A Collective Statement on South Asian Heritage Month
Updated: Oct 26, 2022
This statement is co-crafted and co-signed by a number of concerned individuals and groups. In this statement, we share our ongoing concerns and challenges about the approaches taken towards the development and delivery of South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM). The aims of making this statement are:
to share our experiences with SAHM with the wider South Asian community;
to make transparent the invisibilised logics sitting at the core of this event, and explain why they are harmful;
to demonstrate that no one group, body or organisation can be the voice of “South Asians” in the UK; and
to stand with those who were and continue to be harmed by SAHM’s actions or the lack thereof.
This statement is not intended as an outline of what SAHM should change as a result of our observations. Rather, we invite the organising team, advisors and strategic committee of SAHM to take on the labour of working out what actions they may want to take moving forward. Many of the points raised here have been shared as feedback with the organising team, but there has been no resultant change in approach or sufficient response. Therefore, while we write this statement with a hope that the organisers do better as they move forward, we also know it is important that we speak out against approaches that claim to represent “South Asians” as a whole when they do not resonate with us and our communities. We are not a monolith and, as such, our experiences and perspectives will not be uniform. In that vein, it is also okay if you disagree with some of this statement or if you have had a different experience. But we invite you to get in touch and engage in a conversation with us if you want to learn more about what we share here.
Some of the key concerns that we raise through the rest of this statement include:
SAHM’s events, which are largely India and Pakistan-centric, have excluded other countries and oppressed communities within the South Asian diaspora from participating in South Asian History Month.
SAHM’s approach has caused the erasure of historically oppressed and disputed regions within South Asia, such as Kashmir.
Throughout our experiences with SAHM, we have noted that the current leadership consists of people who benefit from caste, class and other forms of privilege, who participate in gatekeeping, thereby leaving out those who are outside of city areas such as London, or from lower caste communities or historically minoritised regions in South Asia.
SAHM has caused harm to communities and individuals with disabilities through their attempts to collaborate on event organisation, their abrupt cancellations and their demonstrated disregard through a lack of contact.
The work of SAHM has been derived from Black History month and the Black Lives Matter movement, without sufficient acknowledgement or credit.
SAHM’s emphasis on the historical relationship between Britain and South Asia is problematic because it does not directly discuss South Asian contributions to the UK (or alternatively put, British extraction from South Asia), or the role of colonialism and imperialism in shaping these contributions.
Taken together, SAHM’s actions indicate a commitment to playing the ‘good immigrant’ for the sake of funding and publicity, rather than to the South Asian communities that they claim to represent.
What is South Asian Heritage Month and why are we writing this?
South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM) is a month-long festival of events, talks and workshops running from July-August of each year, “with the goal of helping people to better understand the diversity of present-day Britain and improve social cohesion across the country.” Self-described as being “about reclaiming the history and identity of British South Asians”, SAHM celebrated their inaugural year in 2020 and completed their second year of events in August 2021. We understand that the official line-up of events is centrally organised and approved by a core team. We know that, last year, the hashtag #SouthAsianHeritageMonth has also been used more broadly by individuals and organisations who have learnt about it independently.
We are writing this statement after a great deal of reflection and engagement with those who have been hurt, excluded, ashamed and/or misrepresented by SAHM. If SAHM continues to progress in this manner, it does a disservice to those of us divesting from oppressive structures of dominance. As we note here, our concerns go beyond individual experiences and are meant to highlight systemic issues.
Centring the voices and experiences of all South Asian communities
The South Asian community within the UK is so vast and diverse that it is only right for an event celebrating South Asian heritage to be representative and inclusive of this diversity. An event like SAHM therefore needs to genuinely reflect the layers of identities located within our communities, whether that be in the event topics, the speakers or the organising team.
Historically, the popular discourse on South Asian lives and experiences in the U.K. has been limited. The voices and experiences that have been consistently uplifted tend to be those of individuals who:
are of west and north Indian heritage;
are from higher socio-economic / class backgrounds;
benefit from caste privilege;
tend to be located in or around London;
are considered able-bodied, neuronormative and heteronormative; and/or
are light-skinned and play into their proximity to whiteness.
Unfortunately, SAHM seems to fall within this category too. It is concerning to us that a group of people, who all sit at various sites of privilege themselves, would seek to organise events that claim to be for all South Asians without seeking to consult those who are typically marginalised within our communities. This is despite claims from SAHM that ‘the founders have worked with community activists across the country to make sure that the Month fully reflects the diversity of South Asia and the richness of its heritage.’ We question the validity of this statement and the sincerity with which this task was undertaken given how the team and line-up are lacking in this diversity.
