Do Blue Plaques really Celebrate South Asians?

DESIblitz discusses whether blue plaques are the best way of commemorating South Asians in Britain in 2023.

Do Blue Plaques really Celebrate South Asians?

"I don’t think any single scheme can ever be enough"

The London blue plaques scheme, as outlined by English Heritage, commemorates the connection between historical figures and the places they inhabited and worked.

Originating over 150 years ago, blue plaques have been erected to honour public figures ranging from Florence Nightingale to Arthur Conan Doyle.

The scheme was originally proposed by William Ewart MP to the House of Commons in 1863.

Since then, it was overseen by the (Royal) Society of Arts, London County Council and the Greater London Council until 1986, when English Heritage took over.

These plaques not only commemorate the figures they are dedicated to but also play a role in the protection of historic buildings.

Since the founding of the London blue plaques scheme, over 900 blue plaques have been placed throughout the capital.

Given the notoriety associated with blue plaques, DESIblitz investigates whether this award is as potent amongst South Asian figures.

With the contribution that British Asians and South Asians have made in and to England, have any of them been truly celebrated by such a self-described inclusive scheme?

How to Obtain a Blue Plaque?

Do Blue Plaques really Celebrate South Asians?

The individuals chosen for a blue plaque depend on proposals by the general public.

However, suggestions must meet certain criteria and be approved by the blue plaques panel.

This panel scrutinises each suggestion, convening three times a year to make final decisions.

As outlined on the English Heritage website, the selection criteria are as follows:

  • At least 20 years must have passed since a candidate’s death
  • At least one building associated with the figure must survive within Greater London (but outside the City of London, which has its own scheme)
  • The building must survive in a form that the commemorated person would have recognised, and be visible from a public highway
  • Buildings with many personal associations, such as churches, schools, and theatres, are not normally considered for plaques
  • No more than two blue plaques are allowed on one building
  • Nominations to commemorate buildings that have historical significance for an event, or a group of individuals, will be considered as resources allow

Are there any Problems with the Scheme?

Do Blue Plaques really Celebrate South Asians?

While blue plaques aim to acknowledge a range of historical figures, criticism has been directed towards the scheme due to gender and racial disparities in the awarding process.

According to an article by The Guardian in May 2023, a disproportionate number of blue plaques have been dedicated to men, equating to 85%.

Moreover, only around 4% of plaques honour Black and South Asian individuals.

This inequity in the allocation of blue plaques points to an ongoing failure to address the historical contributions of women, Black, and South Asian figures in the UK.

Despite English Heritage’s promise in 2016 that they would address these issues in representation, the disparity persists. 

In Rozina Visram’s seminal work Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History, she explains:

“Scholars have tended to underestimate the significant presence of South Asians and their contribution to British society, and the perception that their settlement in Britain dates from the 1950s persists.”

This lack of awareness regarding the enduring presence of South Asians in Britain, both in scholarship and the public consciousness, directly impacts how South Asians are remembered in British society.

Visram attributes this underappreciation to the “fragmentary” nature of source material before the late 19th century.

Such limited material may not align with the blue plaques panel’s selection criteria, which relies on a substantial connection between an individual and a place.

Her work, which thoroughly records the lives of British Asians in Britain, is vital in paying attention to the significant role they have played within the nation.

Additionally, speaking to DESIblitz, India Desai, a student from London said:

“The underrepresentation of South Asian figures on blue plaques makes me question who chooses who is worthy of a blue plaque?

“Is it chosen by white privileged men whose view of a celebratory achievement is a Eurocentric, white one?”

Although promises have been made in recent years to address inequities, Desai’s words point to deeper systemic factors that may have influenced the awarding of blue plaques.

The Importance of South Asians in British History

Do Blue Plaques really Celebrate South Asians?

The discussion of who and how we should commemorate was reignited in 2020 following the removal of statues during the Black Lives Matter protests.

These events served as a reminder that the way we choose to remember individuals and events reveals our core values as a society.

By recognising only a limited number of South Asian individuals, what does this suggest about British attitudes to South Asian contributions in the UK?

Speaking exclusively with DESIBlitz, Jasvir Singh of the South Asian Heritage Trust reveals:

“Blue plaques let us look at the lived experiences and the history of significant people across the country.

“For places connected to people of South Asian heritage, to receive a blue plaque means that they are being acknowledged by British society as a whole.

“It allows us to fully appreciate the role that South Asians have played in the UK for the last 500 years.”

“And it also shows that the history of South Asians in Britain is part of the history of Britain itself.”

Also in discussion with DESIblitz was Dr. Sadiah Qureshi, a cultural and social historian of race, science, and empire in the modern world, who emphasises:

“Like many Commonwealth and migrant communities, the South Asian presence is a long one and essential to understand the nature of Britain today, and British history more generally.

