Re-narrating the model multicultural city

Seán McLoughlin

This article is one of a series on faith and politics in Leicester.

mcloughlinThe diverse local character and trajectories of South Asian diasporas in Britain have been written and represented by different constituencies in scholarship, oral history, novels and other forms of cultural production, as well as in the media and official reports. In this article, Seán McLoughlin uses these sources to look at the history of Asian migration to Leicester, and offers an account of the emergence of multicultural Leicester that challenges dominant narratives.

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The city of Leicester has had undoubted success in managing ethnic diversity since the 1980s, and has been lauded as a model of ‘community cohesion’.[1] Explaining the dynamics underlying this, political scientist Gurharpal Singh argues that the ‘serendipitous’ convergence of East African Asian social capital, and the stable local rule of a Labour Party group committed to diversity, ‘gradually produced a virtuous cycle’.[2] However, based upon a study of British Asian communities in Leicester since the 1960s, this short article offers a deliberately more contested re-narration of the model multicultural city and its making than has often been the case. In snapshots drawn from a range of sources from the press and official reports, human geography and local history, as well as young adult fiction, I briefly explore each of the following: 1) the religio-ethnic and class based origins of residential segregation among Leicester’s South Asian settlers from the 1960s; 2) the ultimately conservative nature of public celebrations of South Asian culture from the 1980s, which have emphasized civic unity; and 3) reflections upon the experience of everyday lived difference among British Asian youth during the 2000s.

A tale of two mohallas? Highfields and Belgrave from the 1960s

One way of re-narrating the story of multicultural Leicester is as a tale of the distinctive dynamics of the two neighbourhoods (known locally as mohallas)[3] of Highfields and Belgrave. The classic inner-city ‘zone of transition’, Highfields did not experience post-war gentrification and, with little resistance, Indian (Panjabi, Gujarati), Pakistani and West Indian labour migrants displaced their predecessors, the Jews, Irish, Latvians and Poles, during the 1950s and early 1960s. In Highfields, ‘Immigrant choice of accommodation and location was principally governed by frugality and a desire for social isolation from the host’.[4] Such clustering sought to avoid racism and cultural compromise, as well as discrimination by white estate agents and vendors, and reflected the attraction of proximity to specific ethno-religious and caste-based institutions and services. In this context, family reunion simply reinforced the ‘desire for social and spatial encapsulation’, with a level of ‘institutional completeness’ achieved as the city’s first mosque (1962), mandir (Hindu Temple, 1969), South Asian cinema, bhangra club (1965) and sports association (1966) were all established.[5]


“Into the 1970s, Leicester’s South Asian population quickly became marked by spatial polarization between Hindus and Muslims.”


However, into the 1970s Leicester’s South Asian population quickly became marked by spatial polarization between Hindus and Muslims.[6] Moreover, while these social divisions were religiously and ethnically marked, they also reflected clear evidence of ‘class segregation within the [now predominant] Indian community’.[7] During the mid-to-late 1960s, evacuees holding British passports from the East African colonies first settled in Leicester, boosting the size of its South Asian heritage population several times over to 20,190 by 1970.[8] For the most part, and unlike ‘direct’ migrants from the Indian subcontinent, this was an educated, urban petty bourgeoisie, with a pre-existing knowledge of English and no ‘myth of return’. So, as anthropologist Steve Vertovec suggests, they aspired to ‘physically distance themselves from the sub-continentals in Highfields who the former often consider to be largely uneducated and of peasant background’.[9]

Thus more affluent East African Asians, such as Kenyan Hindus, began to disperse and re-cluster in Belgrave. While declining, this established white working-class neighbourhood was not given up by the local population without initial protest.[10] Nevertheless, as geographer Debbie Phillips argues, during the 1970s access to housing in Belgrave was carefully monitored by Hindu vendors, estate agents, financiers and solicitors. For their part, Muslims of Indian and other ethnic backgrounds sometimes refused council housing in Leicester because of its proximity to Hindus.[11]

Writing in 1979, then, journalist Mihir Bose was able to contrast ‘bleak’ Highfields to Belgrave Road, which had been transformed ‘into one of the most prosperous high streets in the country’.[12] Still the destination in the English Midlands today for shoppers seeking out saris, shrine paraphernalia or Gujarati and East African vegetables and cuisine, the businesses of middle-class Kenyans, Ugandans and Gujaratis along what is known today as ‘the Golden Mile’ represented a clear ‘story of worldly success’.[13] Rather than the ‘encapsulation’ and ‘isolation’ of Highfields, these small Asian businesses built on entrepreneurial social capital gathered outside the UK, and therefore exhibited a more confident, outward-looking attitude to the local environment.[14] Moreover, by the late 1970s some of those prospering in business and the professions were also moving beyond Belgrave to the higher status, white ‘leafy suburbs’ and the countryside.

