WW1 – 100 years on

One hundred years ago today, Britain entered the biggest battle in world history – World War One. A year ago, this anniversary would have very little meaning to me. But having been involved in the BBC’s flagship WW1 At Home project, I have come to learn how momentous a conflict it was.

Arguably, before Britain joined the war, it was very much limited to a European conflict. However, Britain had its Empire then; therefore all of its colonies joined – officially making it a ‘world war’. Eventually, USA also joined the efforts.

I’m sure many of you will relate more to World War Two based on what you were taught in school. Hitler and the holocaust dominated much of my 20th Century history curriculum. But I knew little, if anything about WW1 – who was involved? How did it come about? What was the outcome?

Little did I know that the war impacted me more personally than I thought. My Great Grandfather, Prem Singh Bilkhu, also served in WW1. I cannot begin to explain the pride I felt when I heard such a significant aspect of my family’s history. He was on the front line but due to poor hearing was shifted to work on tank construction as he was a qualified engineer. My maternal Great-Uncle also served for the Indian army during the war.

I couldn’t help but wonder how my ancestors and over one million other Indians (then colonial India) may have felt when they volunteered to fight in war. For most of them this would have been the first time they left their home country, and that too to fight in a long, bloody, brutal war for a country most of them never visited; Britain.

One in six soldiers was Indian – which in today’s world includes men from Pakistan and Bangladesh. One in six…making this the biggest contribution out of all the Commonwealth nations. Moreover, they were considered one of the most courageous fighters. (I am continuing to beam in pride!) Sadly, the history books fail to acknowledge this huge contribution.

Along with the tens of thousands of British men who initially volunteered to fight – Commonwealth soldiers had little knowledge of the brutality they were about to be exposed to. They were so high on a rush of patriotism that fighting for King and country came before anything.

Soldiers from nations all over the world met at numerous front lines. Men who had never met before, possibly some ethnicities who had never met men from other ethnicities before. Strangers united in a common cause.

Can our generation relate to such passion? Can we relate to such patriotism?

I have spoken to several friends and relatives in their late teens and 20s – the same age most of the troops in WW1 would have been – to ask whether they would volunteer if World War Three were to break out. Unanimously the response was ‘no’ or silence.

We owe a lot to our ancestors who went blindly to the battlefields to fight for our brighter future. Most of them didn’t return home. But their sacrifice has shaped our world today.

If you want to find out how WW1 impacted your local area in the UK, search your postcode on the WW1 At Home portal. You’ll be amazed, touched and inspired by these remarkable stories.

Have we reached the ‘height’ of political correctness?

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I heard the headline the other day that ‘heightism’ was being compared to racism…seriously?! This deserved to be put under the spotlight!

This is after John Bercow was described as a “sanctimonious dwarf” during a parliamentary debate. He compared this comment to mocking somebody for their disability or race.

I’m the shortest in my family and am often called names referring to my height. Admittedly it did affect me whilst growing up because I soon realised I wasn’t going to stretch beyond 5’2” and there was nothing I could do about it – apart from where towering heels, which didn’t help when taller girls would add on the inches with platforms too!

Now I’ve learnt to embrace it. I crack a joke about how short I am and more often than not people will actually comment and say I don’t ‘look’ that short because of how I carry myself. I think that’s the key – it’s all about your attitude, which reflects in your posture.

But I’m an enemy of my own kind – I really don’t like short men. In fact my ONLY physical requirement for a partner is that he is tall – knowing my luck I’ll end up with a Tom Cruise when I crave a Boris Kodjoe!

So if I discriminate against a physical attribute that I share – what does that make me?

But on a serious note – have we become so sensitive that we’re offended or hurt by virtually every joke or comment in jest?

There are some prejudices that I appreciate can be unbearable to experience and should be unacceptable – relating to colour, ethnicity, faith, disability, sexual orientation or gender. These prejudices affect day-to-day living. They impact how people are treated in work and public settings, and possibly even how they choose to live their life. Does height prejudice have the same impact?

I know there’s the age-old argument of what affects one person may not affect another – I get that. But surely we need to lighten up and rise above it (if I could tip-toe that high!)

We’re all different, and its human nature to ridicule/dislike/taunt differences. I think this says a lot about us as insecure species than anything else. But if we allow for any negative comment to affect us how can you even enjoy life?

Today its height, tomorrow it will be receding hairlines or size of hands/feet – oh hold on, men already get caught up about these!

