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OBITUARY: Tribute to former Leamington mayor and councillor Mota Singh

Mota was born in early January or February 1939 (exact date unrecorded but he always said ‘during the sugar cane season’) in Rajasthan in northern India.

Of his life as a youth, Mota wrote: “By now, simple living of Mahatma Gandhi had already convinced me greatly and I started to critically look at the lavish style of the rich, miseries of the poor, injustice, social divisions and corruption in the system.”

He arrived in the UK on 11th May 1963 and after a few weeks living with friends in Slough he moved to Leamington. His first job was at Leamington Plating Company but this ended abruptly when he sought to unionise the workforce. However, shortly afterwards, through support from the Transport and General Workers Union, he started work at the Ford Foundry.

Mota described his time at the foundry in ‘England, our England,’ a recently published book of reminiscences of those who came from the commonwealth to live and work in the UK. He wrote: “I did work in the foundry but I tell you they were the worst days of my life. We were given a job on the grinding machines and it was not a small thing; it took two people to lift it. It was very hard work. I didn’t remove my turban. It was nothing to do with religion, but I was determined not to.”

From the start, Mota supported arrivals from India with advice and translation, interceding with local and national bodies. He lived in shared accommodation with other migrants in Wise Terrace, Leamington. Very soon, he was establishing himself within the community.

He was one of the founding members of Leamington’s Gurdwara helping to raise the money to buy the former St Mary’s Sunday School on New Street for this purpose.

He married Surinder Kaur in 1968 and on returning from India spent another 10 years at the foundry until a bad spell of bronchitis hospitalised him and prevented him going back to that line of work.

In 1974, he began work as a postman and van driver which he continued to do until his retirement in 2002 (28 years of service). He was active in the Union of Communication Workers (as Chair of the Warwick and Leamington Amalgamated Branch) and in its successor the Communication Workers Union. He supported his colleagues and was involved at regional and national level. Latterly he served the villages to the north and east of Leamington where he was well loved by the communities and also on excellent terms with Sir Dudley Smith, the Conservative MP at the time, and his wife in Weston-under-Wetherley. He always held strong views but looked also to build bridges.

He and Surinder lived first in Plymouth Place and then moved to St Bride’s Close with their three sons (Jasjit, Gurpreet and Jaskarn) in 1980. Surinder sadly passed away in January 2003. After Surinder’s passing, Mota busied himself in raising awareness about diabetes amongst the local South Asian communities. At this time, he also became a Non-Executive Director at Warwick Hospital Trust (2004-2008).

Mota was elected to Warwickshire County Council for the Leamington Brunswick Division in May 1985 and he continued to serve in this role until June 2009 (24 years). He was the first British Asian County Councillor in Warwickshire, the first as Chair of the Council (2000), and quite possibly the first nationally to chair a Police Committee (1994) and its successor Warwickshire Police Authority (1998).

In 2002, he was elected to Royal Leamington Spa Town Council when it was first established representing Willes ward (until 2015) and then from 2015-2019 for Leamington Sydenham ward – totalling 41 years across the two authorities. He served as Mayor of Leamington in 2004 with his daughter-in-law Sangita supporting him as Consort.

As a councillor, he took on a huge caseload – not just matters that the councils were responsible for but supporting and representing people across Warwickshire with immigration and nationality issues. People from all communities in Brunswick and Willes knew Mota and valued him as their representative. Canvassing with him in these areas brought hugs and handshakes from many people – black and white. He was also passionate about youth provision and sought to make sure the voices of young people were heard. He also actively supported people fleeing domestic violence.

He served on the Race Equality Council from 1968-1978 bringing communities together to address the issues facing established and new residents in the area. The Community Relations Council was set up in 1971 and Mota was a founder member.

Mota was active in anti-racist campaigning all his life. He attributed his passionate opposition to racism and injustice to his father. In 1976 Robert Relf advertised his house (in Cowdray Close) for sale to an English family only – in clear breach of the Race Relations Act. Demonstrations in support of him and counter demonstrations locally and the number of votes that the British Movement received at a by-election in Leamington Aylesford ward (part of modern day Brunswick) in 1977 led to the Leamington Anti-Racist and Anti-Fascist Committee (LARAFC) being set up 1977. As Chair of the local Indian Worker’s Association, Mota was a leading member.

He was an active participant in the local Anti-Apartheid group and with the charity One World Link, visiting Leamington’s twin town of Bo in Sierra Leone in 2004. He was also a strong supporter of Bath Place Community Venture. He served on many local and national bodies, was an active school governor (at Kingsway, Shrubland Street, Campion and Whitnash Nursery Schools) and played a fundamental role in getting the SYDNI Community Centre in Sydenham established.

He was a respected and published poet having written his first poem in 1955. His home was and he often hosted visits for other acclaimed poets.

Writing of his anthology ‘Bikhre Moti’ published in 2008, Mota wrote: “My poems in this book reflect some sweet memories of loved ones, love for mankind, praise for those who sacrificed their lives for good cause, those who stood and stand against injustice, evil practices in the society, reject blind faith, shower sentiments, emotions, feelings, optimism and dreams of world peace.”

He was also a regular contributor of articles on social and political issues to the Punjabi newspaper Des Pardes, a nationally and internationally known representative of the Sikh Community and a passionate gardener. Even in ill-health, he enjoyed spending many hours on his allotment off Radford Road.

Tragically, his middle son Gurpreet (known as Gilly) died suddenly in 2007 at the age of 36. Gilly had developed his radicalism from his parents working for Newham Monitoring Project, supporting the Stephen Lawrence Campaign and working for Inquest, investigating deaths in custody. With Gilly’s widow, friends and family, Mota was spurred on to redoubling the efforts to raise the funds to build and equip a school in the village of Lehrian in Haryana state. The Buwan Kothi International Trust raised the money and continues to pay the operational costs for the Gilly Mundy Memorial School, which has expanded to cover early years, primary and secondary education.

In an article written in 2014, Mota described his Sikh faith: “My faith is firstly that I am a human being. No matter what colour, what outlook, what religion, a person is a human being first. Everyone gets their heritage from their parents who give them birth and their religion. Then we grow through our local culture and our education system. In my belief ‘humanity’ is the best religion because it covers the basics of all religions.

“I have lived in Leamington Spa for the last 51 years, as a family person, a working person, a religious person, a social person and a political person. But I never forget the teaching of my parents, or my religious Gurus, and have always sought to lead an honest and honourable life. Even the most painful incidents have not succeeded in taking my smile away, but I cannot keep quiet if I see injustice happening to anyone anywhere.”

In latter years, Mota drew much support and companionship from his partner, Janet Alty.

Matt Western MP said: “He was possibly the purest, most decent and gentle person that I have ever met. He was selfless but determined and his work demonstrated his great generosity of spirit and sense of public service as well as a profound sense of what was right.

“A man of great humanity, his passing is very hard for many of us to come to terms with. But let us remember his enormous contribution to our community as well as his extraordinary 40 years as a Labour Councillor. It is a simplistic measure of his service but that has few, if any, equals.”

Mota’s funeral takes place at Oakley Wood on Saturday 20th February. Obviously, during lockdown, the number attending is limited to 30 people. Clearly, for someone with Mota’s service to the community, a funeral for 30 people is woefully insufficient. His family, and the Labour Party will look to organise commemorations once it is safe to do so.