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Councillor Manjula Sood - Doctor of Laws - Lord Mayor of Leicester from 15th May 2008 (the first Asian woman Lord Mayor in the UK), also High Bailiff of Leicester and a Leicester Graduate

Oration by Doctor S J Gurman

On May 15th this year Councillor Manjula Sood was installed as Lord Mayor of the City of Leicester. Leicester has had a Lord Mayor since 1928, when it was awarded the status of a city, but the office of Mayor of Leicester goes back to 1209. In this 800th year of the office, Manjula Sood is the 550th Mayor (our numerate graduands will of course realise from these figures that several people have held the office more than once). She is the first female Asian to be First Citizen of Leicester, or, indeed, Mayor of any town in England. Later this week, attired in the black and gold mayoral robes she will watch and applaud as other degrees are awarded by our Chancellor: today we are proud to honour her. It is perhaps fortunate that she has chosen not to wear her robes today: they are very similar to those worn by the Chancellor, albeit with a much better hat, and confusion would be regrettable.

Manjula Sood was born in Ludhiana in Northern India, where she received her education at the Jain High School and Government College. Ludhiana is the largest city in the Indian Punjab. It is a major centre of the knitwear and hosiery industries and is known as the Manchester of the Punjab. This is, of course, a misnomer: the centre of the British knitwear and hosiery industries was, and is, Leicester and not some damp and dismal northern city: Ludhiana is the Leicester of the Punjab! Manjula Sood was educated at the University of the Punjab at Chandigarh, the beautiful city which is the capital of Punjab state. There she received her BA in English and Politics and MA (with Distinction) in Sociology. She also began a Ph D project in association with Johns Hopkins University in the United States, but marriage and the move to Leicester prevented its completion.

Manjula Sood arrived in a cold and snowy Leicester in December 1970. The change was so dramatic that she wanted to return home. She telephoned her grandfather and he told her “Leicester is your home. I have given you education, go and get some training and find a job”. This she did: from January 1971 she trained as a primary school teacher at this University, the University which her aunt had previously attended. In January 1973 she joined East Park Primary School, teaching there for twelve years before moving to Spinney Hills Primary School. When she started teaching, Leicester was struggling to absorb some 20,000 Ugandan Asian refugees and Mrs Sood’s Asian background and teaching skills greatly helped the children of many of these refugees to adapt to their new life. She was a pioneer in multi-cultural education in the city and the county and was recognised as such in a meeting with Prince Charles. In 1991 she was forced to retire from teaching due to ill health, taking on the management of a travel agency instead.

In 1996 Manjula Sood’s life changed again, in tragic circumstances: her husband Paul died suddenly. Paul Sood had served as a City Councillor since 1982 and his widow, who had long been active in the local Labour party, was asked to succeed him. At the by-election she was duly elected as Councillor for the Abbey Ward, representing it until 2003. In that year she was elected Councillor for the Latimer Ward, which includes the Belgrave Road, Leicester’s Golden Mile.

As a long-serving City Councillor Manjula Sood has served on many major Council Committees. She was Vice-Chair of the committees on education, health and social services and later Chair of the Health Commission. Before becoming Lord Mayor she was the Cabinet lead for Health and Wellbeing. She is also a trustee of the North Memorial Homes in Leicester, a charity which provides accommodation for war veterans. Manjula Sood was awarded the Labour Party Merit Award in 2004 and was voted the Leicestershire and Rutland Woman of the Year in 2006. She also chaired the women’s project Naari LETS, which inspires women to exchange skills and is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Lord Mayor’s Appeal this year is in aid of the Special Olympics National Games which will be held in Leicester in July 2009. These special games provide an opportunity for those with learning difficulties to demonstrate their strengths and some 4000 people are expected to come here to be a part of them. Leicester is the only city to host the U.K. Special Olympics twice

Manjula Sood is a Trustee and an Executive Director of the Leicester Council of Faiths and has been a member of the UK Interfaith Network since 1995. The civic service held to mark her appointment washeld in the cathedral one of whose canons is a close friend and she has also appointed a Hindu spiritual advisor.

Manjula Sood has come a long way: 5000 miles from the Leicester of the Punjab to Leicester in the United Kingdom; from a cold snowy December as a young wife to a warm July as First Citizen of her adopted city; from a student of this University to its Honorary Graduand.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Manjula Sood that you may confer on her the Honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Click here to return to the Graduation Ceremony main page.

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