BASW Cymru and SWU celebrate South Asian Heritage Month 2022

South Asian Heritage Month 2022

This year’s theme calls for us to reflect how we have all been affected by “Journeys of Empire”

In this blog, BASW Cymru Professional Officer Narinder Sidhu explores what it means to be South Asian in the 21st century whilst also reflecting on the past with award-winning LGBTQ+ Activist Khakan Qureshi BEM and BASW Vice Chair Neeta Singh Baicher.

Journeys of Empire

South Asian Heritage Month 2022

July 18th to August 17th 2022 marks South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM) which is now in its third year. This celebratory month raises the profile of British South Asians from countries including: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Details of events across the UK can be found at the South Asian Heritage Month website.

SAHM Co-Founder Jasvir Singh OBE hopes to celebrate, commemorate, and educate South Asians and the rest of the world during this month. He commented, “Barely three years old, a movement that showed slow growth year on year is today showing exponential growth month on month. South Asian Heritage Month 2022 openly resonates with its community and is fast becoming the anticipated time for South Asians.”

This year’s theme is Journeys of Empire. It reflects how we have all been affected by the many journeys of empire including the many migrants who travelled by choice to the UK with just three pound in their pockets; this is a familiar story to many South Asian individuals who settled here. The theme also reflects two major anniversaries taking place in 2022 which are the 75th anniversary of the independence of India, Partition, and the creation of Pakistan (later known as East and West Pakistan) and the 50th anniversary of the expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin.

We understand that the term “South Asian” has limitations as a label and we use it here as a general term for South Asian diaspora communities, those who identify as South Asian, and people of South Asian descent. We also include Indo-Caribbean communities, Mauritians, those from the South Asian sub-continent, and all those who identify both within and outside of the various borders and geo-political formations, as well as those aligned with self-determination movements across the South Asian subcontinent. We practice our social work values and stand in solidarity with those who are excluded and marginalised within ‘South Asian’ diasporas.

We welcome all communities including Romani communities to celebrate South Asian Heritage Month with us. Many people may not be aware but Romani people originated in India as a nomadic people and entered Europe between the eighth and tenth centuries C.E.

The Romani language has obvious similarities with languages spoken in northern India and many common Romani words, including the numerals, are near identical to their modern Hindi and Punjabi numerals – for example, the Romani for number one yek (Hindi and Punjabi ek), for number two dui (do), for number three trin (teen), for number four shtaar (chaar), and for number five panchi (paanch). The words baal (hair), kaan (ear) and naak (nose) which are the same as the Hindi and Punjabi words. There are many cultural similarities too between the Romani and Indian communities, such as an association of the colour white when mourning and applying of mehndi on palms by Roma brides.

This is only something that I have learned this year! It brings me much joy to hear and further fuels my celebrations for SAHM this year and for many years to come. Learning about the communities we serve is vital when practicing effective social work and advocating for social justice across the UK. Watch for a future blog in which we will share more about this Romani and Indian heritage. BASW Cymru and SWU commit to learning more about South Asian heritage and sharing this with you.

BASW Cymru National Director Allison Hulmes said, “For us Romani people whose ancestors left Mother India over a 1000 years ago, it is a joy and privilege to celebrate South Asian Heritage Month along with our South Asian brothers and sisters. There is growing acknowledgement of our origin in India. In 1983, Indira Gandhi expressed her kinship with Romani people and in 2016 Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs of India, proclaimed, ‘You are the children of India…’

“These past days I’ve been reflecting on the partition of India in 1947 and watching documentaries detailing personal stories of loss and grief and also stories of a willingness to protect and support neighbours and friends across the religious divides. These stories have moved me deeply. We must understand the migration stories of all of the citizens in the UK and the role that Empire played and as I take the opportunity to learn more about South Asian culture and heritage during this important month, I too celebrate in also being a daughter of India.”

General Secretary of the Social Workers Union (SWU) John McGowan said, “South Asian Heritage Month is a terrific opportunity to celebrate the cultures, heritage, and history of SWU’s many South Asian members. It’s great to hear the stories of people with living experience and I thank them for sharing their Journeys of Empire with us this year. It would be great to hear from members so we can share some of their stories in the next SWU newsletter.

“Along with celebrating the month, SWU and its National Executive Committee are committed to continuing to learn and broaden our knowledge. SWU is also committed to improving the working conditions and wellbeing of social workers, including social workers with South Asian heritage.

