Indians Celebrate UK’s First PM of Indian Origin

As the country’s first brown prime minister, Sunak is a symbol to others as well

Indians Celebrate UK’s First PM of Indian Origin
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak waves to members of the media outside Number 10 Downing Street after taking office . Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

An old photo of British politician Rishi Sunak with his dog Nova, a fox red Labrador Retriever, at his former address at 11 Downing Street in London has been making the rounds on social media in India. It is accompanied by photos of a sign that says “Dogs and Indians Not Allowed” — a reference to the ubiquitous sign that was placed outside British clubs and establishments when the empire ruled over India. That humiliation resonates with Indians till this day. “Karma strikes back,” wrote Viral Bhayani, a popular paparazzi photographer in Mumbai, while sharing the post with his 4.6 million followers. 

“Both the Indian and the dog are allowed as they make their entry in 10 Downing Street,” he further wrote, referring to Sunak’s recent move next door, reflecting his promotion to prime minister after having resided for the past two years at the official home of the chancellor of the exchequer. Bollywood megastar and 80-year-old actor Amitabh Bachchan also chimed in and said that the U.K. finally has a “new viceroy” as its prime minister is from the “mother country.”

Since last week, Indians the world over have been celebrating the first British Indian, South Asian, Asian and person of color to take office as the prime minister of the United Kingdom. Different labels have been applied to Sunak to mark the significance of the moment. He is also the first Hindu to hold the position and, at 42, the youngest in over 200 years. As it was announced on Diwali, the most important festival of Hindus, many could not help but point out the symbolism. In fact, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of the first leaders to congratulate Sunak, conveyed special Diwali wishes to the “living bridge of UK Indians.” 

Meanwhile a meme fest took over social media on how Sunak raised the bar of achievement for the Indian diaspora and Indians abroad. Indian mothers and fathers who once aspired for their children to become CEOs of American tech giants such as Google, Microsoft and Twitter — considered the pinnacle of Indian success in the West — would expect more now that Sunak has set a new standard. A meme doing the rounds said: “Bloody hell the pressure on Asian kids is going to go up a gear. ‘See beta, why couldn’t you be Prime Minister?’” (Beta is the word for son in Hindi and Urdu.)

Sunak’s Indian origin was widely celebrated on social media. Edited photos of the 10 Downing Street door decorated with Indian décor and wall hangings, with footwear kept outside — a common practice in South Asian households — were thoroughly enjoyed by Indians. Brut Media called Sunak one of India’s most popular sons-in-law, and many on social media also referred to him as “damaadji” — the word for son-in-law in Hindi and Urdu. In South Asian culture, where each relationship has its own place and value, the son-in-law is always placed on a pedestal. He is so revered and honored in families that the girl’s parents would go to any extent to keep him happy. Hence Indians are ecstatic to claim Sunak as their own. 

South Asians across Britain also welcomed its first brown prime minister and the recognition cut across party lines. Anas Sarwar, leader of the opposition Labour Party in Scotland, tweeted that it was important to mark the significance of the moment. “It’s not something our grandparents would ever have imagined when they made the UK home,” he wrote. Labour Party MP Nadia Whittome’s tweet saying that the moment “isn’t a win for Asian representation” triggered heavy criticism and was later deleted. A spokesman for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer confirmed Whittome was instructed to remove it and stressed that Sunak becoming the first British Asian prime minister was something the country “should be proud of.” 

The new British prime minister is married to Akshata Murty, who hails from the south Indian state of Karnataka and is the daughter of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy and philanthropist Sudha Murty. The Indian multinational company Infosys was the fourth Indian company in 2021 to touch a market valuation of $100 billion. Narayan, known as the “father of the Indian IT sector,” was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award, in 2008. Sudha, who is also a renowned author, was the first female engineer hired at India’s largest auto manufacturer Tata Engineering and Locomotive Co. in the 1970s. 

Akshata is now the first Indian to become the United Kingdom’s first lady. Her wealth, non-domicile status, tax returns and Infosys’ presence in Russia have all been scrutinized since her husband became chancellor. In India, however, her net worth is being celebrated and perceived as a marker for the rise and success of Indians abroad. That her net worth appears to exceed that of King Charles III is also a talking point in the Indian media. While the crown estate is worth $34 billion, the comparison has now become a joke Indians seem to enjoy. 

Back on social media, former employees used the Infosys connections to make jokes about sharing an old connection with the new prime minister. “Infosys acquires Britain not by law but by in law,” quipped one user. Another posted a photo of Buckingham Palace, calling it the new headquarters of Infosys. Of course, the Koh-i-noor diamond made a comeback, while Sunak’s resemblance to former Indian cricketer Ashish Nehra also became cannon fodder for memes. 

