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Lessons from Leicester, one year on

Lessons from Leicester, one year on

Charlotte Littlewood is Head of the UK-India Desk for the International Centre for Sustainability and researcher into inter-minority conflict in the UK at the University of Exeter. As Research Fellow of UK-based security think tank Henry Jackson Society, Charlotte had authored a substantial report into the violence that erupted in Leicester in September 2022.

One year on, she writes for iGlobal to reflect upon the lessons to be learnt from the clashes that shook the diaspora community and triggered a sharp condemnation from the Indian government.

This month marks a year since Hindu homes and vehicles donning Hindu symbols were systematically attacked in Leicester, yet what led the mainstream press narrative was not the voice of the victims, but the perpetrators. An Islamist extremist, who has a habit for praying for the Taliban and relatives of ISIS fighters, was a commentator on the unrest on mainstream channels. He even guided a leading newspaper journalist around Leicester. Astonishingly, not a single Hindu victim was given the opportunity to share their perspective. The spin of an emerging extremism threat — so-called “British Hindutva” — firmly took root.

I scoured social media, reviewed dozens of videos and images, interviewed locals, approached temples, sent freedom of information requests to the Home Office and police, lent on favours from counter-terrorism practitioners for answers. The answer in every case to the instigation of the Leicester unrest: not Hindutva. Yet even former colleagues and fellow researchers were pinning the blame on India and pointing to Hindutva.

What was it that made even respected colleagues so want this unrest to be something it wasn’t? A break from the usual, a less potentially libellous object, a compulsion to debase India, a fear of Islamists, an ideological bias? Perhaps a little of one, a little of the other.

The reality in Leicester: changing demographics in an economically deprived area of Leicester had led to community tensions and youth violence, which had been falsely attributed to “Hindutva terrorism”. The false claims of a Hindutva threat led to attacks on Hindu homes and vehicles. Families were forced to barricade themselves or even temporarily flee.

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The relatively new Diu and Daman community had moved into a typically Muslim area, holding festivals and demonstrating their Hindu faith outwardly, causing Muslim families to complain over noise and a changing neighbourhood. Coupled with the closure of factories that employed the majority of the residents in this area, frustrations escalated. Young Diu Hindu men, who told me of their festival being egged and rolled up a sleeve to show me a recent stab wound, organised a march in the name of peace and security in their neighbourhood. The boys were branded “Hindutva terrorists” and their march was held to be the result of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “interference” overseas. Yet all the while, known Islamists with links to terrorist groups fuelled notions of a Hindutva extremist threat in the UK.

The hunt for a non-existent Hindutva movement motivated journalists to such an extent that I was even offered a considerable fee by a journalist to find evidence that the Indian governing party – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – was involved prior to the marches. There was no India involvement until after the unrest broke out and reached news outlets. Nonetheless, the journalist claimed to have an unnamed UK security source tip. The same journalist wrote of a tenuous link between the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – an Indian Hindu nationalist community organisation – via his grandfather’s once held connection in Africa. These articles smacked of desperation to claim Hindutva had come to Britain.

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Another journalist contacted me to inquire whether the Hindu young men I interviewed had been forced to relocate out of fear of their safety. I informed her that they had indeed done so, that I interviewed them in their temporary location and shared with her police statements concerning their being stabbed. In these statements they detailed their moving into hiding. Despite the evidence, she wrote that I had claimed Hindus had moved home whilst the police said they had no such reports. Of course, the police did not hold reports of Hindus moving home: to move home is not a police matter, while being stabbed was. Those intent on finding Hindutva then had their evidence that the lead researcher into the unrest was creating mistruths herself. The narrative was sealed.

So, the “Hinduvta presence” in Leicester became a so-called established fact, acting now as key evidence for a global Hindutva threat. Vice Media pointed to it in their documentary on “Global Hinduvta”, showing scenes in Leicester of a Hindu flag being absconded with whilst commentating on the Hindutva perpetrators, then pivoting to heinous anti-Muslim crimes in India. The debunked claim of BJP involvement has been turned into “police evidence” in a recent ‘Foreign Policy’ article.

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The spin has been so convincing that the Home Office has added “Hindutva extremism”  to the list of extremism categories individuals may be placed in if one has a concern that the individual is radicalising into terrorism. There has never been a Hindu terrorist attack in the UK, nor is there any concern for a future threat, so such a category is purely political.

In Leicester, Islamist extremists implemented a dangerous narrative that journalists, politicians and academics adopted without question. The result: Hindus are not only left feeling under attack and under-protected, but unjustly painted as the villain. This is a recipe for radicalisation.

Whilst there is legitimate concern over nationalistic narratives in India that are having an adverse impact on minority faith groups, the spreading of fake news will only push India further away – a burgeoning economic powerhouse that post-Brexit Britain should really prioritise as a partner.

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Whilst our very own British Hindu diaspora will be filled with a sense of injustice and fear that their own protection is lacking. British media and politicians should heed this warning – they may well create the very bogeyman they seem intent on finding.

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