Sukant Chandan

Though the city of Leicester has had a recent history of ethnic animosity, the ferocity with which it descended into a maelstrom of communal violence in September caught the police, the press and local community leaders off guard. It started with a brief clash between cricket fans after a match on 28 August, though many could write that off as a common enough occurrence. But a sense of unease remained for the next few weeks, with The Guardian reporting seven communal disturbances in east Leicester.

That was to change on 17 September, when a mob of three hundred young Hindu men in face masks and balaclavas—many of them armed—marched through the Muslim-majority Green Lane Road, chanting “Jai Shri Ram” and “Vande Mataram.” It was a sight immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with modern India. The tiny detachment of police on the scene would be unable to prevent the violence that was about to take place. The mob then marched to Melton Road, where a similar number of South Asian Muslim youth had followed in response. After a senseless melee involving broken bottles, enough police finally arrived to divide the two groups.

Three days later, these tensions spilled over into the Smethwick area of Birmingham, with some two hundred masked Muslim men confronting Hindus at the Durga Bhavan Temple. Rumours had abounded that Nisha Rithambara, the founder of the militant Hindu group Durga Vahini, was going to speak at the temple. The organisers cancelled Rithambara’s tour, citing her poor health, but the communal clashes were making headlines across the world by then, and there were calls for the cancellation of at least one event in her ongoing speaking tour in the United States. After a week of skirmishes and vandalism, the police made 55 arrests.

Much of the reporting about communal tensions in Leicester tends to assume that religious divisions are natural aspects of South Asian communities in Britain. The histories of these communities could not be more different. Even though the South Asian diaspora arrived in Leicester in the shadow of the brutal fratricide of Partition, these communities shared a deep cross-religious, cross-continental unity, particularly when resisting the common experiences of racism and poverty. But as poverty and racism rise again in post-Brexit Britain, the latest incidents show the different paths South Asians have come to take in order to confront economic and cultural stagnation. The mobs at Leicester were the result of decades of British government policy and mobilisation of the Hindu Right, which had slowly unwound a community that did not previously define themselves along religious lines.

The story of the South Asian diaspora’s presence in Leicester starts with the British Nationality Act of 1948, which technically gave those in the Commonwealth the right to settle and work in Britain. The British government brought over workers from the Caribbean, Pakistan and India to help rebuild the economy after the destruction of the Second World War. People from India and Pakistan moved into the Spinney Hill and Belgrave areas of Leicester, where affordable private housing was available. They included Punjabis from Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur, some of whom were former members of the armed forces during the war.

The optimism South Asian immigrants had for a comfortable future bound by the newly created Commonwealth and shared suffering during the Second World War quickly dissipated on their arrival. Migrants from the former colonies suffered racism on nearly every level of society, including exclusion from sports and the prevalent cultural life. As a necessity, they started to self-organise. The Indian community in Leicester established its own film society in 1955. An Afro-Caribbean cricket team was started in 1948, which became the West Indian Sports and Social Club by 1957. Religious organising soon followed. Leicester’s first mosque opened in 1962, its first gurdwara in 1963 and Hindu temple in 1969.

Where has this left the people of Leicester? Both Hindu and Muslim areas in the city are subject to the same impoverishment and neglect that is being seen across working-class communities in the country.

Despite their cultural differences, South Asian and Afro-Caribbean migrants faced similar experiences of colonialism and racism in Britain. This often led to joint struggles for self-defence and survival. Such united struggles of former colonised peoples in England was constantly resisted by the British government. This is most visible in the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, which specifically aimed at limiting the flow of migration from the Caribbean and South Asia.

Such animosity often only tied these communities closer together. Claudia Jones, a well-known grassroots organiser in Caribbean and Asian communities, campaigned with the Punjabi communist activist Abhimanyu Manchanda against the 1962 act, arguing its “main aim is to cut coloured immigration” and, in doing so, it would “proclaim before the world that this is not to be a multi-racial commonwealth; but one in which the majority will be second class citizens.” She argued that the law created “divisions between white and coloured workers and people,” providing the “green light to racialism … to racial prejudice in theory and practice.”

The relationship between Jones and Manchanda also reflected how diasporic unity was tied together by their strong Marxist leanings, with the rights of working-class people of colour being the plank on which economic and racial exploitation could be challenged. The British government responded by establishing a quota-type handout to communities defined on religious sectarian lines. British policy, used to divide opposition in the colonies, was now brought home against the coloured working class of Leicester, Birmingham and Blackburn.

Attempts at such a division grew further following the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s policy of expelling South Asians. In the decades following 1968, no city in Britain received as many displaced Asians from East Africa as Leicester. Belgrave, Melton Road and Rushey Mead, areas which experienced the most recent burst of communal violence, were largely settled by East African Asians around this time. There were only 638 South Asians in the city in 1951 but, by 1981, it had over six thousand people from the Commonwealth. A majority of them were factory workers. The Leicester-based factory of the Imperial Typewriters Company, for example, employed sixteen hundred staff in 1974, of which eleven hundred were South Asians, mostly female migrants from East Africa.

