Lord Navnit Dholakia has urged young British Indians to get involved in politics so the expulsions suffered by the community in Uganda, Fiji and elsewhere are not repeated in Britain.
Dholakia acknowledged there was no serious risk of Indians being thrown out of Britain, even in an increasingly racist post-Brexit climate, but said: “Now is the time to instil knowledge of politics – not necessarily party politics – in our young people so that I hope, in time to come, they will be part of the political process in this country.
“Never make the mistake we made in East Africa, never make the mistakes we made in Fiji and other parts of the world,” declared Dholakia, 79, who became a peer in 1979.
“We went there, made our money and settled but ultimately, not being part of the political process, we were thrown out,” added Dholakia.
“We don’t want to see that particular situation in this country,” he said.
Dholakia, the Liberal Democrats deputy leader in the Lords and his party’s former president, was speaking last week at celebrations to mark Cobra Beer founder Lord Karan Bilimoria’s 10 years as a crossbench peer.
The event was organised jointly by Zoroastrian All Party Parliamentary Group, of which Bilimoria and the Labour MP for Harrow West, Gareth Thomas, are co-chairmen, and the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, of which Malcolm Deboo is the president.
The meeting, held last Wednesday in the Commons, also discussed the “contribution of British Indians to the UK parliament since 1892”.
It is estimated that members of the Zoroastrian faith, who fled the Muslims of Persia over 1,000 years ago and found refuge in Gujarat in India, have declined in number from 100,000 only a few years ago to 57,000. Britain is believed to have 4,100 living here.
Bilimoria, 54, who is chancellor of Birmingham University among the many hats that he wears, said he was the first Zoroastrian peer – members of the faith are called Parsis if they come from India. He pointed out that, remarkably, the first three Indian origin MPs in Britain were all Parsis.
“The first was Dadabhai Naoroji, a Liberal, in 1892; the second was Mancherjee Bhownagree, a Conservative (in 1895); and the third was “Comrade Sak”, Shapurji Saklatvala, a Communist and Labour Party member (in 1922),” said Bilimoria.
Deboo, who is organising an event next Saturday (19) to mark the contribution of Indian servicemen, especially Zoroastrians, in the First World War, said: “One should not forget Lord (Satyendra Prasanno) Sinha (1863-1928) who was another pioneer – they were the only four Asians of Indian origin who served in parliament till the 1980s.”
Dholakia mentioned the “four musketeers”, as he described Keith Vaz, the late Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng, who were all elected Labour MPs in 1987.
“They were the ones who made the initial breakthrough in the political system in this country,” noted Dholakia.
Singling out Vaz, he said: “Let us not forget his contribution in those days.”
He also remembered the late Ashok Kumar, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland from 1997 until his death in 2010. His achievement was that he fought and won “in a predominantly white area”.
Dholakia was one of two members of the Lords who had formally “supported” Bilimoria when he joined the upper chamber in 2006.
The other was crossbencher Usha Prashar, who claimed Bilimoria as her protégé and praised him for “the links he builds between India and the UK”.
Other speakers who paid tribute to the Parsis in general and Bilimoria in particular included Shailesh Vara, who became the first Indian origin Tory MP in 2005.
He described how Ugandan Asian refugees in 1972 had integrated in Britain – like the Zoroastrians in India – by “dissolving like sugar in milk”.
Virendra Sharma, elected a Labour MP in 2007, described Bilimoria as “a decent, honest, hardworking human being”, who invariably helped charitable causes, however small.
Shreela Flather, 82, who became the first Asian woman to join the Lords in 1998 and is a Tory turned crossbencher, affectionately called Bilimoria a “particularly nice boy, very likeable, very open, very genuine – I like him a lot”.
The latest and youngest recruit to the Lords, 46-year-old Jitesh Gadhia, a Tory, said he had overlapped with Bilimoria at Cambridge. He recalled the happy days when his friend of 28 years “was a member of the Cambridge University Conservative Association”.
It was stated that setting aside party differences, Indian origin parliamentarians were united in seeking the betterment of British Indians and the wider community at large.
Lord Dolar Popat, a Tory peer, said: “The Parsi community in India has been a role model and we have tried to emulate it in Britain – we have, in many ways, followed the Jewish community in making a success of life in the UK.”
The acting Indian high commissioner, Dinesh Patnaik, said he had attended a Parsi wedding when he was 13 and dined off a banana leaf with knife and fork: “Parsis hold on to tradition but are modern at the same time.”
He said that “celebrations are a way of building role models for society – we are the sum total of all our stories”.
Patnaik agreed with Dholakia: “We need to encourage the next generation to start thinking more about politics.”