I invite everyone reading this to give serious consideration to joining a union. If you ever need our services you can be confident that advice, support, and representation from SWU will be from a fellow social worker who understands the needs of frontline workers.”

Personal reflections on South Asian Heritage Month 2022

Like many of South Asians who grew up in Britain, it was not until many years into my adult life when I began to fully understand and reflect on the sacrifices my grandparents and parents had made moving to the UK. I have heard many stories about the hardships that families faced during their journeys of empire and the solidarity that grew as communities came together to survive.

Khakan Qureshi is an award-winning LGBTQ+ Activist and has a long history of advocating for individuals who identify as South Asian LGBTQ+. Khakan shared with us how his family settled in England with us. He said, “My parents were born in Amritsar, Punjab, India. They were forced to leave India due to the Partition in 1947 as they were (Punjabi) Muslims and settled in Lahore, Pakistan. My parents were distant relatives and had an arranged marriage.  They had their first child, a daughter, in 1955 and their first son came along two years later. My dad was offered the opportunity to study either in the USA or the UK. He chose the UK and was later joined by my mum in 1961. They lived in a small, terraced house in Balsall Health, Birmingham.  My father opened one of the first South Asian curry houses, called Shiraz, in 1968 and was featured in the Evening Mail, a local newspaper for the Midlands.”

Khakan openly shared his experience of being a South Asian living in Britain by telling us about his fondest memories. He shared, “My fondest memories are of watching children’s TV shows like Pipkin, The Klangers, Bagpuss,  reading books, going out with my mum and siblings to local parks, like Cannon Hill or the Lickey Hills and drawing attention as we sat on the grass eating sheesh kebabs burgers, samosas and pakoras, having day trips to places like Blackpool, Barry Island, Weston-Super-Mare either as a family or as a community trip on the charabanc,  enjoying Easter, Eid or Christmas and alternating meals between traditional roast chicken dinners and pilau rice, rotis and curries, being in the kitchen and enjoying the hustle and bustle of the family gatherings, watching my mum and sisters getting ready for the South Asian parties, weddings and other special occasions, admiring them as they chose the different brightly coloured shalwar kameez, saris and matching it up with Indian gold jewellery or opting for the less ostentatious high street offerings from stores such as Rackhams, sitting with the family and alternating between watching old Hollywood movies or Bollywood goldies, listening to my brother and sister play jazz, funk, soul and disco whilst my parents would choose Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi.”

This was a joy to read as there were so many commonalities with what bought me happiness in my youth. We have so much to be proud of as a British South Asians with such enriched heritage and culture. I remember hiring out VHS Bollywood movies from the local store for 50p and watching them with the family. My dad would give me a list of movies written on a piece of paper and I would walk to the shop with the list hoping they would not ask me to pronounce the complicated titles. It is something we did every Sunday as a family. This was during a time when Sunday was a day of rest, and nothing was open unlike today.

While watching these Bollywood movies, sometimes with subtitles, I began to unconsciously learn Hindi as a young child. Not one lesson and I can now fully understand Hindi; that’s powerful. We also would watch Punjabi movies too. After a day at school, me and my siblings would attend a Punjabi school for an hour and learn Punjabi. It was the same school I went to in the day which was great so we would pop home eat and then walk back to school; it was great fun seeing our Asian friends there. The value of learning Punjabi and more about my heritage did not it me until much later in adult life. Now I realise how priceless it was. I can speak, read, and write Punjabi which I am proud of. All my family speak English so unless I see my grandmothers, I rarely get opportunity to use it.

There seems to be an invisible golden thread which is deeply rooted amongst all of those who have lived and understand the journeys of empire. There is a silent underlying pain which will always exist and this month we pay tribute to all those we have lost and all those who paved the way for South Asian greatness across the world. Khakan describes this best when he described his life as “enriching, culturally confusing, complex and challenging, linear and diverse.” 

Whilst Khakan continues to be an incredible inspiration to the South Asian LGBTQ+ communities across the world, he has had to draw upon inner courage during difficult times. Khakan shared some of his hardest struggles. He said, “Over the years I have been facing up to the realities of racism (direct or indirect) and prejudice about being a brown, Muslim gay man. Coming to terms with my sexual orientation and trying to reconcile it with my faith as a Muslim. This had led to anxiety and depression and suicidal ideation. Stepping away from identifying as a Muslim after 9/11 as the stigma and bigotry surrounding Islam and Muslim was extremely prevalent in the media and community as to sometimes create a hostile environment, even in conversations. Losing both my parents. I lost my dad in 2008 and mum passed in 2010. I also lost my job at the end of the year so fell into a deep depression and experienced loss (emotionally and financially) and bereavement.”