We’re constantly evolving as a society with changing boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable, what is or isn’t politically correct. I’m from an age where we said blackboard and not chalk board, and white board not marker board. We quite happily sang “Baa Baa Black Sheep”.

I’m not saying change isn’t good. Of course it’s needed in many situations – otherwise we’d still be living in an openly segregated society. But where do you draw the line?

Embrace your differences. Once you’re confident with yourself, nonsense from another couldn’t affect you.

And in true Raj style: “just get over it!”

Is Cameron’s Cabinet more representative of modern Britain?

This week David Cameron was busy reshuffling his Cabinet members. In a nutshell, it was out with the old and in with the new – more specifically, young women. The revamped frontbenchers, according to the prime minister, are more representative of Britain. But are they?

Five women (20%) of the cabinet are now women – that’s the same number as in 2011. Although more female MPs have been appointed for more junior ministerial roles. Four out of ten have been to public schools – but have 40% of the electorate? In fact, the new Department for Education is now run by ministers who have been to private schools – can they relate to the electorate? The figures don’t quite add up Mr Cameron.

To give credit where it’s due, he has attempted to appeal to the masses by taking action relative to the common concern that Parliament doesn’t represent the people. But surely what is more important than balancing out who wears a skirt and who wears trousers is ensuring the person picked for the job is the best at it?

More importantly, I believe, the worst Education Secretary we have seen in my lifetime, Michael Gove, has been demoted to Chief Whip. This is by far the biggest outcome of the reshuffle!

Around a dozen old male politicians were cleared to make way for more women and politicians from less privileged backgrounds.

The media frenzy seemed to be more concerned about the appearance of the new women frontbenchers – the fact that they’re young (relative to most politicians!) and stylish. Is that ultimately what a woman in a high position is rated by – their appearance? Surely there should be analysis and comment on their career, ability to the job and experience – or are we just bitchy by nature?

What concerns me is that the four new female recruits have just a few years’ experience as MPs – I hope their promotion is based on ability and not a political gimmick to lure voters (or should I get real and acknowledge the latter is most probably the only truth in the matter).

We talk about feeling disengaged from politics because we can’t relate to the politicians. We accuse them of not understanding us or our daily lives because they tend to be more privileged – but is appointing people on a tick-box exercise than merit the way forward?

As a female, British Asian working in broadcast media, I have seen and heard insinuations that positive discrimination has helped people like me to progress.  It feels like a constant battle to prove yourself when you’re an ethnic minority woman that your talent is much deeper than the colour of your skin or gender.

Positive discrimination has forced employers to consider other factors when recruiting rather than focusing on the most important – ability. And this has caused resentment around others who feel they are being neglected because they can’t fill the diversity quota – and there’s plenty of hostility by Tories who have been sacked or moved elsewhere!

A cabinet that looks more like the electorate would help lure voters. But what is more important is listening to what they want, what they need and what they are concerned about. A good politician can appeal to a diverse demographic by simply listening to them and acting on their requests. Let’s face it; every constituency is made up of a diverse range of people from different backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, faiths and economic status.

MPs need to worry less about how they look and focus more on listening to their electorate. They need to demonstrate this by reacting to their concerns and taking action. Cameron’s reshuffle is a step in the right direction but let’s see more substance than semblance.

1984 – Thirty years on

This week marks 30 years to Operation Blue Star – the Indian government’s seize of the Sikh holy shrine, Sri Guru Harmandir Sahib Ji (often referred to as the Golden Temple). The aim – to capture a man the government considered a terrorist. The result –innocent pilgrims killed, the eventual assassination of Indira Gandhi (the then prime minister), the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in Delhi and a community disillusioned to this day.

I’m not the kind of person who can shed a tear easily – those dearest to me are often shocked at my stone heart (!) but every time I think about 1984 (although I wasn’t even born then) I can’t help but get a lump in my throat. What upsets me the most is that it was such a calculated attack on a faith – a faith to which I belong, a faith which has empowered India, a faith which fought victorious against Moghul rule, a faith which has significantly strengthened the nation’s borders.

Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale was considered a saint by many Sikhs. He was a man who campaigned for a sovereign state for Sikhs; Khalistan, because he believed the community was discriminated against in India. I don’t believe in his preaching because for a man who is considered saintly I think his approach was to incite hate.

Sikhism is a loving, enveloping and welcoming faith.

