The terrible events in Leicester last month saw several hundred young people marching to Green Lane Road on 17 September chanting, “Jai Shri Ram” (“Glory to Lord Rama”). Other youths, in response, gathered to chant “Allahu Akbar”. Both expressed heady allegiance to their god – not as a simple demonstration of faith, but as a combative slogan against others. Several British politicians have intervened, as have the governments of India and Pakistan. Social media “influencers” descended on Leicester to video themselves and their “patrols” and further provoke young people. With a few important exceptions, most of those intervening chose to enlarge, rather than contest, a dangerous logic of communalism. It is in their political interests to keep communities pitted against each other.
“Communalism” is a term that will be familiar to those who follow the politics of south Asia. Perhaps less so to others: it refers to a negative, discriminatory, or hate-driven orientation to people of other faiths, and a superiority regarding one’s faith. Once upon a time, in post-independence India, it was a filthy word. To be accused of communalism was to be considered to be something like a racist or fascist, someone who harboured hatred and wanted to generate antagonism towards other religious or caste groups.
But the south Asian tradition of militant anti-communalism has been ruthlessly banished in India by the Hindu supremacist authoritarianism of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and its supreme leader, Narendra Modi, both owing their allegiance to a massive fascism-inspired, paramilitary organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Their ideology is Hindutva, an early 20th-century blood and soil concoction that mimicked other ferocious ethno-nationalisms. It now dominates India.
Hindutva forces cannot tolerate the presence of Muslims, Christians, Dalits, protesting farmers, secularists and liberals in India. The Indian people attacked by Hindutva politicians and armed groups proliferate daily and are routinely vilified as “anti-national” enemies and “terrorists” by a largely compliant Indian media. Other violent Hindutva movements have emerged with force, and these are not necessarily or always linked to the RSS family. The aim of the Hindutva groups is to remove the Muslim (and Christian) presence from the Indian civil and public sphere. It is now common to hear about the “early warning signs” of potential mass atrocities when India is being discussed by human rights folks.
The RSS, the BJP and their affiliates have placed strong emphasis on working in the Indian diaspora, especially the UK, the United States and Canada. In Britain, for example, the RSS’s Indian organisational structure and its main affiliates are reproduced as religious, women’s, student and other wings that work alongside its regular training branches for children and young people. Among more recent migrants, including those who have arrived directly from Modi’s India, other Hindu right affiliations have reportedly emerged. Similar dynamics are found in the international organisation of the Jamaat-e-Islami from Bangladesh and Pakistan, the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt and other sectarian political-religious movements. These organisations have worked doggedly in UK south Asian communities over many decades, and the growth of deep communalism is the outcome, one actively energised by local authority, national government and political party support for these groups and their charitable offshoots.
But if we are to talk about Leicester, we would do well to start the conversation further back. The east African Gujarati community in Leicester, arriving mainly from Kenya and Uganda in the early 1970s, faced an extraordinary level of hostility in the UK. The neo-Nazi National Front was then a very visible mass street movement. Racist violence on the streets, parks, shops, workplaces was a routine experience, as was official indifference to that violence.
The hostility faced by the east African Asian communities (among other minorities) was met by a fightback. Youth groups organised against racist violence. In some of the factories in Leicester and neighbouring Loughborough, Asian workers downed tools in the face of discrimination and enduring hostility. And a community was forged, its distinctive character not, at that time, defined by religious belonging but an ordinary, folk “Gujarati-ness”, one transformed by the experience of living in east Africa. This was not the rabid “Gujarat Pride” inculcated by Narendra Modi over the past two decades, but the sharing of lived cultures of east African Asians, whatever their religious affiliation.
From the 1990s onwards, this began to change, those communities becoming defined first by religious affiliation and then increasingly by political religion. Two major international events in 1989-90 signalled the start of that process: the charge of “blasphemy” against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses, and the Hindutva mass movement initiated by the BJP and RSS to destroy the 16th-century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, northern India. That movement was to succeed, its victory cry being “Jai Shri Ram!”
The Hindutva groups in the UK have tried to distance themselves from the Leicester violence, blaming it on “Muslims”. As with the tedious view of the Indian RSS when faced with repeated evidence of its atrocities, they say that Hindu protests, however provocative or violent, are always peaceful, and Hindus are eternally innocent. Locally, some of the established Gujarati communities have blamed recent arrivals from India. Sympathisers of Islamism have blamed the “Hindu right”. They are each following a communal script that is engraved on their political souls.
Communal narratives are easy, but they are dangerous because of the future consequences for south Asian communities across the UK. South Asians in Britain will be living with each other, and with others, not for the next few years, but for generations to come. The situation in India is likely to get even more deadly than it already is, whether or not the BJP win the general election in two years’ time. What will be the impact here after the next atrocity in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh? There are other possibilities, perhaps wildly utopian, but they can be glimpsed now and then in community meetings in Leicester, in the protests organised by south Asian women who refuse to let political religion divide them, and in the actions of many in the community who oppose ruthlessly the logic of communalism in their everyday interactions.