South Asians react to 'historic' appointment of Britain's first Asian prime minister

Credit: PA/ITV News

By ITV News Multimedia Producer Khadija Kothia and ITV News journalist Sanjay Jha

South Asians around the UK are reacting to the news that Rishi Sunak will become Britain's first Asian prime minister.

Mr Sunak had hit the threshold of 100 nominations from Conservative colleagues ahead of a deadline of 2pm on Monday, before commanding the public support of about half the parliamentary party.

British South Asian groups heralded the move a “historic moment” that shows the highest office “can be open to those of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds”.

Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, said: “Rishi Sunak becoming the first British Indian prime minister is a historic moment. This simply would not have been possible even a decade or two ago."

“It shows that public service in the highest office in Britain can be open to those of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds."

Rishi Sunak was born in 1980 in Southampton to parents of Punjabi descent. His grandparents were born in India and emigrated to the UK from East Africa in the 1960s.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak lighting candles outside 11 Downing Street, London, ahead of Diwali celebrations in 2021 Credit: PA

Mr Sunak is a practicing Hindu and takes his Commons oath on the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Sanskrit text. He will also become Britain's first Hindu prime minister.

Many British Hindus pointed to the coincidence of Mr Sunak's appointment the same day that the UK's approximately 800,000 Hindu population celebrated the Hindu festival of light and prosperity, Diwali.

One Twitter user wrote: "Rishi Sunak, a man of Indian Origin becomes the prime minister of UK on Diwali. How Poetic."

The Hindu Forum of Britain tweeted that Mr Sunak had written to the group sharing his best wishes with those celebrating Diwali, and said they were wishing him in return “every success on this auspicious day”.

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However many British South Asians have mixed feelings about the appointment.

Krishna Halai, 27, an operations manager in tech from London, said: “I can celebrate a Hindu PM given the history of colonisation by the British in India, we are breaking barriers in politics.

"But Rishi specifically and some of the Indian/Hindu POC (people of colour) in ministerial positions I don’t feel represents me and the kind of politics our families stood for when they first came to this country.”

British-Punjabi writer Sathnam Sanghera says he understands why Mr Sunak's appointment may bring up "very complicated" feelings for British South Asians.

"It's good overall and our representation matters but it's only part of the battle," he told ITV News.

"The most problematic thing for me is that Rishi has gone along with the culture war with the Conservative Party and this culture war has kind of ridiculed people like me who look into British Empire," says the Empireland author, whose recent book looks into how imperialism has shaped modern Britain.

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Some of Mr Sunak's controversial policies include curbing immigration by pushing ahead with the government's plan to cut Channel crossings and deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

"That puts you in a bit of a paradox as a brown person."

While Mr Sunak's huge personal wealth also makes him economically unrelatable to many thousands of South Asians who are living in poverty in the UK, Mr Sanghera said Mr Sunak's appointment will highlight the diversity of wealth and experience of South Asians living in Britain.

"Hopefully one positive thing about Rishi's appointment is that our conversation about race will become more sophisticated, because it makes no sense to lump all brown people together like they used to in the 1980s."

The mood in India was generally more optimistic.

People were already celebrating Diwali when news came about Rishi Sunak becoming next prime minister of the United Kingdom.

“It is indeed a matter of great pride for every Indian belonging to all section of Indian society that an Indian-origin person has become prime minister of Great Britain," said 28-year-old New Delhi resident, Saurabh Kumar Mishra.

"Now that we have a PM in Britain we also wish that one day an Indian should hold highest office in USA and other countries. I see it happening in near future.”

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India has barely recovered from the jubilation of a thrilling victory against the arch rival Pakistan in T20 world cup yesterday.

75 years after India gained independence from British rule, Mr Sunak’s rise as UK's first British-Asian prime minister is seen as a landmark moment.

Television channels stopped their regular broadcast and were breathlessly running headlines reporting him becoming the UK prime minister.

“Indian son rises over the Empire history comes full circle in Britain,” said one of India’s popular English news channel NDTV.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi immediately congratulated Mr Sunak and said: "As you become UK PM, I look forward to working closely together on global issues, and implementing Roadmap 2030. Special Diwali wishes to the 'living bridge' of UK Indians, as we transform our historic ties into a modern partnership.”

Although, Mr Sunak doesn’t have any direct connection with India as his parents were born in Africa.

His grandparents were born in the Punjab province of British India but that has not deterred common people on street from celebrating his victory.

"If he does good work then Hindus would get more respect through the world," said Raj Mangal Singh, a shopkeeper in Delhi.