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Diwali 2020 illuminates the resilience of Indian students in the UK

12 November 2020

The first Indian students came to the UK in the 1840s. Some were young Bengalis completing their medical training, others attended theological colleges. Within three decades, numbers began to grow. Indian students qualified in Law, Medicine or prepared for the Indian Civil Service exams. The UK became a temporary home for Hindus from Bengal and Bombay, Parsis, Muslims and Christians.

Over the almost two centuries that followed those pioneers, Indian students and scholars who have made the journey to Britain have included Mohandas Gandhi, who trained to be a barrister in London, B.R. Ambedkar, the man credited as the architect of the Indian constitution, and the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who wrote his brilliant proofs at the University of Cambridge. Many Indian Prime Ministers trace their education to the UK.

In our own era, Indian students in the UK went on to become politicians and industrialists, medics and engineers, lawyers and writers. Today, there are more than 30,000 Non-Resident Indian (NRI) students in the UK, demonstrating their commitment to education by studying in small groups or through blended learning in the face of a global pandemic.

It isn’t just lectures and labs which have changed in 2020. Indian students in the UK have always made the most of Diwali, but celebrations this year will be unusually restrained. Although there will still be lights, gatherings to exchange gifts and sweets, to feast, watch firework displays and attend Bollywood nights, will be restricted. Keeping safe means gatherings in streets and restaurants to enjoy vibrant shows of light, music and dancing have to be saved for next year. Only those students who already live together in flats, houses or student accommodation are permitted to gather socially.

Yet not ones to let a pandemic ruin Diwali, this year Indian students at universities all over the UK will battle out their knowledge on all things India at the first-ever national virtual quiz of its kind in the UK, hosted virtually at the London School of Economics (LSE). There will also be smaller household celebrations and online gatherings organised by Indian societies and groups of friends at every UK university that is a home to Indian students, as well as pathway colleges such as those run by Study Group.

The five days that mark the start of the Hindu New Year, which are enjoyed by Sikhs and Jains, will also have an extra poignant significance this year. The lights and oil lamps - diyas - which decorate the homes of Indian students and families across the world also represent hope for the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness.

Which brings us back to education. The very first Indian medical students who travelled to the UK to qualify as doctors understood the importance of enlisting an excellent education in the fight against infection and disease. And this week medical science is once more bringing hope with the welcome news that a vaccine may be available before the end of the year, and with it the promise that we may gradually be able to resume our lives, studies, travels and celebration.

Indian students who spent Diwali 2020 in the UK certainly won’t forget it, but it is our hope that they will remember other things too. Friendship, kindness and a determination to overcome challenge to achieve an education, which will shape careers to come.

It won’t be the last challenge we face. There are many more we need to address together from overcoming disease and building prosperity to addressing climate change. But each of these will be helped by the asset of an excellent education and the opportunity to learn with students from across the world. The UK is opening its doors wider than ever to Indian students, who are ready to embrace the opportunity to learn and work after graduation. The coming years offer the possibility of a new era of educational exchange and mutual respect... and that is surely worth celebrating.


Sanam Arora is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and the Chair of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union (NISAU UK), the oldest and largest organisation for Indian students and graduates in the UK. She now works as an Investment Management Consultant in London.

Ruth Arnold is a Senior Advisor to Study Group and an advisor to NISAU UK. She was also awarded the 2020 Outstanding Industry Contribution Award by the PIEoneer Awards for her role in developing the #WeAreInternational campaign.

This article is also featured in PIE news.

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