Leicester is already British and we’re proud of who we are

** Scroll down for updated comments following the Make Leicester British broadcast **

I first found out about Channel 4’s ‘Make Leicester British’ documentary when I saw the trailer a few weeks ago. Many Leicester people including me have serious concerns about the way in which this programme will portray community relations in our city when it is aired on Monday night.

For one thing the trailer begins with the following statement: “In one of Britain’s most diverse cities immigration polarises opinion.” Most of us in Leicester know this is a lie. ‘Polarises’ is a very strong word. It implies there are major disagreements in our city and that immigration is a huge issue for local people. This is simply untrue.

The trailer then cuts to further statements from two different individuals: a man says “English society is losing its identity”; and a woman is then seen to say “I do not want any more people coming into this country; enough is enough!”

These are clearly very provocative statements, although I’m advised the programme will not be as inflammatory as the trailer would seem to suggest. Indeed it appears the trailer has been specifically designed to cause a reaction (and it worked) as well as to whip up a frenzy of viewers on Monday night.

It’s disappointing but unsurprising that Channel 4 regularly broadcasts controversial programmes such as this. ‘Benefits Street’ is another example.

Channel 4 would have us believe they are a bastion of liberal media and a guardian of social justice and equality in Britain. In reality Channel 4 is a commercial organisation and in the end it all comes down to profits and advertising revenues. The higher the viewing figures; the greater the income stream.

Immigration is one of many important issues we care about here in Leicester. But our people and our politicians do not talk irresponsibly about immigration or seek to blame immigrants for the ills of society. Leicester people by and large know that societal problems tend to stem from Tory policies, both past and present, which have always disproportionately favoured very rich people and big corporations.

visitleicesterIn any event I think it’s a disgrace that the programme is called “Make Leicester British”. As my friend and Leicester South MP Jon Ashworth tweeted recently “Leicester, proud of our rich diversity, already is British.”

It is extremely offensive for the programme makers and for Channel 4 to suggest our city is not British, or that our ‘Britishness’ has somehow been diluted by the arrival of immigrants, be it from Poland, Somalia, or anywhere else. We also don’t appreciate having some middle class, middle aged, middle management types from London defining what Britishness means to our people and our city.

In regards to the programme I think it’s highly unlikely a bunch of journalists from London visiting Leicester for a couple of weeks – who handpicked participants for an edited 90-minute broadcast – will have gained a sufficient understanding or experience of our beautiful city, our rich heritage, our cultural diversity, and the unity of our people. But let’s wait and see what kind of footage they put out on Monday night.

‘Make Leicester British’ will be shown on 3 November 2014 at 9pm on Channel 4

UPDATE

Having now watched ‘Make Leicester British’ I can make the following observations.

Just a few minutes into the broadcast I knew it would be utter garbage. The narrator referred to Leicester as a divided city, which is an outright lie. In-fact the programme was full of lies, i.e. claiming there were 53 mosques in Leicester when there are actually around 30.

I feel vindicated for having serious concerns about the way in which the programme would portray Leicester people. But I also knew the documentary was produced by the same people who gave us ‘Benefits Street’.

This was manufactured gutter television of the lowest order, designed to create controversy, boost ratings and advertising revenues, and advance the interests of the programme makers – not the political issues or the participants.

The show was sensationalist drivel passed off as a documentary. It entirely failed to reflect the true face of Leicester people. To top it off these visiting London journalists had the audacity to try to define what Britishness should mean to our city and our people.

Ultimately 8 days of footage was edited into 90 minutes of viewing to paint a particular narrative. Specifically, the programme makers wanted us to believe Leicester is divided and that immigration is a major issue in our city; neither of which is true.

The producers handpicked the participants and seemingly opted for people who held extreme views. Whilst this may have made good television – in the eyes of the programme makers – sadly all it demonstrated was that this was never meant to be a sensible, thought-provoking or reasonable documentary about immigration and its associated issues.

There was no factual discussion of the positive aspects of immigration, such as the fact immigrants have contributed more than £25 billion to the British economy. There was also no discussion of the welfare payments asylum seekers receive, which is a maximum of £36 per week.

Overall it was a disgraceful distortion of our city and our people. The programme entirely failed to properly debate the important issue of immigration in a mature and rational way. By ending with a few pithy examples of participants learning the error of their ways, this tacky programme tried to harvest some sense of dignity, and justify the need for its production.

It failed miserably on all counts and I’m sure most Leicester people would agree with me.

One Leicester

Celebrating Navratri with local people in Oadby and Wigston

Attending Navratri celebrations hosted by the Oadby and Wigston Hindu CommunityI was delighted to visit Gartree High School on Friday 26 September 2014. I had been invited by the Oadby and Wigston Hindu Community to join them in celebrating Navratri, a wonderful 9-day festival of dance which is important to many Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.

