Saroj Lal

Pioneer in Scottish race relations

Born: April 23, 1937

Died: March 12, 2020.

Saroj Lal, who has died aged 82, was an influential activist and feminist who played a pivotal role in race relations and defending the rights of disadvantaged women in Scotland. Within the Home Office, the police and prisons, healthcare, social work and education, she campaigned for change and reform, challenging both institutional racism and sexism, and helping to improve the lives of Scotland’s black, Asian and minority ethnic citizens.

Her strong views on race, justice and democracy had been shaped in part by her upbringing in pre-Partition India, the influence of her father – the liberally-minded politician and freedom fighter Behari Lal Chanana – and by the direct impact of racism in Britain in the late 1960s. These experiences inspired her in the struggle for equality in the country that became her home.

Saroj’s achievements were wide-ranging, at both local and national level. In the criminal justice system, she improved the police’s approach to issues of race and racism, and helped to define what was actually meant by a racial attack. In hospitals, hospices and prisons, she endeavoured to improve conditions for ethnic communities and raise awareness of their diverse religious, cultural, linguistic and dietary needs.

She defended the cause of immigrants, asylum seekers and vulnerable refugees, offering practical advice and much-needed support.

For many years she would visit schools to promote a better understanding of the evolving multi-cultural nature of modern Britain, and she strove hard to improve access to further and higher education for ethnic women and girls – particularly those from more orthodox Sikh families – via the ground-breaking Continuation Course at Telford College.

She carried out her work predominantly in the 1970s, 80s and 90s in a number of influential positions. For 16 years, she was a senior figure at Lothian Racial Equality Council and latterly its director. She also became the first Asian woman to be appointed as a Justice of the Peace in Scotland and collaborated with a myriad of public, private and third sector organisations, all with the aim of promoting equal opportunities and fairness.

Saroj was born in Gujranwala – now in modern-day Pakistan – and, following the upheaval of Partition, moved with her family to newly independent India. She studied economics at Panjab University and taught for a short time before moving to Singapore where her husband was a lecturer. Her first experience of racism came later when the couple, now with a young son, moved again to Birmingham. The family finally settled in Edinburgh, where Saroj trained as a primary school teacher and taught at South Morningside Primary for three years. In 1973 she began helping minority ethnic communities through the YWCA, initially as a volunteer with the Women’s International Centre and then as a community worker with the Roundabout International Centre.

This early grassroots work would develop into a drive for equality that would become one of the guiding principles in her life.

In 1980 she joined Lothian Racial Equality Council (LREC) and assumed the role that would eventually come to define both her and her legacy. As the high-profile, sari-clad leader of LREC, she operated at strategic and policy level across the entire statutory, voluntary and political landscape. She was unafraid to take on the Home Office and government ministers to challenge discrimination, and to question practice and polices related to immigration and nationality.

Saroj instigated and developed a productive relationship with Lothian and Borders Police, establishing better reporting and monitoring of racial incidents (including bullying in schools), helping the force improve training and – crucially – encouraging the recruitment and promotion of minority ethnic officers.

A plethora of flagship projects to support Edinburgh’s ethnic communities owe their existence to her far-sighted thinking. She was the inspiration and powerhouse behind the development of the Edinburgh Hindu Temple in Leith.

Along with Pilmeny Development Project she established Milan, a support group for the South Asian elderly, and post-retirement she acted as chair of NKS, a similar venture for South Asian women. She installed multi-faith symbols at Mortonhall Crematorium, persuaded Edinburgh Council to designate a site for Hindus to scatter their ashes and liaised with Edinburgh Royal Infirmary to create a quiet space for prayer.

Saroj also set up the city’s first-ever interpreting and translating service and its first dedicated ethnic library service at McDonald Road Library, and expanded mother-tongue teaching citywide.

Her passion for the arts led to a new generation of students learning the sitar and Indian classical dance, and she was an active board member with the Scottish Arts Council as well as playing a key role in programming the 1986 Commonwealth Arts Festival.

Kaliani Lyle, a former head of Citizens Advice Scotland, said that Saroj’s achievements in tackling prejudice had been a pillar in the struggle for equal opportunities. “It was on her shoulders that many of us stood in the fight against racism in Scotland,” said Lyle. “We listened to Saroj and we learnt.”

Saroj Lal is survived by her husband Amrit, son Vineet, daughter Kavita and granddaughter Isha.