India, Britain and three waves of migration
The remarkable decline of Britain in the average Indians’ consciousness over the past half century is quite dramatic. It is not based on any hostility to Britain. Nor any major disruption of governmental ties. It is only partly based on economics.
If there was a severe fluctuation, I believe, it was in the area of emigration. This, in turn, resulted in a disruption of person-to-person contacts between the two countries that changed perceptions and attitudes among Indians about Britain. They simply began forgetting about it.
There were crudely three distinct eras of Indian immigration to the United Kingdom.
The first ran from the 1950s to the 1970s. This was the era of almost unfettered emigration by Commonwealth citizens to Britain. By the 1970s, an average of 72,000 Commonwealth migrants were landing in the UK each year. The open door policy, embodied in the 1948 British Nationality Act, was largely closed by the 1972 Immigration Act. Commonwealth migration – largely South Asian and Caribbean – fell by about a third.
Combined with Margaret Thatcher’s abolition of higher education subsidies for foreign students and the UK’s weak economic growth, the effect was to savagely reduce Indian emigration.
This was the second era of Indian immigration to the UK – the period of minimal migration. It ran from the mid-1970s all the way to the end of the 1990s. By 1985, only five per cent of all immigrants to the UK were coming from India according the UK government’s Labour Force Surveys. In 1981 18,000 Indians emigrated to the UK. Fifteen years later the number was down to 4600. Most were coming in as relatives of existing residents, a few as students, but generally the human link between the two countries was thin and tenuous.
The third era is that of the highly-skilled migrant, embodied in various bits of immigration legislation past by the UK from 2002 onwards under the Tony Blair regime. Indian emigration has since crept up, reaching 17000 plus in 2005. The highly skilled visas, the family reunions and the student path remain the primary means for Indians to move to the UK.
But mind the gap. From 1972 to 2002 the UK put the squeeze on Indian immigration (and other countries as well – Britain continues to proportionately have far less foreign-born citizens than other Western countries including Germany and Switzerland). In effect, human traffic and the perceptions and aspirations that went with it, disappeared for some 30 years ago.
A 20-year-old Indian who moved to the UK to study in 1970 would have been among the last of the first immigration era. By the time the door begins to open again, he is 50 years old. A generation for whom Britain was largely that country that kept being mentioned in school history texts and the home of cricket arose in India in the meantime. The United States, even Australia and Canada, became their gateways to the West.
Unsurprisingly then, by the time the third immigration era begins Britain is almost a tabula rasa for a new generation of Indians. There is no sentimentality, no uncles and aunts to tell you tales of life in England, no concern about a colonial past. This was just another Western country. When the Times of India polled urban Indians about the recent British elections, no surprises that some 60 per cent had no idea an election was taking place – and that those who did didn’t care who would win.