Celebrating diversity & Diwali

A blog by Barnet Fairness Commissioner, Reema Patel.

This weekend, millions of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists across the world celebrate the festival of Diwali; otherwise known as the festival of light. The occasion marks a sense of new beginnings – it is the Hindu New Year – but also a sense of learning and reflection for the year gone by.

The festival of light, by definition, celebrates diversity and pluralism. Light is a universal theme across many religious traditions, but for Eastern religions it holds a special significance. This significance is best embodied in the Sanskrit verse in Vedas, one of Hinduism’s most ancient scriptures.

“Lead me from the unreal to the Real.
Lead me from darkness to Light.
Lead me from death to Immortality.”

Light in this sense represents a moment of self-awakening that we strive towards. It represents the uniquely human ability to recognise what truly matters and distinguish it from that which is immaterial. And it also represents a spirit of optimism – that in difficult and dark times, we can be the source of our own guidance- if we can only work out how.

In my own religious, cultural and historical tradition, Diwali has a particular significance for other reasons as well. It marks an occasion recorded in Valmiki’s epic story, the Ramayana, which is the return of Lord Rama from 14 years of exile as an ascetic in the forest to the city of Ayodhya, where he takes up his rightful place as the city’s ruler. It is said that the citizens of Ayodhya were so overjoyed to hear of his return that they lit small lamps to light his way back home.

Diwali is therefore a story of homecoming after a long and difficult journey. In the forest, Rama is forced to give up his princely privileges – learning how to live and fend for himself. He does so because of the support of his wife and his brother Lakshman who voluntarily follow him into the forest to establish their own, temporary home together.

In Valmiki’s Ramayana we are given a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of a family not so different to those of our own. It is by no means a flawless family – there are moments of regret, anger, overstepped boundaries and lines, and crossed wires of communication. These are the moments that lead Sita towards her kidnapping by demon Ravana, whom Rama has to slay before he goes back to Ayodhya.

This recurring theme of homecoming – of leaving, returning, coming home, and, where necessary, building your own home has arrested me for many years. In part, this is because my own family are no strangers to this process – as East African Asians who found that the security and stability of their own home was threatened, I see a striking resonance between the experience described in the Ramayana and the lived experience of my family. The only difference is that in the lived experience of my family there was no great moment of karmic retribution – no opportunity to reclaim what was once yours. We had to find a new and different way of coming home.

Homecoming, as these stories perhaps illustrate, is something that is not physical, but rather, something that has to be constructed time and time again. It is a dynamic relationship between a group of people – a family, bound by their kinship to each other – and a place.

It is no accident to my mind that communities and families celebrate Diwali in the home. Each year Diwali marks an annual occasion where I go to the house I grew up in, share and eat food with my extended family, and reflect on the year gone by. This is a privilege that was not afforded to those of my parents, and those of my grandparents’ generation.

This Diwali, as with any other, I will be lighting lamps at the doorstep of my own home, and decorating it with vibrant colours – grateful for all that we do have, and thinking of all of those across the world who cannot share that same joy.

I wish you a very happy Diwali, and a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.

Launch of the Barnet Fairness Commission

A group of community organisations, residents and councillors have joined together to establish a Fairness Commission in Barnet to look at tackling inequality and to consider how best to achieve a fairer, more inclusive and more prosperous borough.

Figures recently published in a study by Policy in Practice which Barnet Council participated in, show Barnet had the highest percentage of low income families in London whose income does not meet their outgoings (25 per cent). The study found that 8,515 families had a cash shortfall in 2018 – an increase of 33 per cent compared with 2016. An additional 4,523 families are expected to face cash shortfalls by 2021 – an increase of 53 per cent.

The Barnet Fairness Commission will focus on mapping different types of inequality in the Borough as well as three other key areas in its first year:

  • Building community infrastructure and a thriving social enterprise sector
  • Strengthening community cohesion and tackling hate crime
  • Addressing gender inequality and ending domestic violence and abuse

The Commission will be Chaired by Lord Roy Kennedy of Southwark, Shadow Spokesperson in the House of Lords on Housing, Communities & Local Government and Justice.

The other Commissioners, all of whom either live or work in Barnet, are:

Abdurzak Hadi, Barnet Citizens / Somali Bravanese Welfare Association

Rabbi Rebecca Birk, Finchley Progressive Synagogue

Cllr Ross Houston, Deputy Leader of the Barnet Labour Group

Anna Kyprianou, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Executive Dean, Middlesex University

Richard Logue, resident and Lib Dem local election candidate in 2018

Julie Pal, Chief Executive of Community Barnet

Cllr Reema Patel, Barnet Labour Group Lead on Adults & Social Care

Imam Hamid Qureshi, Islamic Association of North London

Kate Salinger, resident and former Barnet Conservative councillor

Christina Spybey, Christians Against Poverty

The Barnet Fairness Commission aims to raise awareness of the issues, investigate best practice solutions, and increase participation.

The Commission is being launched at a public meeting on Thursday 18 July at the Trinity Church Hall in Colindale, with guest speaker, Catherine West MP, who set-up the first Fairness Commission in Islington.

All members of the public are welcome.

The Commission will run for a year and hold public sessions to take evidence from independent experts, local authorities and members of the public. Anyone can submit written evidence to the Commission by emailing office@barnetfairnesscommission.co.uk.

The Commission will produce an interim report in early 2020 and a final report in summer 2020. The findings of the commission will be used to try and influence local and national policy, and suggest practical solutions that could be implemented by the community as well.

Lord Kennedy said: “I am delighted to be Chairing the Barnet Fairness Commission, and look forward to working with all the Commissioners and hearing from residents about how to make Barnet a fairer, more inclusive and more prosperous borough for everyone who lives and works there.

We also look forward to welcoming Catherine West to our launch event on 18 July and hearing about what the very first Fairness Commission did to reduce poverty and inequality in Islington.”

Cllr Reema Patel said: “The Barnet Fairness Commission is an ambitious endeavour that brings together community leaders , cross-party politicians and  citizens around a common goal – creating a level playing field, and a Barnet in which no one is left behind. 

A recent report identified Barnet as one of the top poverty hotspots in London. This Commission will look at what we can do to tackle poverty, address gender inequality, build greater cohesion across our diverse communities and create a Barnet we all have a stake in.

The Commission will live its values, being inclusive, collaborative and participative. We welcome your participation in our forthcoming events. To find out more you can sign up here.

Last but not least, I am grateful to the Commissioners for the time and support they have committed to the Commission, and in particular to Lord Roy Kennedy who has agreed to chair the Commission. We are confident that with their advice and support, we will realise tangible social impact.”

To download a copy of the “Policy in Practice” study, please click here.