Several minoritised national identities are not represented within the organising team (including what we know of it from previous years) and scheduled events. For example, in the recent past, there have not been any events on issues covering Nepal, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, all countries that have a significant U.K. diaspora population. Generally, the India-centric position of SAHM has created a barrier to people of other backgrounds to participate fully. This further alienates many people from our communities, reproducing colonial logics of who is considered worthy and who is not.
As an example, the erasure of Kashmir has been prominent within SAHM since its inception, first flagged through its exclusion from the list of South Asian countries SAHM released. A British Kashmiri activist brought up this issue with SAHM that year, including suggestions on better accountability overall and proposed dialogue, but nothing materialised as a result. When it was brought to the organisers' attention again last year, their response (via email) was that SAHM “must strictly adhere to the advice provided by legal professionals,” and that they have “adhered to the globally recognised definition of South Asian territories and will…reflect changes as soon as this legal definition changes too.”
This leads us to ask who SAHM is serving and centring in its work. While the month-long series of events seem to be marketed for South Asians, the organising committee chose to ignore the concerns of South Asian people themselves and, in particular, those who are historically and currently marginalised.
In email correspondence, SAHM organisers further remarked that “South Asian Heritage Month is a platform and space for all voices that wish to be heard,” but we struggle to see where and how they are ensuring that this is the case. Instead of reflecting on their own responsibilities and how they can better hold space for people at the outset, SAHM chose to shift that labour onto the British Kashmiri activist, asking them to host an event on Kashmir themselves while they remain “bi-partisan”.
SAHM needs to do better when it comes to true inclusion and representation of voices, perspectives, histories and realities. The labour should not fall on already marginalised folks who are often omitted and have to struggle to be heard. To us, it is unacceptable that SAHM positions themselves as a platform for all South Asians whilst actively silencing and excluding important voices and stories from the communities.
Within SAHM, there is a very strong focus on and centring of the Indian and Pakistani experience, which, of course, does not represent all South Asians or our stories. We need to make equal room for Kashmiri and other marginalised voices. In this case, by choosing not to engage critically on topics relevant to Kashmiris, SAHM has missed an opportunity to explore topics such as the Indian military occupation of Kashmir, its subsequent colonisation by India, the role of Kashmir in facilitating and embedding Hindutva ideology across India etc. While it is undoubtedly important to raise awareness about events like partition, focussing almost solely on this one historical event is dismissive to people of other identities, indicating to them that this is not really a space for them when we talk about South Asians.
In addition to this, some of us have personally experienced various other forms of silencing including:
Our comments on social media being deleted
Emails from people voicing their concerns being ignored
Our ideas being dismissed and being told it was too late to participate, despite limited outreach on their part from the outset
Speaking to our networks, communities and friends during the first year of the event, we also learnt that many people based outside of London generally felt excluded and unable to connect with the organisers when they wanted to organise an event. While we acknowledge how difficult it can be to organise large-scale national events, we would invite SAHM to pause to think about who their default partners, speakers and participants were in the first year and whether they could have done a better job planning the event to be more inclusive from the outset.
Another example of this is how the event line-up for the past two years has made no mention of caste, seemingly ignoring the caste-based marginalisation and discrimination many people face among both the diaspora and within South Asia daily. The real world consequences of such exclusion includes risking further harm to those who are always excluded. By holding a month-long series of events about South Asia without mentioning caste, SAHM simply reinforces the idea that caste-based discrimination and harm is not important. At this current moment, one in which Hindutva is marauding and rampant, questions of inclusion, diversity, decolonising ought to be at the forefront of any South Asian project. Within SAHM, the voices centered are those of dominant caste individuals, who by virtue of their positionality can already exert a considerable amount of power and privilege.
A further incident which deeply concerned us was the treatment of Chronically Brown. Chronically Brown is an organisation dedicated to empowering South Asian communities with invisible and visible disabilities. Last year, Chronically Brown was due to hold an event for SAHM on the topic of disability in the South Asian community. After significant lack of communication in the build-up to the event, the event was removed on the day by SAHM without the Chronically Brown team being informed. In addition to this, Chronically Brown were:
stood up with no notice when attending previously scheduled preparatory phone calls;
asked to attend calls last minute, even when they had stated that this is something that was not possible for the Chronically Brown team due to the nature of their disabilities;
ignored when attempting to contact SAHM numerous times over email regarding the event; and
left confused and waiting at their own event, which was ultimately cancelled at the last moment, because SAHM had forgotten to add the event zoom link to the eventbrite page.
