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Not okay by the U.K.

Stereotyped images ... mutual distrust and suspicion.

THERE is a standing joke among the Asian diaspora in Britain that you can live all your life here without having to come into contact with the English-speaking "natives" if you don't wish to. The joke, which has a touch of boast about the expats' own self-sufficiency, is not too far-fetched thanks to the vast and steadily growing Asian community (Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are estimated to account for nearly half of Britain's four-million strong immigrant population) which can instantly deliver anything from ethnic cabbies and grocers to nannies, nurses and doctors.

Add to this schools plus other community institutions and throw in the practice of bringing spouses from back home, and a "good" self-sufficient British Asian can go on from the cradle to the grave without stepping out of his community's purdah. There are people who can't manage a word of English and what is worse make no attempt to learn the language of their adopted country inevitably leading to isolation and social and cultural ghettoisation.

An official report last year found that in the predominantly Asian towns of north England — Oldham, Bradford, Burnley — Asian immigrants led "parallel" lives down to well-defined "no go" areas dividing them from their White neighbours.

With little or no inter-racial interaction, neither side has a clue to what the other is about, generating mutual distrust and suspicion. The view they have of each other is driven by stereotyped images— "backward" Asians, "decadent" Whites — providing an ideal breeding ground for racist groups such as the National Front and the British National Party. And when they step in — as they are increasingly doing by exploiting the latent xenophobia in deprived inner cities — there is trouble resulting in the sort of ugly confrontation that many immigrant towns witnessed last summer in one of the worst race riots in many years.

OBVIOUSLY, the way towards better race relations lies in closer inter-community interaction but calls for greater integration of ethnic groups into local communities invariably provoke strong reaction from immigrant "leaders" who complain that this is some sort of a racist conspiracy to deprive them of their cultural identity. Indeed, such calls are often couched in a racially patronising tone with the result that even a genuine government attempt such as the Home Secretary David Blunkett's proposals, announced recently, tends to raise eyebrows. In a white paper, a follow-up to the recommendations made by various inquiry committees into the causes of the deepening racial divide, he proposed making it compulsory for prospective citizens to pass a test in basic English arguing that the inability of many immigrants even to understand English effectively isolates them from the very people among whom they intend to settle.

Few can quarrel with the argument that, at least, a nodding acquaintance with the dominant language of your adopted country is good for you, but in the prevailing racially sensitive climate many have denounced this as "linguistic colonialism" pointing out that this does not address the issue of racial discrimination which has nothing to do with language. Even those who are born and brought up here and speak English with as much flair as the "natives" face discrimination because of the colour of their skin.

"Of course a knowledge of English helps and people must learn it but to portray this as a panacea for racial integration is nonsense. To achieve that you must first end discrimination and get rid of xenophobia," an Indian academic said.

Another proposal that has given offence to some relates to citizenship classes for those seeking a British passport, and an oath of allegiance to the Queen which they would be required to take. These measures are seen as "loyalty tests" which many say they find insulting. The fact, however, is that an oath of allegiance has always been compulsory; the only difference is that the language of the proposed oath is more "loyalist" than the existing one.

BUT ironically the issue that has caused maximum offence and triggered a full-blown row does not relate to any of the formal proposals. It is simply a suggestion, though clearly gratuitous, thrown up for debate — and, on the face of it, it seems to make sense. The suggestion is that British Asians would be doing themselves a lot of good if they stop "importing" spouses from their native countries and instead try and find partners within the communities settled in Britain.

The argument is that quite often such spouses come from rural areas of the subcontinent — the practice is more widespread among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis — and find it hard to adapt themselves to western society, ending up both as victims of the practice of arranged marriages and a cause of social tension. There have also been complaints from second and third generation British Asian women that they are forced into marrying men from "back home" — men with whom they have nothing in common.

Social workers have documented cases of such forced marriages and agree that the practice needs to be discouraged. Quite often, a marriage with a British citizen is used as a means of gaining entry into Britain which is a gross abuse of immigration rules.

The Labour MP Ann Cryer, who represents a predominantly Pakistani/Bangladeshi constituency, said: "Islam is quite clear — when parents are arranging a marriage for their children the main pre-requisite is compatibility. That compatibility will be so much more easily achieved if they arrange marriages within the U.K. community of Muslims from the Asian subcontinent originally than going over to that subcontinent to bring in young husbands and wives." Echoing her, Mr. Blunkett said it was important that partners in a marriage spoke a common language, "namely English", and shared social and cultural attitudes.

Many Asians however called it an "interference" in their private affairs and pointed out that in any case the practice of bringing in spouses from the subcontinent was already dwindling.

"Telling established British communities whom they should or should not marry is quite abhorrent," Ms. Milena Buyum of the National Assembly Against Racism protested while a Hindu couple, who are a happy product of a marriage fixed in Delhi, said they found such gratuitous advice rather "insulting".

It is interesting that when the proposal was first made by Ms. Cryer last summer, her party sought to distance itself from it following an angry reaction from her constituents. Since then, it seems the Government has become wiser to the problem posed by the presence of too many "culturally incompatible" foreigners. Many see the new urgency to rationalise immigration as a post-September 11 phenomenon, pointing out that for all the virtues of culturally compatible weddings the fact is that Mr. Blunkett's advice is another way of discouraging aliens from entering Britain. And, after September 11, who wants aliens anyway?

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