Image by Jeevan Randhawa
Recently, I visited my baba ji (grandad) as he received an award from the Gravesend Asian Welfare Society for 50 years of service to the Sikh and broader community. It marked a proud moment for myself and my family. He achieved this recognition for his selflessness and dedication to a better local environment. He is a proud Sikh who arrived in the UK at a time when very few people looked like him, but nevertheless felt a sense of duty to contribute above and beyond to enable future generations who do look like him to prosper.
I sat down with him in our family home before the awards event. I immediately noticed his hands shaking more than usual, his eyesight visibly deteriorating, and his leg, which he had injured before, still showing signs of not being fully healed. My baba ji has always been a very healthy man; vegan diet and teetotal since his thirties, with a passion for sport. I simply asked him if he was okay and in good condition, and he admitted that old age was now catching up with him. The slightly worrying part was how he was almost accepting and content with that fact.
He spoke to me of his first job in the UK, working in a local bakery, for the sole purpose of putting food on the table for my dad and chachu (uncle). Despite his own healthy lifestyle, the years of struggle in poor working conditions and long hours had finally caught up with him. He told me, “When we were young, we didn’t care about health: we just wanted to provide and to survive.” Now, I notice he just likes to stare and smile at me. To him, having a grandson and a wider family network doing well is mission complete. His whole life revolves around his family. He talks about how proud he is of his sons and his grandkids. All he ever wanted was a better life for those he loved most, at any personal health or financial cost.
My baba ji’s mindset was very simple: failure was not an option.
We arrived at the event, the Chairman of the Asian Welfare Society gave a speech highlighting my baba ji’s achievements in the UK and our village back home in Punjab. Listening to the speech reminded me that my baba ji is the reason I am so passionate about politics. On numerous occasions, he has championed social justice, sought to help those less fortunate, and played a key role in building roads, shops, and a school in our village back home. Serving his community gives him a strong sense of pride and duty. This is rooted in his love and devotion to Sikhism and the fundamental of principle “Seva,”—meaning “selfless service.”
For me, this is the crucial point. Politics is often portrayed by those at the peak as a top-down affair. In reality, you don’t need to be Liz Truss or Keir Starmer to invoke meaningful change. Of course, that’s exactly what the establishment and those at the top want you to believe so that only they can change things. However, that is a whole other can of worms that can be saved for another day!
During my teenage years, I dreamed of being a Member of Parliament. At the same time, I used to think shouting across the dispatch box in the House of Commons looked like the most fun job ever! My baba ji taught me there is no greater honor than public service. The ability to create change for those around you and future generations is the highest calling. Friday’s awards ceremony cemented in my mind that I could play my part in changing lives by, first and foremost, being more actively involved in my local community.
Grassroots activism and grassroots politics is the backbone of any well-oiled democracy, and it works and matters! Councilors, community activists, and charities all argue it’s true. Still, I do think it can sometimes sound a little wooly, and you can’t help wondering if small community activism can actually amount to much. In reality, all it takes is people willing to go the extra mile. My baba ji didn’t need to do community work above and beyond his job, yet he and countless other people of color up and down the UK did.
Thanks to them and to the legacy they have left, people of color are now able to be more involved in UK politics. Look at the current makeup of parliament. At the pinnacle of politics in the UK, as of the 2019 general election, the UK has 65 ethnic minority MPs, seven of which are current government cabinet ministers. Representation matters! I fundamentally disagree with politicians such as Rishi Sunak on a range of policy issues; however, seeing a brown man as the Chancellor of the Exchequer made me smile and feel proud.
It’s these small victories throughout society that show that the struggle of people of color paid off. My baba ji, and others like him have created a legacy that has enabled future generations to be more comfortable and prosperous in British society. They went above and beyond. I mentioned a few times that they didn’t need to, but ultimately they knew they had no choice. They couldn’t risk their children and grandchildren having a similar life to them. They wanted bigger and better.
Failure was never an option.