Two men of Indian heritage lead their nations, a century after Irish freedom and 70 years since India cast off the Raj

As Leo Varadkar returns to the office of Taoiseach, Ireland and Britain now share an unexpected political story

Sunak and Varadkar "Hope" illustration for Weekend

A century after Ireland gained independence and more than 70 years since India cast off the Raj, two men of Indian heritage now lead their neighbouring nations.

Leo Varadkar is set to return to the Taoiseach’s office in Dublin today and Rishi Sunak resides at 10 Downing Street in London.

Who could have predicted this?

But things have never been straightforward when it comes to India, Ireland and the British empire. The English made absolutely sure of that.


Invade two countries – get the jobless in one to be the whipping boys of the other, into the collective mix add famines that were preventable, taxes that were punitive, ship off a sizeable proportion to distant penal settlements, then indenture many of the remainder in far-flung lands, loot national treasures, plunder natural resources, crush dissent, repeat this recipe all over the globe and a few centuries later walk away reminding everyone that, above all and all along, you upheld English values of honourable fair play and safeguarded the rights of man.

No sooner had the English divided, conquered and bagged Ireland, they used the same Machiavellian politics of intrigue and deception, failed promises and ruthless aggrandisement to leave Indians swinging by their chaddis, knitting the fate of the two colonies into a raggedy shawl that Indian and Irish historians are only just beginning to carefully unpick.

What’s remarkable is how the collective memories of being colonised differ between India and Ireland. Ireland’s diaspora, in these past centuries, comprised survivors who were able to leave Ireland. That An Gorta Mór [the Great Famine] is known of throughout the world is because these survivors and their descendants never let their story and their nation’s sorrow be forgotten. Indians, on the other hand, were far more wretched, but they never had the opportunity or ability to leave during times of colonial famine, and died in their millions in their villages and towns – many more millions than ever died in Ireland. Their stories of suffering were never widely disseminated because few survived and those who did were not literate and were often beholden to their masters.

Instead the story of the Raj was chronicled by the colonisers, swashbuckling accounts complete with fantastical palaces through which romped dashing cavalry officers who only ever stopped briefly to canoodle behind potted palms with dusky seductresses. Only in the last few decades, due in the main to the diligence of Indian historians and academics, has a reliable picture emerged of the truly enormous scale of the economic devastation unleashed on India, the ruination of its natural wealth and the exploitation of its people.

Most people will understand how India felt when 10 Downing Street became home to a British prime minister who proudly, unhesitatingly, claimed his Hindu and Indian heritage. You’d forgive the gloating as Indians collectively remembered the time they were derided as “a beastly people with a beastly religion,” as Winston Churchill was quoted as having said. So: whose jewel is in whose crown now? Comeuppance never felt so sweet. It comes after India’s Hindu nationalist government stepped up efforts to mitigate all British colonial influences, including use of the English language.

Ireland and India shared the brunt of many of the Crown’s devious tactics, and sometimes even the same perpetrator

But what about Ireland? Varadkar’s arrival in Government Buildings had Indian commentators rushing to understand the complex dig that is the archaeology of Indo-Irish history. All through the Raj years there was nothing to distinguish the Irish from any other race of white ruler. For the Indian of that time, a gora sahib was a gora sahib. But, of course, recent closer inspection has revealed that white came in a variety of nationalities.

Sifting through those sepia-coloured memories of what the crown did to India reveals just a handful of well-known villains who were Irish. Yet, the vast subcontinent – the empire’s most important colonial possession – would not have remained securely in English hands if it wasn’t for Irishmen, who went to India in their many thousands over a period of 300 years, some to find their fortune, others just to make ends meet. An eclectic ensemble from every stratum of Irish society helped to run the civil administration, construct bridges, work the railways, ports and police stations, provide electricity, dispense justice, grow tea, jute and opium, collect taxes, work at police stations and hospitals. And when India refused to toe the line, Irish regiments of the Raj did not hesitate to shoot to keep the ‘natives’ in order. Fifty Victoria Crosses were awarded to Irish soldiers in the aftermath of the Indian mutiny of 1857. Yes, the Irish nation was very much a junior partner in the colonial project.

However, the very nature of Irishness meant there would be confounding contradictions. In tandem with being the coloniser’s right-hand men, there was the overt ideological, financial and hands-on support for the Indian freedom movement. This paradox was not entirely unfathomable, as the despair of being a subjugated nation was also fully understood. Ireland and India shared the brunt of many of the crown’s devious tactics, and sometimes even the same perpetrator. Charles Trevelyan had first learned his colonial craft serving in India before his notorious tenure in Ireland during the Famine years. After his brutal success in limiting provisions for famine relief in Ireland, he returned to India as governor of Madras. His story is incomplete without mentioning the ironic death of the Indian rhinoceros he shipped back to Dublin Zoo – the poor creature died, shortly after arrival, having been wrongly fed on a diet of Indian corn.

