I will always fight for social justice
– Rushanara Ali MP
An exclusive interview with Britain's
first lawmaker of Bengali origin
Rushanara Ali with Gordon Brown.
Ansar Ahmed Ullah
The Britain's Bengali community's dream finally came true on May 6, 2010 at UK's general election when Rushanara Ali, 35, Labour Party's candidate won in Bethnal Green & Bow seat, an area in London's Banglatown. She won by 21,784 votes defeating another Bengali, Liberal Democrat's Ajmal Masroor who got10, 210 votes and Respect's Abjol Miah who came third getting 8,532 votes.
For many Bengalis this election contest was seen as a fight between the secular and the fundamentalist. Indeed many including the Bengali press have hailed Rushanara Ali's win as victory for inclusive politics of all communities as opposed to divisive politics of religious fundamentalist groups.
The result of the election marked the end of the Respect party, supported by Islamists and the fringe left in Tower Hamlets. A secular Bengali political party activist said she believed Bengalis in both constituencies had voted for Labour to keep Respect out.
During the election campaign some of your opponents made personal attacks how did you stand up to this smear campaign?
Well the first thing is I would say in politics all sorts of things happen in campaigns. The positive story is that in my selection which was a mix, you know 50% Bengali 50% white, predominantly that's the split and a small African, Caribbean and Somali membership as well, so it was an open short list with 67 candidates. The majority of them were men and I got support from Bengali Muslim men as well as white working class, middle class people and nobody told them to vote for me. There wasn't a shortlist by the party, there wasn't an all-women shortlist. It was an open shortlist. I would say credit to the Muslim community as well as the white working class and middle class community for voting for me. They listened to the arguments, they looked at my experience, and they looked at what I had to offer.
They listened to what my vision was; they said to me: we want a different kind of politics; we want a politics with integrity and values. I said I will always fight for social justice and that's what I have done and that's why they voted for me. I think some of my strongest advocates were elderly Muslim men, Bengali Muslim men or people over forty and the membership tends to be that kind of age bracket anyway. In the last three years in the campaign as a candidate I have had a predominantly a huge amount of support.
I think these people (the ones who made personal attacks) are on the margins who do not speak for the Bengali community and the Muslim community, who have there own agenda, who have a selfish, actually politicised agenda which has nothing to do with Islam. These people try to use Islam for there own personal political gain and actually they are a small minority and they made a lot of personal attacks against me. The results show that there was a silent majority of Muslims and Christians and people from all sorts of different backgrounds, those with faith, those with no faith, there were a diversity of people, over 21,000 people, who said we don't buy that. That is not the Muslim way, that is not the Bengali way. There were Bengali Muslims, Bengali Hindus, (there is a small minority who live in Tower Hamlets) who voted on the issues. They voted on experience, they voted on vision and that's why I won the election. I was directly appealing to the electorate and having conversations with them and winning the argument and offering my vision of what I intend to do and that's what they supported. There will always be minorities who will go to desperate lengths.
Lets' talk about your childhood. We know you came to England at the age of seven. So you must have gone to school in Bangladesh? Any memories of your early years in Bangladesh?
Yes, I have many memories of Bangladesh from childhood. You know I had a very happy childhood, with aunts and uncles, grandparents. It was very beautiful and I got a bit of a shock coming to England because it was cold and miserable at first and as a 7- year-old it was difficult going from a very beautiful lush country that is warm and everybody is warm and affectionate and friendly and you have your family and your extended family, your grandparents.
I missed my grandparents a huge amount and my aunts and uncles a lot so for at least a couple of years my brothers and sisters, and I just wanted to go back. We didn't really like it in England but I think that's the experience of a lot of children and then of course you settle down and you form new friendships and you go to school, you start to adapt.
|Rushanara Ali, 35, Labour Party's candidate won in Bethnal Green & Bow seat, an area in London's Banglatown.
How did your family feel about you contesting and how did they support your campaign?
