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On the 6th of November Prime Minister David Cameron hosted what will go down in history as one of the most extraordinary Diwali celebrations at the official place of residence of a sitting head of state.
The day started with those who had been lucky enough to secure the golden pass. Whilst queuing in the rain outside 10 Downing Street, you could hear the sheer excitement and anticipation in the little discussions taking place between friends and newly formed friendships. Even though the weather was lack lustre, the brilliance of the colourful saris and costumes worn by our ladies and gents brought that additional element of authenticity to the occasion.
Cometh the hour and with eagerness we proceeded through security points. You walk down one of the most famous streets in the world – looking around and counting the house numbers – 12, 11 and there it is, Number 10 and the famous black door with the traditional British bobby on duty outside. The entourage makes its way up the stairs taking note of the paintings and pictures of all the past prime ministers of our country. And just when you blink – you are welcomed by a majestic handmade peacock. Now where have I seen that before I wonder and it comes to me that this is the very same peacock that I had seen at the BAPS Neasden Mandir on Sunday. How did they ever manage to get that into Number 10 I wonder?
As we make way the sheer scope of what the volunteers of BAPS have done to Number 10 becomes apparent. They have transformed the Prime Minister’s official residence into little India with the rainbow of colours, the rangoli patterns, beautiful paintings and artefacts, and of course the impressive annakut. When I came to this country as a child in 1968 – I did not ever dream that such a day would come and that I would be part of this history making.
The gathering waited with baited breath and then that moment when you sense the electricity charging through the crowd – and yes, they were right. The Prime Minister enters the room meeting and greeting people. Stopping constantly to have a few words with those he recognised as well as those he was meeting for the first time. Photos are taken with some of the lucky ones who will take back a memento of their memories at Number 10 with their Prime Minister.
The event begins with Vedic chanting and the lighting of the Diva. Just when you think it’s going to get boring with speeches, a miracle takes place. The sound of 15 children singing the bhajan, ‘Ayodhya vasi Raam Raam Raam’. The Prime Minister mesmerised as was the audience. It was unexpected. Here we are in Number 10, the home of our Prime Minister and pupils from Krishna Avanti Primary and Secondary School are singing their hearts out. For those who may not know. Krishna Avanti in Harrow was the first Hindu School to be approved and is funded by the Government. Since then, several more Hindu schools have been opened as well as others being in the planning stages.
Some in the audience knew the bhajan and softly joined the children in the singing. We saw the sight of politicians from all parties as well as business tycoons swaying to the melody pervading the very core of Number 10. The singing was accompanied by live music performed also by the pupils playing the tablas, harmonium and manjiras. The Hindu community had arrived and this was full acknowledgement that we were truly part and parcel of the very life of Britain. It felt good beyond measure. The second bhajan was ‘Sri Ram Jaya Ram Jaya Jaya Ram’ and most people knew it and joined in. In fact since some of the words are so simple even those who did not understand joined in the bits they could. I stood on the side and marvelled at how children can transform the lives of a nation by their innocence and simplicity.
The Prime Minister then gave the following speech:
Well, a very happy Diwali to everyone, and a warm welcome to Number 10 Downing Street. And can I first of all thank the choir (pupils from Krishna Avanti Hindu School – fully funded by the Government) for that beautiful song, that beautiful singing: a reminder of the fact that we’re so fortunate in this country to have, with our academies and our free schools, some Hindu schools, backed by religious organisations that make an incredible contribution to our country. You’re hugely welcome here tonight.
Now, you get to make some extraordinary visits as Prime Minister, you get to meet some extraordinary people and you get to do some extraordinary things. But very few will actually compete with my experience on Monday, going to the (BAPS) Mandir in Neasden. It was a beautiful service; it was lovely to see so many people packed into a temple and queues stretching round the block; people wanting to celebrate their belief, wanting to celebrate their faith, and wanting to do so with their families, with their neighbours, with their friends.
It was a really wonderful thing to do and I want to thank those that asked me to take part. But what I said then, and what I’ll say again tonight, is that it is important as a country that we celebrate all the key religious festivals. And this idea that somehow you reduce the relevance of one by celebrating another is nonsense. I’m proud that here in Downing Street we have celebrations for Eid, we have celebrations for Hanukkah, we have celebrations for Easter, and tonight we celebrate Diwali.
And what I find when we celebrate these things is not how many differences we have but how many things we share in common about our faiths and what they mean to us and what they teach us to do in terms of our families, in terms of our communities.
And just as we Christians like to make a wish on New Year’s Day, I think it’s right to make a wish at the time of Diwali as well. And if you allow me, I’ll have the same 2 wishes I had in Neasden on Monday.