Blind religious faith is a terrible scourge for it renders us totally deaf while reducing minorities to helpless mutes

So to answer the earlier question, unlike Sunak, Varadkar does not have all of India gloating. Instead, there is a new and healthy curiosity about Ireland, this postcolonial co-survivor, a tiny country with its Tricolour that looks like the Indian tiranga, a nation of emigrants that now welcomes people from every corner of the globe. Many hundreds of thousands of Indians have children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters living and working in Ireland, so of course they are delighted. All of a sudden, Ireland is no longer so foreign. Naturally, the intelligentsia talk boastfully of immigrant work ethic, their pride tinged with inexcusable touches of jingoism, as if this trait is exclusive to the Indian diaspora. A lot of the uncle-auntie chit-chat over chai boils down to the sacrifices first-generation immigrants everywhere make for their children. There is a story going around that Indian parents are secretly cheesed off as they can no longer be content with exaggerated anecdotes about their son, now merely a consultant surgeon, or their daughter, now just a head of IT; none of the old ambitions is enough. To the horror of the diaspora, ultimate bragging rights for the auld folks back home now requires a prime ministership, nothing less.

However, on a more serious note, it is the braggadocio emanating from the political establishment in India that sets one’s teeth on edge. They are ecstatic with what Varadkar and Sunak have achieved. Congratulations came flooding across the continents: Look at our lads, look at them taking their Indian heritage to high places, look at the insurmountable odds they have overcome to become leaders of their nations. Indians rock!

Jai ho, sure Indians rock, as do many others. But bathed in the reflected glory of these two men, the ruling elite in India never once stop to think that while they laud these fellows from minority communities, a Hindu in Britain and a gay mixed-race man in Ireland, for having achieved highest office, they themselves continue to brazenly disenfranchise, both overtly and covertly, minority voices in India. The irony is lost on Indian leaders. Independent India arrived on the world stage as the pride of its citizens – theirs was the world’s largest secular democracy, but the present-day political parties have reversed course and backtracked to the colonial era’s best-practice tactics of divide and rule, reopening old sectarian fissures which are now beyond repair.

Many will immediately challenge this with whataboutisms. Admittedly no country is without discrimination, but unquestioning religious faith is a terrible scourge for it renders us totally deaf while reducing minorities to helpless mutes. Does the elevation of Varadkar and Sunak diminish in any way the validity of the traditions or religions of the majority of Indians? Or has it in fact enhanced the idea that they lead two open and accepting societies? It is a matter of great Irish pride that neither Leo’s sexual orientation nor his mixed race ever figured as an election issue. That luxury would never have been afforded him in India. With Varadkar back in the top Irish job, some Indian politicians, many of them bigoted fundamentalists, will no doubt gush triumphantly all over again, like utter hypocrites.

Why on earth do we always have to be model high achievers before our adoptive or home countries will appreciate and fete us?

Of course, Irish people will not be surprised at overachieving first- or second-generation immigrants. After all, what Irish emigrants accomplished when they left for foreign shores is the stuff of legend. Immigrants all over the world share a common dream: to better themselves in their adoptive country and, in doing so, expand the opportunities for their children. From that single-minded purpose comes an obsession with hard work, education and a healthy respect for the law. The first generation is expected to sacrifice and the second is minded not to squander said sacrifice. The Irish used this formula to create a diaspora that is feted and courted by both by their adoptive countries as well as on home turf. It is no different for immigrant communities which have made Ireland their home. Varadkar’s parents, both initially immigrants in the UK, and Sunak’s, who were already of immigrant stock in Kenya before migrating to Britain, were real grafters, which gave their sons the added advantage of a well-off upbringing.

Which brings us to the most important issue that these two men have raised for immigrants and their children as a collective: why on earth do we always have to be model high achievers before our adoptive or home countries will appreciate and fete us? Don’t hold us up as shining examples only when we score the winning goal for Ireland. Don’t interview us on national television only when we have performed a heart transplant on a neonate. If nothing else, the pandemic taught us that folk who clean bedpans are the most crucial when the proverbial hits the fan.

Most immigrants and children of immigrants are just ordinary people doing ordinary things, leading ordinary lives, making our quiet contributions to our neighbourhood, communities, county and country. We are mushroom pickers, bus drivers, waiters and bartenders, nurses and caregivers. We operate call centres, abattoirs and shop tills. We fix phones, deliver the weekly shop to doors across the country. We help keep Ireland ticking. So never mind Varadkar and Sunak. Respect us please, even when we are just ordinary.

Cauvery Madhavan is a Kildare-based author. Her most recent book is The Tainted, an Indian-Irish love story.