South Asians in Britain

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South Asians in Britain

ETHNONYMS: South Asians, British Asians, Asians


Identification and Location. The term "South Asian" is used to identify people who moved to the United Kingdom from the Indian subcontinent. British South Asians tend to identify themselves with three areas in the subcontinent: Gujarat in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. These broad labels conceal differences based on place of origin, language, culture, and religion. Pakistanis include Mirpuris, Kashmiris, Pathans, and Sikhs. Most of those who came from India, including Gujaratis, are Muslim or Hindu, whereas most Pakistanis in Britain are Muslims. Small numbers of South Asians came from other parts of India.

Demography. By the 1880s a few South Asians had made Great Britain their home. By the 1920s that number had grown to a few thousand. On the basis of 1998 census estimates, 5,675,600 members of ethnic groups live in Great Britain, among whom 1,746,000 are South Asians. South Asians constitute about 8 percent of Britain's total population. South Asians are still entering Great Britain as fiancées and fiancés.

Linguistic Affiliation. British South Asians speak different languages, including Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Gujarati. The people who speak those languages brought folklore, history, religion, literature, and arts from their home countries and have developed their own cuisine and dress styles. Most South Asians in Great Britain speak English with varying levels of fluency. Most adults and children speak their mother tongues, but increasingly fewer members of the younger generation can read and write those languages.

History and Cultural Relations

Initially South Asians came to Great Britain to obtain an education to qualify them for work in the Indian Civil Service or to use London as a place to rest between working passages on ships bound for the Far East. A wave of migrants came in the 1920s, but the largest group of settlers arrived in the 1950s. Between those larger waves small numbers of Asians moved to Britain. The most recent arrivals were those who fled from Uganda in 1970.

In the 1950s most South Asians came to the United Kingdom to provide low-paid labor for a declining manufacturing sector. As a result of the postwar boom, better-paid jobs in an emerging service sector became available to indigenous workers. This left unfilled low-paid jobs in the manufacturing sector, the National Health Service, and the transportation system. South Asians filled these less desirable and less secure jobs. Chain migration was the dominant form of migration. Once a person settled in the United Kingdom, he or she became a focal point for his or her family, kin, and friends to find housing and work. Two consequences of chain migration were that ethnic enclaves formed in urban areas and immigration became difficult to control.

Before 1962 citizens of British colonies were citizens of Great Britain, and so there were no restrictions on their entry. In response to the rise in racism, from 1962 successive British governments made entry increasingly more difficult. In the 1970s, when housing and employment were difficult to find, native-born Britons attributed their hardships to South Asian immigrants. This reaction, when linked to the economic recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, led to a racist backlash that was associated with the inflammatory speeches of the Member of Parliament Enoch Powell and the rise of the National Front. By 1998 the immigration policy had halved the number of migrants entering Britain from around 90,000 to 45,000. The close association between racism and immigration policy was epitomized by the phrase "the numbers game." However, a disassociation of racism from immigration began in the final years of the Conservative government (1994-1997). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, immigration control is associated with asylum seekers and refugees, and racism has become a political and judicial issue for the government and the courts. The 1976 Race Relations Act and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 were intended to reduce the level of racism by making racism a crime.


South Asians settled in urban areas that had some significance in their history. Many chose to come to the Lancashire and Yorkshire mill towns, having learned about those cities from the finished products they and their families had bought in the subcontinent. Others settled in port cities such as London, Glasgow, and Dundee.

The majority settled in the major conurbations in North West England and Merseyside, Yorkshire and Humberside, the West Midlands, and outer and inner London. Smaller populations reside in the East Midlands, the eastern counties, South East England and Scotland, with relatively few living in South West England. The choice of location was determined by family and village connections through the process of chain migration.


Subsistence. The opportunity to improve one's life was the driving force behind South Asian migration. Initially these migrants came to take advantage of economic opportunities before returning to the subcontinent. However, the decision to stay in the United Kingdom was forced on them in part by the devaluation of British pound in the 1970s and in part by their getting accustomed to life in Britain.

