Indian London (part two)

It was in the 1950s that London’s Indian population really began to grow, with further influxes in the 1960s and 1970s, often from Africa rather than from India itself.

[Click here to see part one of this post.]

Noor Inayat Khan

In the Second World War, two and a half million Indian men (yes, two and a half million) signed up to fight for Britain against the Nazis and the Japanese – the biggest volunteer army in the history of the world, now shamefully forgotten in both Britain and India. Indian troops (admittedly including fighters from what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh) made a huge and vital contribution to the Allied war effort. Behind the scenes, and behind the lines, one of Britain’s top spies in occupied France was Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Mysore’s great hero Tipu Sultan. Betrayed to the Nazis, she was sent to Dachau, where she was shot in September 1944. A bust in Gordon Square, near her Bloomsbury home, commemorates her.

Indian soldiers at Tobruk in 1941

After the War, with a labour shortage in Britain, and low wages on the Subcontinent, Indian immigrants started coming over, particularly from Gujarat, Punjab and Bengal, always the mainstays of the Indian diaspora. Many came to work in the newly-created NHS, others in the textile industry. Under the British Empire, many Indians had migrated to East Africa – again mostly Punjabis and Gujaratis (Gujarat indeed had trade links with East Africa which went way back, probably into the BCs) – but as countries like Kenya and Tanzania gained independence, East African Indians increasingly felt their position less secure, and many moved to London and other parts of Britain.

Ugandan Asian refugees at Amsterdam’s
Schipol airport in 1972

In Uganda, their worst fears were confirmed in 1972 when then-dictator Idi Amin expelled the country’s entire Asian population (a stupidly racist act, which seriously damaged Uganda’s economy). Coming over as refugees with almost nothing, many Ugandan Indians set up as small shopkeepers. Working long hours for small gains, with whole families pitching in, they were among London’s lowest-paid workers in terms of per-hour rates, but a generation later that work paid off, as many of their children went to college, joined the middle class, and often managed to do pretty well for themselves.

Asian-run newsagent (detail from a photo by
Ewan Munro, CC BY-SA 2.0)

From around 3,000–4,000 in 1931, London’s Indian population reached 542,857 (6.6% of the total) in the 2011 census. Punjabis and Gujaratis are the biggest contingents, but most Indian regions are represented here to some extent. Religion-wise, 64% of Indian Londoners are Hindu, and 27% Sikh, but it’s less well-known that around 20% of London Indians (as opposed to Pakistanis or Bangladeshis) are Muslim, including around a fifth of Gujarati Londoners. London also has more than a few Indian Christians (mostly Goan or Keralan), probably some 15,000 Jains, around 5,000 Parsis (Zoroastrians, responsible for dhansak curries), and even some Indian Jews.

Density of Indian Londoners in the 2011
census (map by SkateTier, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Although there’s still an Indian presence in the East End, that area nowadays is more specifically associated with Bangladeshis. Indian communities in east London are denser now in areas further out, such as East Ham and Ilford, and in south London there’s a notable Indian presence in Tooting, but the biggest concentration of Indian Londoners is in the west, and in particular in the boroughs of Hounslow, Hillingdon, Ealing, Brent and Harrow.

Shri Swaminarayan temple, Neasden
(photo by Pete Woodhead, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The first Hindu temple in London was that of the Hare Krishnas, now in Soho Street, which first opened in Bloomsbury in 1969. The first fully consecrated Hindu temple, was the Shree Ghanapathy Temple in Wimbledon, but that was actually opened (in a former Presbyterian church in 1981) by a group of local Sri Lankans. The Indian Hindu community who have been most active in opening temples here are the Shri Swaminarayans, who follow the teachings of an eighteenth-century Gujarati yogi named Sahajanand Swami. Their most famous temple is of course the magnificent one in Neasden. Beautifully crafted using only traditional materials and techniques, it’s the biggest Hindu temple outside India. And in fact, London also has the biggest gurudwara (Sikh temple) outside India, which is located (naturally) in Southall.

Southall station’s blingual sign (photo by
Júlio Reis aka Tintazul, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Though any London neighbourhood will have an Indian presence of some sort, specific communities are particularly associated with certain areas – Gujaratis with Wembley, Punjabis with Southall, South Indians with East Ham, and so on. But that shouldn’t be exaggerated. In Southall, for example, the station sign is in Punjabi as well as English, but in 2007, the privatized train operators took it down following complaints. The objections didn’t come from the White community (who it seems were quite proud of the sign), but from non-Punjabi Indians, who felt it ignored the diversity of local Asian communities. As the train company said, implicitly recognizing that diversity, “It would be impossible to provide station signage for every language.” After further protests however, they restored it, and Southall remains the only station in London, other than St Pancras International, to have its signs in two languages.