Chronically Brown also later found out that another event was happening during their scheduled time and were shocked that the SAHM team had neglected to inform them of this decision. These incidents were upsetting to the Chronically Brown team. Not only were the SAHM team unable to accommodate the disabled South Asians working within Chronically Brown, they were also unprofessional in their communication. When the Chronically Brown team later approached SAHM and gave them an opportunity to resolve the issue by holding the event again in October 2021, the event was, once again, badly organised by SAHM, who failed to host it on time (the only requirement they had) and held disabled panellists on longer than they expected. This ultimately had an impact on the Chronically Brown team’s access needs as well as on the ultimate effectiveness of the event itself. The performative action of trying to host such an event without actually taking a disability justice approach was not taken well by Chronically Brown or the panellists invited to take part. It is vital that SAHM strive to do better in the future and remember to keep South Asians, especially disabled South Asians, at the core of their work.
Our concerns about questions of representation begin with those who constitute SAHM leadership. For us, hiring team members or hosting one off events to reach a diversity quota is not conducive to meaningful social change or community building. For example, we would have hoped to have seen a wider range of events by and for LGBTQ+ South Asians, who ourselves are not a monolith and face a range of different experiences. For this reason and others outlined below, it was also concerning to us that the only LGTBQ+ Lead came from a policing background. Whilst we applaud the fact that last year’s lineup included more LGBTQ+ events than the year prior, there were still major gaps in content and hosting. We feel that many of the diverse identities within the LGBTQ+ community were ignored during SAHM 2021, and given little to no exposure or attention. We hope to see events and speakers dedicated to opening conversations around issues which are impacting and damaging our communities, such as transphobia, sex workers’ rights, and queerphobia, to name a few.
Although this statement mentions some axes of oppression above, there is a much wider question of how SAHM think about their role when it comes to challenging other forms of oppression. This is especially concerning to us if they continue to attempt to take a politically neutral stance in their work. We feel this approach acts as a scapegoat and allows SAHM to gloss over doing the hard work of thinking about what it actually means to hold space for South Asians - whether they are caste oppressed, disabled, queer, Muslim, Christian, Adivasi, Buddhist, or belonging to other minoritised identities. Ultimately, it results in performative approaches to diversity, instead of creating the kind of space that those of us who are marginalised feel safe turning up to.
The Conception and Launch of SAHM
The timing of the launch of SAHM, as well as the name of the festival itself also raised some concerns for us. To launch SAHM in the throes of the Black Lives Matter resurgence in 2020 feels insensitive, and perhaps even appropriative. To capitalise on a movement that specifically brought attention to the racism and violence that Black people face, and then create an event that centres South Asians, is extractive and dismissive of the work of Black activists, further derailing attempts to highlight anti-blackness.
The SAHM founders have shared that Black History Month's existence was a major catalyst for them, leading them to question why there isn't an equivalent for South Asian people. While we absolutely support learning about our history and heritage, modelling our own endeavours on the long-standing political work of Black people does not sit well with us, especially when SAHM itself seems to shy away from political or anti-oppressive approaches itself. Additionally, in March this year, SAHM held an event with police bodies looking at the relationship between law enforcement and race which, unfortunately, seemed to be framed more for improving police relations than critiquing the systemic violence enforced by such bodies.
Furthermore, it is ahistorical to contend that that there’s no place for South Asian histories, seeing as Black History Month in the UK was set up in 1987 to include both Black and Asian histories, utilising the concept of ‘political blackness’ that was commonplace at the time. Whilst we do not endorse the use of this term now and understand the want and need for separate spaces to acknowledge our separate histories and struggles, to question why there is no month for South Asian histories not only undermines the long history of collective political work undertaken at that time, but also ignores that South Asians have long taken up space as part of Black discourse in the UK. This erasure in itself is problematic and a commitment to anti-oppression, whether at the organisational or individual level, must be mindful of this erasure.
SAHM, then, seems more like an afterthought stemming from a misguided sense of exclusion experienced by South Asians with privilege who are comfortable appropriating spaces from other marginalised communities. This kind of behaviour needs to be critiqued because it reflects the same “what about us” approach that we see surface time and again when we are asked to genuinely step back and listen to Black and caste-oppressed people speaking about their lived experiences. This is even more problematic given the positionality of the organisers - more on this below.
