Lord Diljit Rana is a successful businessman in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is Chairman and Chief Executive of Andras House Group, Northern Ireland’s biggest hotels and hospitality organisation. Born at Sanghol in Punjab, Lord Rana has been living in Northern Ireland since 1966. He was awarded an MBE in 1996, for his contribution to the economic regeneration of the city of Belfast through the development of hotels, restaurants, fashion shops and modern office accommodation. He has also been instrumental in setting up a charitable trust of INR 50 million for a school and a college named Sanghol Education Complex in his native village Sanghol, near the city of Chandigarh in India. The Ulster & Queens University, Belfast, have conferred upon him honorary doctorates. He has played a key and pivotal role in leading a delegation of academics from Irish universities to India in order to explore educational partnerships and help develop university to university links between India and Northern Ireland.
Lord Rana has had to renovate and repair his property portfolio over 25 times during the troubles in Northern Ireland due to the frequent bombings and arson. Being Indian, any loyalty to Northern Ireland was not expected of him, but he did choose to stay fast in Belfast despite all the problems. Today, he is a successful property developer and hotelier, and past President of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He is a leading figure of the Indian community, and also serves as the Honorary Consul of India to Northern Ireland. Actively involved in promoting business links between India and Northern Ireland, he has led several trade missions of many Northern Ireland based companies to India to explore business opportunities. NRI Achievers recently had occassion to converse with Lord Rana on his life and times, and we bring you here some excerpts from that conversation.
“My name is Diljit Singh Rana, I went from India in 1963, and have been living in the UK since then. God has been good to me, and I have prospered. I have been made a Member of the British Empire in 1996, a honour somewhat like what we have in India like the Bharat Ratna and Padma Bhushan, and ten years ago, I also entered the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament. Unlike the Indian Rajya Sabha, under the British system, once you are made a Lord and enter the upper house, you are a member for life, you do not have to be nominated or fight elections, or play to a constituency, the entire country is your constituency.
“We have been living in the United Kingdom for 50 years now, and when I arrived here as an economics graduate from India with some exposure and experience in bureaucracy, i was reasonably sure that I would be able to enter the civil service here in the UK. But the scenario was different, and … un dino me, colour bar ke wajah se, chahe jitne bhi qualified ho, white collor job nahi milti thi … so that was disappointing, I did not know that … and didn’t fully realise the problem of the colour bar in the UK … if I had known, I wouldn’t have gone. But then, once you go, to come back is a sort of defeat … that you made a wrong decision, so I had to make it work. It was a very unhappy period for me, as I worked in various factories, in the post office, and then made my way to Northern Ireland, Belfast, and started my own business. I bought a going concern, a restaurant, it progressed pretty well, and we grew from one to four restaurants in four years … and then came this period of political violence, sort of terrorism … we suffered a lot, I lost all my restaurants in the city centre due to bombings and arson, 26 times in all over a period of about 20 years … mostly businesses were targeted, and I do not think we were particularly targeted, but later on, when I got more prominent, and started taking a pro-government pro-business stance, I began to be targeted in the 90s, but before that, it was just random bombing and arson. And then to my credit, and I am known for that initiative … to have started the peace talks.
“In Northern Ireland, the violence started from the late 60s, 69-70-71 there were street riots, then from 71 the bullets and the bombing etc., started in a big way, and it went on upto 98, when the eventual settlement happened. So in varying degrees, the violence lasted for 30 years, sometimes intense, sometimes sporadic. And at a time when nobody was hopeful of bringing the people together and ending the violence, I initiated the peace talks, and helped start a dialogue, albeit cloaked in some secrecy, during the mid 80s. And over the years, I was successful in getting people from various walks of life, political convictions, and of various alienations, sit together and interact. So a dialogue began, and later on, many other people started participating, it was a gradual process, the church came in, from both sides when things got really bad they played a part … then a change of guard happened in the British government, as Margeret Thatcher moved out and John Major came in … and Major took a lot of initiatives, like opening a dialogue with the IRA and the Sinn Fein. My role in kickstarting this process of peace talks is much appreciated, I should say.
