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Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Lord Parekh of Kingston upon Hull

Oration given on Wednesday 9 July 2003

Chancellor, the Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon BHIKHU PAREKH, LORD PAREKH OF KINGSTON UPON HULL.

Bhikhu Parekh was born in a small village in Gujarat, India. His family provided him with loving emotional support, although he experienced too the normal tensions of family life. His social environment was multicultural and multireligious. It was also marked by the caste system, which created in him an early concern for social justice. As a boy, he was shocked by the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The first member of his family to go to university, he was awarded his B.A. degree in 1954, and his M.A. in 1956, by Bombay University. He married Pramila Dalal, despite the fact that she was of higher caste and her grandfather objected to the marriage. One of his teachers had persuaded him to study at the London School of Economics, and so the couple arrived in Britain in October 1959.

He obtained his PhD in 1966 with a dissertation on the idea of equality in English political thought. At the LSE he had experienced no racial discrimination, but in flat-hunting in London he and his wife encountered British racism. This led him to appreciate the support he found in the Indian community. After brief spells teaching at LSE and the University of Glasgow, he went to the University of Hull, where he became Professor of Political Theory in 1982.

He is the author of several widely acclaimed books on political philosophy, including works on Hannah Arendt, Karl Marx and Gandhi. He has edited a dozen books, including four volumes on Jeremy Bentham, and published over a hundred articles in academic journals and anthologies. He is an erudite scholar, but he has not been afraid to be controversial. His studies of Gandhi’s political thought have not won favour with all Indians. His recent book, Rethinking Multiculturalism, is a major contribution to an important philosophical and practical topic, and a thought-provoking, though sympathetic critique of Western liberalism.

Bhikhu Parekh has justly been called a public intellectual on three continents. He has been a Visiting Professor at the University of British Columbia, Concordia and McGill universities in Montreal, Harvard University, the Institute of Advanced Studies in Vienna, the University of Pompeau Febra in Barcelona, the University of Pennsylvania, and at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He is currently Centennial Professor at LSE and Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Westminster. In 1981 he returned to India to serve as vice-chancellor of the University of Baroda for three years.

He has, however, been no ivory-tower academic. He was a member of the Rampton/Swann committee on the educational problems of ethnic minority children, and deputy chair of the Commission for Racial Equality from 1985 to 1990, its acting chair in 1988. This was the time of the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, to which he made a characteristic contribution, condemning unequivocally the death threat to Rushdie and defending the principle of free speech, yet attempting to show to each side of the debate the legitimate concerns of the other that were hidden by its strident rhetoric.

Bhikhu Parekh was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1988, British Asian of the Year in 1992, Fellow of the Academy of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences in 1999, and its President in 2002. He was given the BBC’s Special Lifetime Achievement Award for Asians in 1999. He was appointed to the House of Lords in 2000. He has just been elected Fellow of the British Academy.

In 2000 he found himself at the centre of a national controversy, as Chair of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. The Commission had been set up by the Runnymede Trust, an independent think-tank devoted to the promotion of racial justice in Britain. The Commission was composed of distinguished men and women from many different sectors of British society. Its aims were to analyse the unsolved problems of racism in Britain, and to propose ways of making Britain a confident and vibrant multicultural society. The authors expected criticisms and disagreement. They did not expect the misrepresentation and vituperation with which sections of the media greeted the report. Characteristically, Bhikhu Parekh responded with an article in The Daily Telegraph, combining moderation of tone with analytical keenness, calling for a national debate in which everyone would observe the virtues of mutually respectful democratic dialogue.

Bhikhu Parekh has made a unique contribution to British society. His distinguished academic career would be admirable in itself, but he has enriched that, and us, by drawing on elements of his Indian culture that give his political philosophy and his public service a highly distinctive character. His life’s journey began in his family and community in rural India. He has lived much of it in British academia. It is fitting, and impressive, that two of his sons are professors at Oxford University, while the third is managing director of a prominent bank in Switzerland. He and his brother have set up a charitable foundation that promotes mutual understanding between India and the West. Family, community, social justice, the life of the mind and reflective patriotism have been themes of his philosophy and his life. He has written that the true Gandhian would be a Gandhian in his own way. Bhikhu Parekh has embodied in his life the Gandhian virtues of justice, inter-cultural understanding, courage and truthfulness, but he has done so in his way. It is fitting that we honour his contribution.

Chancellor, I present to you BHIKHU PAREKH, BARON PAREKH OF KINGSTON UPON HULL.

Orator: Professor Michael Freeman