It was a pleasure to meet and speak with hundreds of local residents enjoying the festivities. I talked about the meaning of Navratri and I congratulated the committee and the community for putting on such a successful event.

Attending Navratri celebrations hosted by the Oadby and Wigston Hindu CommunityI spoke about my parliamentary candidacy in 2015 and our local Labour candidates also standing for election in Oadby and Wigston. I got the sense that local residents are optimistic about the future and eager to see change. People want politicians who understand them and are prepared to stand up for their values and beliefs.

After I spoke many people thanked me for visiting and some even congratulated me on the quality of my Gujarati! I was incredibly impressed to see the local Hindu community come together to organise events such as this, which are entirely self-funded and staffed by volunteers. The Oadby and Wigston Hindu Community are doing brilliant work locally and I look forward to supporting them in the months and years ahead.

Attending Navratri celebrations hosted by the Oadby and Wigston Hindu Community

We need a sensible debate on the future of faith schools

Published in the Leicester Mercury newspaper on 27 June 2014

Many people were alarmed by the recent Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham. A “culture of fear and intimidation” had been created in several schools by hardline Islamists, and there was evidence of an “organised campaign to target certain schools”, according to Ofsted.

We should not make excuses for what happened in Birmingham and we should not brush it under the carpet. It is good that these unauthorised practises have been uncovered and it is right that steps are taken to address the issue.

The schools in question were not faith schools: they were secular schools being run by the local Council and by academy trusts. If they had been faith schools however, then a lot of what was found to be unacceptable would still be going on.

Public appetite for faith schools has diminished significantly. A survey by Opinium found that 58% of people believe faith schools should be abolished and 70% think they should not be state funded.

The central argument against faith schools is that young impressionable children are often taught to accept untruths as truths and to assimilate information through the prism of religion.

Newsnight recently featured a report on 30 private Christian faith schools, where children are taught that evolution isn’t true, and that the earth is only a few thousand years old. This of course contradicts the overwhelming evidence we have which proves that evolution is real and the earth is 4.54 billion years old.

Although the government has banned creationism from being taught in our 7,000 state-funded faith schools, private faith schools continue to operate as a law unto themselves.

Insofar as state funding for faith schools is concerned, to me it seems irrational and counter-intuitive. We don’t allow Council tenants to be housed on the basis of faith or NHS hospitals to have different wards for different religions.

Yet with state-funded faith schools we permit a religious apartheid in our education system, where the next generation of citizens are segregated along doctrinal lines, in accordance with their parent’s beliefs.

The late Christopher Hitchens claimed that faith schools were a “cultural suicide”. He argued that increasing them would turn Britain into somewhere like Lebanon, where people live in sectarian communities, and religious tensions are always simmering away ready to boil over.

Living in a multicultural and multi-faith society is a good thing but we must actively promote integration. We should have secular public services which treat all people equally irrespective of belief.

And all children should receive a well-rounded evidence-based education, with a healthy and inclusive understanding of other faiths and cultures, so as to prepare them for life in modern Britain and the wider world.

Leicester people condemn vandalism of Gandhi statue

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi in LeicesterMany Leicester people were appalled and disgusted on Saturday (7 June 2014), when photos emerged on social media showing that the statue of Mahatma Gandhi on Belgrave Road had been defaced.

Rupal Rajani from BBC Leicester originally tweeted the photos from her personal account, which had been sent to her by local businessman Vinod Popat.

The graffiti on the statue is an attempt to draw attention to the awful 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Amritsar, a major controversy involving the Indian Prime Minister at the time, Mrs Indira Gandhi.

However it would seem that the culprit who committed this vandalism isn’t very bright. Either they did not know that Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi were two very different people and completely unrelated. Or they did know the difference, and they did it anyway, in a bid to stir up tensions in the community. In any event, they have failed.

The statue of Mahatma Gandhi in LeicesterThis act only serves to unify Leicester people from all backgrounds and communities, who recognise that it is not a legitimate political protest: it is simply a cowardly act of criminal damage.

Many of my Leicester Labour colleagues were quick to condemn this pathetic behaviour.

Cllr Vijay Singh Riyait of Abbey tweeted: “we need to be clear that this kind of thing is totally unacceptable”. And Assistant Mayor Cllr Manjula Sood of Latimer telephoned me and told me that “this is entirely wrong and goes against the teachings of Sikhism”. She also agreed to inform the police.

Keith Vaz, Labour MP for Leicester East, tweeted: “Shocked that the Gandhi statue in Belgrave has been defaced. A foolish act of vandalism. Let’s stay united and strong to honour the great man”. His comments were later retweeted by journalists from the BBC and Leicester Mercury.