He was seen as a threat by the establishment because people were beginning to realise that there was some truth in what he was saying. He had supporters with arms – the government was worried about the potential of civil unrest. Hence, Operation Blue Star was concocted to nip the problem at core – to kill Bhindrawale.

Apparently the general committee of the temple had lost control of management to Bhindrawale’s supporters. Apparently the army had called for these men to surrender. Apparently they had asked for pilgrims to be evacuated.

All of these claims will be contested by one or the other.

What I will never understand is why the government orderd the army to seize the Sikh equivalent of Mecca or the Vatican? And that too on a religious festival so more pilgrims were at the temple than any other day.

I can’t bear the thought of the panic and fear that must’ve swarmed the innocent men, women and children – many of which were frail, elderly people – who had no chance of survival in the crossfire between the army and Bhindrawale’s supporters.

The death toll is disputed to this day – both sides will offer estimates that justify their own cause. I’ve seen photos – photos of bodies lying all over the marble floors of Sri Harmandir Sahib Ji, photos of the majestic building destroyed with bullets, photos of this holy shrine attacked by government orders.

The operation was led by a Sikh army officer, General Brar – no doubt an attempt for the government to justify this wasn’t an attack on the faith but on ‘militants’.

The definition of militants or rebels is so subjective. What could be a freedom fighter for one could be a terrorist to another. In the modern world, what could be a soldier to one could be a murderer to another.

But I digress.

Operation Blue Star was a success; Bhindrawale was killed. But what was yet to come was much more horrific and I have no doubt in my mind the government had acknowledged there would be backlashes that would drive communities to slay each other.

Four months later, Indira Gandhi, the prime minister who had ordered Operation Bluestar, was assassinated by her Sikh guards who had been loyal to her up until the point they felt betrayed.

And then, the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi began.

Hindu mobs (led by extremist groups) went about slaughtering Sikh men and boys. India’s capital was red in blood. The news travelled the world, which watched on in horror. The biggest shock was that the government seemed to be allowing the bloodshed.

Some believe the government was encouraging it.

The official death toll is 3,000 – a number the Sikh community contests.

This estimate doesn’t even take into account the mothers who lost their sons, the young wives widowed and the children who would go on to lead fatherless lives. So many families were destroyed.

Several inquiries have failed to reach justice for the thousands of murders that ensued Operation Blue Star. There were a handful of convictions – less that 1% – which were likely just a means of taming the anger of the Sikh community.

This anger has continued to simmer over three decades. Wounds haven’t even had the chance to heal and then more recently it came to light that Margaret Thatcher’s government offered support to India in Operation Blue Star. The present British government maintains that only military advice was offered but there are calls for a full inquiry and questions raised over whether Britain supplied the arms for India to kill so many on that fateful day in 1984.

Many Sikhs now believe they are a pariah in their home country, India, and even the country to which they have settled in, Britain.

No apology has been made. No acknowledgement by the Indian government of the massacre that followed Indira’s assassination. No legitimate inquiry that has reached a fruitful outcome.

I have no doubt this was a calculated plot by the establishment to curb a movement that threatened the government. Furthermore, this was a plot to divide communities and make neighbours who once lived in love and harmony to become murderers.

Thirty years on, we have to move on. But that cannot happen without acknowledgement or an apology. We can’t change what happened in 1984 but nursing the wounds of a grieving community could prevent further sentiments of fury, resentment and rebellion.

I would just like to end with admission that I am no ‘expert’ on this issue. I have simply written a piece from my own perspective, based on my research and understanding of the events of 1984. My opinions will contrast with many. But opinions are personal and not fact.

Casteism – a social evil

Another tragic news story from India has stunned me to the core – not only is it an abomination for women but for those considered the lowest caste in India; Dalits.

It’s emerged that two Dalit teenaged cousins from a village in Uttar Pradesh were savagely gang raped and hanged. When the desperate father of one of the girls approached the police to find his missing daughter, the officer’s next question shocked him…he questioned his caste.

On establishing the man’s Dalit status the officer refused to look for the girl.

I’ve written about the need to change attitudes towards women in India but God help women who face double jeopardy – a girl born into the lowest caste; Dalit women.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes – not only in India but in the UK too – people of ‘lower caste’ are ostracised by those who consider themselves of ‘higher caste’.

