A fortnight ago, a British-Indian entrepreneur in Birmingham launched a public campaign against the 2022 Commonwealth Games over “perceived institutionalised racism”. Over just a weekend, he galvanised support from heads of local churches, mosques and temples, Labour and Tory Members of Parliament, influential media and business persons from different backgrounds including Pakistani and Indian, besides both black and white Britons.
In the couple of weeks that followed, the campaign led to the president of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Louis Martin, stepping down from the board of the organising committee, a revamp of important decision-making bodies, and promises to address issues of ‘colonial injustice’, among others.
The Birmingham Games have come under heavy criticism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, with some academics in the United Kingdom even questioning the relevance of the CWG as a concept.
The man who started it all was Ammo Talwar, who runs a music agency in Birmingham. He says he had the idea of a public campaign after reading a local news report on “systemic racism and an almost entirely white executive board of the 2022 CWG organising committee”. The response from the organisers was “vague and abstract”, and he decided to swing into action.
Talwar drafted an open letter to the organising committee, which was signed by 53 individuals. Britain’s Shadow Minister of Sport, Alison McGovern, forwarded it to Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston. Days after the letter was published, Martin, the CGF head, resigned, and in an interview to the BBC, Huddleston said “more changes” were likely to follow.
A CGF spokesperson told The Indian Express on Thursday that they were seeking to address several other – much wider – issues as well.
“Over the past decade the Commonwealth Games and Commonwealth Sport have transformed into a movement representing social change and seeking to build peaceful, sustainable and prosperous communities across the Commonwealth. The CGF and Games organisers have sought to address issues surrounding colonial injustice, truth and reconciliation, human rights and broader issues addressing inequality,” the spokesperson said.
Talwar, whose roots are in Punjab, said there “were a number of frustrations among the citizens of Birmingham, especially among the black and Asian communities, who have been more affected because of Covid-19 than our white counterparts”.
“We felt that some of the work they were doing was perhaps lazy, disrespectful and sometimes shameful,” Talwar said. “Around 46 per cent of Birmingham’s population is non-white British. There is a very big Pakistani and Indian community. The main site of the Commonwealth Games, at Perry Bar in north Birmingham, is super diverse. It is around 70-80 per cent non-white British,” he added.
Given this demography, the fact that 19 out of the 20 members on crucial decision-making bodies were white Britons did not sit well with the local people, Talwar said. The executive management team had five white men and two white women, and the board of directors had seven white men, five white women, and one black man.
While Talwar’s campaign focussed on the absence of diversity, Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham University, said the Games were “problematic” because of their association with Britain’s colonial past.
“It should be a time to revisit this because the Commonwealth is all about Britain trying to maintain some kind of symbolic link back to its imperial past. The empire is still there in some ways,” Andrews has been quoted as saying by Birmingham Live, the digital channel of the local tabloid, The Birmingham Mail. “The city has embraced it (the Games) because it is money, which is quite a good metaphor because the empire is one of the things that built Birmingham. We shouldn’t be surprised the city embraced it,” Prof Andrews said.
Talwar acknowledges the CWG’s “connection to the empire”, and concedes that the “Commonwealth doesn’t mean much to a lot of people” in Birmingham.
But he insists there is excitement about the Games because it is seen by the community as a “catalyst of change”. “This is why the tone of our letter is collaborative. We want to solve the issue, so our letter was based on that rather than just bashing you over the head,” Talwar said.
The open letter asked 10 questions to the organisers of the Games, on issues such as inclusion of people from the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, and conducting an external, independent equalities review.
A spokesperson for the organising committee told The Indian Express: “The diversity of our team is improving but it is not yet reflective of the region, and therefore we are taking action and increasing our efforts. We have been listening to the comments that people have made and we have already spoken to several of the signatories. We are committed to changing and taking action.”
Talwar said the battle was against the system, and not individuals. “I am not saying anybody in the Commonwealth Games is racist,” he said. “We are talking about systems, not individuals.”
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