We recognise the need for spaces for the South Asian community that allow us to celebrate, discuss, find joy, share in collective learning and more together. However, lifting the labour of other marginalised communities without due credit is a deeply harmful (and, as we know, common) strategy that we cannot condone. Such acts can end up replicating patterns of harm and exclusion that we seek to challenge. We ask that going forward, SAHM takes the time to seriously consider what it might mean to create an inclusive, representative, and anti-oppressive space that holds space for nuance and solidarity across movements. For those of us who are seeking to actively stand in solidarity and forge strong communal bonds across movements on a day to day basis, it feels extractive, performative, and focussed on scale. In fact, a statement many of us heard (when we shared feedback with the team in the first year) was that we should bear with them since this was the first time they were doing this event. And that, since there was not much time, they did what they could within those limits. While this seems reasonable, we wonder what it would have meant for the organisers to pause and find the time to properly consider the impacts of their decisions, especially as just a handful of people organising an event that is purporting to be for all “South Asians”.
The British empire at SAHM
Both on their website and in the event lineup, SAHM expresses a celebratory and symbiotic relationship between Britain and South Asia, remarking how our cultures have permeated British life, adding to the diversity of the nation, without mentioning the damaging effects of colonialism and imperialism. There is far more to the British-South Asian relationship than “our food and clothes to our music and even our words,” and it is insulting to reduce the South Asian experience of British rule and subsequent upheaval of mass proportions of our populations to aesthetics such as food and fashion.
For example, the website gives a somewhat confused interpretation of the relationship between the UK and India. One section, “100 years of Service and Sacrifice,” makes no distinction between those who were part of the British Indian army and had to fight as colonised subjects and others who may have been involved later. This is, in any case, an important distinction and must be made if we are to look at the period before 1947. In fact, nowhere is it mentioned that the countries of South Asia (with the exception of Nepal which was never a colony) fought for independence. The events which led to migration from Kashmir are also ignored.
This poses the question as to whether SAHM truly understands what decolonising means. In fact, we were surprised and confused to see a “decolonising parliament” event on the lineup last year. Decolonising does not equal diversity. Decolonising does not equal representation. If this were true, one look at the Conservative party would tell us that we are living in a post-colonial world, which we know is far from the truth. We urge the organisers to dig a bit more deeply into what decolonising might actually mean in the South Asian context before planning further such events.
Upholding white supremacy & playing the “good immigrant”
During the first year of events, The Rights Collective, a South Asian feminist collective (whose website this statement is being hosted on) were deeply concerned when they were asked by SAHM to remove safety measures that had been put in place for a workshop, due to concerns about how funders might react. The proposed measures ensured that the event would only be open to South Asians to create a safer space for vulnerable dialogue. It was therefore disappointing that SAHM ultimately chose not to work with them when The Rights Collective refused to compromise on participant safety.
In our understanding, this decision was likely impacted by SAHM’s goal, as stated on their website, of “social cohesion.” Although it might be well intentioned, this phrase can often be underpinned by racial and religious undertones, as well as a desire to attend to respectability politics. It can also perpetuate the idea that our acceptance is conditional on our ability to live up to white standards and the white gaze. There is a danger of slipping into good versus bad immigrant logics, where SAHM perpetuates the idea that some of us are hard-working, successful, and thus acceptable, where others are not. Other important questions of power and labour that emerge here: Who holds power? Who are the ones educating, and who is learning? The notion of social cohesion is often used as a way to bring people together, unfortunately, often placing the onus on those that are already marginalised to do the labour of working towards said cohesion. This can also feed into violent and oppressive state language and actions, which ultimately do not keep our communities safe.
It concerns us that, to SAHM, funding seems to be more important than community. As a result, SAHM ends up upholding systems of white supremacy, playing into the ‘model minority’ myth and anti-Blackness while privileging those already in power - engaging in “bindi politics” as coined by Dr. Fatima Rajina, “the reliance on aesthetics to engage in cosmetic politics.” These performances of inclusion and community serve to perpetuate neoliberal ideas of representation and multiculturalism, and actually end up alienating many in the process. We therefore invite SAHM to push beyond ideas of representation. Ultimately, we would like to move towards recognising differences and ensuring we have dynamic processes where those constantly changing differences are explored, rather than subsumed.
We were additionally extremely disappointed to see SAHM hosting in collaboration with the National Black Police Association for last year's line-up, and were pleased to see the event cancelled due to resistance from diasporic South Asians. Our communities have a long history of distrust and conflict with the police, who have continuously displayed violence towards South Asian and Black communities across the UK, not to mention the large swathes of South Asian, especially Muslim, communities who have been routinely and systematically surveilled and criminalised as part of the PREVENT strategy. The timing of this event was questionable given the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021, which would affect our rights to protest, thereby further disempowering, and disproportionately affecting many minoritised communities in the UK. Hosting collaborative events such as this during a month that is supposed to centre South Asians sets a dangerous precedent where deeper nuanced interrogations of systemic injustices are not possible and, instead, it is left to the communities that are most marginalised to take on the risk and labour of resistance.
