Updated: Oct 25, 2022
Whilst almost all media outlets were preoccupied with the national mourning of Queen Elizabeth II and her state funeral, worrying developments were coming out of Leicester. Growing tensions amongst the South Asian community between Hindus and Muslims reached boiling point on 17 and 18 September, when unrest erupted into riots on Leicester’s streets.
Had they occurred a week later, it is wholly reasonable to assume it would have made front page news, and deservedly so. The unrest in Leicester represented the first widespread Hindu-Muslim communal violence witnessed within the United Kingdom, amidst a growing problem on the Indian subcontinent.
However, the unrest was largely underreported. Most articles covering the riots were predominantly cursory in their coverage of its causes. The media were quick to directly link the violence to a violent disturbance in the city on 28 August after India played Pakistan in the cricket, with little inquiry into the other potential external factors at play. Whilst the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry is noted for its zealousness, ensuant violence over two weeks later, suggests there are potentially more serious factors at play.
In highlighting the nuanced influences of ethnic nationalism, namely Hindutva, the power of radicalisation amongst diaspora communities, and to a lesser degree, demography, it can be suggested that the events of Leicester may not be as isolated as they first appear. The misinformation spread over a plethora of social media platforms, amplified the issue where, for the sake of solidarity, communities (both Hindu and Muslim) came to show support to their ‘brothers’ against each other.
On the Indian subcontinent, Hindu-Muslim conflict has become so prevalent, particularly since the election of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, that it “no longer constitute[s] news”. Whilst communal violence is therefore not a new phenomenon, its emergence within the United Kingdom is concerning.
Hindutva is an extreme form of Hindu nationalism, noted for its “ethnic absolutism”, in the sense that it promotes Hindu cultural hegemony in India akin to that of Aryanism in Nazi Germany. It is widely considered Islamophobic. The Hindutva movement comprises of many organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), and the BJP, the ruling party of India since 2014. Collectively, these organisations form the Sangh Parivar, all sharing one goal, working towards the creation of a Hindu Rashtra (the ethnonationalist dream).
The election of Modi and the BJP has significantly solidified the grip of Hindutva on Indian politics, with the Hindu Indian diaspora becoming a “major source of funding for the Hindutva [movement].” Some in the diaspora actively disseminate an “aggressive [ethnonationalist] brand of Hindutva identity” through provocative and calculated social media posts, often with radicalising effects.
In the United Kingdom, Hindutva is not adhered to by a majority of the Indian diaspora community. Largely, it tends to be supported by a small, wealthy fringe minority. Nevertheless, the Sangh Parivar, and the wider Hindutva movement, certainly seek to assert their influence and play provocateur abroad. It is becoming increasingly clear that the containment of communalist Hindutva incidents to the Indian subcontinent is unlikely; Leicester potentially provides an example of this.
In the instance of Leicester, whilst the tensions existed from the August cricket game, it is wholly reasonable to assume that the presence, no matter how small, of Hindutva-leaning supporters acted as one of the catalysts to the eruption of rioting in addition to the misinformation spread from both sides. The chants of “Jai Shri Ram” from masked Hindu men in Leicester as they marched through Green Lane Road (a predominantly Muslim area) demonstrates the fascistic techniques of the Hindutva being adopted in the United Kingdom; a worrying indication that increasingly radicalised religious sentiments are being shared in this country.
Whilst there is no official Muslim equivalent to the Hindutva movement within this context, this is not to say that Muslim communalism is a less influential factor in Hindu-Muslim tensions and unrest in Leicester. The adoption of fascist Indian rhetoric from a minority of the Hindu community, seen in the marches down Green Lane Road, provided opportunity for radical actors within the two communities to radicalise the youth in response. In India, instances of communalism play off one another – with communalism seeping into the diaspora community in the United Kingdom, it is fair to suggest that the rules of engagement will largely be the same. However, the damage that it will cause is unclear, as this is one of the first major incidents that have occurred so recently. Whether the form of polarisation takes shape as street violence (as seen in this instance), lynching, or rallies, it is wholly unpredictable.
Some Muslims radicalise in response to the Islamophobia of the Hindutva, and vice versa, fuelling the anger and hatred that already polarises them further. Whilst violence was perpetrated by both sides after the August cricket match, it became a ‘tit-for-tat', retaliatory affair, reminiscent of the communalist violence seen back on the Indian subcontinent.
The communalist, almost tribalist, nature of Hindu-Muslim relations can be attributed to the ethnonationalism of both the governments of India and Pakistan, who both criticized the Leicester riots, but only in relation to their respective peoples and religions. The Indian High Commission condemned the events in Leicester, particularly those against the “Indian Community” and the “Hindu religion”. Similarly, the High Commission of Pakistan censured the “systematic campaign of violence...against the Muslims of [Leicester].” These binary views serve to reinforce extremist views, both on the subcontinent and within the diasporas, by blaming the other for the eruption of violence.
Notwithstanding, to determine as to whether the unrest in Leicester was an isolated incident, it is important to look at the city’s demography. In India, instances of Hindutva translating into communal violence predominantly occurred over the fear of becoming a minority in a place like Leicester, known for its diversity. In the United Kingdom, Muslims outnumber Hindus for the most part. In Leicester, however, where 40 per cent of the population is of South Asian descent, the split is almost perfectly even.
Hindutva can be seen to be largely triggered by the fear of the Indian Hindus becoming a minority, given in Leicester the Hindu population largely matches that of the Muslim community, the city provides the ideal target for Hindu nationalists to radicalise and provoke young South Asian men. It is unlikely we would see similar events take place in Birmingham or Bradford, where Muslims greatly outnumber Hindus. Thus, whilst demography is not the overall cause for the unrest, in this view, it is certainly a contributing factor.
Therefore, it can be argued that the Leicester riots showed evidence of Hindutva radicalisation, suggesting this unrest was a part of a greater trend taking root in the diaspora. However, the effects of demography on the capacity for communalist violence to take place suggests the Leicester riots were unique and isolated in the sense that it was the most likely target in the United Kingdom. Whether this communalist sentiment takes root throughout other British South Asian communities remains to be seen. However, one of the main takeaways from this article is the deadliness of misinformation and how it can ignite the many minority groups to begin communal violence in Britain between diasporic communities.
Written in collaboration with Drishti Patel and Gokul Krishnakumar