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South Asian Heritage Month – Leaving The ‘BAME’ Acronym Behind

South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM) runs from 18 July to 17 August every year and aims to amplify and celebrate British South Asian heritage and history across the UK, help people better understand the diversity of present day Britain and improve social cohesion across the UK.

Around 1 in every 20 people in the UK are of South Asian heritage. South Asia is defined in geographical and ethno-cultural terms, and consists of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

The theme for SAHM 2022 is ‘Journeys of Empire’, which reflects two major anniversaries taking place in 2022.

First, the 75th anniversary of the independence of India, Partition and the creation of Pakistan. In 1947 British colonial rule finally ended and the Indian subcontinent was divided by the British into two independent nations, majority-Hindu India and majority-Muslim Pakistan. Hastily drawn and ill-thought out borders and transition of power by the British caused one of the largest refugee crises and outbreaks of sectarian violence in history.

Second, the 50th anniversary of the forced expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin. In August 1972, tens of thousands of Asians were given 90 days to leave Uganda and were only permitted to take £50 and a suitcase. More than 60,000 Asians were expelled from Uganda between August and November 1972 amid horrifying conflict and violence. Around 27,000 Ugandan Asians with British passports settled in the UK.

The theme encompasses many different aspects of South Asian identity, not only in Britain, but in communities across the diaspora that were and continue to be affected by the legacy of empire. My own story, like many other South Asians, is fundamentally shaped by the journeys of empire. My Dadima (grandmother) was one of the millions of refugees who were uprooted and displaced when British India was partitioned. Later in the early 1960s my grandparents moved from rural Punjab to the UK to work in key industries that were suffering from severe labour shortages following the Second World War.

In the context of the legal profession, celebrating South Asian Heritage month is an opportunity to celebrate the important contributions South Asian lawyers have made in the UK. It is also a reminder of the importance of recognising the different heritage and identities of those in the profession and, in turn, the specific challenges and disadvantages they face.

A report by the UK government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in 2021 concluded that the use of the acronym ‘BAME’ was no longer fit for purpose, as it does not take into account the diversity within the minority ethnic population. Lumping all non-white people into the ‘BAME’ category is lazy and unhelpful in terms of improving equality and diversity in the legal profession.

It is vital for the legal profession to recognise the specific challenges and disadvantages different racialised minority groups face in order to effectively combat this, particularly in relation to the most underrepresented groups in the sector. It is also important to recognise the impact of intersectional oppressions, for example the specific oppressions and challenges of race in addition to social class, gender, sexual orientation and disability.

Aneela Samrai is a an Interim Diversity Champion and Solicitor in our Housing Law team who specialises in Homelessness, Public Law and Discrimination. She is committed to securing access to justice for all and empowering often vulnerable and marginalised clients to hold the state to account and defend their rights.