So, what next?
Many of us have tried communicating what we have said here with SAHM’s central team over the past two years on several occasions using various different contact points and forms of communication, and the responses - rather, lack of responses - we received were extremely dismissive and disinterested. It seems that SAHM cares more about catering to the desires of funders and others in power than to the communities they claim to be for.
The point of this statement is not to simply criticise. We believe it is of the utmost importance to hold people in our communities accountable where needed, to remind us that although we face discrimination, we can also uphold systems of oppression and perpetuate social exclusion in many contexts. We all have the power to marginalise and exclude others. It is therefore important that we push for a more inclusive and truly representative discourse about South Asian lives in the U.K. We have noticed that, since our initial conversations last year, there have been some visible changes in SAHM’s event and team structure. We can appreciate the intention behind the inclusion of an LGBTQ+ Lead and a Regional Coordinator for Wales. Unfortunately, we feel that an event that claims to represent the experiences and heritage of South Asians needs to be far more inclusive and less tokenistic than this event list and advisory board.
This is also not an attack on those who chose to participate, but a critical lens we wanted to provide for people to think through on their own. We know the amount of effort and time that goes into organising something like this, and we are hopeful about the potential this initiative holds to be truly educational, celebratory and even transformative for our communities and beyond. Already this year we have seen SAHM breaking away from the formal event programming to allow participating speakers and hosts to mould and shape content in their own way, bringing their perspectives to the forefront. We hope this relationship grows.
Looking forward, in addition to considering what we have outlined above, we would love to see more of our radical history incorporated and focused on during SAHM 2022, looking at events such as uprisings in Northern mill towns, interrogating how privileged class and caste folks in the UK have impacted the state today - namely through the historic and continued support for the Conservative party - and the mass diasporic support for Modi and his facist government, with recognition given to South Asian-led grassroots organisations.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you would like to discuss any of the points raised or simply wish to continue this conversation with us, please feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Rights Collective
WOC Azadi Collective
Expert by Experience
South Asian Sisters Speak
Bengali East End Heritage Society
Literature Must Fall
we are colourfull
Dr. Fatima Rajina
Huma Riaz Khan
Dr Sanah Ahsan
Dhruv Ravi Iyengar
Nikhwat Khan Marawat
Sandra Jane Grant
Dr Nat Raha
Kalwinder Singh Dhindsa
If you would like to support this statement, please feel free to add your name or your group’s name to the list of signatories, please fill in this form.
 We sometimes put the term “South Asian” in quotes. Even though our work is focused in and with South Asian diaspora communities, we acknowledge the limitations of this label. We use this term to describe those who identify as South Asian or of South Asian descent, including Indo-Caribbean communities, Mauritians and those from the South Asian subcontinent. This includes those who identify both within and outside of the various imagined borders and geo-political formations, as well as those aligned with self-determination movements across the South Asian subcontinent.
 We are aware of our positionalities and strive to always be reflective of our sites of privilege and how that impacts our approach. We feel this statement is a vital part in our efforts to stand in-line with our values and act in solidarity with those who are excluded, sidelined and marginalised within ‘South Asian’ diasporas.
 This can be seen most clearly within the senior organising team, trustees and new advisory board, but the event line up also reflects similar priorities.
 Even from a cursory look at the history of the period when large numbers of South Asians migrants came to Britain - the 50s, 60s, and 70s (for Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and East African Asians) and the 90s (for Eelam Tamil people) - we find that because almost all those who came joined the British working class, their struggles were inevitably working-class struggles. These were made more acute by the intense racism they encountered. So South Asian history must concern itself with these struggles for basic rights and justice, such as - for example the right to form a trade union, struggles against racist immigration laws, for safe housing, for rights as refugees, against violence against women, against far right groups and everyday racism on the streets. Significantly, some of these struggles were actually won and should be noted and celebrated as part of South Asian history, while others are still on-going. in new forms (such as the campaigns against PREVENT).
 More information on the SAHM lineup is available at: https://www.southasianheritage.org.uk/events.
 While representation can be a useful term in some contexts, the lack of engagement with the politics of difference, and difference itself, is a key challenge within many of our conversations. Representation considers inclusion of certain groups of people within our current systems - it is a cosmetic change. As Audre Lorde explains “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," so we must engage deeply with our differences, a challenging demand which representation alone is unable to meet.