Having noticed the photos on Twitter fairly earlier on I had immediately emailed them over to City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby. The City Mayor and his Cabinet colleague Cllr Sarah Russell were very quick to respond, confirming within hours that Council officers would be out cleaning the graffiti on Sunday morning.

The statue of Mahatma Gandhi in LeicesterIt is great to see that Leicester’s political leaders have taken this seriously. We are also very lucky to have such dedicated Council officers, promptly agreeing to carry out the cleaning work on a Sunday.

Some people have questioned why this is such a big issue. Others have even made light of it or tried to justify the sentiments being expressed.

For the avoidance of doubt let me be very clear. The graffiti applied to Mahatma Gandhi’s statue is not a legitimate political protest and it absolutely must not be justified under any circumstances.

The definition of terrorism is “the unauthorised use of violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”. The desecration of this statue was unauthorised; it was an act of intimidation aimed at the mainly British Indian community living in Belgrave; and the purpose was wholly political.

It could be argued therefore that this act of vandalism also amounts to an act of terrorism. An act that was perpetrated by the same kind of closed-minded people who go on to commit far more dangerous acts, because they already have a blatant disregard for the rule of law. These people don’t want to convince us of their political beliefs; they want to force us into accepting them, and they’re prepared to break the law to do it.

The statue of Mahatma Gandhi in LeicesterWe are lucky to live in a civilised western society built on the rule of law, human rights, freedom and democracy. Any transgression of these principles is an attack on all of us and our way of life. We must never justify any attempt to influence public discourse through the use violence, force or intimidation.

Thankfully I believe that this was an isolated incident and that these kinds of acts are very rare in Leicester. However we must always be prepared to stand together – people of all faiths and those of none – united against criminals and terrorists seeking to take the law into their own hands to advance their political beliefs.

Mahatma GandhiUltimately we have this statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Leicester for the same reason that we have Nelson Mandela Park and may soon have – thanks to Cllr Adam Clarke of Aylestone – a statue of Alice Hawkins: We choose to honour great people and inspire the next generation.

We will not be intimidated by stupid cowards who break the law.

Cllr Sundip Meghani

UPDATE: The statue of Mahatma Gandhi has now been cleaned. This was done within 24 hours by Leicester City Council officers. Photo credit: Emily Anderson, BBC News. Leicestershire Police are investigating and two arrests were made on 11 June 2014. Anyone with any information should contact Leicestershire Police on 0116 222 22 22.

The statute of Mahatma Gandhi in Leicester

Council commits to new riverside memorial space in Leicester

Click here to listen to an interview I gave on the BBC Asian Network in March 2014.

Leicester people – of all faiths and none – will soon have an additional choice when it comes to honouring the lives of loved ones who have passed away.

Leicester City Council has committed to developing a new riverside memorial space within the city, where people will be able to safely, peacefully and legally disperse the cremated ashes of loved ones into the river.

This is not only welcome news for the city’s large Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities, for whom the consecration of cremated ashes is an important ritual, but it’s also welcome news for all Leicester residents; research shows that 1 in 10 people would like to be able to scatter the ashes of a loved one in this way.

It will also give each of us – the Council tax payers of Leicester – an added option when it comes to having our own mortal remains treated in a dignified way. For someone who always loved to go fishing for example, or enjoyed summertime swimming, or even felt a deep connection with the natural environment, this final journey may well be something comforting to include in any last will and testament.

Until now the nearest place where people could safely and legally scatter ashes onto water was at Barrow-upon-Soar. However this option is rather poor as it only accommodates very limited numbers; involves a 20-mile round trip; and costs upwards of a hundred pounds.

It is therefore very much to the credit of our City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby and his hardworking team, that we will soon have a simpler, cheaper and much more local space for the benefit of Leicester residents. I and several others have campaigned on this issue in recent months and I am glad that we are now taking this positive and pragmatic approach.

In regards to the specifics, the cabinet member for culture has advised me that the memorial space will be up-and-running by February 2014. Three potential sites have been selected and site visits and formal consultations will soon be commenced in order to pick the best location. Eventually we hope to have a site that is away from residential areas and one that runs in accordance with all relevant rules and regulations.

Overall most people would agree that talking about death has always been a bit of a taboo. But I think we ought to start taking a more responsible and practical approach to death and the grieving process. Ultimately we ought to do what we can to help make things less stressful and more manageable when our fellow citizens – including our friends and relatives – make that final transition into eternity.

The secret to happiness

In a way it’s a very bittersweet time of year. Many of us hope to spread happiness and joy to those we care about. At the same time we cannot ignore all the unhappiness in the world and the suffering that many people – and animals too – are being forced to endure.

Thankfully there are millions of decent conscientious people in our world of all backgrounds for whom the message of Christmas isn’t just confined to a few weeks in December. These are the same people who already spend so much time and energy trying to change our world for the better. And they are the same people who will continue to lead by example when all the festivities are over come January the 2nd.

