This has been the worst general election for the UK’s religious minorities that most can recall. We have witnessed open racism before but not to this degree: Britain’s faith groups have been set against each other in an unprecedented manner.
The Conservatives’ Islamophobia problem and Labour’s anti-Semitism problem have been well-documented. Tensions between Muslims and Jews have bubbled up on several occasions but there has been an active attempt by both communities to prevent a race to the bottom.
The tensions, however, are not only between Jews and Muslims. They are also being whipped up among British Hindus and Sikhs. Self-appointed “community leaders”, far from seeking to neutralise tensions, have often merely fuelled them. The impact of this will be felt for years, if not decades, unless we openly challenge it.
As well the Brexit and the NHS election, this has been the Kashmir election. In August, when the Indian government put the region on lockdown and revoked its special status, it sparked an immediate and vociferous reaction in Britain. Pro-Kashmir protests were organised outside the Indian High Commission in London. They escalated and served as a propaganda victory for the Indian government. Angry video clips from India and Pakistan flooded phones in Britain.
The BJP, India’s governing party, excels at media manipulation and has created its own ecosystem at home and abroad. To Hindus, it insisted that it would deliver justice for Kashmiri Hindus, who had been driven out of the valley by terrorists over the decades, and normalise the war-torn state. But jailing people en masse and banning communication does not create normality, it fuels extremism. Even Vladimir Putin would be proud of the BJP’s tactics.
Yet Pakistan cannot suddenly masquerade as a human rights defender after funding terrorist groups in Kashmir for decades. Little wonder that Prime Minister Imran Khan has struggled to generate international support. Both Pakistan and India have become sophisticated at rallying diaspora communities with propaganda. The polarised climate has led to rallies, counter-rallies, videos, memes, articles and shouting matches with an intensity that has stunned me. This is a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
In some respects, British Hindus are in a state of quiet civil war. Anti-BJP voices have been almost entirely driven out of British Hindu institutions, especially among Hindu Gujaratis. The BJP leadership hail from Gujarat and have spent over a decade building links with Gujaratis abroad. Younger Gujaratis with less attachment to India and more left-wing views are rarely represented. Many are afraid to say anything at family events (an anti-Trump voter from a white evangelical family in Texas could relate). In the US, political strife between Hindus has spilled out into the open, as in Chicago last year, when Hindu groups protested outside and inside an event that featured a senior politician from the government. British Hindus have avoided the same fate but it’s only a matter of time.
The damage has already been done. As I’ve reported on openDemocracy, WhatsApp is rife with memes and claims that Labour has been taken over by Muslims and that Hindus must therefore vote Conservative, while Muslims receive messages such as “Let us show our gratitude to the Labour Party by voting for them”. Such tactics have split families and caused furious arguments across social media.
In common with many political claims, its effectiveness depends on an element of uncomfortable truth. Labour has almost no senior Hindu leaders who can speak on its behalf: a failure Jeremy Corbyn must account for. The same is true of Jewish figures. The Conservatives are now using Jews and Hindus to bolster their anti-racist credentials, while Labour uses Muslims to claim the other side is racist. It’s a dangerous farce.
The BJP’s indirect support for the Conservatives has also alarmed many Sikhs, who are disturbed by Hindu nationalism. I’ve seen videos by Sikhs stereotyping and attacking Hindus that are too disgusting to share.
This fracturing of faith communities is deeply dangerous: it makes it easier for them to be used as political props. Boris Johson has received a positive response at Hindu mandirs, but has barely been to any mosques. Jeremy Corbyn is adored in mosques but Hindu temples are actively campaigning against him. All sides have tacitly accepted that pledging their loyalty to a particular party or community gives them more leverage.
But for us, the people in the middle, the ones who want to see good relations between people of all backgrounds, this is profoundly worrying. We are being told every day that there is no middle ground. You’re either with Labour or the Tories. You’re either with the community or against it.
The truth is that, to varying degrees, all parties have deep problems. We can only tackle them if we all stand in solidarity against attempts to divide us.