The theme of South Asian Heritage Month 2023 is ‘Stories to Tell’. I’d like to share a personal story of what South Asian Heritage means to me, as an activist and co-operator.
Thanks to my maternal grandparents, I grew up with an awareness of politics and society, and a strong sense of ethics and social & civic responsibility. My grandfather was an activist involved in the Indian Independence movement, had a degree in Politics, and worked as a journalist. My grandmother read Law in the early 1930s, a time when very few women went to university at all.
When he was 15 years old, my grandfather was arrested for protesting against the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre at Amritsar. The British colonial authorities arrested so many people that they could not build prisons fast enough. In the ensuing chaos, my grandfather escaped. In Singapore in the 1920s, he met up with other Indian so-called “seditionists” in exile, and joined the recently formed Indian Independence League (IIL). In the late 1920s, my grandfather moved out of British jurisdiction to Manila. During WWII, he was Chief of Propaganda for the IIL, which, along with the Indian National Army, was then led by Subhas Chandra Bose. In 1947, my grandfather travelled to New Delhi to present Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with the flag of Free India that had flown in the IIL’s Manila office throughout the Second World War.
There’s a photo of my mother’s family that illustrates how politics in India and Pakistan differ from Britain. My Auntie Evelyn, after whom I was named, is in the centre. It was her 13th birthday party. On the wall in the background are two portraits, one of Jawaharlal Nehru and one of Subhas Chandra Bose, dressed in his Indian National Army uniform.
Nehru was committed to socialism – he was even friendly with the Communist Soviet Union – and he fought hard to get the word ‘socialist’ included in the preamble to the new Constitution of India. The word would not finally be included until years later, when Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. What Nehru did get as a concession at the time, was that co-operation was written into the Indian Constitution. I think India remains unique in the world in this respect; all agriculture (by far the largest industry then), for example, was organised on a co-operative business model. Co-operation was woven into the fabric of village life in India.
In contrast to Nehru, Chandra Bose kept bad company, to put it politely, with the Fascist end of the Right-wing. But to my grandparents, Left and Right were not so significant. My grandfather saw both Nehru and Bose as nationalists and patriots, engaged in the same struggle to achieve freedom from colonial rule.
In around 1958, my Auntie Evelyn was offered a scholarship at the University of Leeds. At that stage, my grandfather had pretty much forgiven various British governments’ attempts to have him hanged, and was busy planning a move to the West Riding. Auntie Evelyn, however, was tragically killed in a car crash, all my grandparents’ plans went into disarray, and my family was diverted, immigration-wise, to the USA and Canada.
At his inaugural speech in 2005, Imran Khan joked that he thought he would, after Harold Wilson, be the next Bradford Chancellor to become Prime Minister. After serving as Chancellor for nine years, he stepped down in 2014. On 18 August 2018, he was sworn in as the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan.
In that same speech in 2005, he said something that resonated with me years later when I was elected as a Director of one of the large co-op retail societies, the Midcounties Co-operative. He told the Bradford graduates:
“Making money, seeking material well-being is fine, but always make money for a higher objective. Never make money your objective.”
For me, Imran Khan’s wise words sum up the co-operative business model, and everything I do today as a co-operator. A co-op is not State-owned or publicly funded, nor is it a charity; what we do has to generate a profit in order to be sustainable and for our workers to be paid a living wage. There’s no dignity in charity. When we say a co-op is ‘not-for-profit’, that means what we do is not driven by pursuit of profit for its own sake. What we do is driven by a commitment to achieving social and economic justice in our community.
As a grown-up I recognised that the values in life and politics that mattered to my grandparents, and that matter to me, are the values of Co-operation: Caring for others; Democracy; Equality; Equity; Honesty; Openness; Self-help; Self responsibility; Social responsibility; and Solidarity.