Two completely unconnected events, the senseless viciousness in Cannon Street, Middlesbrough, and the fast of Master Tara Singh in the Golden Temple, Amritsar, have brought into the headlines the unobtrusive but sizeable community of Indian workers which has grown up in this country. That these immigrants have settled down in almost every large city in Great Britain without the outbreaks of publicity which have attended the settlement of the West Indians does not mean that they have not had their difficulties or that their integration is proceeding without hitch, but it is a hopeful portent.
The borough of Southall claims to have more Indians living within its boundaries than any other in the London area, and probably more than in any other area of the United Kingdom. Indeed it is the saris, salvars, and turbans which distinguish the rows of small houses in short tree-lined streets, the uninspiring high street, and light industries of Southall from all the similar districts of Outer London. But the exact number there, or in the United Kingdom as whole, is impossible to estimate exactly.
India House says that there are some eighty thousand Indians in the country, including the students, professional and business men; and the diplomatists, but other Indians believe there are many more. The reason for this vagueness is that the majority of the Indians who came here to find work left their own country illegally and have no official dealings with India House. Many of the difficulties that the Indian community faces have their root in this one fact.
Since 1939 there has in theory been a ban on Indian worker’s leaving India to work in the United Kingdom, and yet there are now at least 55,000 men, women, and children here who could never have come if the ban had been effective. Since Indian independence and the partition of India and Pakistan, the provision of passports and passages has been a lucrative business in India. Indians have come here either on forged passports or by stating that their destination was elsewhere, and many of them have arrived not knowing that their papers were false. They found out when they applied to India House for passports for their families to join them, and discovered that as they themselves were illegal immigrants the Indian Government could not give the necessary permission.
This has led to some hardship and a good deal of bitterness between the Indian working community and India House, but it has also meant that many thousands have applied for British citizenship and then have arranged for their families to join them through the British High Commission in New Delhi.
Since 1955 about 7,000 Indian passports have been returned to India House by those who had taken out citizenship papers, and there were many more before that date. But this year the Indian Government has decided to be more lenient and is now granting passports to the families of men here, whether they are illegal immigrants or not. At the same time it is tightening up its immigration regulations and making keen efforts to catch the agents who have been making fortunes out of passports.
As many as 80 per cent of the Indians and Pakistanis working here come from the Punjab, and of the Indians the majority are Sikhs. The partition of the Punjab between India and Pakistan is one reason for the immigration from there, but the Punjabis are a hard-working and enterprising people with the will and enthusiasm to set out to make their fortunes. However tense the relations between the Pakistanis and Indians may be on the subcontinent, the religious differences which separate them at home have little effect on their relationship here, and throughout the United Kingdom they work and live side by side without strain. The Sikhs, too, have tended to lose their separate identity in this country and a great number of the men have cut their hair and abandoned their turbans, although they remain loyal to their temple.
It was more than ten years ago that the first Indians came to Southall. The personnel manager of a large rubber works was visited by a Sikh whom he recognised as an ex-sergeant-major he had met in Greece during the war. The Sikh was employed and within weeks his friends, who were living in Lambeth, were working in the factory with him. It was not long before the Indians were living in
the district, and when one or two families are established the community grows rapidly. Today that same factory has over three hundred Indians and Pakistanis. Many more are employed in a large bakery, in the catering department of BOAC, and in several smaller firms, and over two hundred houses in Southall are now owned by Indian families.
Southall is a quiet and respectable borough; hooliganism is rare and life there is for the most well ordered. Thus the immigrants have been able to settle quietly and go about their lives and business without incurring much more than mere curiosity. The Southall Public Health Department has received a few complaints about overcrowding and this is a matter it has to watch carefully. A family arriving from India will stay as a matter of course with relatives until it can save enough to buy a house, and there have been occasions when houses have been accommodating too many people. As a great many of the Indian men prefer night work and the higher wages it brings, some Indian landlords have let out rooms to day and night workers, thereby doubling the income and straining the sanitary facilities. Very few of the immigrants have found lodging with British families and the single men are almost without exception accommodated in Indian houses.
While the Indians have been peacefully accepted by the people of Southall they have not yet been integrated into the community. The Indian community goes its own way, has its own social functions, and mixes with its own members. Language is the great barrier and as a great number of the immigrants are illiterate in their own tongue, it is even harder for them to learn English. The proliferation of Indian organisations such as the Indian Workers’ Association, the Sikh Cultural and Welfare Society, and the Indo-Pakistan Welfare Society have been more concerned in keeping alive the traditions, language, and culture of the motherland than in helping and teaching their members the English language and customs.