Celebrating diversity? The politics of civic unity and cultural authenticity from the 1980s
The Jain Centre on Oxford Street in Leicester, which was formerly a chapel

With its South Asian heritage population eventually doubling in size to 42,000 by 1978,[15] and as a young, progressive Labour caucus came to power in the city, Leicester began to reinvent itself as a multicultural success story.[16] Official documents recording the institutionalization of such processes have not been much studied. However, one notable exception is the records of the City Council Planning Department (CCPD). Historian Richard Bonney, for example, notes that while between 1974 and 1976 only 10 per cent of all planning applications were refused, the figure for religious buildings was 25 per cent but 60 per cent for applications from South Asian groups.[17] Such discrepancies prompted a path-breaking report, Places of Worship in Leicester (1977), and a decade later it was possible for an updated account to reflect that ‘knowledge of religious groups had increased significantly’ in the city, with only 22 planning applications refused in total between 1974 and 1987.[18]

As geographers Richard Gale and Simon Naylor conclude in related work on Leicester, such initiatives represented ‘the first stage … towards what has ultimately become a positive relationship between the council and minority religious communities in the city’.[19] One of their case studies in this regard concerns the Leicester Jain Samaj (Society), which also received two City Council grants towards the (non-religious ‘community’) costs of a £500,000 centre opened in 1988. Indeed,

the council began to perceive itself as having ‘bought in’ to the site … Thus, a former mayor stated to the Leicester Mercury in 1985 that: ‘The Jain Centre is an honour for the whole of Leicester. It will attract visitors to the City. It will also be a community Centre open to everyone’.[20]

While such initiatives allowed civic leaders to create ‘discursive common ground’ in the city,[21] the public recognition of faith groups in Leicester during the 1980s can also be viewed as an attempt at political accommodation and incorporation which was part of a new approach to managing ethnic relations in the UK.[22]

A garba dance, one of the traditional dances discussed in ‘Parampara’


“Public celebrations of South Asian traditions sometimes unwittingly reproduced the particular versions of cultural authenticity advanced by community leaders and experts.”


A critical reading of another Leicester City Council document, Parampara,[23] which was produced by its Living History Unit in 1996, sheds light, too, on the way in which public celebrations of South Asian traditions sometimes unwittingly reproduced the particular versions of cultural authenticity advanced by community leaders and experts.[24] The aim of Parampara is to ‘preserve’ the story of the individuals and organizations responsible for pioneering Indian dance and music in Leicester. However, though it does relate interesting details going back to the 1960s and 1970s, what is striking is that the 1980s is presented as a moment of change for the better, with City Council funding ultimately enabling the teaching of normative traditions that had been ‘lost’.

Education was perhaps the most significant public arena for institutional performances of multiculturalism during the 1980s and Parampara relates that in Leicester: ‘[M]ore schools began to introduce the celebration of traditional Indian festivals’.[25] Some were already 90 per cent Asian heritage in terms of their intake and a respondent reports that they were ‘crying out’ for ways in which to address minority ethnic ‘cultural pride’.[26] Thus in support of the celebration of Hindu festivals in school assemblies and Religious Education, and continuing a policy of accommodation and incorporation, the City Council invested heavily in the local infrastructure for Indian music and dance. This included the purchase of instruments and the employment of peripatetic teachers, animateurs and home liaison officers. However, at this point in its story, Parampara gives a particular platform to teachers of the classical tradition of Indian dance and fails to interrogate their well-meaning (but council-funded) efforts to normalize elite homeland aesthetics, spirituality and taste. Rather than even-handedly examining the full variety of ways in which music and dance is constructed by different British Asian constituencies in Leicester, including those drawn mainly to folk or filmi dance,[27] community ‘experts’ go unchallenged when they make the commonplace move of implying the cultural and/or linguistic ‘ignorance’ of the diasporic masses.[28]