There has also been special interest in the page one headlines in national daily newspapers in India. “From Age of Empire to Rishi Raj,” said the largest-selling English daily, The Times of India, on its front page. Raj means rule in Hindi and Rishi Raj was a spin on British Raj, which is how the era of British rule is commonly referred to in Indian history. In a similar vein, the Hindustan Times said, “History gets an Indian twist as Britain is ready for Rishi.” An NDTV headline said, “Indian son rises over the empire. History comes full circle in Britain.” “Another Diwali gift to the country. Indian-origin Rishi to rule the whites,” said India’s largest Hindi-language newspaper, Dainik Bhaskar. The only English newspaper in India that did not have him as its lead story was the left-leaning Telegraph. It instead led with Sun Weidong, the outgoing Chinese ambassador to India, who “cautioned New Delhi against the West.”

Speaking to the Indian newspaper Business Standard in 2015, Sunak said, “British Indian is what I tick on the census; we have a category for it. I am thoroughly British, this is my home and my country, but my religious and cultural heritage is Indian, my wife is Indian. I am open about being a Hindu.” In 2019, he took his parliamentary oath on the Bhagavad Gita, a holy book for Hindus, and made history in 2020 by lighting diyas, the traditional candles, on Diwali outside 11 Downing Street. Last week, Sunak shared a photo from the Diwali reception at No. 10 and said that he will do “everything” to “build a Britain where our children and our grandchildren can light their diyas and look to the future with hope.” In the photos from his first day in office, where he was waving to the press, the red mauli tied around his wrist could prominently be seen. (It is a protection thread tied during or after Hindu religious ceremonies.)

There was also those who questioned the celebrations and highlighted that Sunak is not Indian per se but of Indian origin. Hence, stories of his family’s history became a subject of discussion on social media. His paternal grandparents moved to Kenya in the 1930s from Gujranwala, which was then in undivided Punjab; it now lies in present-day Pakistan. Because of this connection, Pakistanis have also laid their claims on Sunak. Photos are being circulated online with locals holding banners with Sunak’s photo and the caption “Pride of Gujranwala.” Amid fears that both the rivals will claim Sunak to be “the son of their respective lands,” many are saying that both India and Pakistan should be proud of this moment. 

During this ongoing debate, The Times of India interviewed Sunak’s mother’s first cousin Subhash Berry, who shared that Sunak’s 92-year-old maternal grandfather Raghuvir Sen Berry hailed from the Jassowal Soodan village of Ludhiana, in present-day India. He had migrated to Tanzania in 1950 and has kept in touch with the family in India since then. 

Their case isn’t unusual. Like several families in post-Partition India and Pakistan, especially in Punjab, which is now in both countries, Sunak’s family draws roots from both sides of the border. Rishi’s father, Yashvir, a general physician, and mother, Usha, a pharmacist, migrated to the U.K. in the 1960s, more than a decade before his birth in 1980. It is also not atypical to have Indian parents born in East Africa, where the diaspora community has thrived for decades because of common colonial links. 

Sunak’s appointment also led indirectly to a Twitter war between Indian politicians. Opposition leaders, including P. Chidambaram, Shashi Tharoor and Mahua Moitra, used the moment to accuse the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of practicing majoritarianism and asked whether a member of India’s minority communities could similarly lead the country. Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region, also weighed in and said that “it would serve us well to remember that while the UK has an ethnic minority member as its PM, we are still shackled by divisive & discriminatory laws like NRC & CAA,” referring to the contentious citizenship laws that excluded Muslims. Most responses from BJP leaders were directed toward her, alluding to the exodus of the Hindu minority from Kashmir in the 1990s.

On what this moment meant for race representation in the U.K., British Indian journalist Sathnam Sanghera, author of “Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain,” said that Sunak’s race mattered because of its imperial context, as “Britain systematically excluded Indians from top jobs.” He quoted former Viceroy of India Lord George Curzon, who said in 1901 that “there were no Indian natives in the Government of India because among all the 300 million people of the subcontinent, there was not a single man capable of the job.” Indian journalist Mihir Sharma, writing for Bloomberg, echoed a similar thought. He said, “Rishi Sunak’s politics or policies aren’t the point … not when someone who shares our heritage now leads the country that once colonized us.” However, London-based Indian writer Pankaj Mishra wrote that “hopes that Sunak’s move to 10 Downing Street has brought closer a post-racial future may prove as cruelly premature as the fantasies ignited by Barack Obama’s elevation to the White House in 2008.”

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