British Asians made UK their base mainly after World War-II

CB Patel and Anand Pillai Monday 01st February 2016 10:26 EST

The family tree of British Asians who are contributing significantly to the UK economy and other walks of life can be traced back mainly to the post-World War II days, especially in the aftermath of India’s Partition in 1947 and Africanisation policies in East Africa.

Asian Voice attempts to take you through a brief history of British Asians and their contribution to their adopted country.

Who are British Asians?

British Asians are persons of Asian descent who resides in the United Kingdom. They are also referred as South Asians in the United Kingdom, Asian British people or Asian Britons.

The terminology British Asian was first coined in 1959 when the then Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod spoke in Parliament in the aftermath of the “Wind of Change” speech by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in South Africa.

Mr Macleod was referring to East African Asians who had invested some £800 million in British financial institutions when the sterling was on weaker grounds.

This huge amount was a great boon for the British economy. This East African terminology developed in the aftermath of Independence of two separate nations – India and Pakistan.

Earlier Mahatma Gandhi had helped in the formation of Kenya Indian Congress in the first decade of the 20th century, on his return journey from Congress annual session in Calcutta (Kolkata now), very soon Indian associations were formed in various cities of East African countries.

With separate country of Pakistan, the East African Association members from that part of undivided India (say 15%) were not willing to be part of Kenya India Association.

East African Asian was referring to people from Indian sub-continent and British Asian is confined to that sub-continent. It does not include Chinese, Malays, Japanese, etc.

Asian arrivals in Britain

Majority of the South Asian population who arrived in Britain from India came after the Partition of India. That was in 1947. Later there were many arrivals from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Post-World War II arrivals also included Indian indentured labourers who had migrated to sugar-producing colonies and Indian workers who had gone to work in East Africa.

After Tanzania became independent in 1961, Uganda in 1962 and Kenya in 1963, there were many violent changes.

In 1966, Kenya terminated settlement rights for British passport holders of South Asian descent, paving the way to the first exodus of East African Asian migrants to Britain in 1969. Asians were expelled from Uganda in 1972 by dictator Idi Amin.

Asians living in Uganda had no choice but to leave. Idi Amin seized power in Uganda in a coup in 1971, and on August 4th 1972 ordered all Asians to leave the country within 90 days.

Between 1972 and 1973, 28,000 Ugandan Asians arrived in Britain. Many originated in India and had British overseas passports, and the then British Prime Minister Edward Heath said, “The UK had a moral duty to help them”.

The Ugandan Asians were quickly on their way to becoming one of Britain’s greatest success stories, with thousands seeking employment in a short span of 3 months since they started arriving.


In spite of protest from some trade unionists, British politician Enoch Powell and others, UK Prime Minister Edward Heath accepted Asians, and the Uganda Resettlement Board was formed under the leadership of Sir Robert Carr.

The board assumed that this new arrival will require special camps and some 13 camps were established all over England.

Original assumption was that their arrival in the worst part of the year in winter, the problems of uprooting without financial resources would need the camp for some three years.

But that was the spirit of Ugandan Asians who found shelter with friends and relations and moved out of camps and did menial jobs to make a living. Many Ugandan Asian wives (mainly Gujaratis) – who had never worked in East Africa, who had a legion of servants – were helping their husbands in the UK for running their business or taking over any work to help the family. British Asian success has always been benefited from the women folk.

Today Ugandan Asians are in every possible profession – be it media, business, sport, public services or politics. Lord Dolar Popat and MP Shailesh Vara are some of the examples of it.

By 1980s a large number of independent retail shops in groceries, news agents, off licences, pharmacies, etc. were run by former Ugandan Asians. The British media and the Government took notice of their entrepreneurial skill, their commitment to family, especially for the education of their children.

The Ugandan Asians' story shows just how much these minority communities have to offer to Britain. These people have ingenuity, ideas, and business links across the world.

The post-war Asian migrants were skilled workers like artisans, teachers, doctors, and ex-Indian and British Armed Forces personnel. Their spouses and kin came to join their families who were now living in Britain.

Most of them were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Christians (particularly Anglo Indians).