Everyday lived difference during the 2000s

Critiques of multicultural policies as reinforcing cultural difference rather than promoting integration have been in evidence since the 1980s.[29] However, since the northern riots of 2001, and following the events of ‘7/7’, they have intensified, as well as become conflated with questions of global security. In a speech shortly after ‘7/7’, Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) Chair, Trevor Phillips,[30] sensationally suggested that Leicester was home to ‘ghettos’ comparable with Chicago or Miami.[31] However, it was the disadvantaged British Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims in and around Highfields that Phillips highlighted as suffering from ‘residential isolation’ and a lack of cross-community mixing.[32] A more recent monitoring report on Muslims in European cities recognises that good relations between a well-established network of incorporated leaders in Leicester have made it possible to contain any local tensions across communities, as has been the case during outbreaks of Hindu-Muslim violence in India.[33] Nevertheless, for all that this has served the city well, the report is surely understated when it concludes that ‘the inter-faith ethos’ of a civic public culture in Leicester ‘has yet to penetrate into all sectors of society’.[34]

One of the few in-depth characterizations of everyday lived difference in contemporary Leicester is to be found in the semi-fictional work of Bali Rai. Rai often sets his novels for young adults around Highfields and Evington where he grew up, as well as out towards more affluent Oadby. For Rai’s main characters, all of whom are from Jat Sikh heritage families who migrated directly from India, the neighbourhoods of Asian Leicester are very positively identified ‘home’ space. Rai’s literary narratives successfully bring to life the personal significance of place and street level cosmopolitanism, where the best friends and boy/girl-friends of the protagonists are just as likely to be black or white as Panjabi heritage (though never Muslim). Characters of diverse ethnicities negotiate and share a hybridized repertoire of subcultural aesthetics and style from ‘bad bwoi’ street patois to urban music.

However, Rai’s sometimes transgressive celebration of cultural hybridity is deliberately juxtaposed with uncompromising social criticism of both conservative domestic power relations and ethno-religious parochialism at the grassroots. In terms of the latter, the pluralistically-minded heroes and heroines of Rai’s Leicester novels all face insults and attack from within ‘their community’ for ‘not  stickin’ wid your own’.[35] Indeed, prejudice against ‘outsiders’ – be they goreh (whites) or kaleh (blacks), chamars (a Dalit sub-caste) or ‘Pakis’/‘soollah[36] (Muslims) – is something that enrages the protagonists and that they find impossible to explain, much less justify, to their peers. In The Last Taboo (2006), fictionalized recollections of unified black and pan-Asian opposition against the National Front during the 1970s and 1980s also presage Rai’s contemporary public support for Sikhs Against the EDL (English Defence League).[37]

Interestingly, although many of Rai’s characters’ critiques of narrow loyalties appeal to liberal and secularized values, and his oeuvre is problematic because it generally reveals ‘culture’ only as a problem to ‘mainstream’ audiences, Rai does invoke religion both as a tool of cultural critique and as means to imagine broader unities.[38] In diasporic public spheres where appeals to ‘tradition’ and ‘authenticity’ may still have particular valency, arguments in a religious vernacular have the potential to trump custom and liberate spaces for self-identity in a way that liberal, secular vernaculars may not.[39] At the same time, and shedding further light on the present saliency of notions of multi-faith convergence taken up in Leicester’s civic culture,[40] ‘Sikhism’ is also depicted by Rai as one way of striving for common norms from within the particular cultural formation of his Panjabi heritage. In Bruce Robbins words, Rai’s cosmopolitanism is built up from within ‘situated collectivities’ and ‘actually existing’ idioms.[41]


The purpose of this short article has been to shine selected sidelights on the story of multicultural Leicester since the 1960s and 1970s. I have taken as my focus certain aspects of the complex interrelationships between religion, society and politics involving British Asians in the city. However, my critical commentary has not simply dwelt upon the civic space of ‘Leicester’ and the sorts of relations that underlie its articulation. Rather, I have also given brief consideration to the scales of the neighbourhood and everyday lived difference. This, I maintain, provides the opportunity to re-narrate a more complicated and contested account of the city than one which mainly emphasizes undoubted success.

Seán McLoughlin is a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds. His research and teaching focuses upon the intersections of religion, ethnicity and South Asian heritage diasporas in the UK. Dr McLoughlin was the principal investigator on the AHRC Diasporas, MIgration and Identities network, Writing British Asian Cities. A co-edited volume, Writing the City in British Asian Diasporas, is forthcoming with Routledge.

