from manisha,

For all the desis who've recently had the privilege of riding in empty
carriages on busy tubes. . . . for once I can actually find a seat(!)
read on

The Guardian
August 6, 2005


Asians should not be prejudged because of the way we look

Rabinder Singh

An open letter to the person I sat opposite on the train yesterday.

Yesterday I sat on my commuter train and you were
already sitting there in the seat opposite. Your
eyes were closed. You must have been tired. Then
you opened your eyes and you saw me. You got up
and moved to the next carriage. Perhaps you
wanted some privacy or did not want to disturb me
with a mobile phone call. Or perhaps you were
afraid of me ...

That would not surprise me. Some people say that
the police should stop and search people who look
"Asian" or "Muslim" at underground stations. In
fact I am not a Muslim, I am a Sikh, but it does
not matter - I still look suspicious to some.
They say that only young men are like the
suspects, but I have heard of women being stopped.

I share your fears. I do not want to die a
horrible death any more than you do. I have a
family to look after - perhaps you do too. You
know so little about me - I wish we could have
chatted and perhaps we might have realised what
we have in common. All I ask is that you do not
prejudge me. That is what "prejudice" means: to
prejudge someone simply because of what they look

What can I say? On the television everyone is
talking about what it means to be "British" and
the end of multiculturalism. You may not think I
look British but I feel British - I am a British
Asian, or British Sikh if you like. If I go to
India they know I am not one of them - they can
see me coming a mile off. I like Indian food but
so, I think, do you. And I also like Italian
food, and Chinese, and bagels ...

I don't particularly like Bollywood, but
apparently enough people in the area where I live
do like it because they show Hindi films at the
local cinema. By the way, in case you were
wondering, it is not in Southall - in fact most
of our neighbours are white, although one is from
Norway and another American. I don't think people
ask them: "What are you doing here? Are you

I do not go to the gurdwara very often but I do
believe in God and I am proud of my heritage - I
respect my parents and the tradition they came
from. I do not think God would want us to hate
each other because of the way we look. And I
certainly cannot accept that God wants us to kill
innocent people.

But we have to care about innocent people
everywhere - in Iraq and Chechnya as well as in
New York and Madrid and London. I am not a
pacifist, but I do believe in the principle of
nonviolence. Only in the last resort could it
ever be justified to use violence, when there is
no other way open to defend ourselves or to
protect others. You may have heard of Mahatma
Gandhi. He was not British. In fact he used the
principle of nonviolence to help push the British
out of India. I think he was an inspiration to
everyone; I think you might agree.

I am a lawyer, by the way. What do you do? In my
work I sometimes represent the government. Not
just the present government; I used to represent
the last Conservative government in court too.
But I also sometimes defend the rights of
individuals who are pretty unpopular. That's my
job. They may be asylum claimants or gay people.
They may even be suspected of terrorism. I don't
think suspending the Human Rights Act is the
answer to the terrorist threat. The act is not
part of the problem. It is part of the answer. It
represents what we stand for - democracy and the
rule of law.

Some people say we should not let the terrorists
win; we should carry on as normal. But they seem
to be the first people to say that we should get
rid of these laws that "get in the way". In the
way of what? Do we want people locked up in
prison for years without ever being charged, let
alone convicted? If it happened somewhere else, I
think you might write a letter for Amnesty
International demanding their release. But it
happened here - until the law lords said it was
incompatible with human rights.

These are not some foreign laws. British lawyers
helped to draft the European convention on human
rights, which was "brought home" by the Human
Rights Act. And it is based on British notions of
fair play going back to Magna Carta. Yes, I do
know about these things and I do care about them.
Shakespeare, John Locke and Tom Paine. They have
made me who I am. They were as British as I am.

Maybe I am not what you think I am. Remember, we
are all individual human beings, with our hopes
and dreams; we all have our faults but are
basically good, I think, and try to do the right
thing. It's what is inside us that really
matters, not the colour of our skin or what we
wear. I do not ask you to agree with me about
everything. But I do ask: please do not prejudge
me because of the way I look.

· Rabinder Singh QC is a barrister at Matrix
Chambers and a visiting professor of law at the