Diary : On Britishness

I write this sitting in Finsbury Park. Not an ideal day to sit in the open, the sky is overcast and there is a slight drizzle, but then that did not deter scores of others sitting here around me. On the green, an unusual bowling game is being played, by two teams of aged pensioners. I have just finished the meal deal lunch I got from Boots, but decided to stay a few extra minutes here.

Just like when I came to England five years back. We landed up in the city slightly ahead of time for appointment and needed to sit down somewhere to eat. We used to have packed lunches of roti and bhaji those days. Susant took me to Finsbury Park, only place he knew around the area where one could have a quiet lunch. I remember my amazement seeing those open air lunch crowd, at ease in such a little square.

When you live in a city for too long, it gets into your blood. Like London for me. I remain an Indian, at heart, and care for Indian issues and carry Indian sentiments. But, then, I have lived in London for this long, this has become my frame of reference. Like this moment at Finsbury Park, which is now my expectation from my life, which is not exactly replicable anywhere else.

The British government insists that to settle in Britain, you have to be British. To that end, there was a mad scramble to define Britishness last couple of years. It started with English and the requirement that all migrants must pass English language tests before settlement. Seems reasonable, though this is United Kingdom and one may end up settling in Scotland or Wales. Next, came a citizenship test, which is a rather pointless waste of time and money, which was about cramming a few unconnected facts about British life and taking an online test, which took me exactly 3 minutes to finish, but I had to pay full £38 for it. Obviously, someone is making money out of this Britishness business somewhere. [I know one of the beneficiaries is Home Office, and this is a sort of poll tax on immigrants. But there are other, more sinister beneficiaries - test fraud is quite common and some people have been reported, in a case involving a racket busted recently, paying up to £3000 for others to take the test for them]

The government has floated more proposals recently, which are populist and will please the xenophobic kinds in Britain; but they are discriminatory and almost insulting to immigrants. All the talk about immigration in British media will convince anyone that (a) immigration is bad for the country, as the councils are running out of, of all things, parking spaces; (b) all immigrants are cheats, scoundrels and come to Britain to take away British jobs and benefits meant for the British people; (c) everyone should be sent back home. In fact, that's exactly what it is - see the world through British media and you will not see one single reason, except for some politically correct empty statements by some obscure MP, why immigrants should be allowed in the country. Everyone talks about what a pressure immigrants create on the NHS; walk in a hospital or GP practise and you see the other story - that without the immigrant doctors and nurses, the NHS will collapse. I strongly suspect that British ministers, after being in power so long, see the world through the newspapers, and most of their policy statements come directly out of suggestions made by The Sun.

For example, the talk is now about a history test. Holy God! The history of Britain as in Henry the VIIIth's polygamy, Robert Pitt's corruption and Neville Chamberlain's indiscretion? So, next will be The Sun version of history, the watered down version of the Tudors, all glory story of Spanish Armada and the things the immigrants need to know - a false history that sells novels but not very good for a nation's health. In fact, all national declines start with such falsification and watering down of history - denial of past leads to the denial of present - and getting immigrants to do a history test is one step in that process.

Also, this whole talk about un-British behaviour, as displayed by some immigrants in protesting against British soldiers. I am not exactly aware of the details, but I know Britain is an open society and everyone can, and do, protest about everything all the time. I have seen many republicans wanting to get rid of the monarch and talking about bad behaviour of the royals on TV; is that un-british too?

So, back in Finsbury Park, I know I like this country for what it is not. It is not a homogeneous country, where there are strict rules for everything. You can hear people talking about different languages in different benches all around the park. It is not a country where people live in fear. Where I may not need to worry about crossing the line by writing this blog, as I might have, in Myanmar, China and Iran. Despite my skin color, I don't expect to be thrown out of the train, or live in fear of vigilantes showing up at my door. A country where I don't expect to be discriminated at work, at least openly, for my nationality, race and religion.

If there is one British value that I need to learn, that will be tolerance. And, this is exactly what Finsbury Park means to me. And, for last five years, I have never felt the British government ever understood this.

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