EDINBURGH, Scotland — Hardeep Singh Kohli may have been born in London, the son of immigrants from India. But it would be hard to find a more passionate Scot.
"I'd rather die hungry and free than be part of something that has no f***ing interest in my future and my people," he told a recent Scottish nationalist gathering here. "Because you are my f***ing people whether you like it or not."
A well-known face on British television, the comedian and writer has emerged as a leading spokesman for the "Yes" campaign ahead of Scotland's September referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.
In an interview, Kohli explained why politics, economics, history and a better sense of rhythm mean his homeland can’t miss the opportunity to break from British rule.
"Scotland has had a right-wing government imposed on what is fundamentally a left-wing country," he says of Britain’s Conservative government in London. "Plus I believe in the self determination of people, and our ability to dance really ought [to] get us independence if nothing else."
Taking a break from touring his current show, "Hardeep is your Love," Kohli spoke in an Edinburgh pub before addressing a campaign dinner with local pro-independence activists.
The 45-year-old Sikh delivered an expletive-laden talk — part standup routine, part political broadside — wearing a shockingly pink turban and a T-shirt asking "What does a Scotsman have under his kilt?" The answer was provided on the back: an image of the mythical creature from Loch Ness, with the caption, "a monster."
Despite the jokes, Kohli is deadly serious about independence. Successive governments in London have neglected Scotland, he says, imposing unwanted policies from austerity economics to stationing nuclear-armed submarines in Scottish ports.
He says Scots must overcome any fear of standing alone and build an independent state based on a proud history that's allowed their country of 5 million to preserve its distinct cultural identity under 307 years of British rule.
"I refuse to accept that those who vote against me in the referendum feel any difference from me about their love of Scotland," he says in a distinct Glasgow accent. "I understand the trepidation in the minds of certain people, but my job is to convey to them the optimism, the positivity, the excitement of being a small, northern European country that has the most astonishing history and even more astonishing future because it will be in our own hands."
Kohli likens the Scottish vote to India’s securing independence from British rule in 1947.
His parents moved to London from India's Punjab state in the mid-1960s. When Kohli was born soon after, the family looked set to form part of London's growing Indian community until his father headed north to train as a teacher in the Scottish city of Dundee.
"He tells a lovely story about taking what was then a 12-hour train journey to Dundee and being bowled over," Kohli recalls. "He was a vegetarian and a non-drinker until he got on the train with Scots and they offered him a ham sandwich and can of super-lager and he fell in love."
The family moved north of the border in 1972, when Kohli was four years old.
Back then, non-white faces were rare in Scotland. Today, they make up 8 percent of the population in Edinburgh, the capital, and 12 percent in the largest city Glasgow.
Across the country, however, non-whites represent just 4 percent of the population, compared to 18 percent in the UK as a whole.
That presents Scotland with different issues from the rest of the UK, Kohli believes. Although the country is “diverse and cosmopolitan,” he says, "we are depopulating, we require a different level of immigration, we can't afford not to be welcoming to all those around us."
He acknowledges Scotland has bigotry issues, like other countries. His home city of Glasgow is notorious for ugly sectarian tensions between Catholics and Protestants.
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As a boy, Kohli was targeted by racist bullies, and it's not hard to find disgruntled voices on Edinburgh’s streets hoping an independent Scotland will send immigrants packing across the border to England.
However, the Scottish National Party — which currently runs the government — is reaching out to minorities, which sets it apart from other burgeoning nationalist groups in Europe that tout an anti-immigration agenda, Kohli says.
"As the child of an immigrant who grew up in Scotland, I'm at the heart of the Scottish nationalist campaign,” he says. “It's a different sort of nationalism. If you live in Scotland, you are Scottish, end of story."