The value of dissent and the need for greater knowledge

The trouble with beliefs that strive for purity and perfection — religious fundamentalism, extreme veganism, communism / hard left, fascism / hard right etc. — is that these ideologies fail to understand people and fail to understand human relationships.

Thus, in their quest for a pure and perfect humanity, these warped minds abuse and attack those who do not submit to their totalitarian way of life.

The irony, of course, is that they profess to have a deep well of compassion for their fellow human beings.

Whereas, in reality, they are entirely heartless and entirely intolerant of dissent.

They view and treat dissenters — anyone who disagrees with them — as unworthy, and entirely disposable; human collateral damage, justifiable for the greater cause and the glory days to come.

But being intolerant of dissent means being hostile to new information. It means closing one’s mind to fresh ideas and alternative thinking.

In effect, it is akin to saying “I know all there is to know — and I need no additional knowledge.” It is a cessation of learning and an embrace of ignorance.

Today, we can see the politics of ignorance at play in Trump’s America, in Brexit Britain, and in authoritarian regimes across the world.

It is high time that decent, intelligent, compassionate people fought back and reclaimed the future direction of our shared humanity.

We cannot go into the New Year and beyond allowing fanatics to divide us and tear us down, as they infect our social discourse and our politics with their rancid indifference.

All of us as human beings are imperfect, flawed, beautiful and fragile.

We have but 80 or 85 years on this Earth, if we’re lucky, and we owe it to future generations to try to leave the world in a considerably better state than it is today.

And so that is my wish for 2018 and, I hope, the shared aspiration for many millions of good people.

Happy New Year to all!

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

Marking the 70th anniversary of D Day

I visited Gilroes cemetery in Beaumont Leys earlier today to pay my respects on the 70th anniversary of D Day.

Leicester’s Gilroes cemetery contains 110 Commonwealth war graves from World War I and 160 from World War II. There is also a memorial in front of the crematorium which commemorates the 31 service personnel whose remains were cremated there.

The weather today was sunny and bright and it was very peaceful. There was a funeral taking place inside. Outside, tiny squirrels were darting about, picking off petals from the many floral tributes. It was just another ordinary day at the cemetery.

Seventy years ago however it was anything but an ordinary day for our country and for many countless men and women. The Normandy landings ultimately helped the Allies rescue the continent of Europe from the grip of hatred and injustice.

Everything we have in Britain, including the freedom to choose how to live our lives, is thanks to the bravery of countless extraordinary people who came before us. We owe them a debt of gratitude we can never repay. However we can honour their memories and sacrifices by ensuring that future generations never forget.

Memorial at Gilroes cemetery in Leicester

Congratulations to the people of India

“Congratulations to Narendra Modi, incoming Prime Minister of India, and the BJP / NDA on their emphatic election victory. Congratulations also to the many British Asians, and Non-Resident Indians living in Britain, who have been actively campaigning for this election result.

It has been fascinating to observe the politics of India in recent years and particularly the 2014 general election. It is a testament to the strength of Indian democracy that the campaign has been largely peaceful and that Congress and other political parties have humbly accepted the people’s verdict.

As the people of India choose a new path for their future, I sincerely wish that the country continues to prosper, and that India remains a global beacon for hard work and innovation. I also hope that relations between the Republic of India and the United Kingdom continue to go from strength to strength.”

Cllr Sundip Meghani

The flags of the United Kingdom and Republic of India