The history of Indians in the UK is a very long one. This is due in large part to the long-standing relationship between the two countries, including India once being under British colonial rule and India’s status as a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Indians are the largest ethnic minority in the UK which ranks sixth in the world in the Indian diaspora. About one half of the Indians in Great Britain are of Punjabi origin. There are approximately 1.5 million Indians living in the UK and are the largest foreign-born population group in the UK. Most of the Indian population lives in London, but British Indians can be found in significant numbers throughout the UK.
Most historians estimate that Indian immigration dates back to the Middle Ages, but no truly accurate documentation exists to support this claim. The earliest accurate records of Indians arriving in the UK in significant numbers date to the 18th and 19th century when the East India Company hired many Indians to serve as crew members.
The immigration of Indians to the UK has been fairly consistent in modern times. The first large influx of Indian immigrants arrived at the end of World War II and the breakup of the British Empire. Many of these arrivals were recruited to address the labour shortages caused by the War. Many of these worked on railroads and in the textile industry.
The 1950s and 1960s saw a number of Indian immigrants from very diverse backgrounds arrive in the UK. Many in the medical field were recruited to meet the demand for medical professionals that resulted from the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS). Among the others that arrived were shopkeepers and business owners.
The number of Indian-born residents increased by almost 45% during the first ten years of the 21st century.
British Indians have fared very well in the UK. Most are considered to be middle to upper-middle class, with the majority holding professional and managerial positions. They have had a significant influence on British culture ranging from food and the arts to entertainment and politics.
Indian cuisine ranks among the most popular types of food in the UK; over 2 million Britons eat at an Indian restaurant weekly and 3 million say that they prepare an Indian-inspired recipe at least once a week. Chicken Tikka Masala, which is actually a British creation, consistently ranks among the top in polls of the UK’s favourite meals. The first Indian restaurant in the UK was founded by an East India Company captain, Sake Dean Mahomet, in 1810. Today there are approximately 10,000 Indian restaurants in the UK. Veeraswamy, on Regent Street in London, opened in 1925 and is world famous and the longest operating Indian restaurant in the UK.
Media, Arts and Entertainment
The influence of British Indians in the media is very strong. Sky Channel, Virgin Media, STAR one and Zee TV are either fully or partially owned by Indians. The Indian film community, while not a rival to Bollywood in terms of number of releases, has achieved international popular and critical success with films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Gandhi and Slumdog Millionaire. Indian music which received its wide spread popular introduction by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones has become incredibly popular in the UK.
5 Notable British Indians
- Freddie Mercury – Freddie Mercury is considered by many fans and critics to be the best singer in rock music. A group of scientists recently analysed Mercury’s vocal tracks on many of Queen’s most popular tracks and found that his control and structure were incredibly unique.
- Tom Singh – Singh founded the New Look clothing store in Somerset in 1969. New Look is now an major international chain with over 1000 shops worldwide including the US, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
- Sir Ben Kingsley – Kingsley has received an Oscar, a Grammy, a BAFTA, two Golden Globes and a Screen Actors Guild Award during the course of his career. He has shown amazing diversity in his choice of roles with the lead role in Gandhi and a part in the super-hero film Iron Man 3.
- Salman Rushdie – Sir Salman Rushdie is an award winning author and essayist. Rushdie is perhaps best known for his fourth novel The Satanic Verses which angered many fundamentalists who called for his death and resulted in Rushdie being under the protection of British police.
- Dadabhai Naoroj – Naoroj, who died in 1917, was an intellectual, educator, cotton trader, and an early Indian political and social leader. He was also the first Indian MP in British Parliament. Many credit his activism and leadership with inspiring the scores of Indian Britons who have subsequently served in Parliament and have held other political posts.
The British Indian population is incredibly religiously and culturally diverse, meaning that a number of traditional Indian celebrations and holidays are observed in the various Indian communities in the UK. Two of the more important Indian holidays are Diwali and Vaisakhi.
Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights which is celebrated in the northern hemisphere every autumn. Homes and other structures are decorated with lights to signify the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair.
Vaisakhi is very important in the Punjabi and Sikh communities. The holiday marks the Punjabi New Year, the start of harvest season, and the birth of the Khalsa, the collective body of all initiated Sikhs, in 1699.