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IMMEDIATELY after this newspaper’s revelations last week about donations to Keith Vaz’s fighting fund, a group of well-known public figures, mostly Asians, wrote letters to the Mirror and the Guardian complaining of an “obsessive campaign of denigration” and hinting that the media’s attacks on Mr Vaz were racist.

Racism can prompt heinous crimes and is a term that should not be lightly used. In the context of the Keith Vaz affair, it suggests a disturbing British failure: a society seeking to build a broad temple of tolerance has instead produced ghettos of self-interest groups, reflecting an increasingly fragmented community.

In making the racism charge against the press, these supporters of Keith Vaz — such as the three Labour peers Lord Patel of Blackburn, Lord King of West Bromwich and Baroness Uddin of Bethnal Green — argue that Vaz, the only Asian in the Government, was doing nothing more for the Hinduja brothers than any Asian politician may be expected to do.

Vaz may have been elected to represent Leicester East as an MP but, because he is Asian, they say, he has wider interests which at once make him a representative of all Asians, wherever they are, and enables him to speak and act for them in any capacity he chooses. They also argue that those who do not accept this show they do not understand Asian culture where people socialise, clustering round the prominent in their community and expecting them to promote their interests and act as their ambassadors.

In a much less exalted way, I have experienced this myself. I was once a food critic for a magazine and, because of my Asian background, I wrote mainly about Indian restaurants. After a while, I found that restaurateurs expected me to promote their establishments. At first, this was both flattering and gratifying — I had some of the best meals of my life, but their constant entreaties wearied me and I decided to sacrifice my position and become an ordinary customer again.

Keith Vaz struts on a much grander stage. “I am a leading member, if not the leading member, of the Asian community in this country,” he announced. But I have certainly never seen him as my leader or representative.

His claim is quite curious. Asians in this country, despite the attempts to pigeonhole them as workaholic newsagents, are a very diverse community. Mainly Hindus and Muslims, whose origins can be traced back to the rural areas of the sub-continent, they are quite far removed from Vaz, an urban Goan Catholic. In that sense, Vaz is a minority within a minority and, while this may make his background exotic, it hardly makes him a leader.

Of course, prominent members of a minority can be an inspiring example for others. But this is very different from claiming leadership of the community.

The promotion of Vaz as leader has eerie parallels to the saga of Aga Khan III, the grandfather of the present Aga. Like Vaz, the old man ingratiated himself with the Raj on such a grand scale that he was accepted by the British as the “leader” of the Muslims — not only in India but around the world.

He would arrive from India every year laden with mangoes, which he would distribute to royalty and the great and the good, including Winston Churchill and, in the Britain of those days, when every Indian had to be a maharajah or a potentate, he was seen as a great man

In Vaz style, Aga Khan III was a great man for making connections and building networks. Gertrude Bell wrote about an occasion she attended in London in 1903:

“I had an amusing dinner the other day sitting between Lord Peel and the Aga Khan. Do you know who he is? He’s a direct descendant of the Prophet, supreme head of half the Shia world, and an English subject, and enormously rich (his sect allows him £180,000 per year), and the pretender to the throne of Persia . . .

“He explained to Gilbert Russell, who he knows very well, that £2,000 to him was as a sixpence to other people. ‘Then,’ said Gilbert, ‘could you change me a shilling?’ ”

The parallels are clear. Those Asians who see Vaz as a leader, around whom the community should gather for mutual protection, might consider that this follows the old imperialist example. It was Rudyard Kipling who advised the British in India that, in times of trouble, the community must always gather to defend its own people, whatever anyone may have done.

How ironic it is that, in seeking to promote multi-culturalism, Labour is following the most dubious of Raj policies: find someone you can do business with, promote him as leader and hope his collaboration will maintain British rule. In its attempts to seek out Vaz as an Asian leader, it may be coming unstuck.

© Mihir Bose

      

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