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Recrutiment & Employment Confederation

What is South Asian Heritage Month, and why it matters

Equality, diversity and inclusion

Stuart  Kuhan avatar

Written by Stuart Kuhan

I’m a member of the internal Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) committee at the REC, and throughout South Asian Heritage month we’ve been sharing stories and information with our colleagues. With 5% of the UK population who can trace their heritage back to South Asia, each with a personal migration story (Source: Census 2011), we wanted to communicate the meaning and history behind the month and its relevance to the UK labour market.

South Asian Heritage Month first took place in 2020 in the heart of the pandemic, it was founded by Dr Binita Kane and Jasvir Singh OBE. This year’s celebration focusses on the 'Journeys of the Empire' including the 75th anniversary of the partition of India. The month is an opportunity for all people in the UK to mark one of the most important freedom movements and examples of decolonisation of the 20th Century. The month begins on 18th July, the date that the Indian Independence Act 1947 gained royal assent from King George VI, and ends on the 17th August, the date that the Radcliffe Line was published in 1947, which set out where the border between India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) would be.

What countries make up ‘South Asia’?

South Asia includes: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

What was British India?

British India was a British governed region of Asia that included present day Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The foreign policy of this region was controlled by Britain. The countries which formed British India gained independence from the British Empire in 1947.

The Partition of India (Independence from colonial rule)

In 1947, the partition of India divided British India into independent dominions: the Republic of India, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan as well as and the People's Republic of Bangladesh. The partition was outlined in the Indian Independence Act 1947 and resulted in the dissolution of the British Raj. The partition involved the division of two provinces, Bengal and Punjab, based on district-wide Muslim and non-Muslim majorities. The partition also saw the division of the British Indian Army, the Royal Indian Navy, the Royal Indian Air Force, the Indian Civil Service, the railways, and the central treasury.

A short history of British colonisation of India

The East India company first arrived at the port of Surat, India on 24 August 1608. It was attracted to India’s prolific exports of cotton, silk, spices, sugar and steel. The Battle of Plassey in 1757 saw India lose Bengal, its richest province, to the British East India Company. This marked the beginning of British colonisation of the Indian subcontinent. Britain took full control of India from the East India Company in 1858 after the defeat of the 'Sepoy Rebellion’ and the British Raj was formed. It consisted of a group of regional kingdoms, known as Princely States inhabited by Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, Parsis and Jews. The Princely States had their own leadership, traditions and caste backgrounds. Whilst India has always been made up of various religious groups and cultures, these groups lived together with relatively little conflict as their ways of life were congruent and they celebrated many overlapping festivals together. This contrasted with the colonial idea of communities having separate interests. The effect of British rule was to divide people by their caste, religion, or tribe. Some colonial tactics to spread distrust between previously non-conflicting communities included the creation of special areas where religious minorities had their own candidates, for whom only those minorities could vote, called separate electorates. This encouraged each religious community to believe that their interests were separate. White British rulers and their families had separate clubs and living areas from which Indians were mostly excluded.

There were many rebellions against British rule throughout the 18/1900s, such as the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, and a series of peasant movements against the colonial forest laws in 1870s. Between 1919 and 1922, Mahatma Gandhi led a peaceful nation-wide non-cooperation movement allied with the Muslim led Khilafat; Between 1930 and 1934, Gandhi launched an even bigger movement called Civil Disobedience; the Indian National Congress also launched a nation-wide rebellion called Quit India- the British arrested this movement’s leaders including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. There was also a Naval Mutiny in 1946.

South Asian involvement with Britain during and after World War Two

Due to financial strains of World War Two, Britain prepared to leave India but deployed the Indian army and India's resources to fight for the British. Hundreds of thousands of South Asian soldiers fought alongside the British and played an important role in winning World War Two. Following the British Nationality Act of 1948 (which conferred the status of British citizen on all Commonwealth subjects recognising their right to work and settle in the UK) many South Asians people arrived in the UK as British Citizens, helping rebuild Britain and filling acute labour shortages in the NHS, transport, factories and foundries. 30-40% of UK doctors in 1960s were from the South Asian continent and this is still reflected in today's NHS workforce.

Learn more about South Asian Heritage month