Born in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Ravindra Gujjula came to communist East Germany (GDR) in 1973 to study medicine. He finished his specialty training and settled permanently in the state of Brandenburg. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was elected mayor of Altlandsberg as an independent candidate in 1993. Five years later he joined the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Gujjula has been a member of Brandenburg’s state legislature since 2007. The 55-year-old, who still practises medicine at his Altlandsberg clinic, has also been active in fighting the far-right in Brandenburg and pushing for more tolerance and openness towards immigrants. At the same time, he argues that those who decide to settle in Germany must make an effort to learn the language and fit in. He is now running for the Bundestag in the parliamentary district of Märkisch-Oderland and southern Barnim.
What made you get involved in politics?
The main reason was my parents. My father was a member of parliament in India for 20 years and headed the farmers’ association of India. My mother was the general secretary of one of the biggest women’s organisations in the world. So I grew up with left-wing ideas. My parents certainly deeply influenced my world view.
How does your background influence your political perspective?
I was jailed twice as a political prisoner in India for organising demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the sale of scarce baby food on the black market. The time spent in jail taught me a lot of lessons about social injustice and the importance of being socially active.
So, the Social Democratic Party was a natural political home for you?
Yes, in many ways. The SPD has a lot of influential and inspiring personalities. I idolised Willy Brandt as a teenager in India. I grew up in a socialist India. For me, socialism means a society free of poverty and unemployment – where everyone is equal. I may not live to see such a society but I think the Social Democratic Party is trying to achieve it.
How do you explain your popularity in a state that in recent years has made headlines for racist attacks on foreigners?
One of the reasons I am so well accepted is that I have close connections with the people in Altlandsberg on account of being a doctor. I know almost all the residents personally. I try and understand their problems and listen to them. But the point I want to make is that when foreigners come to Germany, they should also participate in society in some way without losing their culture and identity. It doesn’t work if foreigners keep to themselves or don’t learn the language. Immigrants don’t just have rights – they also have duties.
Yet many parts of Brandenburg have been branded no-go areas for foreigners.
Yes, some six percent of voters in Brandenburg vote for the far-right. The far-right DVU party has torn and burned some of my campaign posters in Strausberg, the biggest city in this region. Of course that happens to other politicians too. But I have to admit that things have become worse here for foreigners since the Wall came down. I have personally never experienced any racism or problems here. But I have always advised my children against taking trains alone late at night. Nothing has ever happened to us thankfully. But I just don’t want to take any risks. In Altlandsberg, you can walk alone as a foreigner but not in some other places in Brandenburg.
What needs to change in Brandenburg so that foreigners feel safe?
The most important thing is to talk to the youth. We have a real problem in Germany in motivating young people – to go into higher education, take up high-skilled jobs. We have to educate people about the role played by migrants because whether Germany likes it or not, this is a country of immigration. Ten percent of the population is either born elsewhere or migrated to Germany or their children and second and third-generation migrants. We also have to convince people not to fall for Nazi propaganda. If you see the far-right campaign posters around here “German jobs for Germans” – that’s absolute nonsense since not even two percent of people in Brandenburg are foreigners.
What are you doing to tackle the problem?
I head an organisation called “Brandenburg Against the Far-right.” We’ve organised trips for students to neighbouring Poland – to concentration camps. And I also organise trips to India for young Germans to work on social projects. These things help to broaden horizons and be more open. And politically, I hope we manage to kick out the far-right DVU party from the Brandenburg parliament in the next elections.
You’re now campaigning to get into the German parliament. Why do you think there are such few parliaments with immigrant backgrounds?
I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Increasingly, in most parties you see politicians – also at the state and regional level – who have migrant backgrounds. My advice to all foreigners and immigrants living in Germany is that you have to be a little bit better than Germans. Immigrants have to make an effort too, and learn the language and participate in society. If you do that, it doesn’t matter how you look – Germans will respect you. I think Germany is ready for educated and well-motivated migrants. This is the right time for immigrants to plunge into politics and social issues.
What are your views on dual citizenship?
I am totally in favour of dual citizenship. I think it’s unfair that citizens from EU countries and Switzerland are entitled to it whereas those from non-EU countries aren’t. For the latter, giving up their passports in order to get German citizenship is often linked with disadvantages in their home countries. That includes issues such as inheritance, land issues, family matters.
How German do you feel?
My wife says I am more German than most Germans around me. I might have a bad accent, imperfect language and look different but I’m completely involved in this country. But of course I haven’t lost my culture and my Indianness. I think you can be a good German with an immigrant background without losing your cultural identity.
What are the most important issues for the SPD in this year’s election?
Fighting unemployment is the single biggest issue.
And for you personally?
As a doctor campaigning in Brandenburg, healthcare is my priority. We have a huge lack of doctors in rural areas. We are one of the richest countries in the world but we’re still unable to solve this problem. And of course, I’m interested in shaping migration policies and fighting the far-right. But I don’t want to be pigeonholed just because I have an immigrant background.