[1] Ted Cantle, Community Cohesion: A Report of the Independent Review Team, (London: Home Office, 2001).

[2] Gurharpal Singh, ‘A City of Surprises: Urban Multiculturalism and the Leicester Model’, in Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain, eds. Nasreen Ali et al. (London: Hurst and Co, 2006), 302. See also Paul Winstone, ‘Managing a Multi-Ethnic and Multicultural City in Europe: Leicester’, International Social Science Journal 147 (1996): 33-41. N.B. The general buoyancy of Leicester’s local economy is also a fundamental structural factor which cannot be ignored, though this is rarely explored in depth in the literature.

[3] For the use of the South Asian term, mohallas, to describe British Asian neighbourhoods, see Virdee ‘From the Belgrave Road to the Golden Mile’.

[4] Deborah Phillips, ‘The Social and Spatial Segregation of Asians in Leicester’, in Social Interaction and Ethnic Segregation, eds. Peter Jackson and Susan Smith (London: Academic Press, 1981): 105.

[5] John Martin and Gurharpal Singh, Asian Leicester, (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2002): 10.

[6] Phillips ‘The Social and Spatial Segregation of Asians in Leicester’, 101-121.

[7] David Byrne, ‘Class and Ethnicity in Complex Cities: The cases of Leicester and Bradford’, Environment and Planning A 30 (1998): 712.

[8] Phillips, ‘The Social and Spatial Segregation of Asians in Leicester’, 102.

[9] Steven Vertovec, ‘Multiculturalism, multi-Asian, multi-Muslim Leicester: Dimensions of Social Complexity, Ethnic Organisation and Local Interface’, Innovation 7, no. 3 (1994): 263.

[10] Valerie Marrett, Immigrants Settling in the City, (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1989), 3.

[11] Phillips, ‘The Social and Spatial Segregation of Asians in Leicester’, 108-9. See also Deborah Phillips and Valerie Karn, ‘Racial Segregation in Britain: Patterns, Processes and Policy Approaches’, in Urban Housing Segregation of Minorities in Western Europe and the United States, eds. Elizabeth D. Huttman et al. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991), 72, as well as, Asaf Hussain et al., The Intercultural State: Citizenship and National Security, (London: Contact Cultures, 2003).

[12] Mihir Bose, ‘The Asians of Leicester: A Story of Worldly Success’, New Society, 49 (1979): 340.

[13] Ibid. 339; cf. Virdee, ‘From the Belgrave Road to the Golden Mile’.

[14] Peter Clark and Mukesh Rughani, ‘Asian Entrepreneurs in Wholesaling and Manufacturing in Leicester’, New Community 11, no. 1-2, (2003): 23-33. cf. Singh, ‘A City of Surprises’.

[15] Following the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians in 1972, there was secondary migration to Leicester amongst East Africans and Gujaratis in the UK. See Phillips ‘The Social and Spatial Segregation of Asians in Leicester’, 103.

[16] Marett, Immigrants Settling in the City, 168. Cf. Winstone, ‘Managing a Multi-Ethnic and Multicultural City in Europe’ and Singh ‘A City of Surprises’, 295.

[17] Richard Bonney, Understanding and Celebrating Religious Diversity in Britain: The Growth of Diversity in Leicester’s Places of Religious Worship since 1970, (Leicester: Centre for the History of Religious and Political Pluralism, University of Leicester, 2003), 30.

[18] Ibid. 42-3.

[19] Richard Gale and Simon Naylor, ‘Religion, Planning and the City: the Spatial Politics of Ethnic Minority Expression in British Cities and Towns’, Ethnicities 2, no. 3 (2002), 401.

[20]  Gale and Naylor, ‘Religion, Planning and the City’, 403.

[21] Ibid. 403. However, as a study of Jains in Leicester reminds us, for all that Leicester City Council sought to strategically co-opt Jain leaders, this was often gently subverted. See Marcus Banks, ‘Competing To Give, Competing To Get: Gujarati Jains in Britain’, in Black and Ethnic Leaderships: The Cultural Dimensions of Political Action, eds. Pnina Werbner and Muhammad Anwar (Routledge: London, 1991).

[22] See the leftist critiques of multiculturalism in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back, (London: Hutchinson, 1982).