Commerical Activities. With the disappearance of much of the manufacturing sector, many first-generation South Asians became self-employed or unemployed or found other low-paid work. The descendants of those settlers are British-born and are attending schools and graduating with the same hopes and aims as other young people. In the early twenty-first century they hold a wide variety of jobs, ranging from self-employment in local grocery and carryout food businesses to manufacturing, academia, and the professions. An increasing number of South Asian entrepreneurs have joined Britain's wealthiest classes, including computer manufacturers, businesspersons, and producers of ethnic foods.


Kin Groups and Descent. The South Asian kinship system is based on patrilineal descent that once was associated with patrilocal residence. The family remains the most important social group. The general pattern is for young people to settle close to their kin.

The extended family includes parents, siblings, and their families and grandparents. To keep the family together, some South Asians buy a number of houses in new housing estates and place their families in them. With increasing wealth, many South Asians are buying houses in the better areas of towns and cities. Most still live in the areas where their parents first settled, although many of those areas have changed for the better as the result of government improvement grants.

Kinship still plays a major role in social, community, and business networks. Kin, especially brothers, often work together as business partners. Many South Asian businesses are constructed around sibling relationships, with a few highly successful husband and wife partnerships. Many businesspersons draw on their wider kin when expanding their businesses. Such networks support a range of businesses from ethnic foods, clothing, car spare parts, and electronic equipment to managing homes for older people.

Kinship Terminology. South Asians use the kinship terminology that is typical of their areas of origin in the subcontinent. There is a degree of similarity between those kinship terms. Young people use terms such as "uncle" and "cousin" to show deference to older people whether or not they are related or belong to the same religious communities.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are arranged by parents and are endogamous. Preferred partners come from or trace their origins to a village that forms part of an ekada (marriage exchange cycle) in the subcontinent. For Gujarati and Pakistani Muslims the preferred partner for their children is a first cousin, followed by a more distant cousin. For Hindus and Sikhs the preferred choice is a member of the same caste (jati. ) While most parents are still committed to arranged marriages, some Asian voluntary groups are drawing attention to the plight of young women who are forced into such marriages.

With the passage of time more and more marriages are being arranged by the children. With a rising divorce rate, remarriages are leading to choices of partners from other groups and communities and to the emergence of the "multicultural" stepfamily.

Domestic Unit. Between the 1950s and 1970s the domestic unit followed the pattern of traditionally divided responsibilities in which the man was the master of family wealth and the wife bore children and cared for them. Working women had to fit working commitments around their commitments to their families by doing piecework at home. With changes in contemporary society, women are able to find work more easily than men and young women expect to have careers outside the home. The educational process has given young South Asians the same opportunities as other young people. The effects of these changes have had an impact on marriage choices and the management of working and domestic lives.

Inheritance. Inheritance of wealth and property is based on transmission down the male line, but this may be changing.

Socialization. Socialization occurs within the family, allowing for the perpetuation of the family's cultural values, language, and religion. Generally boys are indulged more than girls are. Youth organizations in mosques and temples also contribute to the socialization of young people, helping to embed cultural values and religious beliefs. Community organizations contribute to this process by developing new group histories. Whereas the educational process emphasizes individual rights and achievement, some South Asian values stress group and family cohesion.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In Britain various South Asian communities recognize their cultures through dress, religious rites, and beliefs they may or may not share with other communities. South Asians observe particular religious days, events, and occasions that are accompanied by social activities. Muslim communities observe major occasions such as Ramadan and other associated religious and social events. Most Hindus celebrate Diwali and their major religious occasions and the associated social celebrations. Religious events and social occasions are an important aspect of the process of socializing children into their respective cultures. These religious and social communities provide support for youth groups, older members, and those in need of personal or financial support and act as a social reservoir of memories by producing their own social histories.

Political Organization. Citizenship has given South Asians the same political, social, religious, and legal rights as native-born citizens. During the 1960s and 1970s, the period of the formation of ethnic identities, South Asians could use those identities to compete for funding for community projects and to interact with local politicians and the local government. When the government opened the competition for funds to all community organizations regardless of race or ethnic origin and made that competition more transparent, ethnic identity was removed as a central criterion. This led to a decline in ethnic politics and in the political connection between ethnic organizations and local government.