There will come a time in the future when all suffering will be eliminated. This isn’t just a hope that I have but an absolute belief. Just as our species and the human body has gradually evolved and improved over millions of years, so human civilisation will also continue to become progressively enlightened.

A new world order is in our grasp and education is the key. Before the end of this century, science, truth, justice, peace and democracy will have become the fundamental pillars of life for all people, and medical science will have enhanced humanity beyond our wildest expectations. As we strive towards this new enlightenment however, I believe that we can and actively should encourage each other to be happier, and to embrace happiness as a way of life.

In a strange way happiness has become somewhat of a taboo subject. Those who are happy and those who seek to encourage greater happiness are often viewed with suspicion. I suspect this may be because for centuries the promise of happiness has been used by individuals and groups of people the world over to exploit fellow human beings. Even today we can do a simple online search to find countless people willing to help you find happiness – for a price.

Suspicions aside (hopefully) how many of us actually spend time really thinking about happiness or about ‘being happy’? Is it something that we allow our minds, bodies and souls to experience? Or do we more often than not delegate the idea of being happy to our future selves?

Sadly it is so much easier for us to focus on what we need and what we lack; on what we hate and on what causes us physical or emotional pain. Many people simply avoid thinking about happiness altogether, believing that it will inevitably come into their lives just as soon as they have enough money, and thus the freedom to purchase goods and services.

Whilst happiness is of course very subjective and personal to each and every one of us, philosophers and faith traditions throughout history have always cautioned against seeking happiness through money alone. Moreover studies have shown time and again that there’s more to happiness than just wealth and material possession.

A Gallup poll released just this week for example surveyed 150,000 people around the world and found that 7 of the 10 happiest nations on Earth are in Latin America. These countries, which included the likes of Guatemala, Ecuador, Venezuela and Costa Rica, also happen to be amongst the poorest nations in the world.

Happiness is by no means a fixed concept. Even today, scientists and scholars are trying to define, re-define and better understand exactly what happiness is and how we can experience it. Quite understandably then, there are numerous theories and approaches which seek to explain happiness, or at least identify the key ingredients from which it may be produced.

Psychologist Martin Seligman explained that happiness was an amalgamation of 5 things: pleasure; engaging activities; relationships with others; meaning and belonging; and accomplishments. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation, which has become a fundamental principle in the world of business, consists of a hierarchy of 5 essential needs: physiological needs; safety; love / belonging; esteem; and self-actualisation.

Aristotle believed that unlike riches, honour, health or friendship; happiness was the only thing that humans desired for its own sake. He considered happiness to be an activity rather than an emotion or a physical state, and that ‘activity’ was the ‘practice of virtue’. The Buddhist approach is beautifully simple and an idea that I firmly agree with: compassion and generosity is more fun, and more fun leads to increased happiness! Put another way, the secret to happiness is making other living beings happy through compassion and generosity.

I believe that happiness begins in the mind through meditation. Also known as positive thinking or having a positive mental attitude, it is by far the easiest and most beneficial act that any one of us can take – to actually think ourselves happy. To create within our own personal consciousness a state of mental and emotional well-being, which in turn flows outwards like ripples in a pond, and encompasses our physical bodies and the world around us. Interestingly it would seem that science and evolution also concurs with this approach.

The human brain weighs around three pounds and has tripled in size as our ancestors evolved over the last 2 million years. Thanks to our frontal lobes, we as a species are now completely unique in the world, in that we have the ability to simulate the future and visualise actions or products before they exist in real life.

This also gives us the psychological ability to ‘synthesise happiness’ and to change our view of the world, so as to make ourselves feel better about our circumstances. In other words, we have what it takes within our own minds to create happiness and to feel happier, irrespective of the world around us. Having a positive mental attitude therefore – and thinking positive – actually works!

This extraordinary finding has been backed up with reliable data and scientific study by the eminent Harvard psychologist Professor Dan Gilbert. Gilbert also suggests that paradoxically we believe that synthetic happiness is not the same as natural happiness. That is to say, people assume that self-taught, self-proclaimed happiness is not as enriching or as rewarding as the happiness that comes from actually getting something that we want.

However his research has also found that this assumption is mistaken. When measured in controlled experiments, Gilbert found that “synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for”. Whilst some may mock the idea of synthetic happiness, in the real world and in the human mind, there is no differential between synthetic happiness and naturally occurring happiness.

So there we have it: the secret to happiness is to ‘fake it until you make it’. You can either be unhappy or less happy until you find happiness by getting what you want, or you can create happiness seemingly out of nothingness inside your own mind; a happiness that will be beneficial and fulfilling to your emotional, mental and physical well-being, and allow you to spread even greater happiness to other living beings through compassion and generosity.

