• It’s been a long journey: from primary school teacher in Nairobi to Birmingham’s first ethnic minority lawyer, from the target of vicious racism to award-winning recognition – and on the way he successfully took a groundbreaking case to the House of Lords.

    Sewa Singh Mandla looks back on a remarkable life.

    “My father was a civilian working for the British Army in India stationed at Burma. When he was demobilised at the end of World War 2 he elected to work in Kenya.

    I was born in Nairobi on 4 January 1927

    When I completed my schooling in Nairobi I trained for 18 months to be a primary school teacher and taught for seven years. The school day started at 8 am and finished at 1 pm and I spent my spare time taking courses in shorthand, typing and bookkeeping, and joined the police as a reservist.

    Later, influenced by friends and parents, I decided to study law – again in my spare time – enrolling on a three-year course with Lincoln’s Inn in London. Roman Law Latin was a requirement, so I learned it by heart.

    Another Lincoln’s Inn idiosyncrasy was that it was compulsory to dine with the “Benchers” (senior members) at least six times before you were allowed to pass your studies. This is known as a “Dining Term”. In order to complete my studies I took my accumulated leave to travel to England.

    Before leaving I attended a residential course for students, “Living in Britain”, organised by The British Council in Nairobi.  We were taught dining etiquette and manners, including advice such as “If invited for a dinner always present the lady of the house with a bunch of flowers and after dinner offer to do the washing up.” This advice proved very useful!

    After the 22-day sea journey from Mombasa to London, I was taken to a hostel in Knightsbridge, where I stayed 12 months and completed my exams and my “Dining Terms” before returning to Kenya. I was “Called to the Bar”, the graduation ceremony for barristers, in my absence and my barristers certificate was sent to me. In 1955 I started to practice as an advocate.

    It was an interesting time to live in Kenya as nationalism was challenging British colonial rule. I became active in the Kenyan African National Union, which played a vital role in the  independence struggle and subsequently ruled for 40 years. In 1963 Jomo Kenyatta became the first President of an independent Kenya.  Like many political activists he spent time in prison and I was honoured to be a member of his defence team, as well as part of the team that received him on his release from prison when we escorted him to his village at Gatundu.

    The following year after much thought and advice from my spiritual mentor I returned to London. I took an eight-month crash course to qualify as a solicitor, who are distinct from barristers in England. I qualified in 1976 but found it impossible to find work as no-one would take me on.

    My luck changed in a Gurdwara (a Sikh temple). A fellow Sikh, Gurbachan Singh, offered me a position in his law firm. I completed an unpaid apprenticeship for a year with him at Ealing in west London.

    My spiritual mentor guided me to come to Birmingham where I started up my own practice. During the late 1970s and early ‘80s the African Caribbean community was poorly represented by the legal profession. There was no Asian solicitor in the Birmingham area. I started doing routine conveyancing and ended up dealing with 15-20 criminal cases every day. Word spread that I was hard-working and a competent solicitor standing fearlessly for the rights of accused people.

    But I experienced much hostility and discrimination from other solicitors and court clerks because I spoke with an accent and I was the first ethnic minority lawyer in Birmingham. People would “roll their eyes” when I began to speak. I also faced hostility from the police because I practiced in Handsworth [an area known for racial tension] and had gained a reputation as someone who knew the law and how to defend people. Eventually I gained respect from senior police officers and court officials. They realised that what I was saying was worth of listening to as I had success with arguments that had not previously been raised in the courts.

    One of my most outstanding and historic cases was my challenge to Dowell Lee, the head of the private Park Grove School, who would not admit my son unless he cut his hair and removed his turban. The case started in the County Court and ended up in the House of Lords, who decided that the “no turban rule” was unlawful and discriminatory. The decision meant that a Sikh boy was entitled to go to a school in UK wearing his long hair and turban.

    Today my son works in our practice on the Soho Road in Birmingham.

    I am a volunteer with the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha (Gurdwara) Birmingham and where I serve the Gurdwara and the community. I was active in setting up the Nishkam Civic Association and the Nishkam Centre which provides a range of community services and facilities, including a gym, sauna, steam bath, conferences halls, yoga classes, and classes in languages, music and other subjects.

    I work hard to foster good community relations between all faiths in Birmingham and all over the world and am the vice chair of the UK Chapter of Religions for Peace. For many years I have been engaged in organising a Sikh-Catholic Dialogue and led a delegation to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Paul 11. The Archbishop of Birmingham conferred his highest award on me, Ubi Caritas.

    I was chairman of Roger Hooker Memorial, a Christian (Anglican) organisation which makes small grants to organisations involved in Interfaith work.

    Prime Minister Tony Blair invited me to 10 Downing Street along with others in recognition of my outstanding services to the community, and the BBC and Channel 4 have broadcast documentaries about my life.

    I still continue to enjoy serving the community.

    I came to the United Kingdom with capital, worked hard and enhanced my financial position. I pay my taxes, engage with community activities and feel that I have played my part in being an asset to the country as a migrant.”

     

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