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The two MPs of British descent who do not have to stand in Indian election.

Summary: Two seats in India's parliament are still reserved for Anglo-Indians

George Baker at his home in Delhi. Image Credit: The Guardian

Delhi: Winning a seat in India's parliament can take months of gruelling campaigning across vast electorates, often in stifling heat. Unless you are George Baker.

The award-winning actor from eastern India is one of just two members of the country's 545-seat lower house whose name will not appear on any ballot in India's six-week election season.

A vestige of India's colonial history, and a sign of the magnanimous spirit with which the country said goodbye to its British former masters, his is one of two seats in the country's parliament still reserved for Anglo-Indians: Indian citizens of European descent.

150000 Anglo-Indians said to be present in India. Nobody knows exactly how many there are, as they are not counted separately in the census

"It's more or less an accepted part of the constitution," says Baker, whose parents were Greek and migrated to India via Britain shortly before he was born in 1946.

Along with another Anglo-Indian, Richard Hay, Baker was appointed to parliament in 2015, where he has the same powers as any MP to vote and spend money on the development of the estimated 150,000 members of his community who remain. Their terms last until 2020.

Richard Hay Image Credit: Wikipedia

Anglo-Indians are distinct from Indian Christians, who have existed in the country since shortly after Jesus's death. Nor were they British citizens, who were free to return home after India became independent in 1947.

The community who have been called 'Midnight's Orphans' were caught in the middle: descendants of Europeans who had married Indians or else migrated and settled in the country; Christians who spoke English and cultivated British lifestyles but with Indian lineages stretching back hundreds of years, in some cases.

Hard choices

Baker, who is best known for his role as a British planter who falls in love with an Indian worker in the 1975 film 'Chameli Memsaab', speaks four local languages and has married a Hindu woman.

Those Anglo-Indians who have married others in the community try to follow the rule [of living a life that is] 60 per cent British and 40 per cent Indian. - George Baker | Anglo-Indian MP whose parents were Greek and migrated to India via Britain

"Those Anglo-Indians who have married others in the community try to follow the rule [of living a life that is] 60 per cent British and 40 per cent Indian," he says from his government apartment in Delhi, within view of the colossal Roman dome of the former Indian viceroy's residence. "In my case it's closer to 50/50."

India's independence was a troubling development for many Anglo-Indians. Their fortunes had ebbed and flowed under colonial rule: first rewarded under the East India Company, then spurned when it was feared they might dominate the colony, as mixed-heritage people had done in parts of South America.

After the 1857 battle for independence, British colonisers again pulled the Anglo-Indians close, relying on them in disproportionate numbers to run the railway, postal and telegraph networks.

An idea to create a separate homeland for Anglo-Indians in the hills of the eastern state of Bihar was dismissed, according to the historian William Dalrymple.

Anglo-Indians are distinct from Indian Christians, who have existed in the country since shortly after Jesus' death. Nor were they British citizens, who were free to return home after India became independent in 1947. -

Freedom for the subcontinent meant hard choices. "The community could no longer stand on two stools," wrote Frank Anthony, an Anglo-Indian leader who occupied one of the reserved parliamentary seats for decades.

In speeches before independence, Anthony urged his people to throw in their lot with India. "Let us cling and cling, tenaciously, to all that we hold dear, our language, our way of life and our distinctive culture," he said. "But let us always remember that we are Indians ... The more we love and are loyal to India, the more will India love and be loyal to us."

Anthony failed to convince the British to carve out a special place for Anglo-Indians in the colony's post-independence government -- his book about the community's struggles would be titled 'Britain's Betrayal in India'.

Little England

But India's first leaders were bighearted. Recognising the community was too diffuse ever to be elected to a parliamentary seat, they reserved two places for them. "They were once part-rulers of this country," argued one founding father, "and therefore they should be shown some partiality for some time to come."

Yet many still felt out of place. "In the old day there was a mindset that we were between the Britishers and the Indians," says Bridget White-Kumar, an Anglo-Indian living in the city of Bengaluru. "Sometimes we were not treated well."

1960 Year the Anglo-Indian reservation was to be phased out

"Indians used to have a suspicion of us," says Baker. "They would think of us as the people who used to carry tales to the Britishers that got them into trouble.

"But now so many Dravidians from south India have married Aryans of north India," he says, in a reference to two of India's cultural groups. "India is a pleasant potpourri of humanity."

White-Kumar grew up in an Indian mining town that was a "little England", she says. "Everyone spoke perfect English, we studied in English schools, we ate Kraft cheese and Coleman's mustard and cornflakes."

In 1956, the Indian government reclaimed the mine from its British owners, marking the end of an era. Like hundreds of thousands of Anglo-Indians, many of the surrounding town's residents emigrated to the United Kingdom, Canada or Australia, where they mostly thrived. The community counts among its ranks the singer Engelbert Humperdinck and the actor Sir Ben Kingsley.

Those that remained behind, such as White-Kumar, have gradually become part of the Indian melting pot. "I was born here and I'm a citizen, so I'm Indian," she says.

A hint of defensiveness persists, however. "Contrary to all that has been said to denigrate their origins, the Anglo-India community developed along quite formal and legitimate lines," says the All India Anglo Indian Association of Delhi, in the opening line of its history of the community.

Dwindling numbers

The Anglo-Indian reservation in parliament was supposed to have been phased out by 1960. But successive governments have kept renewing it, even as the Anglo-Indian population is thought to have dwindled (though nobody knows by how much, as they are not counted separately in the Indian census).

2020 Year the current reservation will expire

One explanation for why it keeps getting renewed is that Anglo-Indians require more help than ever to have their voice heard in parliament. Another, more pragmatic one is that political parties still want the opportunity to install friendly members into parliament, without the hassle of having to get them elected.

Baker says he plans to ask the prime minister to renew the reservations again when they expire in 2020. "Gradually we are being integrated, but total assimilation will take a minimum of another 50 years," he says.

In the meantime, their traditions are being kept alive by people such as White-Kumar, who publishes cookbooks of Anglo-Indian cuisine: recipes such as mulligatawny soup, which blend Indian ingredients with British tastes. "We are a bit more judicious in our use of spices," she explains.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Apr 24, 2019
Words:1246
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