Asian workers found out that they were being paid considerably less than their white counterparts in the white-owned factory and, in May 1974, went on strike. The picket lines were attacked by racists and many strikers were arrested, but the strike eventually succeeded. The stories of such united action against racism and economic exploitation are entirely missing from history curricula and have largely begun to die out, even in oral forms of community memory in the region. The legacy of the strike at Imperial Typewriters—like that of the historic two-year Grunwick strike in London, led by the East African Asian worker Jayaben Desai—does not inform the consciousness and imagination of South Asian working-class youth in Leicester anymore.

The erasure of this history is not accidental. It was a process that began with the crushing of trade unions by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. The social and cultural organisations within unions that brought together Hindu, Muslim and Sikh youth from South Asia also withered away. With a class-based solidarity weakening, the British government also officiated ethnic differences. In 1991, for the first time, the UK census asked a question about ethnicity, obliging respondents to identify themselves as Asian Indian, Asian Pakistan, Asian Bangladeshi or Asian Other. There was no category for East African Asians. Leicester was recorded as having sixty thousand Indians, nearly four thousand Pakistanis, a thousand Bangladeshis and over two thousand Asian Others.

This hatchet to South Asian identity was only strengthened by the next census. In 2001, respondents were asked to identify themselves by religion. By 2011, the population of Muslims, including both South Asians and others, had overtaken the Hindu population, making them the largest non-Christian group in Leicester. While advocates of the policy sell it as an attempt by the government to address systemic racism, it often has the same effect as the British colonial approach of institutionalising division in the name of inclusion and diversity. There is often little explanation to the arbitrariness of these sudden changes. The 2021 census, for example, added the Roma people—a migrant community, many of whom trace their ancestry to South Asia, that has also faced racial persecution in Europe for centuries—in the “White” category. The 2021 census also fails to have categories for Asian Caribbean people.

Census categorisation itself is far removed from everyday life. However, when coupled with the decades-old policy of local and national governments dishing out funds based on quotas it has for these categories, it had the potential to lead to very real forms of community divisions. While all Asian working-class communities face similar problems of growing poverty and diminished services, people have tended to go where the state has herded them: into sectarian communities and politics. Political parties also tend to perpetuate these divisions by attempting to garner votes through community gatekeepers who represent the different religious groupings in the city. As of 2014, Leicester was one of the most religious areas in Britain, with almost a quarter of its residents taking part in religious life.

The effects of these policies have been visible since the early 1990s. In July 1992, Indians and Pakistanis clashed in Blackburn. The police eventually arrested 39 youths and confiscated some fifty petrol bombs. A year later, Birmingham, Coventry and Derby saw similar communal attacks, with firebombs hurled at Hindu temples. In 1995, colleges in Southall and Hounslow, in west London, were scarred by frequent clashes between Sikh and Muslim right-wing groups.

Where has this left the people of Leicester? Both Hindu and Muslim areas in the city are subject to the same impoverishment and neglect that is being seen across working-class communities in the country. Before the pandemic, it was estimated that 40 percent of all children in the city—around thirty thousand of them—were living in poverty. According to the Office for National Statistics, Leicester has the lowest household disposable income in the United Kingdom. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Leicester became the city most notorious for big surges in case numbers linked to what is dubbed as the “super-exploitation” of garment-factory workers, most of whom are South Asian women who arrived recently in the country. Studies show that workers in Leicester’s factories are paid as little as three pounds an hour—although reporting suggests this can go even lower—despite the minimum wage in Britain for those aged 25 and over being £8.72.

The key difference between the exploitation experienced by factory workers in Leicester in the 1970s and the present is that many employers are now themselves of South Asian descent. For these youth in Leicester, seeing oneself as a Hindu or Muslim impairs their ability to recognise those who continue to impoverish their communities. Even as workers in the region get a mere three pounds an hour, the East African Asian executive chairman of Boohoo Group—an online fashion retailer that gets most of its finished textile pieces from factories around Leicester—gave himself a £150 million bonus in 2020. The figures would be similar for other South Asians who own various parts of the garment supply chain in the city.

These trends are likely only going to be further amplified by the rise of Hindutva in India and sectarian extremism in parts of the Muslim world. Funding for youth services has been dramatically slashed in Leicester, stopping access to cultural and sporting activities that could unify people. Boredom and the frustrations of grinding poverty are making religious extremism attractive to some young men. This was most graphically visible in the hundreds of young Muslim men who left Britain to join sectarian militias in Syria and further afield during the Arab Spring. Hindu youth do not have to go more than a few streets to join their own violent mobs.

The British chapter of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh—the international wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the world’s largest paramilitary force—was founded in 1966. It has consistently grown since then, now boasting a hundred shakhas—branches—and two thousand weekly attendees. Having been registered as a charity, in 1974, it receives government funding despite the Charity Commission of England and Wales conducting an inquiry into whether the organisation was promoting “views which are harmful to social cohesion, such as denigrating those of a particular faith or promoting segregation on religious or racial grounds.”

