This week, Rishi Sunak created history by becoming the first person of colour to take charge as prime minister of Britain. Being seated amongst the most powerful in the imperial island nation is a formidable feat, considering that only five decades ago, South Asians had to fight for their right to be seated at the local pub.
Fom Monday night, Asian WhatsApp groups and Indian media have been on overdrive celebrating in their own myriad ways. The underlying message of the memes and celebrations is clear: Sunak’s victory is India’s victory. This even though the contrary is true. Sunak’s rise as the son of migrants to the highest office in the United Kingdom can be attributed more to the relative success of the British system than that of the Indian system.
Relative success because Sunak’s background is similar to that of hordes of privately-educated millionaire British politicians. The son of migrants who sent him to a prestigious private school, he studied at Oxford and then at Stanford in the US. That’s where he met his millionaire Indian wife.
Except for his name, ethnicity, and his wife, though, there are few things Indian about Sunak. He is of mixed East-African, present-day Pakistani, and Indian ancestry. He has never held an Indian passport (even though he has held an American green card).
So why is this British-born, British-American-educated, British brown man, celebrated with such glee in India?
Poster boy for ‘New India’
At the outset, it might seem like every brown-skinned person of South Asian descent who achieves relative success abroad is unanimously celebrated as a Person of Indian origin. But if that was the case, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, a Catholic with roots in Goa, would be greeted with equal fanfare.
Sunak happens to be a teetotaller, vegetarian, and a devout Hindu – at least in optics if not in practice. Such characteristics make him something larger than India’s favourite son-in-law: they make him an ideal poster boy for “New India”.
For New India to promote and perpetuate its Hindutva ideology, ambassadors and flagbearers are vital. Because the Hindutva project has little regard for national borders as long as its majoritarian ideology can flourish, it has no hesitation seeking candidates outside of India, where Western systems allow brown immigrants to scale the ranks.
This is where the hazy category of “Indian origin” emanates.
The broad term “Indian-origin” has no political, legal or pragmatic basis. However, it possesses the potential to ignite hidden passions – and Hindutva supporters are exploiting it. Disguised in middle-class celebration of merit, this ambiguous category has led to a cringeworthy ritual of deifying many brown-skinned people who meet ordinary success in Western countries.
The legal category “Overseas Citizen of India”, which allows such people specific rights in India, is a also an odd concept. Even the spouse of an Indian citizen qualifies for it. But someone who avails of such status is not required to make an effort to understand India, let alone serve the country.
Instead of celebrating the achievements of brown foreigners, it is time we respect our own. We could start by allowing Indian Booker Prize winners to speak publicly without fear of their events being cancelled or celebrate Pulitzer winners from Kashmir by allowing them to attend ceremonies on the world stage.
That would gain New India more respect than claiming Sunak as one of its own.