House of Lords – Thursday 24 May 2012
Opening speech by Lord Bilimoria to move the motion:
“That this House takes note of the contribution made by minority ethnic and religious communities to the cultural life and economy of the United Kingdom, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe”
My Lords, more than 1,000 years ago, a group of Zoroastrian refugees fleeing religious persecution in Iran arrived in India in what is now the state of Gujarat. The Zoroastrians asked the local king for refuge but he said there was no space for them in his land. One of the Zoroastrian priests asked the king for a cup of milk filled to the brim. The priest gently took a teaspoon of sugar and stirred it into the milk without spilling a drop. He then said to the king, “If you take us into your kingdom, we will be like the sugar in the milk: we will blend in with you but we will also make your kingdom sweeter”. The king allowed them to stay and that group of refugees, and others who followed, flourished to become India’s Zoroastrian Parsee community.
Fast-forward over 1,000 years and the Zoroastrian community is still tiny: only 69,000 people, less than 0.006% of India’s population of 1.2 billion people, and yet wherever you go in India, everyone knows who a Parsee is. Moreover, what makes me so proud as a Zoroastrian Parsee is the reputation of our community within India. When I took over as UK chairman of the Indo-British Partnership, now the UK India Business Council, of which I am president, my Indian counterpart Narayana Murthy, one of India’s most respected business leaders, said to me, “I have never met a bad Parsee”. Mahatma Gandhi said:
“In numbers, Parsees are beneath contempt, but in contribution, beyond compare”.
Over the centuries, the Zoroastrian Parsee community has excelled in every field. Today, both the Chief Justice of India and the Solicitor-General of India are Parsees. Maestro Zubin Mehta, the world-famous conductor; the late Freddie Mercury of Queen; Farokh Engineer, the great cricketer—all Zoroastrian Parsees. I could go on. In fact, I could go so far as to say that in achievement per capita, the Zoroastrian community is the most successful in the world by far. However, the community has not only looked after its own but has always put back into the wider community. It exemplifies one of my favourite sayings: “It is not good enough to be the best in the world, you also have to be the best for the world”.
The Zoroastrian faith was brought to the world by the prophet Zoroaster in around 1500 BC. It is said to be one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, if not the oldest, with a god, a supreme being, and the concepts of good and evil and heaven and hell. This was the religion of the largest of the ancient empires, the Persian Empire. This was the religion of the Emperors Xerxes, Darius and Cyrus the Great.
The Emperor Cyrus is of course credited with writing the world’s first Bill of Rights, the Cyrus cylinder, which is far older than our own Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary we will soon be celebrating. The basis of Zoroastrian faith is three words: “Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta”—good thoughts, good words, good deeds. I was the founding chair of the World Zoroastrian Chamber of Commerce in the UK. Our motto is: “Industry and Integrity”. When the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury visited the Zoroastrian Centre recently, he explained that the word “integrity” comes from the Latin word “integrum”, which means wholeness. In order to practise integrity, you need to feel complete and whole.
During our 150th anniversary, when His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh visited the Zoroastrian Centre in Harrow—a grade 2 listed building—he arrived in a Land Rover. When I greeted him, I said: “Sir, thank you for arriving in a Tata-mobile!”. Jaguar Land Rover is, of course, now owned by one of India’s largest conglomerates, the Tata Group, a Zoroastrian Parsee company. When Jamsetji Tata, the founder, set up Tata Steel over 100 years ago in the jungles of what was then part of the state of Bihar, where our company, Molson Coors Cobra, now owns the only brewery in the state, a British civil servant at the time dismissed the idea of an Indian ever owning a steel factory and said he would eat every bar of steel that came out of that factory. He has certainly had to eat his words. Now, a century later, Tata Steel owns British Steel—Corus—and is one of the largest steel manufacturers in the world.
I am proud to be the first Zoroastrian Parsee to sit in your Lordships’ House. Before I made my maiden speech, the first thing I did was to read the maiden speech of the first Indian to be elected to Westminster. Dadabhai Naoroji entered the House of Commons as a Liberal in 1892, against all odds. In fact, the then Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, said that no British person would ever accept a “black man” as their MP. In 1895, just three years later, the second Indian, Mancherjee Bhownagree, also a Zoroastrian Parsee, was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative. In 1922, the third—and the only one of the three Indians elected to the other place before India’s independence—was Shapurji Saklatvala, or “Comrade Sak”, who was elected as a Communist with Labour support. All three were Zoroastrian Parsees—one a Liberal, one a Conservative and one Labour. I now sit, as a Zoroastrian Parsee, as an independent Cross-Bench Peer. We have squared the circle.
The Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe was founded in 1861 and is now celebrating its 150th anniversary. Dadabhai Naoroji himself served as president of the ZTFE from 1863 to 1908. During this time, ZTFE functions were attended by young barristers and professionals, including none other than Mahatma Gandhi.
Earlier this year, my friend Maurice Ostro presented Her Majesty the Queen, on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee, with a specially made necklace with symbols from the nine recognised faiths of the United Kingdom—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Baha’i and Zoroastrian. These nine faiths are represented by the Inter Faith Network, which has been enormously successful.