[23] Colin Hyde et al., Parampara – Continuing the Tradition: Thirty Years of Indian Dance and Music in Leicester, (Leicester: Leicester City Council, Living History Unit, 1996), 6. Parampara is a Sanskrit term for the chain of knowledge passed from teacher to student.

[24] See the feminist critiques of multiculturalism in Yasmin Ali, ‘Muslim Women and the Politics of Ethnicity and Culture in Northern England’, in Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain, eds. Gita Sahgal and Nira Yural-Davis (London: Virago Press, 1992), 101-140.

[25] Ibid. 15.

[26] Ibid. 16.

[27] Fiercely contested folk dance competitions were held at large venues such as De Montfort Hall and Granby Halls from the mid-1970s. Ibid. 11.

[28] For instance, ‘They know what is Raas and what is Garba but they wouldn’t know it was a folk dance … people here who are from Africa, I think they have lost touch with India and they are not aware of this rich cultural heritage’,  Ibid. 24.

[29] See for instance the account of the Honeyford Affair given by Derlva Murphy, Tales of Two Cities, (London: Penguin, 1987).

[30] Trevor Phillips, ‘After 7/7: Sleepwalking to Segregation’ (Manchester Council for Community Relations, 22 September 2005). See .

[31] Geographer, Ceri Peach, is very clear that ‘ghettos’ simply do not exist in the UK. Ceri Peach, ‘Slippery Segregation: Discovering or Manufacturing Ghettos?’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 35, no. 9 (2009): 1381-1395.

[32] Virinder S. Kalra and Nisha Kapoor, ‘Interrogating Segregation, Integration and the Community Cohesion Agenda’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 35, no. 9 (2009): 1397–1415.

[33] See Muslims in Leicester have not been much written about hitherto. See, for instance, Steven Vertovec, ‘Multiculturalism, multi-Asian, multi-Muslim Leicester’.

[34] Open Society Institute, Muslims in Leicester, (Budapest: Open Society Institute, 2010), 126. See also Hussain et al., The Intercultural State.

[35] Bali Rai, Rani and Sukh, (London: Corgi, 2004), 33.

[36] Presumably from Rasool Allah, the Prophet of God, i.e. Muhammad.

[37] See The Last Taboo, (London: Corgi, 2006) and also This move came in the context of the far-right, anti-Muslim movement’s recruitment of a very small number of Sikh heritage individuals. An EDL ‘static demonstration’ was also held in Leicester on 9 October 2010 after a march through Highfields was banned.

[38] The challenge to those who reinforce clan loyalties with appeals to religion is sometimes painfully simplistic and judgmental: ‘they weren’t real Sikhs: real Sikhs wore turbans and didn’t drink alcohol’. See Bali Rai, (Un)arranged Marriage, (London: Corgi, 2001), 87.

[39] However, as the failed interventions of the gyanis (spiritual leaders) on behalf of Rani and Sukh illustrate, there is no guarantee of success in this regard.

[40] Gerd Baumann, The Multicultural Riddle: Re-Thinking National, Ethnic and Religious Identities, (London: Routledge, 1999) 126.

[41] Bruce Robbins, ‘Introduction Part I: Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism’, in Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, eds. Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 1-4.

The image the Jain Centre is included courtesy of Mat Fascione. The image of the garba dance is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Both are licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

One Response to “Re-narrating the model multicultural city”

  1. Atash

    I think this highfields mirntooing group is fantastic and the work they are doing is exceptional, by aiding the police with their investigations. Since the story of this group entered the newspapers and news programmes, I just felt a sigh of relief that someone had decided to take this matter of drug dealing and anti social behaviour into their own hands. Contacting the police is utterly useless because as soon as the dealers on the corner see the police driving up the street, the dealers scarper and the police have to trace more information from local people regarding the description of these dealers. Would it not be easier if there were cameras placed in the vicinity, so police could use the video footage. I have been trying for a number of years for more surveillance to be placed within this vicinity in leicester but there always seems to be a problem, whether it be funding or lack of crime to merit a camera being placed in the area’. We have been warning the council, the police and others about future violence, yet they failed to listen to our warnings and would you believe it, the corner shop close to where I live was the subject of an attemted armed robbery, that consisted of up to 20 masked teenagers carrying knives. I believe it is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injure or killed in this area before a camera is installed.Why do people insist on taking action after a crime has been committted rather than taking action before a crime is committed.


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