A member of parliament for Ealing Southall since 2007, Virendra Sharma is a veteran Labour party member with a long and distinguished public service record. Born in India in 1947, he moved to London in 1968 and is now one of the most prominent British Asian politicians, representing the issues and interests of the community in the corridors of Westminster. He speaks to Shrestha Trivedi on challenges faced by first generation immigrants, fighting against female inequality, and how being a bus conductor proved to be a stepping stone for a career in politics.
Q1) What according to you are some of the biggest challenges faced by the first generation Indians in the UK?
Virendra Sharma: There are quite a few actually…first one being language. The difficulty of communicating in English is the foremost challenge faced by many immigrants, which leads to isolation and limited access to community.
Another problem is that of unemployment and relevant skills. And again, due to poor English skills, some of these people miss out on employment opportunities. In fact, older people even miss out on communicating and bonding with their grandchildren. And these problems affect women more.
Q2) Indian women are also socially vulnerable as dowry, physical and mental abuse, sexual harassment and forced marriages become more widespread here. What can be done to empower women and prevent their mistreatment and abuse?
Virendra Sharma: We have to change the mindset of people in our Asian communities. Laws alone do not help. In India, we have laws against dowry, caste discrimination and underage marriages but people still break them.
What we need is education. We must raise awareness, provide resources and form support networks to empower women to fight for equality. Initiatives such as Indian Ladies in the UK (ILU) give them a platform to be part of wider conversation; provide help with skill development and instil confidence in them.
I always say that we [people from the Indian subcontinent] need to lose the baggage we carry with us. There was a time when British Asians (during the late 60s and 70s and even 80s) were more tolerant and open towards different religious practices. However, I feel now we are more segregated along religious lines – more intolerant of both British and Asian values.
In these globalised times, the future lies with education, science and technology: we need to embrace modern, 21st century values rather than continue with 14 century ones.
Q3) Tell us a bit about your background.
Virendra Sharma: I’m originally from a small village called Mandhali (district Jalandhar) in Punjab. I came to the UK when I was in my early 20s. Luckily for me, I already had two elder brothers living here so I had a family network to rely upon, which was a big help. Other immigrants face alienation, loneliness and difficulty of settling into new environment but I was fortunate to not have those pressures. However, even then, I would remember old times and miss my parents, family and friends. It was a mixture of emotions.
Q4) What made you join politics?
Virendra Sharma: When I arrived in this country, I faced discrimination in employment, which made me realise that we need to fight. At that time, South Asians would mostly engaged in part-time politics – doing work after office hours – whereas I was of the viewpoint that we should join mainstream politics. I decided very early that we need to get involved in the trade union movement and fight for our rights. I never even imagined that I could become a councillor, forget being a member of parliament. I just wanted to be seen as an active participant and work with honesty and dedication.
Q5) What was your first job?
Virendra Sharma: My first job was as a bus conductor on 207 route and it was a great learning experience. I would meet and interact with people from all walks of life. A lot of them were workers and I would talk to them about their issues and problems. At other times, I would see school kids – in fact those kids have grown up and I’m still in touch with few of them.
I started my journey from here and always tell young people that if I could do it, so can you. The second generation doesn’t have those financial and social pressures, so hopefully, they will do better. I’m confident in the future we will see many more Indians as cabinet ministers, senior government officials, and perhaps someone even as the prime minster one day.
We have laid the foundation and they will, hopefully, construct a building wall on top of it.
Q6) What role can Indian diaspora play to encourage India-UK ties?
Virendra Sharma: I’m a firm believer in strengthening UK-India ties – be it trade, cultural and social – and actively campaign for it. I believe diaspora is bridge between India and the UK, however, without support, this bridge will collapse. So the Indian government and the people need to support us. We have a major role to play – the Indian government needs to plan and facilitate how the Indian diaspora can contribute towards developmental schemes in India and boost mutual relations.
Q7) And finally, is there any message or advice you would like to give to ILU members or British Asian women
Virendra Sharma: My message to all British Asian women, irrespective of first or second or third generation, is they should not accept unfair treatment. They are not helpless and have a huge contribution to make in the civil society. Mothers need to raise their children with the belief that men and women are equal and then pass on those values. The first step is always difficult: women have been subjected to centuries of male dominance, which makes it tough to go against the established norms – but once they decide to take that initiative, they will get the support they need and eventually people will follow.