Bashir Maan, community leader. An appreciation

BASHIR Maan’s pioneering life in Scotland is rightly well documented. When I spoke to him for my book Partition Voices: Untold British Stories, I was interested in his life before he came into the public eye.

He was born in the Punjab in British India in 1926 in the village of his surname, Maan, a place his forefathers had lived for generations. His family owned wheat and rice fields, and he always remembered a peaceful, privileged childhood.

Maan’s political life started 25 years before he would win public office in Scotland. In 1943 when he went to Punjab university, it was the time of the Quit India campaign led by Mahatma Gandhi. Maan supported him and the Congress Party led by Jawarharlal Nehru in wanting the British to leave India. But while he was studying he was introduced to the Muslim League. He became convinced that there needed to be a country where Muslims could live according to their faith and culture. He joined up and was soon campaigning for them in the provincial elections in 1946.

Maan was naturally delighted that the partition of British India in August 1947 meant that Pakistan would be created. His village was part of this new country. But he never imagined it would mean the Hindus and Sikhs - whom he had known all his life - would migrate from his village to India permanently. He remembered with sadness embracing them as they left, how they were all crying.

But it was the murder of his dear Sikh friend Bhagwan, at the hands of a Muslim mob, that greatly affected him. In his final years, it was an immense sadness to Maan that there were still no Hindus or Sikhs in his village. With hindsight he felt it would have been better if India had remained united and given guarantees to its Muslim citizens.

He soon became disillusioned with the new country and wanted an adventure. His brother had served with the Pakistan Navy and had been chosen for training in Rosyth. On a trip to Glasgow his brother was surprised to meet a Pakistani man in the street. His name was Mr Mohamed. Maan’s brother and this man kept up a correspondence on his return to Pakistan. Maan was soon writing to him saying he wanted to travel to Glasgow. Mr Mohamed warned him life in Scotland was hard, but he was undeterred.

In 1953 Maan arrived in Glasgow expecting to stay just a few years. He was taken aback by what he saw in the country of his former rulers – there was dirt in the street, children playing barefoot. “I was very surprised these were the kind of people who were ruling over us. Over there (British India) they were dressed up and clean, and then over here this was the situation.”

He lived in a house with pedlars – selling clothes door to door. It was the only job available to South Asians back then. The local kids would follow and pester him. But others were kind. “Sorry Johnnie” they would say to him if they didn’t want to buy anything. Back then every Indian or Pakistani was called Johnnie.

His English was rusty when he first came but it soon improved. His work was lucrative and he sent money home every month, saving the rest. He studied at night and gradually became vocal in the local press talking about community issues. He was persuaded to stand as a city councillor for the Scottish Labour Party in 1969. He beat four native Scottish candidates to become the first Muslim in the country to hold such political office. He described it as a miracle, saying racism was rife in those days.

He lived for 66 years in Scotland, so many more decades than he lived on the Indian subcontinent. He loved to visit his village Maan, but after a few weeks there would always miss Glasgow.

He was born a subject of the British Empire and would end up being a Commander of the British Empire. The letter from the Queen announcing his CBE proudly hung on his study wall. He came to Scotland first working as a pedlar and ended up making political history as a councillor, and held prominent positions in Scottish public life, as well as being a published author.

He was a gentle, softly-spoken man, a pioneer from a fleeting generation, who paved the way for so many of us.