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#GE2015: Charting the journey of Asians in British Politics

Above: Dadabhai Naoroji

“However great the progress of mankind has been, and however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudices, I doubt if we have got to the point of view where an English Constituency would elect a Blackman” – Lord Salisbury, Conservative statesman and three times Prime Minister after Dadabhai Naoroji was defeated in the election of 1886, representing Holborn, London.

Today, 129 years later, both the size and the colour of the then-all white and all male parliament has changed and Lord Sainsbury would certainly not be amused to see the transformation.

The roll call of Asian candidates standing for the parliamentary election in May is exemplary and impressive.  The 3-2 ratio in favour of men is interesting.  But every one of the candidates deserves to be in the parliament for the good of the people and the country.

Every one of them deserves the support of the voters, on political and not on racial preference. 

Not all will be successful.

For the winners, it will be the dawn of a new life-challenging and rewarding experience. For the losers, the pain of defeat will be too much to bear.

Perhaps they will take comfort from the disappointment of the first ever Indian to stand for parliament 130 years ago, Lal Mohan Ghosh (1849 – 1909) – an orator, barrister and Liberal.

Above: Lal Mohan Ghosh

He stood for Deptford, southeast London in 1885 but lost  by 367 votes.  He tried again in 1886 but without success, losing by 627 votes.

Ghosh’s election campaigns were not without prejudice from the press, who labelled him ‘a stranger to English civilisation and Christianity’ and taunts of being an Indian ‘Baboo’.

He returned to India and was elected the President of the Indian  National Congress in 1903.

Also in 1886, Dadabhai Naoroji (1825 – 1917), another Liberal, stood for Holborn but was not lucky.

However, he made political history six years later after being elected the first Indian member of the British Parliament in 1892, winning by a wafer-thin margin of just 5 votes, earning him the nickname of ‘Mr Narrow Majority’.

He entered the Commons to the displeasure of Prime Minister Salisbury, who called him a “black man” and whose competence he doubted.

His racist taunts were not without cautionary remarks from Queen Victoria.  

However, Gladstone declared his ‘great satisfaction’ at the election of a ‘blackman’, who strongly believed that “if our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British Empire would not have been made”.

Support for Naoroji, also came from  Florence Nightingale and of course, Bhikaji Cama and Cornelia Sorabji.

It is generally not known that there were three Indians elected to the House of Commons before Indian independence in 1947. 

Few have heard of their names or of their achievements but the precedent they set  has had an immense impact on Indo-British relations. 

For the record, the first Asian woman to stand for parliament, almost a century after Lal Mohan Ghosh, was Zerbanoo Gifford, also a Liberal, in 1983 and like him, failed to win. Undaunted, she stood in 1987 and again in 1992 but without success. 

However, she made history when she was elected to the Liberal Party’s Federal Executive, the first non-white person to do so.  She is the Founding Director of the Asha Centre in the Forest of Dean, empowering the young from all over the world.

The first Indian in the House of Lords and also the only Indian hereditary Peer was Lord Sinha, ennobled in 1919.  Lord Sinha was, alongside the Maharaja of Bikaner, the first member of the British Cabinet after the First World War.

Above: Lord Sinha

Baroness Shreela Flather made history in 1990 by becoming the first Indian woman to be appointed the House of Lords,  appointed by Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman Prime Minister.

Shreela Flather was also Britain’s first Asian woman Mayor in 1986, for Windsor and Maidenhead, and chosen Asian of the year in 1995.

Women candidates have a lot to be grateful for the bruised and bloodied campaigns of Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928).

And they have all come a long way from the efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton who organised world’s first Woman’s Rights Convention in America in 1848. 

It was in 1889 that the Women’s Franchise League was formed by Emmeline Pankhurst to fight for voting rights for women, supported by her daughter, Christabel; Keir Hardie, the father of the Labour Party; Eleanor, daughter of Karl Marx, and many others.

Emmeline Pankhurst

In 1903 she coined the lovely slogan, “Votes for Women” and in 1907, formed the first ‘Women’s Parliament’.  From the prison cells and the mighty Royal Albert Hall, she made her voice heard.

Among the things she did was to throw stones at the windows of Downing Street and managed to damage the Coronation Chair with a bomb, inside Westminster Abbey.  While the soldiers were fighting in Europe during the First World War, the government was having to face the attacks and hostilities on home soil from angry and impatient women, demanding the right to vote.

At last, the Reform Bill giving votes to women received the Royal assent in 1918, a victory which was celebrated with a rally at the Royal Albert Hall.  It had been a rough and difficult road to victory.

Emmeline Pankhurst, who fought so bravely for her cause, was offered a parliamentary candidacy for Whitechapel and St. George’s in the East End of London, which she  accepted with great enthusiasm.

Above: Zerbanoo Gifford

Sadly, early in 1928 she became very ill and died just as the House of Lords was passing the Bill which gave adult suffrage to all women.  In 1930, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin unveiled her statue in the garden near parliament – a statue that, ideally, should have been in Parliament Square.

Christabel who stood for parliament unsuccessfully, was created Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

The first woman to be elected to parliament was Irish Countess Markiewicz, as Sinn Fein member of South Dublin on a pledge that she would never take her seat.  The first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons was Lady Nancy Astor.

The fight is still on to persuade more women to get politically motivated and participate in the running of the country and to take their rightful and hard-earned seat in parliament. 

It would be a tribute to the great Emmeline Pankhurst if the ratio of 3-2 would be in favour of women in parliament.  But it is just as important to encourage the nine million women who did not vote in the last election, to do so, on 7 May. 

Voting is the only weapon to bring about real and meaningful change.

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