Some took anglicized names, as they wanted to fit in and be accepted by the locals. The majority did not change their names legally.

Reason for migration

South Asian migrants to the UK after 1947 came for different reasons – to escape civil war, to seek better economic opportunities and to join family members already settled in Britain. In spite of facing discrimination at the time in Britain, these migrants have settled in the UK, and many have contributed to the political, economic and social life of the UK.

Migration to the UK from Punjab

Britain’s labour shortages shaped the post-World War II migration patterns from the Indian subcontinent. It was primarily men from peasant families in Punjab, particularly those who had been previously employed in the colonial army or the police force and their relatives, who took up this opportunity.

These Punjabi migrants found work in the manufacturing, textile and the service sectors, including a significant number at Heathrow Airport in West London. After the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed in 1962 which restricted the free movement of workers from the Commonwealth, most workers from South Asia decided to settle in the UK and were eventually joined by their families.

Migration to the UK from Mirpur, Pakistan

A large majority of Pakistani migrants in the UK originate from Mirpur (Azad Kashmir).

Pakistani migrants who came to Britain after the war found employment in the textile industries of Lancashire, Yorkshire, cars and engineering factories in the West Midlands, and Birmingham, and growing light industrial estates in places like Luton and Slough.

Other groups who migrated from Pakistan in the 1960s include Punjabis who mainly settled in Glasgow, Birmingham and Southall in London, and migrants from urban areas who were more likely to be professionals and who worked for the NHS.

Migration to the UK from Bangladesh

There was a civil war between East Pakistan and West Pakistan in 1970-71, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Most Bangladeshi families in the UK in the present time are the result of mass migration in the early 1970s from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh, as people fled from the civil unrest in their homeland, to seek a better life in Britain. They settled in the East London borough. Bangladeshi men initially found work in the steel and textile mills across England, but when these industries collapsed, they turned to small businesses, including tailoring and catering. Many found work in the growing number of 'Indian' restaurants and takeaways in the UK, most of which are actually owned by Bangladeshis.

Migration from Sri Lanka

During the 1960s and 70s, small numbers of professionals emigrated to the UK from Sri Lanka, and found work in the NHS and other white-collar occupations. These early migrants came from affluent backgrounds, were well-educated and have become established in British society.

The next distinctive phase of Sri Lankan migration to the UK happened from the 1980s onwards, during the civil war in Sri Lanka. A large number of Tamil Sri Lankans sought asylum in the UK.

Seventy per cent of people of Sri Lankan origin live in London, 20% in the Midlands and the rest in other parts of the UK. Many Tamils in the UK have found employment in small businesses, including grocery shops and news agents, with increasing numbers setting up their own business.

Indian Migration

There have been three waves of migration of Indians in the United Kingdom.

The first wave was before India's independence in 1947. In the early 1960s the Conservative Health Minister the Rt Hon Enoch Powell recruited a large number of doctors from the Indian sub-continent.

The second wave occurred in the 1970s mainly from East Africa.

The last wave of migration began in the 1990s and included Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka and professionals, including doctors and software engineers from India.

British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are much more religiously homogeneous, with Muslims accounting for 92% of each group, while their counterparts of Indian and Sri Lankan origin tend to be religiously diverse, with 55% Hindus, 29% Sikhs, and 15% Muslims.

British Gujaratis are predominantly Hindu, belonging to various caste organizations, with large minorities of Muslims, Jains and smaller numbers of Christians and Zoroastrians.

UK Population

* The total population in United Kingdom was last recorded at 64.8 million people in 2014 from 52.2 million in 1960, changing 24 percent during the last 50 years.

*The 2011 UK Census recorded 1,451,862 residents of Indian, 1,174,983 of Pakistani and 451,529 of Bangladeshi ethnicity, making a total South Asian population of 3,078,374 (4.9 per cent of the total population), excluding other Asian groups and people of mixed ethnicity.

* British Asians have come to Britain from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Number Data

Thousands of Asians left Uganda with no property and only the permitted £55 in cash each. About 28,000 Ugandan Asians came to the UK, while smaller numbers went to Canada, India and Kenya. While many Asians in Uganda already held British citizenship, there were others who were granted British citizenship after they lost Ugandan citizenship.

