Sir Richard’s day out in Little India

March 9th, 2008 - 1:05 pm ICT by admin  

By Dipankar De Sarkar
Leicester, March 9 (IANS) His bowed head covered in a bright blue Sikh scarf, the slightly-built Englishman in a dark suit and red tie looked just a tiny bit bemused as he took the gift with both hands. It was a gift of a sword, and it must have been a heavy piece of weaponry.

But Sir Richard Stagg - Britain’s High Commissioner to India and diplomat to polished boot - didn’t look like he was struggling for a moment. Indeed, he bravely went on to pose for photographs, dwarfed in the company of some tall and burly Sikh priests and community leaders.

Minutes earlier, he had been speaking to a group of children at a Muslim school - boys on one side, girls on the other, opaque screen in between - telling them all about life in the British foreign service.

And as dusk fell, he would kick around a football with a bunch of pesky Indian children inside a floodlit Walker Stadium (capacity 33,000, but empty for the photo-op) - local sporting pride and home of the Leicester City Football club.

This was Sir Richard’s day out in the British city of Leicester, home to the largest community of ethnic Indians outside India. Even by the standards of a diplomat’s life, this was an unusual day.

Escorted by Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester East and one-time Foreign Office Minister, the British diplomat spent the day March 7 meeting a wide cross-section of the Indian diaspora.

He ate with them, drank tea with them, prayed with them and addressed them.

Why? Because Sir Richard wanted to know what makes non resident Indians tick, get to know them better and find out how they could be turned into ambassadors not just for India but for Britain too.

Multicultural Leicester seemed to be the perfect place to launch his unusual NRI adventure. This city in southeast England is a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities, religions and languages.

According to the last 2001 census, around 26 percent of Leicester’s population of 280,000 are of Indian origin - a reason Leicester is often called Little India. But talk to the city’s NRI leaders, and they say they figure is closer to 33 per cent.

Vaz’s constituency, which he has represented since 1988, alone accounts for about 36,000 Asians.

Sir Richard’s day began at the Madan High School, where he spoke to some 100 boys and girls about his education and work, about the foreign office, and about how they could contribute to British society in the future.

He also spoke about India, saying Britain and India shared the values of “open society, democracy, rule of the law and freedom of press.”

After being presented with the sword at the gurdwara, the diplomat planted a cherry blossom tree at Vaz’s constituency office before heading out to a local temple and then to Walker’s Stadium, where he launched a project aimed at flying out 16 under-14 football players to Goa where they will play a local all-stars team in October.

For a sporting city - it gave England its captain Gary Lineker - with a large number of Indians, there is not a single Indian footballer of note in Leicester, and Vaz wants to help fill that gap.

Sir Richard was then driven to a community centre near Belgrave Road - with its rows of Indian shops - to speak to an audience of some 500 NRIs who had packed the auditorium to hear him on relations between India and Britain.

“The diaspora is the biggest factor in our relationship,” he told the audience.

“We don’t have a gigantic Chinese diaspora in the UK. We do not share common values with Russia. And we don’t have a common history with Brazil.

“There are things you can help to do that will benefit both countries,” he said.

“If I say it, people will say ‘you’d say it wouldn’t you. If you say it, it can have an effect,” said Sir Richard, who likened Leicester to India in terms of its diversity.

The British diplomat revealed he had taken two months to travel around India before starting on his job last year, during the course of which he “spent some time with a guru” and was blessed by an elephant in Coimbatore.

Vaz was delighted with his guest.

“I have been inviting high commissioners for 20 years and he is the first to accept. And he was here from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. - a seven-hour stretch,” said Vaz.

“It is obvious that he loves India.”

And as a memento of his visit, Sir Richard got to keep the sword.

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