Oxford University teacher stands up for minority students who missed Diwali

Rupanjana Dutta Monday 23rd November 2020 18:08 EST

An Oxford University Teaching Associate and medic, Dr Soham Bandyopadhyay, has stepped up for ethnic minority students, who have missed Diwali celebrations this season. Diwali, a festival celebrated pan-India and by the diaspora in the UK, holds a special place in the hearts of Indians. In an article he has written for The Lancet, he has criticised the UK Government for not considering the mental health condition of students from Indian background, who have had to miss Diwali, so that Christmas could be celebrated. The Lancet is world's oldest and best-known weekly general medical journals founded in 1823.

While Christmas is a time celebrated with family and friends, for Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists, Diwali represents a similar significance and is also a festival celebrated with friends and family. 

The current national lockdown in the UK means a large section of ethnic minority students including Indians are forbidden from returning home so that Christmas is not affected. 

In The Lancet article, Dr Bandyopadhyay, who has interest in neurosurgery and global health wrote, “This seems to have been done without much thought about the impact this would have on an already marginalised community. The worst thing about this is that it was entirely avoidable. The government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advised a 2-week circuit break in early October 2020 and warned of the impact on minority ethnic communities if this advice was ignored. Their advice, of course, went unheeded.”

Research shows that family and friends are crucial to maintain the well-being and mental health of university students especially during this Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, with the government not looking beyond interests of the universities, students have come forward and formed mental health support groups, standing by each other in these trying times.

Soham further went on to say that this exact same policy of a culturally deaf government has blamed BAME communities for not taking the pandemic seriously and accused the community of spreading Covid-19, especially due to the existing multigenerational structures within their households.

Speaking to Asian Voice, 24-year-old Dr Bandyopadhyay said, “It seems a bit odd that the ethnic communities are being overlooked. Mental health is equally important for students. Eid was cancelled the night before and then Diwali was cancelled 'to make Christmas happen’. With mental health cases rising, the government should have allowed this cultural festival to happen. Students should have been allowed a two-week isolation period and permitted to go back home, rather than clamp them down under national lockdown. 

“I am not saying that Diwali should have happened as normal this year. Students, who are not coping too well with the new surroundings, since this is a culturally important festival and since they are used to being around family on these important days, disconnecting such a marginalised and already at-risk group does not seem well thought. It is specifically affecting one minority community than any others, which is a form of institutional racism.”  

Dr Bandyopadhyay is demanding for a more culturally aware and sensitive policy than the one currently championed by the government. He is advocating for universities to build timetables that enable students to visit home and self-isolate as required. He thinks universities should have advocated an online education this term.

However, his article after being quoted by a national newspaper in the UK has evoked interest and sparked debate among the wider Bengali community. While some have supported and welcomed his criticism of the government’s policy towards its minority students, others have sneered upon his comment calling it ‘unrequired and divisive’.

Trupti Patel, President of The Hindu Forum of Britain, an umbrella body for Hindu organisations in the UK said the government consulted community representatives before taking such a decision. “The Hindu community is fully engaged with the government at various levels and have produced guidelines to worship with safety, health and well-being of everyone working and visiting temples," she said. "Individual worships were allowed, and many temples were open during Diwali. Entry was allowed on pre-booked basis.  

 “In fact, one devotee in a temple said that there would always be some festival in some faith or the other all year around. An earlier lockdown is better as the colder months will get tougher. Some argue that this action was needed even sooner.”

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