At the Heart of the Leicester Unrest Is Not Religion But Chauvinist Community Politics

Maybe Leicester will be a wakeup call for everyone in Britain to recognise Hindutva for what it is – a far right extremist ideology that leads to inter-community tensions.

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It is possible to portray the recent and ongoing tensions, protests, counter-protests, desecration of a temple by some Muslims, provocative sloganeering by some Hindus in Muslim-majority locality, violence on the streets of multicultural Leicester as resulting from irreconcilable religious differences or ‘ancient hatred’ between Hindus and Muslims.

This fits in with both the old colonial views and the new religious nationalist frameworks, anchored as they are in the idea that these religious communities cannot coexist and will always experience tense animosity. 

However, a more robust understanding comes from recognising the role played by these very frameworks in generating a masculinist community politics within a multi-cultural country that turns into communal politics from time to time. 

Cricket matches being played far away in West Asia between two South Asian countries, India and Pakistan, don’t usually lead to street fights in Leicester. Indian and Pakistani origin communities in Britain, despite perpetual tension between those two countries, generally tend to live with, or next to, each other, without visible tensions. As the current events in Leicester show, that peace can be shattered when ‘new’ factors emerge. That new factor is the ascendant global Hindutva which in itself is protean, projecting itself as peaceful even as it pushes for provocation and violence. Of course, it is new in terms of public visibility on the streets in the UK, otherwise it had begun playing a role in social media and electoral politics of Britain some time ago. 

Within India, Hindutva takes the form of right-wing hyper-nationalism that perceives Muslims, Christians, communists, and secularists as enemies, wants to convert India from pluralist, multi-religious and secular polity to a Hindu nation where the supremacy of the Hindu majority is unquestioned.

Illustration: The Wire

In the diaspora, including in the UK, it takes the form of long distance cultural nationalism where closer connexion between Hindu Indian origin people and India is eulogised, Indian ‘homeland’ is re-imagined as Hindu and not as India, and common cause is made with global Islamophobia. 

The parent body of Hindu nationalists in India, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), adopts the name Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) in the UK and has been playing a crucial role in community mobilisation in British cities including Leicester. HSS-UK is not new but what is new is the confident political assertion of a community politics inspired by it, mainly due to Narendra Modi’s rise in India. Given the age profile of prominent supporters of Narendra Modi amongst British Hindus, it is unlikely that the radicalisation can be blamed only on younger or first generation of migrants from India. 

Thanks to British state’s own Islamophobia, and general image of ‘Hindus as peaceful’, far right organisations such as HSS have gone unscrutinised.

Journalists and scholars have been pointing toward the wide-spread efforts of Hindu nationalists to connect their politics in India with diaspora politics. We have been highlighting the dangers of assertive communal politics of far-right Hindutva, in India and here, and yet, we have often not been heard. Maybe Leicester will be a wakeup call for everyone in Britain to recognise Hindutva for what it is – a far right extremist ideology that is intimidating and leads to inter-community tensions, politics of hatred, and violence. 

That Hindutva is the ‘new’ lethal factor in Leicester does not imply that it is the only factor.

The role of Islamist chauvinism in poisoning the minds of British Muslims is no less lethal.

When there are individuals who perceive Islam to be the only legitimate religion, see non-Muslims as aberrant, and justify violence against anyone disrespecting Islam, it leads to an impasse like the one in Leicester where many Muslims will see verbal and physical attacks on Hindus as defensive and legitimate even though that includes desecration of religious symbols respected by many Hindus, while an attack on anything deemed sacred in Islam will be portrayed as blasphemous. 

Muslims are victimised by Islamophobia, but to imagine all Muslims as only and always victims, militates against a more complex reality. Chauvinist Islamist practices and politics that do not treat non-Muslims as equal human beings also has a significant presence in the UK. 

Further, as the images of street mobilisation from Leicester testify, the reference ought to be to Hindu and Muslim ‘men’, and not coincidentally so. The images do not show Hindus and Muslims; they show men all around. Right-wing women do play a conspicuous role in extremist politics, but communalist community politics is overwhelmingly a masculinist politics. Misogyny is rife amongst both Muslim and Hindu chauvinists. 

Social media is playing a dangerous role in flaring up tensions even as images, some fake, some doctored, some out of context, are being shared to assert narratives that prevent peace, harmony and reconciliation. Those claiming to be Muslim community activists are sharing images that only show provocation by Hindus and portray Muslims as mere victims and use language that portray Hindus as cowards.

Those claiming to be Hindu community activists are, similarly, portraying Muslims as perpetrators and Hindus as victims and blame all Muslims for being extremist and violent. Far right white nationalists are joining in to portray only Hindus as victims and Muslims as victimisers. So far, there is no effort on social media, to reduce, rather than exacerbate, tensions. It is out of this divisive social media that community organisations and activists on the ground will have to find a way out to put a stop, reconcile, and move on. 

Indian High Commission making a statement that equates Indians with Hindus and India media’s sole focus on attack on Hindus is likely to be paralleled with demonisation of all Hindus and denial of culpability of any Muslim in violence in Islamist media. None of this will help communities reflect and reconcile. 

Leicestershire Police during the violence. Photo: Video screengrab

Appealing to ‘faith leaders’ to bring calm only partially recognises a fundamental reality since the men on the street are not driven by their faith but a politicised masculinised communal identity. What it means to be Hindu for Hindu chauvinists or Muslim for Muslim chauvinists is not driven by Hinduism or Islam but by masculinist modern nationalist-community politics. 

Given the rise of, what I call, electorally legitimated misogynist authoritarians in various democracies, and the transnational global right-wing nexus of ideas and values, combined with the attacks on progressive ideas here in Britain by Tory politicians, hope does not come easy.

Yet, progressive solidarity is the only hope we can have.

The tensions in Leicester will, hopefully, recede and reconciliations take place before loss of lives and before copy-cat tensions flare up in other British cities. Yet, for such tensions to be tackled in the longer term, globally assertive Hindutva and Islamism must be recognised as inimical to progressive democratic values.

Dr Nitasha Kaul is a novelist and multidisciplinary academic whose work includes studying right-wing dynamics in India and transnationally. She is Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Links to her work are here. She is on Twitter @NitashaKaul.

This article, first published at 10.07 am on September 20, 2022, was initially withdrawn at the request of the author. The above is an updated version and was republished at 9 am on September 21, 2022.