There was disappointment among Brent‘s Hindu population this year when it became clear that usually-communal Diwali celebrations would be limited to individual households as the festival passed in November, when the UK was under strict coronavirus restrictions.
However, community leaders said coronavirus was not the first disruption to Diwali celebrations in recent years as festivities had already been downgraded due the withdrawal of funding from the local council.
Brent is home to one of the largest Hindu communities in the UK and has long been a popular destination for new arrivals. The suburban London borough boasts the extraordinary BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir, also known as Neasden Temple, which was once the largest Hindu temple outside of India.
For many years, Diwali lit up the borough like nothing else, with streets shining bright with decorations and light displays in the build-up to the festival which culminated in a huge parade down Ealing Road in Wembley.
Now, the parade no longer takes place. Council funding and permissions had been crucial to the event but support was withdrawn after 2014, with officials citing cuts to the council budget from central government as the reason.
“The parade was the pinnacle of the festival period,” Mahendra Pattni, secretary of Brent Hindu Council, a local organisation responsible for cultural events and community support, told The Independent.
After funding for the parade was abruptly withdrawn by Brent Council Mr Pattni said “they just blamed the government, that was the reason given but we could not see justification for cutting the grant”.
“The parade brought a lot of money in, generated income for the council,” Mr Pattni continued.
He said community organisers had hoped to continue the parade but without the grant from the council, the cost was too high.
Mr Pattni, along with Ashwin Galoria, chair of Brent’s Hindu Council, said communication with the borough council had also worsened in recent years. Meetings used to be held between the Hindu Council and borough council every six months but they were stopped without explanation two years ago.
Budget cuts have even been cited as reason to merge different cultural events together. Mr Pattni said one year, in an effort to appease the Hindu community after cancelling the parade, Brent Council merged Diwali and Bonfire Night for a single fireworks celebration, “it didn’t work.”
This year, the pandemic disrupted the celebration of several festivals important to the UK’s many religious groups, though measures were planned to be alleviated for a period to allow Christmas to run thereabouts as normal. Attempts to arrange a similar lifting of restrictions for Diwali or other festivals, such as Navrartri, were ignored, leaders of Brent’s Hindu Council said.
“We tried for months to organise with Brent Council but we don’t get too much attention at the moment,” Mr Galoria said, “I think Diwali should have been treated the same as Christmas, but we take it as it is, most Hindus are law abiding people.”
A spokesperson for Brent Council told The Independent: “Due to Government cuts to the council budget, we’ve had to cut many of the events we used to hold. This includes religious celebrations. The last large Diwali celebration we funded was in 2014.“
“In 2018 and 2019, we worked closely with local businesses, the Brent Indian Association and The Little India Traders Association to hold mini festivals or light switch on events to celebrate Diwali. These events were funded by local businesses and supported by us.
“This year, as part of our London Borough of Culture programme we had plans to hold a large cultural festival on Ealing Road. Unfortunately, like many events this year, we made the decision to cancel this event due to the Covid-19 restrictions.“
Hindu community leaders in other parts of the UK reported similar experiences to those in Brent. In Birmingham, the city council used to give a grant to the Hindu Council to fund Diwali celebrations but stopped several years ago, citing budget cuts.
Rajnish Kashyap, general secretary of the UK Hindu Council said that the situation in Brent is the same around Greater London, with festivals left to run without support from borough councils.
In Leicester, home to a Hindu population similar in size to Brent’s, Diwali has been treated with greater significance by the council, in part due to Leicester’s bid to be City of Culture 2017 which saw the festival prioritised in the hope it would become an “internationally significant event”. A call from The Independent to Leicester’s Gujarat Hindu Association to ask about Diwali celebrations was directed on to the city council, as “they deal with it”.
This year during the pandemic, which has seen Leicester under some form of lockdown for longer than any other UK city, Leicester City Council produced a one-hour broadcast featuring local artists, storytelling and dance which was viewed more than 17,500 times online.