September 13, 2023

Has the Raj returned to roost? After the press captured Rishi Sunak offering a prayer inside New Delhi’s Akshardham temple on Sunday, that was the implication for many. A Hindu man leads Britain; to the north, the First Minister of Scotland, Humza Yousaf, is a Muslim man of Pakistani origin, another scion of British India; to the west in Ireland, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s doctor father grew up in coastal Maharashtra, south of Mumbai.

If the early 20th-century racial theorists of white supremacy were still alive, they would be mortified that the “tides of colour” had truly “risen”. One might also expect the Left, if it weren’t for Sunak’s conservatism, to make much of this racial inversion. But scratch below the surface, and the true story here transcends reductive categories of race — if anything, it is a reflection of both premodern and globalised realities of class and caste. Consider Sunak, who once admitted that he did not have working-class friends as a young man, and who, like Varadkar, has a parent who is a physician, placing both of their proximate origins firmly in the professional upper-middle class. Yousaf’s father, meanwhile, was an accountant, perhaps more modest in origins than his peers to the south and east, but nevertheless still solidly middle-class.

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Despite today’s focus on race, class and status have always formed the bulwark of India’s elite ideology. As David Cannadine observed in Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, this explains Queen Victoria’s repeated habit of adopting and fostering children of African and Asian royals, inculcating them with Christianity. Separated from her white subjects by a chasm of class and origin, this practice was aimed at forming a ruling elite informed by 19th-century Victorian sensibilities of race, but also transcending them, harkening back to an older ideology where the rulers were a fundamentally different species from the peasants and shopkeepers they ruled.

This class element in imperial life is clear even from the perspective of Indians; it was as much a British as an Indian ideology. Mohandas K. Gandhi’s initial activism in South Africa was motivated by his offence, as an upper-caste Indian, at being categorised with black Africans. Gandhi dressed like an Indian holy man later in life, a return to indigeneity, but in South Africa he initially exhibited the sartorial affect of an English-trained barrister. A vegetarian Hindu who had married a woman from his own caste at a young age, Gandhi was still in his early years one of Macaulay’s men: “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

Two hundred years later, the rise of Sunak and Yousaf illustrates how such class dynamics still hold the British nation in thrall. Both are ethnic Punjabis, but of a variety very distinct from the dominant element in British life, the Mirpuris. The Mirpuris, who hail from Pakistani Kashmir and its environs, form about 70% of the Pakistani population in Britain. These rural villagers eventually went to work in the mills of the English north, and have created their own Pakistani but essentially British working-class culture. Sunak and Yousaf’s family are ethnically related to the Mirpuris, but are more conventional Punjabis from further south: Sunak’s paternal lineage is rooted in modern Pakistani Punjab, as were Yousaf’s ancestors. But more salient than their Punjabi ethnicity is that Sunak and Yousaf both have connections to Africa. The mother and father of Britain’s Prime Minister were born in British Tanganyika and Kenya, respectively. Yousaf’s mother, though ethnically Punjabi, was born and raised in British Kenya.

Subcontinental people of East African provenance have been prominent in British life for decades: in 2011, more than 10% of those of Indian ethnicity in the UK were born in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania (this does not include those born of African Indians in Britain). And Sunak is hardly the only prominent African Indian in Conservative politics. Both the current and former home secretary, Suella Braverman and Priti Patel, have African connections: Braverman’s father being Indian Kenyan and mother Mauritian, while Patel’s family are part of the Ugandan Indian diaspora. The Ugandan Indians, expelled in the Seventies from Idi Amin’s regime with £55 on their person, have re-established themselves as entrepreneurs and professionals in the UK, part of the reason that Indian Britons are a relatively affluent minority.

These Indians, then, are a global people for a global nation. A simple racial calculus sees in Sunak a brown-skinned Indian, but the vast majority of subcontinental people do not have connections to Africa or the influential slice of South Asians who catalysed trade and travel along the shores of the Indian Ocean. This elite diaspora was always made up of enterprising individuals from commercial castes; self-selected for the personalities and peoples who ventured across the kala pani (“black water”). Sunak’s devout Hinduism and orthodox vegetarianism reflect his indubitably Indian cultural background. But the fact that he married not only outside of his caste but his ethnicity, with his wife being a South Indian heiress of one of India’s largest fortunes, simply confirms his membership of the global elite. Sunak may be of a nation, but he is truly not of any nation. After all, he filed US tax returns while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Like Yousaf in Scotland, Varadkar in Ireland, and even Ramaswamy in the USA, Sunak is therefore hardly a representative son of the subcontinent. More than one billion South Asians live just as their ancestors have for thousands of years, tilling the land, speaking the tongues of their forefathers and venerating the landscapes of their ancestor gods and saints. But amid this population are an enterprising sliver whose skills, aptitudes and inclinations have injected them into the bloodstream of the quasi-post-national global world. These are children born to globalisation, cultures within the subcontinent who have operated inter-regionally and even internationally for centuries. Globalisation is part of their tradition, etched into their bones. Rishi Sunak was born in England, his father in Kenya, and his grandfather in Indian Punjab. But they were always of the world, their opportunities painted upon a canvas without a border.