Each month at least four young British-Indians who want to serve in India reach out to me for advice on how they go about doing so. However, whilst young diaspora is keen to engage with India and this is also a part of India’s agenda, the channels to do so are limited to short term activities. This disconnect leads us to ask what more we must do to make it possible for young people to connect to India through service.
Over the years, I have had numerous conversations with 3rd/4th generation British-Indians to understand their relationship to India. Them presuming I wanted to hear why India was important to them automatically limited our understanding of ‘their relationship to India.’ The reasons for their connection to India are largely sentimental, passive and distant; whether these reasons are based on ancestral roots, religion, pop culture or ethnicity. As these conversations go deeper, we realise they are mostly based on the past and they struggle to find forward looking reasons why India is relevant to their aspirations and priorities.
Looking at the broader context, research over recent years has highlighted that the success of the British-Indian community has been particularly strong across various socio-economic indicators including employment and education. The efforts of 1st/2nd generation British-Indians have enabled the 3rd/4th generation British-Indians to pursue opportunities with a higher degree of freedom and choice, often underpinned by family stability and financial security. However, recent studies suggest to us that this may not necessarily be enough – the millennial generation are seeking more. This is a generation that is witnessing in real time the rise of trailblazers such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and organisations such as Google that are redefining what ‘work’ looks like. As well as being inspired by such stories, they are being challenged by major shifts in the political landscape such as Brexit, the urgency to find global agreement on issues like climate change and growing social inequality. This generation want to be inspired in their work, feel connected, be a part of something bigger. They seek purpose, they seek first hand experiences and it is in this aspiration where the opportunity to connect them to India through service exists.
Service offers young people an opportunity to connect to something greater than themselves and simultaneously India’s vibrant grassroots development sector can benefit through this exchange of enthusiasm, skills and time. By listening to those that have served in India it is evident that there is immense personal growth through this process. Volunteers engage with inspirational change-makers and peers, they build empathy, ownership and self-efficacy to effect positive social change. This development of personal-leadership often translates to them doing more in their home country. They carry forward with them a new perspective on their role as citizens in society, often raising the bar on what success looks like to being more than just social status or material wealth. They become strong role models guided by their values, rooted in their own experience.
Underlying this conversation are important questions about one’s identity; how does India play a role in how we see ourselves and equally important what role does India play in how others perceive us? Dinesh Kerai, a 2nd generation parent says, “I want to influence my three children (age 14, 19, 23) to have a connection with India, but how is that possible, if I myself do not have a relationship with India? I want my children’s future in our interconnected world to be grounded in a strong sense of who they are. As India grapples with global issues such as poverty while also pushing the boundaries of space technology it plays an influential role in shaping our future. I feel fortunate that through my heritage my kids can access the opportunity India presents. I believe that through purposeful service in India, they will be anchored and nurture a strong moral compass that not only shapes their life but touches those around them, wherever they are.” For many of the British-Indian diaspora, this is an emotive, multifaceted and deeply personal dialogue which changes for each person as they grow through different stages of their life. This has been explored further in an article titled “What is the relationship you would like your grandchildren to have with India?”
Historically, another way that British-Indians engage with India is through charitable giving and remittances. The nature of this giving varies between generations. Whilst, there are several fundraiser balls hosted in the UK by prominent India based NGOs, they largely attract a particular audience who do not represent young British-Indians. The broad scope of charitable giving in the British-Indian community has been explored through an article titled “The need is right where we are”. Through this article I urge that we think ahead about the changing relationship of 3rd/4th generation British-Indians and the impact this trend will have on charitable giving.
We may also applaud other diaspora groups in the UK including the Jewish and Afro-Caribbean community on how they have engaged and nurtured their next generation of leaders. They have done so by intentionally investing the time, mentorship and financial resources for these outcomes. We can draw on examples from the Prince’s Trust, The Young Foundation and the RSA Millennium Fellows programme on how we engage young British-Indians in different ways. Envisaging an active and collaborative relationship between 3rd/4th generation British-Indians and India is a dynamic, vision building process which will require commitment, resources and patience. The initiatives we build should tie together to create a ‘Living Bridge’ ensuring there is continuity of opportunity as we grow a community of young people with a shared experience who will together define the next chapter of the British-Indian story.
Building the next chapter of the British-Indian story
Stories are powerful. Values, culture, morals and tradition are communicated through stories. Stories capture our imagination and can inspire change. In this section I draw on three real stories to illustrate personal experiences of British-Indians who have engaged with India through service, the broader impact this has led to for them and lessons we can draw out to move forward. By creating more such authentic journeys, we have the ability to create a new rite of passage for the next generation of British-Indians.