Ultimately, I believe we need a lot more happiness in the world, and I think we shouldn’t be afraid to do something about it.

I wish all my friends, relatives, colleagues and constituents a very happy Christmas, a very happy New Year, and a very happy and fulfilling future.

Clarissa Dickson Wrong

Letter published in the Leicester Mercury newspaper on 28 November 2012

I was dismayed to read this letter from T Green in the Mercury on 22 November; one of several recent letters and online comments from people jumping on the Clarissa Dickson Wright bandwagon. Thankfully I’ve also seen more sensible letters from Ann Collins and Eddie Sentance amongst others, reflecting the true face of Leicester people, and the common decency and human compassion that most of us share.

Firstly in response to T Green: I hate to break it to you, but you appear to be suffering from a bout of xenophobia. Take 2 visits with friends to an Indian restaurant and perhaps a place of worship, followed by a long hard look in the mirror. If symptoms persist contact your nearest library and try reading a few good books. Before long you will discover that humans of different ethnicity are biologically identical, and that different cultures – like different languages – are not something to be afraid of, but something to be embraced; i.e. you have to make a bit of an effort in order to understand something that’s a tad different to what you’re used to. Good luck with your recovery!

As for poor Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the things she said in her widely reported remarks was that she once got lost in a part of Leicester and none of the Muslim men would talk to her. Well to be honest I’m not Muslim myself, but if fox-hunting enthusiast Clarissa Dickson Wright came barrelling towards me on a Leicester side street, I’d probably ignore her too. On a serious note I did find her comments about Leicester to be both idiotic and exaggerated. But it was one particular phrase that really caught my attention, where she casually questioned whether or not multiculturalism actually works.

Now of course I don’t have enough column inches here to run through all the reasoned arguments as to why multiculturalism does work, has worked and will continue to work in the future. (Or for that matter to try and give Clarissa Dickson Wright and all her fans a much needed education). But for the sake of brevity I will simply say this: Saint George was an Arab, the Royal family is German, our national dish is Indian and our most gifted Olympians are of African descent. Questioning multiculturalism is akin to questioning evolution: both are part and parcel of the human story. The sooner we accept that and move on to creating for ourselves a life of purpose and fulfilment in this increasingly globalised society, the better off we’ll be.

Marking the 40th anniversary of Ugandan Asians in Leicester

This has been a truly historic year for our city. Not only did we celebrate The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in style by welcoming Her Majesty to Leicester; we also played host to both the Olympic and Paralympic flames.

But 2012 also has another historical significance for us here in Leicester as we mark the fortieth anniversary of the arrival of Ugandan Asian immigrants to the city.

In 1972 all Asian people in Uganda were expelled by the dictator Idi Amin. They were given 90 days to leave or face being put into concentration camps. Most were lucky to escape with their lives but they had virtually everything taken away from them.

Around 25,000 Ugandan Asians held British passports. However; despite this, the Conservative Government at the time tried desperately to avoid letting them come here.

Britain was a very different place in 1972: the economy was stagnating with strikes and a three-day week; and there were anti-immigration protests across the country spurred on by the likes of Enoch Powell and the National Front.

In the end, the Government relented and a huge resettlement effort began. More than 10,000 Ugandan Asians eventually settled in Leicester, and my father and his family were among them.

The impact of the Ugandan Asian migration has been immense. In the beginning, when Leicester’s manufacturing base was in decline, the arrival of thousands of hardworking entrepreneurial people breathed new life into the city’s economy.

Over these last 40 years we’ve seen our very own Little India develop around the Golden Mile. Asian culture imported from East Africa has influenced everything from food to fashion, from festivals to friendships.

For me, Leicester isn’t just the city that I happen to have been born in, Leicester is a community of kind-hearted and decent people; a community that 40 years ago accepted – albeit reluctantly – an unprecedented amount of change; and a community that is now not only at peace with its diversity, but proud of it.

As the son and grandson of immigrants, who was born and raised on a Leicester Council estate, it fills me with great pride that I’m now able to serve Leicester residents of all backgrounds as an elected representative on the City Council.

This Thursday evening I will proudly put forward a motion in the Council chamber – with the support of my Labour colleagues – to publicly recognise the significant contribution that Ugandan Asians have made to the social, economic and cultural life of our city.

Here’s to whatever the future may bring for our One Leicester community.

Cllr Sundip Meghani

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This is the full text of the motion that I will bring to Council on 13 September 2012:

“This Council marks the 40th anniversary of the arrival of Ugandan Asians seeking refuge in the city of Leicester. We recognise the hard work and determination of the Ugandan Asian community and the significant contribution that they have made to the social, economic and cultural life of our city. We condemn efforts to discourage those fleeing persecution from coming here, and we are as proud today as we have always been to celebrate the diversity and unity, that makes Leicester such a wonderful place to live and work.”