Once many South Asians joined the Labour Party, believing it to be more supportive of an open immigration policy than the other parties. Later the major political parties established black sections, but those sections were soon disbanded. In 2002 the emphasis is on individual membership and the application of democratic political principles. South Asians are spreading their political allegiances across all the main parties. A number have become active members in local politics, a few have run in elections, and a growing number are achieving election to positions in the local or national government.

Social Control. South Asians are committed to serving the interests of the family. Younger Asians are developing ways to meet their personal ambitions while upholding the honor of their families. By tradition, older men are the focus of family social and religious respect and women are responsible for the honor of the family through their observation of modesty, sexual values, and acceptance of arranged marriages. Commitment to these values has brought the older generation into conflict with the younger. These values are changing, and many parents recognize the right of their daughters to make their own decisions. Life in an urban area gives the children much greater freedom than that experienced by many of their parents. Having gone through schooling in Britain, many young South Asian women want to have the same experiences as young indigenous women.

Conflict. Intergenerational conflict occurs in South Asian families. Parental authority is challenged, as is the traditional superiority of men over women. As more young South Asians experience the educational process, parent-child conflict has been an almost inevitable outcome. Conflict ranges from issues associated with sexual behavior and the clothing worn by daughters to commitment to religious beliefs and respect for members of the extended family.

There is a degree of racial tension between those who are perceived to be "black" and those who see themselves as white and British. There is also racial tension between different South Asian groups and between South Asians and Afro-Caribbeans. Most conflict takes the form of racial discrimination. Britain has in place a number of acts to protect people who experience racial discrimination.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. South Asians adhere to a wide variety of religions and sects. The majority are Muslim or Hindu and belong to one of the many sects and movements associated with those religious groups. The British Muslim community consists mainly of Sunnis and a minority of Shiites. The Hindu community has mainly followers of Krishna, who worship Krishna directly or through membership in a sect. Most Sikhs adhere to Sikhism. The remaining South Asians follow one of the Christian churches, one of the less common religions, such as Jainism, or allow their religious commitment to lapse.

Temples and mosques throughout Britain are associated with particular sects and communities. In most towns and cities with South Asian populations the Hindu and Muslim sects and communities have created mosques and temples to serve their members. Since Sikh communities are not as widely dispersed as are most other South Asian communities, Gurdwaras are found in fewer towns and cities. It is difficult to estimate the number of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in Britain as no question has been asked about religious commitment in past censuses, but this changed with the most recent census.

Folk beliefs include a belief in the evil eye, omens, and magic. These beliefs are unlikely to disappear, as they are perpetuated by newer migrants who come to join their families and kin in Britain.

Religious Practitioners. In Islam there is a hierarchy of positions carrying religious authority. Most Muslim communities are served by imams, and only a few of the larger ones have a religious hierarchy in place. Those at the top of the hierarchy can dissolve marriages and make major decisions on religious behavior, including administering punishment for religious infringements. In Hindu communities priests supervise cremations and other religious rites. Generally, smaller Hindu and Muslim communities employ a priest or imam over whom they may exercise a considerable degree of control.

Ceremonies. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs observe a range of religious and social rites. Naming a child, circumcision, marriage, death, and major religious ceremonies are a normal part of the events in the social lives of the members of those communities. Religious texts such as the Qu'ran, the Bhagavad Gita, and the religious books of smaller sects are available in a number of languages, including English.

Arts. Folk dancing is part of the social life of most South Asian communities. Some also support poetry, singing, and certain plastic arts, such as sculpture, pottery design, painting, and textile design. The architecture of mosques and temples is changing the urban skyline.

Medicine. Many first-generation South Asians brought a range of herbal and folk remedies to Britain as well as two major medical approaches: Unani and Aruyvedic medicine. Both of these approaches and folk remedies have become popular with the rise of a belief in the efficacy of non-Western forms of medicine in the general population.

For other cultures in The United Kingdom, see List of Cultures in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 4, Europe.


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South Asians in Britain

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South Asians in Britain