The Zoroastrian community has made an enormous contribution to the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom, with my own family as an example. My late father, Lieutenant-General Bilimoria, was commissioned into the Indian army. His father, Brigadier Bilimoria, was commissioned from Sandhurst. My father’s cousin, Lieutenant-General Jungoo Satarawalla, from my father’s regiment, the 5th Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force), was awarded the Military Cross in the Second World War, as was India’s first Field Marshal, Sam Manekshaw, also a Zoroastrian. My maternal grandfather, JD Italia, served as a squadron leader in the Royal Indian Air Force during the Second World War. I could go on with a long list of Zoroastrian Parsees who have served in the British Armed Forces. However, I am disappointed that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has not yet allowed the Zoroastrian community to be represented at the annual Cenotaph ceremony each Remembrance Day. Can the Minister ask her Cabinet colleagues to rectify this anomaly?
I mentioned the Gurkhas. What an amazing contribution they have made to Britain over the centuries. My father’s battalion, the 5th Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force), was awarded three Victoria Crosses in the Second World War. I am so happy that the previous Government eventually recognised this contribution, allowing retired Gurkhas to settle in this country should they so wish.
When I came to this country 30 years ago as a student from India, I was told by my family and friends to remember that if I decided to stay on and work in Britain I would never be allowed to get to the top, because, as a foreigner, there is a glass ceiling. They were absolutely right 30 years ago. Today, they would be absolutely wrong, because I have seen before my eyes this country being transformed over the past few decades into a country of meritocracy where there is opportunity for all, regardless of race, religion or background. The glass ceiling has well and truly been shattered and the ethnic minority and religious communities are now reaching the very top in every field, whether it is in sport, academia, the Civil Service or politics—just look around your Lordships’ House at the speakers in this debate who come from so many minority communities, having reached the very top in their respective fields. I am so proud of them and so looking forward to the wide-ranging perspectives that will be reflected in this debate, and the high quality of debate and contributions that I know my colleagues will bring to this discussion.
Indeed, yesterday there was a photograph taken in Westminster Hall to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the election of the first four ethnic minority MPs since the war, in 1987. From just four MPs 25 years ago, we now have 69 ethnic minority MPs and Peers at Westminster and in Parliament. This is the progress that I have been talking about. In fact, I believe strongly that in my lifetime we will see a member of the ethnic minority community become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Immigrants from all ethnic minorities and religions have been the making of the “Great” in Great Britain. They have been crucial to Britain’s success, contributing enormously to the economic and cultural life of Britain and enriching it in every way by punching far above our weight. One example is the Asian community, which makes up just 4% of the population of Britain yet contributes double that percentage to our economy. Yet the Government have brought in the immigration cap—a madcap idea, and a crude and blunt instrument. Foreign students bring up to £8 billion a year in revenue into our country, both direct and indirect, yet potential foreign students are asking themselves, “Does Britain really want us?”.
I know from my experience as a member of the advisory board of the Cambridge, Cranfield and Birmingham business schools that we have seen the number of applications from Indian students, for example, plummet. This is so short-sighted when student numbers should not be included in immigration figures to start off with. Would the Minister ask her Cabinet colleagues to once again look into removing students from immigration figures? Yes, the Government need to crack down on phoney students and, yes, they need to crack down on bogus colleges, but why tar everyone with the same brush? Furthermore, foreign students bring generation-long links between Britain and their own countries. I know this, coming from a family that has been educated in Britain for three generations.
The immigration cap is also affecting business. My own business, Cobra Beer, supplies 98% of the UK’s Indian restaurants. Well over two-thirds of the country’s Indian restaurants are actually owned and run by Bangladeshis, and the Bangladesh Caterers Association does tremendous work supporting this industry. Because of the immigration cap, the industry is unable to bring in the skilled staff—the chefs—which it so desperately requires.
This industry has been an inspiration to me. It is made up of pioneering entrepreneurs who have gone to every corner of Great Britain, opened up restaurants on every high street, won customers and made friends, put back into their local communities and made Indian food a part of the British way of life. They deserve our support and our gratitude, and we must do all we can to help them. I know that the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, has mooted a curry college. It is a great idea to train British people in the industry but it will take time. The restaurants are suffering. They need the staff and have the skills shortages. Can the Minister look into this with her Cabinet colleagues and see what can be done to help this important industry in the mean time?
I am often asked to express what Asian values are and I summarise them as the importance of hard work, family and education. Britain prides itself on being a secular and multicultural society where all religions are allowed to be practised and where all races, communities and cultures co-exist side by side. There is a word, however, that I do not like: tolerance. I believe not that all this should be tolerated but that it should be celebrated. It should be about mutual trust and mutual respect. I have spoken a great deal about the inspirational achievements of the minority and religious communities in Great Britain, but none of this would have been possible without the great opportunities that this great country has given us.
In this country, renowned around the world for its sense of fairness and opportunity for all and where the glass ceiling has been shattered, the wonderful thing is that when people from minority ethnic and religious communities do well they reach the top. Their achievement creates inspiration, which creates aspiration, which in turn leads to achievement, and the virtuous circle continues. That is the magnifying, multiplying and inspiring power of minority ethnic and religious communities succeeding in Britain. We are a tiny nation, yet we are still one of the 10 largest economies in the world, with hardly any natural resources. The one resource that we have is our people and among our people it is the minority, ethnic and religious communities who punch far above their weight. Without their contribution, Britain would not be where it is today.
The Nobel laureate Professor Amartya Sen talks about identity. He says that each one of us has not just one identity but several identities—religious, ethnic, professional and national. When I came to this country, my father gave me some great advice. He said, “Son, you are going to study abroad. You may stay on in Britain. You may live in another part of the world. Wherever you live, integrate with the community that you are in to the best of your abilities, but never forget your roots”. I am so proud to be a Zoroastrian Parsee. I am so proud to be an Indian. I am so proud to be an Asian in Britain, and most importantly I am so proud to be British.