For those not familiar to the terminology; the caste system in India was established from the trade or occupation of a family. The highest caste (in the Hindu community), is Brahmin – who are priests. They are considered ‘pure’ – whatever that means. The lowest are Dalits – who did the least hygienic or sanitary work, such as clearing out waste from homes.

Thousands of years on, the system remains in India. The country has prospered, literacy rates have surged, the nation is seen as a force to be reckoned with on a global platform – and then you hear of caste discrimination.

But India isn’t alone. Casteism is rife the world over – in developed and undeveloped countries. Even in the UK there are social divides that are not often spoken about but the subtle discrimination underlies much of our daily lives. People are stereotyped if they come from a certain area or they have a certain occupation. Class discrimination has evolved from caste discrimination.

Sikhism was established by the founding Guru of the faith; Guru Nanak Devi Ji, who preached equality in the late 15th Century – more than 450 years before anti-discrimination legislation was established in the west! The notion of cooking and dining together (langar) was introduced so people of all backgrounds would come together.

Sadly, 500 years on many Sikhs have maintained the traditions inspired by Hinduism and continue to promote the caste system.

Caste aside – we live in a modern world where monumental movements have highlighted discrimination of race, gender and sexuality. Legislation has been put in place to prevent this, yet this hasn’t stopped racism, sexism or homophobia.

Will we ever live in a world where no discrimination occurs or is it human nature to fear or hate those different to us? Will we always live in a world where a group of elite will exert their power on the weak?

We’re born in the same hospitals, eat the same food, live in similar homes, study in the same institutions and work side by side – yet we define each other by class, colour, race, gender and sexuality.

If the answer is that we can’t rid the world of these evils because of our human instinct then we can hardly call ourselves a civilised society.

Why halal meat labelling is NOT just for Muslims

I was furious the other week when I saw the front page of a tabloid uncovering Pizza Express serves halal meat. I’ve eaten there and guess what – halal meat is against my religion!

The debate has been brewing over the last few months and many people will roll their eyes and question what is the point – meat is meat.


Food which is considered halal is in accordance to Islamic law. Like all faiths, Muslims have beliefs on ways of life, which they believe are correct or not – halal or haram. When it comes to meat, they believe in a certain ritual to slaughter the meat – the animal must be alive and healthy and the blood should be drained while a prayer is recited.

I’m a Sikh. Baptised Sikhs don’t eat meat at all. But in our holy book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, it specifically forbids the consumption of halal meat because we do not believe in any ritualised slaughter. We believe in the fastest, most pain-free way to slaughter – often referred to as chatka. So, meat is stunned before slaughter to minimise the pain as much as possible.

Even the animal charity RSPCA believes removing stunning out of the slaughter process causes suffering that is unnecessary. Although it is claimed there are studies showing the halal process doesn’t cause any more/less suffering to the animal.

But I’m not here to condone or condemn a particular method of slaughter. I’m here to argue why it is important for each of us – regardless of our beliefs – to know whether the meat we consume is halal.

I find it ludicrous that MPs have rejected calls for supermarkets to clearly mark halal meat. If supermarkets could be forced to provide nutritional information and promote ‘organic’ labelling then how on earth can they overlook the importance of halal labelling!

Philip Davies MP seems to be one of the few politicians seeing the logic behind freedom of choice and the right for consumers to choose what they purchase.

If someone specifically wants halal meat, they’re protected because they could either go to a butcher that only services halal meat or they can see labelling on a product.

For those who specifically DON’T want to eat halal meat, such as Sikhs, what protection do we have? We could be buying products thinking they’re not halal because they’re not labelled whereas, in fact, they could be halal.

So what about our religious/ethical views? Do they mean nothing?

An ignorant, narrow-minded man has ranted on YouTube about the “minority 2%” who don’t eat halal; therefore all meat in the UK should be halal. What Zakim Mohammed fails to realise is that this IS NOT a Muslim country where Shariah Law is executed. In the UK, even the minorities have equal rights.

Such bigoted attitudes are at the very core of divided communities and goes against the grain of social cohesion. If everyone is being told what they can eat or what food they have access to then how are we different to a dictatorship?

Well, we are VERY different to a dictatorship.

I am a proud British Asian living in a tolerant, multicultural society and I defy any other country in the world that has demonstrated the level of tolerance Britain has to different faiths, cultures, races and minorities.

However, when some minorities multiply in numbers and consider themselves a majority whose demands should be met to prioritise others – that is going against British ethos.

