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Dangerous Liaisons – Hindutva and the Tories

Dangerous Liaisons – Hindutva and the Tories

Categories: Analysis, Latest News

Tuesday June 06 2023

The results of May’s local elections proved a marginal victory for the Labour Party in Leicester. Although they lost 22 seats, and the Conservatives gained 17, the party Sir Keir Starmer still holds an overall of 31 councillors to Rishi Sunak’s 17. However, behind the numbers, a potentially troubling development was, and likely remains, at play: the Conservatives sought to win over Leicester’s sizeable Hindu minority by tacitly allying themselves with right-wing Hindu nationalists (Hindutva) known for their hostility toward Leicester’s Muslims. Such a desperate move by the Tories, likely driven in part by increasingly dire predictions about the party’s electoral sustainability, risks recklessly introducing the kind of Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence seen in India onto Britain’s own streets.

The path for the Conservatives to make sect-based appeals to Leicester’s Hindus was made somewhat easier by a divisive narrative long propagated by the Hindutva that Labour is driven by a pro-Muslim, anti-India ideological agenda, which means Leicester’s Hindus should rally around its Conservative party opponent. This divisive idea began to percolate during the lead-up to the 2019 general election, especially following Labour’s passing of a motion calling for international observers to enter Kashmir to protect the population’s right to self-determination against India’s tightening occupation. In response, supporters of the notoriously Islamophobic Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, began distributing materials not only in Leicester but across the UK, calling upon Hindus to vote Conservative. Hindutva supporters also sent WhatsApp messages branding Labour under then-leader Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as “now a mouthpiece for the Pakistani government” and “anti-Hindu.” By 2022, the situation hit a boiling point when weeks of tensions erupted largely between Leicester’s Pakistani Muslims and Indian Hindus. Hindutva also distributed messaging that denigrated Sikhs in the area. Reports later claimed that supporters of Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were involved in stoking the tensions.

Therefore, by the time May 2023 arrived, Leicester’s bruised political landscape was ripe for those willing to exploit inter-religious tensions for electoral advantage. Hindutva’s framing of Labour as an anti-Hindu party was apparently lent credence when the party appointed a National Executive Committee to choose its candidates rather than local members. This resulted in 19 of its sitting councillors, largely made up of people from BAME backgrounds, being deselected, six of whom were Hindu. Although four of them were also Muslim, this did not stop Hindutva supporters from pointing to the decision as further evidence of Labour’s supposed Hinduphobia. Subsequently, the Hindutva propaganda machine kicked into overdrive as leaflets calling upon local Hindus not to “forget that Labour is an anti-Indian party” were distributed. Further aggravating the issue, some Twitter accounts aligned with this position called upon “[e]very Hindu in Leicester” to “vote conservative,” claiming that this “is the only message the [H]induphobic labour party will listen to [sic].”

Calls for Leicester’s Hindu communities to vote en masse for the Conservatives coincided with an increase in anti-Muslim messaging, claiming that a vote for the Conservatives was not only a vote against Labour but against Leicester’s Muslims too. That idea was further supported when Conservative MP for Harrow East, Bob Blackman, was invited to Leicester by the city’s branch of the Conservative party to lobby Hindus to vote Tory. While there is nothing inherently wrong with inviting a senior politician to help with campaigning, Blackman is a problematic figure owing to his past of rampant Islamophobia. Alongside his public support for Prime Minister Modi, Blackman has shared anti-Islam posts on social media, and in 2017 invited a vehemently Islamophobic extremist from India, Tapan Ghosh, to parliament. Ghosh, who has described himself as an “uncompromising Hindu activist” who is “determined to fight against Islamic aggression and expansion,” is on record as having praised the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. When ethnoreligious groups try to influence politicians on behalf of their community in order to secure their interests, this is called lobbying and is perfectly acceptable. However, when such groups seek out ideologues in positions of power to help validate their demonising and denigration of another ethnoreligious community, this is simply racist and, in this case, Islamophobic. For the sake of ensuring inter-communal harmony in cities like Leicester, Tory MPs should avoid dealing with extremist groups affiliated with Hindutva.

There also appears to be a double standard regarding the role of religious identity in electoral politics. While the conduct of Hindutva adherents in Leicester has been met with remarkable silence by media and politicians, when Muslims have in the past called upon their co-religionists to vote for the party that would appear to benefit them most, this has been vilified as ‘entryism.’ For example, the sitting mayor of Tower Hamlets, Luftar Rahman, was unseated during his previous tenure in that post in April 2015 for, among other things, “undue spiritual influence.” Specifically, the judge who made the verdict to remove Rahman cited a letter penned by 101 Imams in 2014 calling upon Muslims to vote for him in the mayoral election at the time. Interestingly, the legislation used against Rahman was written in 1883 by the British government to essentially quash politically active Irish Catholics as fear and frenzy about that group’s influence grew. This begs the question: why was this archaic piece of legislation used against Muslims in Tower Hamlets, but there is no such talk of it being utilised in Leicester against Hindutva affiliates using their religious identity to push voters toward a favoured electoral outcome? The reason appears to be simply that the Tories are willing, quite hypocritically, to cherry-pick the occasions in which religion can be used as an electoral tool. Furthermore, this demonstrates the blatant structural Islamophobia in our institutions: when Muslims are politically active and call upon their co-religionists to vote for a candidate that appears to represent them, this is framed as a threat. On the other hand, other ethno-religious sects, even if they incite violence as Hindutva does, are not held with the same suspicion.

In order to avoid a repeat, or perhaps worse, of the same kind of inter-communal violence that was seen on Leicester’s streets in 2022, politicians need to recognise the threat posed by Hindu nationalist ideology, which takes an exclusionary and hostile view toward other religious groups, including Sikhs and Christians, but most of all, Muslims. Conservative MPs, rather than courting those affiliated with Hindu nationalist extremism, should condemn it in the same way that they rightly condemn the extremist fringe of other religious groups. Prior to the increase in sectarian tensions in recent years, Hindus and Muslims in Leicester peacefully cohabited for decades. However, the coming to power of Prime Minister Modi and the international effort made by the BJP to foist his divisive Hindutva agenda onto the Hindu-Indian diaspora in the West has played the most significant role in destabilising that harmony. British politicians should, therefore, be very attuned to the dangers of importing the communal problems of India into cities like Leicester, lest it do irreparable damage to that once shining beacon of successful multiculturalism.


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