“It’s given me a sense of purpose”
Anand is now studying Economics at one of the top 10 UK universities and aspires for a career through which he is intellectually challenged. He grew up in a non-ethnic, middle class area of the UK which was very far from regular Indian community activities. Anand grew up in a tight knit family that practiced Indian customs and traditions in their home. At the age of 17, he participated in a 12-day programme that took him to India where he interacted with inspiring change-makers, he spent time with chai walas, farmers and children in slums. He said on his return, “It’s given me an insight into my father’s childhood. Although they were unfamiliar, I felt connected to the people I met there and what I experienced has pushed me to think harder about global issues and to look within myself and understand the journey I want to pursue. It’s given me a sense of purpose to do more with my future.” Anand said that his experience in India inspired him to develop a social enterprise. that addresses the issues of food waste and homelessness while at University. This was only his second visit to India. He was with his peers with whom he could share and reflect on his experiences.
A key insight to draw from this example is the need to plant seeds during these formative years. Facilitated visits such as this have the potential to shape how these young people see the world and their role in it.
“Sentiment can be used to jumpstart a deeper exploration”
Laxmi sought to feel closer to her grandfather whose roots were in India. Community service was a central practice of his life, so volunteering felt like a way to understand both him and herself better. Laxmi served with an NGO which worked with children who were boot polishing, rag picking and begging out of the necessity to provide income for their families. Laxmi came away from her experience with a deep sense of responsibility towards the efforts of the NGO and believed that physical distance shouldn’t be a barrier to support their work. She went on to start a UK based social enterprise to retail the products made by these children and others that work with similar ethos and values. This effort serves as a way to open a global market for these products while also connecting the lives of those children to people in the UK. As part of her community activities in the UK, she mentored a 20-year old through a youth leadership programme. It was through this that she inspired him to explore his relationship to India, one which he had not considered before.
A key insight to draw here is that sentiment can be used to jumpstart a deeper exploration for one’s relationship to India. The ripple effect of a single person’s experience will inspire others.
“Exchanging skills and time through service”
Gibran qualified as an architect, was accepted to a fellowship programme through which he served with an NGO in Tamil Nadu to rebuild housing in communities affected by the 2004 tsunami. Inspired by his experience, he stayed on in India to work with a Kutch based NGO supporting slum communities to build affordable housing. Through his experience he was called to advise international development NGOs in Nepal and Pakistan after they were hit by earthquakes. He now works for the UK Government to find solutions to the challenges of urban slums around the world. Rather than seeing time in India as a gap year, time spent constructively working on complex social issues has the potential to fundamentally shift a person’s career trajectory.
A key insight here is that when people utilise their skills towards a shared goal with the local community, there is mutual benefit which builds a deeper more equal connection.
A Call to Action
We are at a critical inflection point for the British-Indian community’s connection to India. As the stories of those Indians that came to the UK in the late 1960’s start to fade, we must look ahead to where the new stories connecting us to India will come from and what they will entail. The children born to British-Indians who have lived their whole lives in the UK will have even more distant ideas of India. There are other 5th generation Indian diaspora groups such as Dutch-Indians, Guyanese-Indians and many more we can look towards to see the direction the British-Indian relationship with India may take if we do not act now.
India has a vibrant social sector which spans from faith-based charities to innovative technology led social businesses. There are dynamic people at each turn whose sheer determination demonstrates the strength of human will to shift how we look at an issue as somebody else’s problem or a challenge that we can help to address. Being exposed to this is both humbling and empowering. The NGO sector in India doesn’t just need our foreign remittances. By connecting young people through direct service, they will build a far deeper connection, which will likely result in them being advocates of this work when they return to the UK.
We require foresight. When initiating any new programmes, we must keep at the forefront of our mind the British-Indian children who are growing up. When they reach the age of 16, will they have the opportunities or desire to build their own relationship with India, grounded in their own experience? It will take at least six years to design and mature programmes that will enable these youth to connect to India in ways that will embrace the diversity of their aspirations. By having a clear focus on building ways for those between the ages of 16-26, we will be able to positively influence them in their formative years.
To achieve this, we must continue to ask searching questions and we must listen to young British-Indians of today. This is not an academic exercise or words left behind in a conference. There is so much more to understand about the British-Indian relationship to India, however, we must act with urgency. We must build a deeper understanding of how they experience the world, their aspirations and together start to shape what this future relationship with India looks like.