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.

1950: My grandparents, mother and aunts in Manila after the war. My mother, aged 7, is on the far left.

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.

1947: My grandfather on the left, meeting with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, soon after Independence

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.

Aged around 7, with my brothers and grandparents. They kept a small print of ‘Houses of Parliament at Sunset’ on the wall. My grandparents told me even in primary school, “Always stand up and speak, and speak for others, because there are many who can’t”.

As an Air Cadet, aged 15, I was made an officer for a day, while on a leadership course at summer training camp. 

It was the early 1990s when I was the one to move up to Yorkshire. I joined the Labour Party in Bradford, worked closely with the then MP Marsha Singh, and campaigned alongside many Labour comrades of Kashmiri descent. Nearly all of our constituency casework in Bradford West related to the Home Office and immigration.

By the time I finished my doctorate at the University of Bradford, Imran Khan was Chancellor. At the ceremony when he handed me my PhD, he gave an absolutely cracking, inspirational talk, mainly about cricket as I recall, but nonetheless the most brilliant words I’d heard spoken in the Richmond Building.

Having a cup of tea after collecting my PhD from Chancellor Imran Khan at the University of Bradford, 2007. 

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.

2016: Visiting the primary school that my grandfather helped fund in 1950s, in his home village of Posi, District of Hoshiarpur, Punjab. My cousin (with long white beard) is on the far left, and his eldest son is the far right. My nephew still looks after the farm and lives with his family in the house where my grandfather grew up. 

The Hoshiarpur Central Co-operative Bank in Posi village.

The old Posi Co-operative headquarters, built in 1930s, now abandoned. 

My cousin (with blue turban, back to the camera) in front of the current village co-op building, home to ‘The Posi Large sized Co-operative, Agricultural, Thrift and Credit Society Ltd.