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A crucial role

September 18, 2014

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

FOUR decades ago, Ali Ahmed Aslam was tending to his then-modest Shish Mahal restaurant in Glasgow’s west-end when a taxi driver ordered a chicken curry. Complaining it was “too dry”, the cabbie spurned the dish, dispatching it back to the kitchen.

The enterprising Aslam, who had emigrated from Pakistan in the ’50s, emptied a can of Campbell’s tomato soup over the dish, and sprinkled some spices. The cabbie was gratified by the result. And the assimilated dish became known as ‘chicken tikka masala’ — now a British favourite.

The tale is cited as evidence of how Asians could find a place in Scotland, enrich it with a taste of the old country, and prosper. Some years ago, another self-made millionaire turned Scottish MP, Mohammad Sarwar, attempted to have the EU recognise ‘chicken tikka masala’ as a Glaswegian dish.

The governor of Punjab has returned to Glasgow this week to persuade Scottish Asians to vote ‘no’ in today’s historic referendum on independence. “The vote is too close to call,” Sarwar told me. “So the ethnic minority vote has become crucial.”


The governor of Punjab wants Scottish Asians to vote ‘no’.


Asians represent 4pc of Scotland’s population, with Scots of Pakistani origin forming the largest ethnic minority group. Many originally came, like Sarwar, from the once-colonial city of Faisalabad. Now, they could play a key role in determining the fate of the UK.

For Sarwar, the benefits of preserving the union are plain. “It’s like the old Labour slogan,” he said, “‘United we stand, divided we fall’.” In 2010, Sarwar vacated his Glasgow Central seat to make room for his son, Anas. While dynastic politics aren’t as popular a Pakistani import as bagpipes, Sarwar fils has made an impression and is now deputy leader of Scottish Labour.

Labour supporters have much to fear from an independent Scotland. While it would rid Scots of the Conservatives forever, it could condemn England to permanent Tory rule. Labour may be reduced to a beleaguered opposition in both countries.

‘No’ campaigners hope Sarwar pére can work some of his talent for backroom deal-making. Last year, Nawaz Sharif rewarded Sarwar with occupancy of the governor’s mansion in Lahore after the Glaswegian Lyallpuri delivered all 11 of Faisalabad’s seats to PML-N.

But Scots Asians have so far been put off by the sneering tone of a ‘no’ campaign that has traded heavily on threats of economic ruin. The largest Scots Asian broadcaster, Awaz FM, claims nearly two-thirds of its mostly young listeners will be voting ‘Yes’. While the older generation agrees with Sarwar, a younger one is aligning behind a different Scot of Pakistani background.

Still in his 20s, Humza Yousaf is one of the Scottish National Party’s leading lights. In 2011, he was elected to the Scottish parliament and is now Scotland’s minister for external affairs. The charismatic politico, who has Punjabi roots and speaks with a distinct Glas­wegian accent, describes himself as hailing from the “bhangra and bagpipes” tradition.

What is striking about Yousaf is how comfortable he is with his Scottishness. On the BBC’s Question Time, he once quipped that independence wasn’t about “flag-waving, kilt wearing, haggis eating, romanticised Brave­heart nationalism” — even though these are all things he “quite likes doing”. Instead, Yousaf told me, for Scots Asians independence is about ending Westminster’s resented hold on economic, foreign and immigration policies.

For Asians south of the border, the end of the UK will mean becoming English, by default. The notion troubles many, especially as Englishness is still widely linked to a particular ethnicity. It lacks the inclusivity that Britishness has acquired in recent years.

Scots Asians, by contrast, are at ease wearing kurtas over their kilts. Research by the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity found that 94pc of those from ethnic minority backgrounds born in Scotland identify as Scottish rather than British. Beyond that sense of identity, they feel an independent Scotland would better represent their political views.

Although many experts insist that Scotland won’t be economically viable while tethered to an English pound and sitting atop vanishing oil reserves, Yousaf says there is disenchantment with London’s austerity policies.

On foreign policy, Yousaf says Scotland shall no longer be part of a country that remains “silent on Gaza, silent on drone strikes, and participates in wars like Iraq”. And as England drifts rightwards into the embrace of xenophobic parties like UKIP, ageing and more tolerant Scotland is pro-immigration.

Not all Scottish Asians are well integrated, of course. This month brought the chilling news of Aqsa Mahmood, a 20-year-old Glaswegian, joining IS in Syria — a reminder that Islamist extremism afflicts Muslim communities across Britain.

But today’s vote will confirm Scottish Asians as a valued political voice in their country. And whatever the result, either Sarwar or Yousaf will be dancing bhangra in Glasgow, to the blare of bagpipes made in Sialkot.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2014