“Other than that, at a time when people were quite hesitant and afraid of putting their money into Northern Ireland, I continued with my investments despite all the uncertainty and violence, and am therefore known for my contribution to the economic regeneration of that region. I encouraged local businesses, even in those dark days of terrorism, talking hope, injecting positive attitudes … me and some of my friends also started an Indian Business Forum in 1984-85, which played an important role in enabling economic survival of local businesses, and contributing to the economic resurgence of Northern Ireland. We were pretty successful in that, and what’s more, the period also saw substantial inward investment flowing into Northern Ireland. Over the past 30 years or so, I have also led several trade delegations from Northern Ireland to India, and that effort has also paid off magnificently, so much so that India is today by far one of the largest investors in Northern Ireland. Indian tech majors HCL, Tech Mahindra, Polaris Labs, Larsen & Toubro, etc., are all there in Northern Ireland, largely due to my initiatives. On trade balance, I can tell you offhand that about 40 Northern Ireland companies are doing good business with India, and their investments would be in excess of GBP 200 million.
“The Indian government has also been good enough to afford me some recognition in the form of the Pravasi Bharatiya Sanman award in 2007, so the Indian government is well aware of my work, and I am in touch with several Indian political persona, I come to India at least 6-7 times a year, whether it is to link up UK Universities with Indian Universities, research institutes, or to promote trade relations. For example, my effort has seen a linkage blossom between the National Institute of Immunology, India’s top cancer research institute in JNU, and the Belfast University Cancer research Dept. Likewise I have promoted linkages between Queens University, Ulster University and premier institutions in India like IITs, Madras University, etc.
“To tell you about my own business interests, we have six hotels in Northern Ireland, various brands like Holiday Inn, Ramada, Ibis, and we have service apartments. We are also property developers, so between properties and hotels, and yes, an IT company as well, that is our business. We employ about 350 people, and we have encouraged a lot of other indirect investments into Northern Ireland through our businesses.
“Being established in the UK, I try and afford help to our Indian people there, in settling there, seeking gainful employment, integrating with society, etc., and now I have also funded this educational institution which started in 2001, the first classes began in 2005, and there are more than 2500 students getting educated there … see, we live in a sort of very hi-tech world, a global village today. And connectivity is even easier now with the Indian Diaspora than it was some 30-40 years ago. The unique thing about Indian Diaspora is that people who were taken as indentured labour during the late 19th and early 20th century to places like Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad Tobago. They are in their 4th to 5th generation now, having lived there for more than 100 plus years. But they still cherish their roots in India and still want to preserve their heritage. Say for example if you go to Mauritius, every house will have a little Shivji shrine outside, they have created a lake called ‘Ganga Talav,” and they celebrate Shivratri more than any other community anywhere … so this is the strength of Indian culture … we want to preserve it, and it is a force for good. The Indian Disapora itself is a force for good.
“And I am glad you bring out this magazine and are interviewing me for it, a magazine like yours is needed and fills a gap that exists in the Disapora connect. Carrying stories of good encourages good. Sharing great ideas will help them reach a larger audience and will ensure they flourish. So on all fronts, now that it is understood that we need more connectivity, a magazine like yours is a great contribution in broadening that connectivity and sharing ideas, opportunities amoung diaspora, no matter whether they are NRIs, PIOs or OCIs.
“Now, talking about myself and my family, we belong to the farming community and came from district Hoshiarpur. My father used to work for the Punjab government, so early years I grew up in Lyallpur, which is today in Pakistan and known as Faizlabad. Later I grew up in Khanna, and went to the Punjab University. So I am a Punjabi through and through … and at this stage in my life, most of my time is spent on charitable work. My children are grown up and well established, I have passed the reins of business to them, and I live along, my wife passed away some years ago, so I am focusing my energies on parliamentary work, social work, and community service, in Northern Ireland and in India. So my life commitment now is to help others and to spend what wealth I have accumulated to the betterment of other’s lives.”