UK: After the Celebrations Are Over

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Jawed Naqvi

NEWS about Rishi Sunak’s Hindu religion and also his family’s roots in undivided Punjab is hopefully passé by now. It may be time to revisit the country instead that has elevated him to be its prime minister.

A 2018 report in the Guardian should be instructive here for India, but equally for Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries that are besotted with religion as a defining element in their identity.

The report reveals how 52 per cent of Britons assert they do not belong to any religion. The British Social Attitudes survey compares the number with 31pc in 1983 when it began tracking religious belief. The number of people identifying as Christian has fallen from 66pc to 38pc over the same period, says the Guardian report, quoting the BSA survey. Only 1pc of people aged 18 to 24 years identify with the Church of England.

Even among the 75s, the most religious as a group, only one in three persons described themselves as Church of England. “Britain is becoming more secular not because adults are losing their religion but because older people with an attachment to the C of E and other Christian denominations are gradually being replaced in the population by younger unaffiliated people,” the report said.

“To put it another way, religious decline in Britain is generational; people tend to be less religious than their parents, and on average their children are even less religious than they are.” This and not Sunak’s rise as a right-wing Conservative prime minister might be the compass to guide religion-hugging Asians today.

And what does the new British sovereign say on a similar subject even though his oath binds him as the defender of the Church of England? Among the first things the new king did after his mother’s death was to hold a meeting with interfaith leaders where he was at pains to explain how he would both take the traditional oaths and keep commitments to other faiths.

“I have always thought of Britain as a ‘community of communities’ [and] that has led me to understand that the sovereign has an additional duty — less formally recognised but to be no less diligently discharged,” he told the meeting.

“It is the duty to protect the diversity of our country, including by protecting the space for faith itself and its practice through the religions, cultures, traditions and beliefs to which our hearts and minds direct us as individuals.

“This diversity is not just enshrined in the laws of our country, it is enjoined by my own faith. As a member of the Church of England, my Christian beliefs have love at their very heart. By most profound convictions, therefore — as well as by my position as sovereign — I hold myself bound to respect those who follow other spiritual paths, as well as those who seek to live their lives in accordance with secular ideals.”

This then is the eclectic atmosphere that has enabled Mr Sunak to worship the cow, light Diwali lamps at 10 Downing Street and declare himself a practising Hindu, qualifications that don’t detract in our era of religious revivalism from his education at Oxford.

Another right-winger in the Conservative pack with roots in India is Cambridge-educated Home Secretary Suella Braverman. She told Spectator magazine that a free trade deal with India would increase Indian migration to UK at a time when “the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants”. Both she and Mr Sunak favour sending new migrants and refugees to Rwanda, not terribly dissimilar to the citizenship laws that Hindutva favours in India.

Mr Sunak, however, said he was strongly committed to the deal with India that aims at doubling bilateral trade to $100 billion by 2030. A watered-down version is expected to be a winner for both sides.

In the good old days, when the postcolonial world took sides in British politics there were not just the Labour and Conservative parties to choose from. My mother and aunts as I remember it became very fond of the king who abdicated his throne to live with an American divorcee. The women saw the story as a triumph of love over riches, a done to death theme in Indian cinema.

The John Profumo case hogged discussion in Indian coffee bars, as did his fatal attraction for a certain Christine Keeler. It was 1961 in London, the Beatles were rehearsing their arrival and Tony Blair very likely didn’t know how to spot Iraq on the world map.

A healthy interest in the royalty was interspersed with acerbic gems from The Private Eye, which insisted on calling Queen Elizabeth ‘Brenda’ and had an unpublishable title for her son, the current king. This was way before the Diana phenomenon hijacked the narrative. Tariq Ali, Sashti Brata and Nirad Chaudhuri anchored the South Asian diaspora albeit from very different political and intellectual corners of the British spectrum. Today, the enthusiasm generated by Mr Sunak’s elevation is in a league of its own.

There’s much ado and some confusion about Mr Sunak’s swearing by the Bhagavad Gita. The fact is that the British prime minister doesn’t take any oath of office, not on the Gita, not on the Bible, not as an atheist. Sunak was sworn in as an MP, yes, as are other members of the House of Commons before being permitted to take their seats. That’s the norm. You can use religion or you can solemnly affirm your oath. And the MP’s oath is essentially about being loyal to the sovereign, in Sunak’s case to the late queen.

Sinn Fein has seven MPs from Northern Ireland who won’t commit their loyalty to the British sovereign. Consequently, they do not sit in parliament. Mr Sunak swore on the Gita to be loyal to the sovereign who is sworn to defend the Church of England. Hindutva cheerleaders can have a field day figuring it out.

c. Dawn

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