Click here to read more about why I’m bringing this motion to Council. Also click the video below to watch a recent interview that I gave to Citizens Eye on this issue.

My first year as a Councillor – activities and achievements

Exactly a year ago today residents in Beaumont Leys voted to elect me as one of their local Labour Councillors to serve on Leicester City Council.

It was a tremendous honour and a huge privilege to have been entrusted to represent the views of local people, especially as I’ve lived in the area since I was 7 years old. Also as the son of immigrants, who came to this country from East Africa fleeing persecution, and as someone who was born and raised on a council estate in Leicester, it was particularly poignant to have been chosen to serve on the very Council that had once supported me and my family when times were tough.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love my party and my politics, but to be honest my love of politics merely stems from my love of people. That may sound like an awful cliché but it is the truth. In-fact I believe that if you’re not a people person and you don’t genuinely thrive on being able to solve problems and help make peoples’ lives that much easier, then you shouldn’t seek to hold public office.

Whereas if you have a passion for putting people first, for lifting hopes and aspirations, for fighting social injustice, and for leading by example and working hard, then politics isn’t just a career choice, it’s a moral imperative; an obligation to use your skills and expertise to serve the public and to try and make a difference in the world.

It’s been an incredible year and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’m grateful to my good friend Vijay Riyait and all the wonderful people mentioned in this post who worked tirelessly on the election campaign.

I’ve been fortunate to have two excellent co-Councillors in Vi Dempster and Paul Westley, as well as a good deal of support from our hardworking local MP Liz Kendall, and City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby. It’s a real pleasure to be part of such a great Labour team.

In addition to working closely with my fellow Councillors in holding regular ward surgeries, attending residents association meetings and carrying out specific casework and solving problems on behalf of constituents, here’s a summary of my other activities and achievements during my first 12 months as a Leicester City Councillor:

Policing:

  • Appointed as a Member of the Leicestershire Police Authority and attended numerous Authority and sub-committee meetings.
  • Delivered a speech on policing cuts at the 2011 Labour Party conference and discussed the issue with the Chair of the Police Federation.
  • Raised the issue of policing cuts in the Council chamber as well as in the local, regional and national press.
  • Led the Labour team at the Leicestershire Police Authority in fighting to save nearly 200 jobs and helping to secure neighbourhood and frontline policing.
  • Attended a special conference on the ‘Roots of Violent Radicalisation’ hosted by the Home Affairs Select Committee and Leicester East MP Keith Vaz.
  • Together with co-Councillors, approved funding for a local police community safety shop at the Beaumont Leys shopping centre.

Education and young people:

  • Continued to work hard as a school governor at Soar Valley college and took on a new role as a governor at Beaumont Lodge primary school.
  • Delivered a speech on achievement at Soar Valley College in Rushey Mead.
  • Delivered a speech on aspiration at Babington College in Beaumont Leys.
  • Attended a special conference on the application of new technologies in schools.
  • Took up an appointment as a Member of Court at the University of Leicester.
  • Attended summer fetes with co-Councillors at Glebelands primary and Beaumont Lodge primary schools, and the Beaumont Lodge Neighbourhood Association.
  • Delivered a speech at the University of Leicester in support of the ‘Living Wage’ campaign being run by Labour Students.

Health and community:

  • Helped set up and Chair a new community task group to tackle domestic violence in Beaumont Leys and Abbey.
  • Actively supported the campaign to save the children’s heart centre at the Glenfield General Hospital in Beaumont Leys.
  • Attended a special event organised by the Somali community in Beaumont Leys.
  • Launched the British Heart Foundation’s Big Donation event at the Beaumont Leys shopping centre.
  • Attended the official opening of the new Beaumont ward at the Bradgate Mental Health Unit in Beaumont Leys.
  • Visited a new locally-run free lunch club at Christ the King church.

Transport and environment:

  • Voted at Planning Committee in support of modernising Leicester train station.
  • Participated in a special climate change and water management conference.
  • Worked with co-Councillors and local businesses to help tackle parking problems in parts of north Beaumont Leys.
  • Became actively involved in the work of the Castle Hill Country Park user group.
  • Attended a special conference on local transport policy in Leicester.
  • Helped secure 11 new grit bins for locations throughout Beaumont Leys.

Housing:

  • Attended a special conference on student housing and future strategy.
  • Wrote an article about increasing levels of homelessness and spent Christmas Day helping at a local homeless shelter to raise awareness.
  • Voted at Planning Committee in support of the creation of new housing developments and student flats across the city.
  • Hosted public meetings with fellow Councillors, the local MP and the Mayor to discuss traveller encampments and the on-going consultation on proposed sites.