We have all observed and occasionally reflected on how times have changed. Khakan describes his own reflection of positive and negative changes. He said, “The more positive changes are how South Asians are gaining more visibility in areas which were otherwise inaccessible. There’s more online accounts tackling issues which were or are deemed ‘taboo’ within South Asian communities such as mental health, women’s health, forced marriages, honour based violence and sexual matters. IG and Twitter are good examples to see how South Asians are being more creative in highlighting the good, by connecting people who share a commonality. The negatives are the more visibility we gain as South Asians, there is more hostility and discrimination. There is a lack of resources, funds and role models in the public eye, and I hope SAHM becomes more recognised as a national annual event, which will strengthen our role in UK society.”

Khakan speaks about those who have played a significant part in his life. He said, “My parents were very influential in my life. I was very close to my mum who had been to the University of Life and taught me about the inner strength of women, how to be robust and resilient in the face of adversity and allowed me to have a spiritual connection with my faith. I didn’t realise how much of an inspiration my father was to me until after he passed, and I had written an unpublished novel about my relationship with him. We seemed to have quite a distant relationship, but it was because we were so much alike. He recognised my passion for social injustice before I did, saw the potential in me and, ironically, I find myself following in his footsteps. Where he strived to integrate South Asians with Western communities and vice versa, I do the same but through the lens of the South Asian LGBT+ perspective. My lifetime partner, who instilled confidence in me, offered me unwavering support and loyalty and encouraged me to do the things I love and not to pay any mind to what others think.”

We asked Khakan how he will be celebrating this month, and he replied, “As it happens, SAHM coincides with the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this year, so I will be enjoying both festivities. I will be utilising my brownness, gayness and Muslimness to celebrate attending events, speaking about intersectionality, sharing my personal experiences and looking at ways in how to promote SAHM via social media or in person. I will be celebrating my uniqueness in my identity as a brown South Asian every day!”  

Khakan’s stories about his life caused me to reflect further about the social work profession. As social workers, it is crucial that we are open to listening and understanding people’s life experiences in their own narratives. Understanding the heritage of communities that we serve is fundamental for safe and effective social work intervention to take place. The various layers of people’s identities intersect and offer many opportunities for relationship-based social work to take place in co-production with those we support. Intersectionality enriches relationship-based social work.

Neeta Singh Baicher is the recently appointed Vice-Chair of BASW UK and has spent many years being an innovative leader within the social work profession across Wales and now hopes to continue her work across the UK. Neeta has inspired many social workers to remain authentic to their true selves and be proud of their heritage and culture when practicing social work. She has challenged opposing views and inspired many to seek social justice during difficult times. Neeta is fluent in her mother tongue and the Welsh language which she learnt when she arrived in Wales those many years ago.

Neeta shared that, “As a social worker I am very proud of my unique profession and passionate about my South Asian heritage and culture. Today we enjoy many privileges because of early social workers like Vinobe Bhave, Jotiba Phule and many more who saw injustice and took action. They inspired me to work in this field. The same with my parents and grandparents in the struggle of the Empire – it was because of them that solid foundations were laid for my future career.

“I came to Leeds in the early 80’s. I recall that getting a job as a student’s spouse was an interesting phase of my life. It included hearing many phrases like ‘Oh! You speak good English, were did you learn the language!’

“Support from my family and friends has encouraged me to move forward in my work and voluntary work. My best memories from my career are from my secondment to study social work, being appointed as a Justice, and working with marginalized communities in Riverside, Ely, young offenders and Welsh valley. I understood what an important role values and tradition play in successful intervention. Also, the common shared experience of burn-out from the job.”

Neeta reflected further, saying, “We must continue work to eliminate systematic racism, and this includes ensuring access to behavioural health services and appropriate use of terminology. Change has been slow. Together we need to keep moving.

BASW Cymru and SWU wish you a fabulous South Asian Heritage Month and we invite you to share your stories and celebrations with us by emailing, and with the wider world using the hashtags #SouthAsianHeritageMonth, #OurStoriesMatter, #JourneysOfEmpire, #SocialWorkMatters, and tagging BASW Cymru and SWU on social media.

We are delighted to announce that following this BASW Cymru and SWU blog, the South Asian Heritage Organisation has confirmed that they will plan 2023 with focus on Romani people to be included in celebrations and support raising further awareness!