Yes, my family has always supported me and has always been there for me. My parents continue to inspire me. They have always inspired me. Like many Bengali British people they came from ordinary families. They came to Britain, they did everything they could within their power to support their family back in Bangladesh and in bringing us up and giving us the best opportunities they could. I just think a lot of Bengali parents in Britain are extraordinary because they have the ability to adapt and live in a country which is so different. My father came in the 1960s. This is a country where Enoch Powell was giving speeches about the rivers of blood and (Bengali) men of that generation were struggling to keep out of physical danger and not be attacked every time they went out.
I think that people don't fully appreciate just how hard it was for my father's generation when they came to this country and tried and make their way in this society and also look after their own children and families, their extended family. I think my generation would really struggle to do that with their ability, and their resilience and their patience; the everyday racism and hostilities that they would have experienced are unimaginable. During my campaign, I would hear stories and I grew up with stories from my aunties and uncles and my parents about what it was like when they came to England. It wasn't all bad, there were stories of great generosity and warmth and solidarity from white working class people in particular. But also just how hard it was.
I think about the ordinary men and women of my parents' generation and the admiration I have for them and my parents. They always astound me. The parents of that generation who came made a lot of sacrifices. They left their families behind and particularly for women it was hard. My mother had a great life in Bangladesh with her family and I think a lot of them did. They had a lot of people looking after there children and they came to England and they were on their own and my win was actually a symbol of that sacrifice and commitment and determination to make way and create opportunities for us and my generation and the successive generations.
In a way my parents story tells the story of other Bengalis who came here and made a life for themselves. I wouldn't be doing what I am doing if it wasn't for those sacrifices and that kind of gritted teeth, that kind of hard work, through very challenging times but also the sweat and tears that would have gone in to create those opportunities and to just keep going.
On your recent visit to Bangladesh you met both Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia. How did you find them? What did they say to you?
Well the Labour (Party) has had links in politics with lots of different parties. Labour in government has worked with both the main parties that were in government, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) as well as the Awami League. That's the right thing to do because you can't have a democracy with one party in any country so as far as the Labour Party is concerned Labour wants Bangladesh to be a strong functional democracy with functional political parties that are democratic. I think that as far as I'm concerned I think that it is important that people recognise that the Labour Party's relationships with people in different parts of the political spectrum are true. I'm proud of the fact that the Labour party was a party that really paved the way back. We were the party that campaigned for the end of colonialism and British rule in India.
In 1971 the late Peter Shore (MP) worked tirelessly. My parents' generation remembers that with great respect, that he worked tirelessly to support Bangladesh's independence and mobilised not just their parties but other parties to support Bangladesh's cause. So, of course there is a special affinity but that actually is about supporting Bangladesh's independence as a country. So, I don't think it's helpful that some of my opponents during the election tried to make me sound like I was being partisan about Bangladesh. I have never been partisan about Bangladesh. When I went to Bangladesh I asked for a meeting with Begum Khaleda Zia as well as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The message for the people of Bangladesh is that my politics is firmly in the Labour Party but I will work with whoever to advance the cause of Bangladesh for it to be a strong functional stable democracy.
I met with the Prime Ministers and senior members of her team and I received an incredibly positive message from her which I did relay to the press in the UK and in Bangladesh. Her chair of foreign relations committee passed on the message that she was relieved and happy that as a women I was selected by the Labour Party to stand for parliament and wished me every success and wished me well so they both did that. I'm looking forward to going back to Bangladesh and meeting both leaders. And if they come here in the UK I'm really looking forward to meeting them here. I intend to keep strong relationships with the major parties in Bangladesh because whoever is in power it's important that we work with those people in power to have strong relationships between Britain and Bangladesh.
So the causes that affect Bangladesh, the issues that Bangladesh faces whether it's climate change or development or other issues, there is a strong voice in the British parliament not just through me but in other politicians across the political spectrum and I hope I can encourage that more as well as across Europe. As a British national with Bangladeshi origin I feel responsible to do that. It is very important that people recognise I will work in a neutral way as I've always done. Now it's a matter for the individual parties in terms of how they help to forge and sustain that relationship but I'm really looking forward to strengthening the relationship between Britain and Bangladesh.
Ansar Ahmed Ullah is the Daily Star's London correspondent.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010