Business and jobs:

  • Agreed to join the board of the Cooke e-Learning Foundation, a Beaumont Leys  based enterprise helping people to train for jobs.
  • Attended a conference and dinner hosted by the Indo British Trade Council.
  • Visited the Beaumont Leys Enterprise Centre to support local businesses.
  • Spoke in the Council chamber on the economy and drafted an article on how the Budget will adversely affect Beaumont Leys.
  • Hosted the 2012 HSBC English Asian Business Awards in Manchester and worked to secure Leicester as the 2013 host city.

Social justice and charity:

  • Lobbied the Foreign Office and raised the issue of the Sri Lankan civil war with Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt MP.
  • Attended numerous public events to oppose cuts to Legal Aid and lobbied the Solicitor General Edward Garnier QC MP on the issue.
  • Attended a fundraiser in support of ‘Unique Home for Girls’, a charity caring for orphaned and abandoned girls.
  • Visited the offices of Leicestershire AIDS Support Services and attended the annual World AIDS Day service at Leicester Cathedral.
  • Attended the launch of a 3-day festival organised by the Pushti Nidhi charity.

Culture and faith:

  • Met with Leicester Council of Faiths and attended events during inter-faith week.
  • Visited numerous places of worship across Leicester belonging to all of the city’s main faith communities.
  • Attended a concert of the Philharmonia Orchestra and an ‘Orchestra Unwrapped’ concert promoting music to school children.
  • Attended ‘Out of Africa’; an annual celebration of African culture hosted by Harvest City Church.
  • Attended an Inter-Cultural Evening hosted by the Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police.
  • Attended a lecture on Hindu and Christian dialogue hosted by the Leicester Friends of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies.

Attendance record at all Leicester City Council & Planning Committee meetings: 100%

The Bhagavad Gita in English – listen to all 18 chapters (MP3)

The Bhagavad Gita is a 700-verse Hindu scripture which forms part of the ancient Sanskrit epic ‘Mahabharata’. The Gita dates back thousands of years, and is a conversation that takes place on a battlefield between Lord Krishna and the hero prince Arjuna, in the midst of a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Responding to Arjuna’s confusion and moral dilemma about fighting his own cousins, who have imposed tyranny on a disputed empire, Lord Krishna explains to Arjuna his duties as a warrior and as a prince. In doing so, Lord Krishna talks about yoga, samkhya, reincarnation, moksha, karma yoga, jnana yoga and other topics, all of which now form the core beliefs of Hinduism. Click below to hear the 18 chapters of the Bhagavad Gita.

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6

Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12

Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18

 

My pilgrimage around Leicester

A very good friend of mine recently gave me a lovely book entitled ‘The Wisdom of the Hindu Gurus’. As I flicked through the first few pages a quote by Sri Aurobindo caught my eye: “That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion because it embraces all others.” I really like this quote because it perfectly sums up the way I feel about God and religion, and the way in which I feel my spirituality has been enhanced in recent months.

On my 30th birthday last week I chose to spend the first half of the day by myself visiting 8 different places of worship around Leicester. My journey began at around 11am and over the course of 8 hours I visited the Progressive Jewish Synagogue, the Holy Cross Priory Catholic Church, the Jain Centre, the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, the Central Mosque, the Nagarjuna Kadampa Buddhist Centre, the Cathedral and the Shree Sanatan Mandir.

At the Synagogue I met a number of people and a gentleman named Alex gave me a tour. We had an interesting discussion about the history of the Abrahamic faiths as he showed me the Torah Scrolls. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Alex was born almost exactly 50 years before I was and that he was planning to celebrate his 80th birthday in March. The stained glass window with the tree of life and the Ten Commandments looked really beautiful, particularly as it was such a sunny day.

After visiting the Synagogue I drove back into the city centre and attended Mass at the Holy Cross Priory Catholic church. I always enjoy visiting this church and I have been here several times before. The building itself is large and imposing and there is a stunning huge crucifix hanging from the ceiling. I walked around, lit a candle and quietly enjoyed the ambience, before taking a seat and observing Holy Mass which began at 12.30pm.

A short walk from the church is the Jain Centre, which like every one of the places I visited on my journey, is fascinating, welcoming and has a very distinct feel about it. The intricate wooden architecture surrounding the temple itself is simply breathtaking and the stained glass windows are a real sight to see. Apart from a lady who was attending to the deities I was the sole visitor in the temple that afternoon and I spent a very peaceful hour without uttering a single word.

The Guru Nanak Gurdwara is about a 5 minute walk from the Jain Centre. The thing I really love about visiting Gurdwaras is the contrast between the wonderful bustling atmosphere in the kitchen and the calm and peace inside the main temple. Again the sun was shining through the windows and again there were friendly people around eager to welcome a stranger in their midst. I wandered upstairs and spent a good while examining the many historical portraits that hang in the lobby of the Sikh museum. The museum is one of the features of this particular Gurdwara and well worth a visit.