“Given this importance, as long as schemes exist to honour historically important people, then South Asians do need to be among them.

“And, with particular attention to people who are often even more neglected, like women, ordinary people, and so on.”

Therefore, increasing the representation of South Asians on blue plaques is a crucial step in emphasising their impact on both contemporary and historical British society.

Which South Asian Figures have been Commemorated?

Do Blue Plaques really Celebrate South Asians?

Several South Asians have been recognised and celebrated by the scheme.

In 2023, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, a South Asian Suffragette, was commemorated by a blue plaque at Faraday House in Hampton, Greater London.

Having resided there for over four decades, Faraday House served as an essential hub for Singh’s activism within women’s rights.

In 2022, the Ayah’s Home for Nannies and Nursemaids from Asia was commemorated in Hackney, London.

This plaque serves to recognise the work of South and East Asian ayahs who were often contracted to travel long sea journeys to and from Britain with British families.

The home became a place where these travelling nurses, sometimes stranded or awaiting return, could stay.

Also in 2022, a plaque was built for Dadbhai Naoroji, an Indian nationalist and Member of Parliament, in the London Borough of Bromley.

From here Naoroji dedicated himself to the pursuit of Indian self-determination.

Through his ‘drain theory’, he argued that British colonial rule was harmful to India.

In 2020, a plaque was installed for Noor Inayat Khan, an SOE Agent during the Second World War, in Bloomsbury, London.

This plaque acknowledges her contributions to the British war efforts.

Khan was sent into occupied France as a radio operator, where she bravely transmitted messages via radio from Paris to London before being captured by the Gestapo.

Other commemorated South Asian individuals include:

  • Rabindranath Tagore (1912)
  • Mahatma Gandhi (1954)
  • Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1955)
  • Rammohun Roy (1985)
  • Jawaharlal Nehru (1989)
  • Sardar Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel (1991)
  • Sri Aurobindo (2007)
  • V.K. Krishna Menon (2013)

While blue plaques offer some visibility for those they seek to commemorate, do they adequately ensure South Asian contributions are understood and celebrated in society?

These plaques provide limited information on them about the individuals, with only a few words dedicated to their achievements.

Readers are left to educate themselves about the historical figure they come across on the blue plaques. Jasvir Singh remarks:

“Blue plaques are a good starting point, but we obviously need to do much more to ensure that British society better understands South Asian identity in the UK.

“South Asian Heritage Month is one way of doing this, as is robust and sincere engagement with museums, libraries, and galleries across the country.

“We now have a South Asian Prime Minister and Scottish First Minister.

“But, we are far from where we need to be when it comes to a national understanding of how South Asians have influenced British society at all levels.

“From the Royal Family and the Crown Jewels, all the way to the music we listen to, the clothes we wear, and the language we use – we need to understand more.”

Dr. Sadiah Qureshi similarly expresses:

“I don’t think any single scheme can ever be enough, especially when there are so many creative possibilities.

“I think it would be much better for any community to have many different kinds of opportunities and support in exploring and writing their histories.”

So, whilst there is evidence of blue plaques ‘celebrating’ South Asian individuals, are they really doing any justice to the impact these figures really had?

What are Other Organisations Doing?

Do Blue Plaques really Celebrate South Asians?

Other schemes across the UK also seek to commemorate notable figures through the use of plaques, as well as through other educational means.

The South Asian Heritage Trust emphasises the importance of showcasing South Asian history in the UK to enhance and promote intercultural dialogue and foster social cohesion.

Jasvir Singh revealed that one of his many roles includes being a Commissioner for Diversity in the Public Realm in London.

For 2023, he is working on a project looking at how the story of the Partition of Punjab and Bengal can be properly acknowledged in London’s public spaces in time for its 80th anniversary in 2027.

He explained further:

“This year was the very first South Asian Heritage Month celebration in the Houses of Parliament.”

“The archivists brought out of storage the Indian Independence Act 1947 and Ceylon Independence Act 1947 as signed by King George VI.

“Those two documents changed the fates of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Yet, we rarely talk about how significant they were.

“The more that we can talk about things of that nature, the better it is when it comes to our understanding of what it means to be British today.”

As well as the South Asian Heritage Trust, other initiatives such as the Nubian Jak Community Trust (NJCT) and Black History Walks are dedicated to ensuring that Black history is properly celebrated in the UK.

Since its founding, the NJCT have erected over 60 black and blue plaques throughout the United Kingdom.

The organisation teams up with diverse partners to raise awareness about often overlooked transatlantic figures, as stated on their website.

Although efforts have been made to expand the blue plaque scheme, further education and the promotion of diverse narratives must be pursued.

This is vital in order to ensure a more comprehensive depiction of the role South Asians have played in British history.

Natasha is an English and History graduate with a passion for travel, photography and writing. One of her favourite quotes is “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ by Maya Angelou.”

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