In 1968 there were 345,000 Asians resident in Kenya, Tanzania,

Zambia, Malawi, and Uganda. By 1984, according to the Minority

Rights Group (1990), their numbers had fallen to about 85,000,

which included 40,000 in Kenya, 20,000 in Tanzania, 3,000 in

Zambia, 1,000 in Malawi, and 1,000 in Uganda.

Correspondingly, in 1971 the number of Asians from Africa who

were resident in the UK was about 45,000. Following the

emigration from African countries, according to the 1981 Census,

there were about 180,000 East African Asians in the UK.


Beginning around 1964 Africanisation policies in East Africa prompted the arrival of Asians with British passports from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Africanisation was to bring under the influence, control, or cultural or civil supremacy of Africans and especially black Africans.

Many such displaced people who were predominantly of Gujarati origins had left behind successful businesses and vast commercial empires in Uganda, but built up their lives all over again in Britain, starting from scratch. Some of these “twice-over” migrants became retailers, while others found suitable employment in white-collar professions.

Contribution to GDP

The Centre for Social Markets estimates that British Asian businesses contribute as much as 10% of total GDP.

Influence on British culture

The biggest influence of South Asians on popular British culture has probably been the spread of Indian cuisine, though of the 9,000 Indian restaurants in the UK, most are run by Bangladeshis.


The increasingly competitive nature of the education system has led to a divergence between South Asian groups: with Hindu and Sikh Indians (including East African Asians) firmly established as educational 'successes', and Pakistani and Bangladeshi South Asian Muslims, in contrast, routinely considered as educational 'failures'.

Factors associated with religion and culture are more likely to affect South Asian Muslims.


The Asian entrepreneur transformed the UK from an 8-hour working day to 24 hours seven days a week. Indian cuisine and restaurants became a key part of the British lifestyle. The restaurants are responsible for the success of many of the key players in Asian enterprise. Late Lord Gulam Noon, for example, credits the restaurants for opening the doors for his range of Indian chilled and frozen foods to be found in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, among other stores.

The same is true for the success of Karan Bilimoria (now Lord) and Cobra lager.

The contribution of the British Asian community to the resurgence of British industry is exemplified by the likes of Swraj Paul, Nat Puri and, Dinesh Dhamija, among others.

There has been a shift in activities away from traditional manufacturing companies towards newer, higher-tech, higher value companies in industries like pharmaceuticals. The growth of Waymade healthcare headed by the Patel brothers Vijay and Bhikhu demonstrates this trend. They came from Kenya.

Mike Jatania, the CEO of Lornamead too has enjoyed tremendous success with his acquisition strategy. He is from Uganda.

Perween Warsi of S&A Foods showed her determination in getting her Asian food range on the shelves of the major supermarket chain Asda. Warsi was born in Muzaffarpur, India, and moved to the United Kingdom in 1975.

Ethnic identities

Within the national identities we have a host of ethnic identities, including Punjabis to Kashmiris, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Bengalis, Biharis, Tamil and Singhalese.

Religious diversities

Religious diversities – range from Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Christianity, to numerous varieties of Islam.


Those born in Britain grow up speaking English, but they still grow up as Bangladeshi or Pakistani, Mirpuri or Punjabis, as Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus. And they are loyal to Britain.

Bengalis in Britain

Most of the Bengalis in the UK live in the borough of Tower Hamlets in east London. This is largely because the generations that first came to Britain worked as seamen on merchant ships. Almost half of all seamen employed in the engine rooms of British merchant ships were Lascars from Bengal. When the ships docked in east London, they settled there.

Mirpuris in Bradford

Bradford is home to around 85,000 British Asians: there are 5,000 Hindus, and as many Sikhs; but the bulk of Asians, 75,000, are predominantly from a single area in Azad Kashmir – Mirpur.

(Source: Wikipedia, BBC, Ziauddin Sardar's book, “Balti Britain: a Journey Through the British Asian Experience”)

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