The speed and comfort with which Hindu youth make bedfellows of white nationalists make it tough to believe that, just a few decades ago, Muslim and Hindu youth and workers fought together on the picket line against racist street attacks.

Hindutva groups have also begun working alongside Britain’s growing white-nationalist movement. One of Britain’s most infamous far-right campaigners is a repeat convict known as Tommy Robinson—his real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon—who used to head the English Defence League. While his approach is very reminiscent of the old National Front type of street provocateurs, he and others like him frequently try to build a global alliance of Islamophobic populist figures, celebrating the likes of Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi.

Since 2009, the EDL has mobilised anti-Muslim groups in the Hindu community. Yaxley-Lennon teamed up with the former RSS leader Tapan Ghosh as a way of influencing Hindus to join his agenda. He also attempted to capitalise on the Leicester violence by releasing videos on social media asking his far-right audience to “Stand with Hindus.” The speed and comfort with which Hindu youth make bedfellows of white nationalists make it tough to believe that, just a few decades ago, Muslim and Hindu youth and workers fought together on the picket line against racist street attacks.

Neither the extremism of Hindu-nationalist organisations nor their proximity to white-nationalist organisations has limited the support they get from Britain’s largest political parties. Several Conservative members of parliament openly align with Hindutva forces in Britain, with the former prime minister David Cameron ending, in 2013, a decade-long diplomatic freeze with Modi due to the latter’s involvement in the Gujarat pogroms. During the British general election in 2019, forces close to the Bharatiya Janata Party sought to influence the election in favour of the Tories, sending WhatsApp messages to British Hindus that accused the Labour Party of being “anti-India,” “anti-Hindu” and “anti-Modi.” One such message called Labour “the mouth-piece of the Pakistani government” and said that Indian supporters of the party were “traitors to their ancestral land, to their family and friends in India and to their cultural heritage.”

This is not too surprising, given that the Conservatives’ political discourse is not too dissimilar to that of the BJP. However, cosying up to Hindutva happens on both sides of the aisle. The Labour MP Barry Gardiner, a former member of the shadow cabinet, has a seemingly special relationship with Modi and the BJP, glossing over the deeply problematic sectarian politics of the BJP government. Besides congratulating Modi on his re-election, Gardiner refused to support Indian farmers protesting the Modi government’s neoliberal reforms, expressing his broad support for its economic agenda. This is not just a disservice to Labour’s history of standing against the far right but runs contrary to the very economic ideology that founded the party.

Following the violence in Leicester, the Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, said that “Hinduphobia has absolutely no place in our society anywhere and we must all fight this together.” Hinduphobia is a concept framed by the right wing to claim a manipulative victimhood when they themselves are often the agents of sectarian provocation. It is true that Hindus in Britain are subject to racist abuse and attacks, as all racialised people are. However, the concept of Hinduphobia, in the way Hindutva forces frame it, distorts the actual power relations at play in complex situations such as in Leicester.

With economic, social and political influences pulling South Asian youth in Britain further down the pipeline of religious extremism, now is as good a time as ever to understand how these communities came together in the 1960s and 1970s to better their prospects in an openly racist state. The economic similarities between those times and now are not lost on at least parts of the political leadership. Claudia Webbe, the independent MP for Leicester East, recently wrote an open letter to the former home secretary Suella Braverman—an East African Asian who has been a vocal opponent of immigration—which outlined her constituency’s issues. “Leicester East is one of the most poverty-stricken areas of the country,” Webbe wrote. “Both child poverty and in-work poverty are very high.” The high levels of inequality and lack of employment prospects, she added, “impacts, for example, the opportunities available to disaffected young men. The organisations to help build resilience have long disappeared with austerity.”

The effects of this were also clear from her letter. “Thuggery, political right-wing nationalism from abroad, far-right fascism and racism are key features of the disorder,” she wrote. “In the aftermath, whilst walking through the back streets in the vicinity of where the violence occurred, I witnessed discarded balaclavas and surgical blue gloves, with the police also retrieving weapons. Too many residents have told me they are living in fear, with many feeling too frightened to leave their homes.”

Her words sound eerily similar to first-person accounts written at the time of Partition. The awkward and violent borders that are now drawn mid-street in many British cities have both imperial policy and extremists in their own community to blame. The generation of South Asians that came to Britain fleeing Partition and living their lives in its shadow were still able to look past deep-seated hatreds when faced with terrifying economic hardships. It will take a lot of strength for the youth on the streets of Leicester today to follow in their footsteps.

Sukant Chandan is a London-based analyst and advocate of the rights of racialised peoples, communities of the global south and the diaspora in the West. He is a coordinator at the Malcolm X Movement.

https://caravanmagazine.in/politics/leicester-violence-south-asian-diaspora-muslim-hindu-swayamsevak-sangh-partition. Please consider subscribing to Caravan Magazine.

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