I do wish profoundly that we continue to do everything we can to build the relationship between Britain and India. It is a strong relationship, it’s a vibrant relationship. It has so many parts to it. There’s all the shared history, there’s the shared language. There’s the great excitement about our economies. India invests more into the United Kingdom than the rest of Europe put together. Britain is one of the top 3 investors into India. Some of the projects, some of the businesses underway are thrilling. The cooperation between our universities, our shared love of sport. There’s so much that we share together.
And I think the exciting thing about the relationship is not the past or the present, but it’s the future. It’s the idea that we are going to work together on some of these shared global challenges. And I very much look forward to making my third visit to India as Prime Minister, and seeing Manmohan Singh when I go. It’s a huge pleasure to go back to India, and I’m really looking forward to it.
So let’s all build this relationship together. I look round the room and I see businessmen and women who invest in Britain and invest in India. I see people in our armed forces, where we can forge great relationships between Britain and India. And we should all play our part. Parliamentarians can do exactly that as well.
The second wish is this wish that we continue to celebrate and enhance what British Indians, British Hindus bring to our country. Just look across the enormous contribution that British Hindus make to our country. We see it in sport. We see it in the arts, in culture. We see it certainly in business in a huge way. We see it in our NHS, in our schools. There are so many aspects of it.
And what is good is that increasingly young British Indians can look at any part of our national endeavour and can see people like them getting to the very top. We want to see British Hindus, British Indians in the top of our judiciary, we want to see them at the top of our armed forces and we also want to see them at the top of our politics.
And I think we have made some big steps forward in recent years, and it’s great to see here tonight people like Shailesh Vara and Alok Sharma and Priti Patel and Keith Vaz. There’s a lot more British Indians now involved in our politics, and as I said on Monday, I want to see more in the Commons, I want to see more in the Lords and I want to see more in our government.
And I think that’s absolutely vital to celebrate the contribution people make because it really matters for the importance of role models. I want young people, including the young school children who sang so well for us, to be able to see every aspect of British life and think, ‘Yes, I can get to the top. I can make a contribution. If I have the talent I can go all the way.’ That is what matters.
So, thank you for coming tonight. Thank you for celebrating Diwali, once again, here in Number 10 Downing Street. The point I will want to leave you with is, as I say, the shared things that all our religions bring. When I look at the Ramayana and my understanding of the Hindu religion, there’s so much that you have to say about the importance of family, about the importance of community, about the importance of voluntary service – these are all the values that our country needs more of.
So, as you celebrate your values, let’s make them our values, and let’s have more of them in Britain. Thank you very much indeed.
I spoke to a number of people and amongst them was Shri Satish Sharma the Secretary General of the National Council of Hindu Temples (UK) who said: ‘Attention to detail, courtesy, care, shared dignity and respect were very much in evidence and there was a clear and undeniable desire to engage with the Hindu community as equals, equals capable of contributing fresh perspectives to long-standing key policy areas’.
I caught up with Shri Madhava Turumella, Hindu Priest and VP of HFB who said, ‘Prime Minister’s hosting our Deepavali festival celebration is a great event worth noting with pride for all British Indians. I was genuinely impressed with Prime Minister lighting the Diwali lamp amid Vedic prayers.’
Speaking to Dr Sanjiv Nichani the founder of the charity ‘Healing Little Hearts’ who added, ‘it was an honour to be invited to the PM’s Diwali reception and to be on a select list of British Indians who’s contributions to British life and beyond was being recognised’.
The event came to a close but people remained in Number 10 for at least another 45 minutes. Chatting to each other, taking in the atmosphere, absorbing what had just transpired in front of them. I spoke to a huge number of people and every individual had nothing but utmost praise for the way in which our Prime Minister had honoured our faith and one of our most important festivals – Diwali. Life at Number 10 will not be the same any longer I suspect. The Prime Minister commented on how extraordinary his wife had looked in a sari during their visit to BAPS Neasden Mandir, adding that maybe next time he will take some advice on dressing correctly. Well Prime Minister 2014 is round the corner and maybe we will yet see you in full traditional Indian attire attending one of the functions.
As I travelled back home I had some thoughts. Britain is my home and that of my children and theirs. I see evidence that even though there is huge diversity, that those communities that want to integrate, can do so and become part of the very fabric of British society. This is where we are today. The Prime Minister deserves a huge amount of credit in giving so much flexibility in how Diwali was celebrated at Number 10. I doubt if there is any head of state anywhere in the world that has opened their doors so widely and allowed such positive engagement with the Hindu community.
So I take this opportunity to sign off by saying to you all. From everyone at Gujarat Samachar, Asian Voice and myself – Diwali ki Hardik Shubhkamnaye and Nutun Varsha Na Abhinandan.