself with Modi’s rightwing government, under which religious, ethnic, and gender minorities are suffering: is this really a quality we want in the Mayor of a multicultural, multi-religious, colourful and diverse city?
Suggesting Sadiq Khan is trying to take our jewellery and Goldsmith will save us from being burgled is a mad attempt to distract us from the actual issues we face regarding migration, discrimination, education, healthcare, and employment. We have to demand real action from the government and from the Mayor; we have to ask for more from a leader than a trip to Dehra Dun and Boris Johnson as a Pongal plus-one.
By making shallow claims and baseless accusations and focusing on ethnic and religious divisions, Goldsmith’s campaign is hoping to gloss over the fact that under the Tory party thousands of British South Asians are doing worse than before, and takes advantage of historical faultlines between Hindu and Muslim communities in Britain in a way that’s nothing short of shameful.
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Danika Parikh is an archaeologist from New Delhi whose research focuses on the Indus Civilisation, urbanism, material culture, technology and social identity. She is currently doing a PhD in archaeology at the University of Cambridge. She is interested in history, food, gender, race, Indian politics, and the South Asian diaspora. You can find her on Twitter @induswaliarch
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