It seems to be working in many chain eateries – KFC and McDonalds are apparently halal, yet how many rip-off equivalents are there that sell the same sort of food that is halal. I have many Muslim friends but they wouldn’t eat in KFC – so who has that benefitted?

I’ve been to restaurants and asked if they serve halal. More often than not, they would look at me (or my brown skin) and answer “halal”, so I’d turn to go and they’d question why. Several eateries would go back on their word and say “we don’t actually serve halal…”

One place told me “we serve halal but also serve pork products” – right…so then you obviously don’t serve halal!

Why can’t supermarkets, restaurants and all food suppliers just be honest! It is our fundamental right to know what we are eating and we live in a democracy where we have the right to choose.

If you want to eat halal meat – go ahead.

If you couldn’t care less what goes in your mouth – fine.

But DO NOT tell me or anyone else who doesn’t believe in halal slaughter, that this will be the only option!

Is there any such thing as a ‘life partner’?

Much of our parents’ generation have remained together for decades, yet I know many who are my age and already separated or divorced. Is that because they have chosen personal preference over social pressures? Or is the notion of ‘life partner’ a romanticised work of fiction and not the harsh reality? I’m putting relationships under the spotlight.

I know for a fact a lot of our grandparents and parents (regardless of their background) remained together ‘until death did them part’ because of the social and cultural pressures of marriage being a binding contract. In many communities today, it remains the case that if you’re separated or divorced, you’re ‘damaged’ goods – so to speak. You’re no longer the ideal marriage material.

I think a lot of this is based on religious beliefs and also to maintain some sort of social order. For generations people have been convinced that they must remain faithful to ‘the one’, and any challenges they experience along the way will only make them stronger.

But who does this benefit? The couple who are together on paper but not by spirit? Or their families who see them live a depressed life? Or their children who bear the burden of a loveless marriage.

Okay so that’s the extreme – but believe you me, it’s real.

It amazes me that before marriage; its commonplace for people to date, for months or even years at a time. They may declare their love for this person and start picturing a future with them. Then something happens or the love just dwindles and they part ways.

Then all of a sudden when they marry somebody, the pressure is mounted that they must do whatever it takes to keep the marriage afloat.

Personally, I find it a scary concept to commit the rest of my life to one person. And I think it’s quite normal to be so cynical because I haven’t come across ‘the one’ who I could consider a life partner. And if anyone reaches anywhere close, then what’s to say they won’t change over the years, or that I won’t?

That’s the crucial point – time, experiences, circumstances change us all as people. I am completely different to Raj ten years ago. I have done things I never thought I would or would condemn back then.

So if I can’t vouch for myself then how can I commit myself till death do us part?

I have seen loving couples who I admire because they seem so resilient as long as they have each other – yet certain situations have tested their relationships to almost breaking point. Some haven’t worked out but many of them have stuck it out, worked through it and maybe it’s made them stronger…only they could say.

There’s many things that would frustrate me in a marriage – snoring is high up on the list (!) – but the one thing that I don’t think I could work out is infidelity. Trust is like a mirror – once shattered, no matter how hard you try to piece it together; the cracks will show forever. It’s a harsh truth but if a person can stray once; the only reasoning I can digest for it to occur is that they’re not content with what they have. Well there’s the door, goodbye!

And then there’s the practicalities of life – children, jobs, finances, running a home – these are all areas that can test a relationship. When so much is going on, is there space for love? Does love even count in a lifelong relationship? Or are you just so used to each other, you’ve built so much together that you just can’t imagine life without them…or maybe that is love…?

My cousin recently said something to me that has stuck and made me completely re-think my quest for a life partner: “There’s no such thing as the perfect partner. It’s their imperfections that are perfect for you.”

So are we unnecessarily adding pressure on ourselves by seeking perfection? Is this blinding us from other qualities in a person that don’t particularly tally up to our wish list but they’re qualities nonetheless?

Admittedly, my heart melts when I see an old couple walking hand in hand, or arm in arm. I wonder what they’ve been through. What has life thrown their way to test their faith and commitment in one another? And all of a sudden my faith in life partners is restored.

Thanks to a lifetime of Hindi cinema, I do have a romantic side deep (deep, deep) down! So contrary to my mini rant so far, I do believe I will end up with someone worthy of a lifetime commitment. I’m not expecting a predictably paced merry-go-round – the wilder the rollercoaster ride with highs, lows and twists, the better!