A short drive from the Gurdwara is Leicester’s Central Mosque located behind the train station on Conduit Street. This was only my second ever visit to a mosque and unlike the first time where I was given a guided tour this time I was by myself.  The entire mosque was completely empty as it wasn’t a designated prayer time and so I sat alone in the enormous prayer hall as the sun shone through the many large windows. It was silent and tranquil and extremely beautiful and I also really enjoyed examining the Arabic calligraphy on the walls.

The wonderfully named World Peace Café at the Nagarjuna Kadampa Buddhist Centre was a hive of activity on the day I visited. It was really great to see so many people enjoying this delightful retreat on an otherwise busy Saturday afternoon. The meditation room looked magnificent with a collection of deities and a large statue of Buddha as the central focal point. As I looked out of the windows of the meditation room I noticed a wall topped with rather vicious looking barbed wire; a very interesting juxtaposition between the serenity of this Holy room and the outside world.

After a quick chai tea and a visit to the gift shop I walked around the corner to the Cathedral. The Cathedral is one of my favourite places in the city and I’ve been here many times. The building itself is huge and there’s certainly a great deal to see, yet it also feels intimate and welcoming, and it’s hard not to feel at peace when spending time here. I had a long and pleasant conversation with a man named John who works here as a verger. We discussed everything from faith and family to prayer and politics. I hadn’t realised until my visit that the Cathedral is actually open every single day of the year, which I think is absolutely brilliant.

The final stop on my pilgrimage around Leicester was the Shree Sanatan Hindu Mandir in Belgrave. I have been to this temple numerous times and it is one of my favourite mandirs in the city. There was certainly a lot going on when I visited with people praying, talking, laughing and singing. It felt really vibrant and colourful. I always find that Hindu temples are particularly lively and exciting places to visit in the evening, which is when special aarti prayers take place.

I had a most uplifting and enjoyable experience visiting these 8 different places of worship around Leicester. I was warmly welcomed everywhere I went by people I had never met before, and not a single person asked me who I was, why I was there, or what faith I belonged to if any.

The thing that really struck me however wasn’t man-made at all. It was the brightness and the warmth of the sunlight which followed me around the city everywhere I went that day. Just as the sunlight lit up the tree of life at the Synagogue and the images of Lord Mahavira in the Jain Temple; so it also lit up the stained glass windows in the churches and the calligraphy on the walls of the Central Mosque.

The visual symbolism alone really blew my mind and it served to remind me that the life-giving, heart-warming and unconditional love of sunlight doesn’t differentiate between the many paths to God. I may have been wandering around Leicester by myself for 8 hours on that day, but with the sun on my face and with sunlight cascading through the windows everywhere I went, I certainly didn’t feel alone.

A film review of ‘The Iron Lady’

The Iron Lady is an excellent film and well worth seeing if only for Meryl Streep’s mesmerising performance as Margaret Thatcher.

The film is different to what I expected and certainly not a drama or political thriller; more of a biographical recollection.

Essentially the viewer is taken on a journey of flashbacks which recall Thatcher’s life from her own perspective, or rather, the perspective of an aging and lonely old woman suffering from dementia.

The flashbacks begin with Thatcher’s early life and political career, and gradually move on to a variety of highlights from her time as Leader of the Opposition, and then as Prime Minister.

In a way the film is simplistic in that it focuses almost exclusively on Thatcher as a woman, who admittedly had to fight hard to get ahead in a completely male dominated Conservative Party, and later the British political establishment itself. It’s also a very sad and emotive film and may be particularly poignant for those of a strong political persuasion.

For those on the right a once strong and powerful Thatcher is now weak and powerless. For those of us on the left this divisive and often inhumane figure is very much humanised by the indiscriminate effects of time and aging.

The worst thing about the film is a very unconvincing performance from Richard E. Grant who plays Michael Heseltine. Not only did he not look the part whatsoever but it felt as if he hadn’t really bothered to study his subject or try to capture the essence of the man.

Nevertheless barring one or two historical inaccuracies, such as for instance Thatcher’s location when Airey Neave was killed, this is a very watchable film thanks to Streep’s remarkable portrayal.

I particularly enjoyed watching her mannerisms and body language and the way she captured Thatcher’s personality at two very different times in her life. It is fair to say however that the accuracy of the latter portrayal of a senile Margaret Thatcher is debateable, because of the criticism that the film has attracted from Thatcher’s own family.

Overall I would certainly recommend watching the film, and embracing the sadness that comes with seeing a strong person become old, frail and forgetful; a process to which we will all bear witness eventually.

Music for the soul

In the words of Berthold Auerbach, “Music washes away from the soul, the dust of everyday life.” Enjoy these memorable excerpts from 75 of the most stunning pieces of classical music ever produced. Click through to the original YouTube videos for details of the individual piece and composer.