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Wednesday 17 October 2018

Leo's uncles were jailed in India

Leo Varadkar with his proud parents Miriam and Ashok. Picture: Frank McGrath
Leo Varadkar with his proud parents Miriam and Ashok. Picture: Frank McGrath

Eilis O'Hanlon

Famine. Mass killings. Summary executions. Rapacious landlords. A cruel penal code. Institutionalised racism. It's no wonder that the country turned so decisively against British rule after centuries of colonial oppression.

Ireland? No - well, yes, but not in this case. This time it's India, the jewel in the crown of the vast British Empire, and ancestral home of the present Taoiseach. It's a background sketched out in the first chapter of a new biography of Leo Varadkar, written by Niall O'Connor and Philip Ryan.

Intriguingly, the book, snappily titled Leo Varadkar - A Very Modern Taoiseach, even reveals how two uncles of the present Taoiseach were jailed for their part in the uprising against British misrule.

Varadkar's family on his father's side hail from a small village on the east coast of India, 300 miles from the city then known as Bombay (now Mumbai). Leo's father, Ashok, trained as a doctor in the city, where his brother, Madhu, a barrister, had become embroiled in the politics of Indian independence while at university.

Another brother, Manohar, who worked for India's atomic energy board, also went on anti-British marches. Both were jailed for a year for their part in protests, which, as this new book notes, was considered a badge of pride by their middle class family and by most Indians at the time.

After independence, Madhu and Manohar were decorated for their role in the struggle for freedom, while Ashok's sister, Prabha, later went on to protest against Portuguese rule in the Indian island state of Goa as well.

Leo has always said that his half-Indian heritage "doesn't define me". He says the same about being gay. But both facets of Leo's personality have certainly been pinpointed by his critics when looking for ways to undermine him, most infamously Unionist peer and professional buffoon Lord Kilclooney when he referred dismissively to the Taoiseach as a "typical Indian".

That, needless to say, is chauvinistic claptrap, but Unionists who have raised eyebrows at the markedly more nationalist tone taken by Leo Varadkar towards the issue of Northern Ireland than by his immediate predecessor may well now be wondering if Varadkar's extended family's involvement in the Indian independence movement has anything to do with it.

Though perhaps the most percipient detail from his childhood in this new biography is that the young Leo's family "doted on him totally and utterly".

He obviously enjoyed the feeling and now wants and expects the whole country to do the same.

Sunday Independent

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