The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda is no longer confined to India. Recent violence in Leicester shows divisions between Hindu and Muslim communities are now being exploited by gangs of young men in the UK.
Yet Modi is not the only politician with a part to play in the unrest on British streets. UK politicians have themselves exploited such hostilities in local election campaigns over the years.
When I was reporting last year on a by-election in Batley and Spen, a west Yorkshire constituency with a big Pakistani population, I found campaigners fairly openly stoking tensions. A Labour campaign source told me to my face that if Muslim voters there didn’t vote Labour, they would be endorsing “lobby fodder for a prime minister who… cosies up to Narendra Modi”, for example, playing on the idea of anti-Hindu sentiment among Muslim Asians.
The party also distributed leaflets bearing pictures of Boris Johnson shaking hands with Modi, and was accused by its own MP Navendu Mishra of establishing a “hierarchy of racism”, a “divisive” attempt to turn communities against one another, and “dog-whistle racism”. The Labour Friends of India group urged the party to withdraw those leaflets. The party, however, stood by them.
It wasn’t all overt. The Leicester police chief has warned about online disinformation inflaming tensions, and in Batley and Spen many of the grubbier campaign messages were spreading as rumours over WhatsApp chats and closed social media groups. For example, smears against the Labour Party playing on prejudice popped up on local networks; there was homophobia against the Labour candidate, Kim Leadbeater (who won the election), and anti-Semitism against Keir Starmer’s wife, Victoria.
“There is a lot of stuff said on social media about issues with the Labour Party, on some WhatsApp groups but also on main social media – it’s not like it’s all hidden,” a local electrician called Salim Patel told me. “From social media, that’s how you get to know that a lot of people are not going to vote for Labour.”
In 2016 I covered the Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith’s London mayoral campaign, which made crass assumptions about the priorities of British Indian voters in Tory target suburbs. His campaign literature to those households reminded them that he and the prime minister at the time, David Cameron, met Modi on his 2015 visit to the UK, but that his rival Sadiq Khan did not. Even some Conservative figures admitted at the time that this was a dog whistle to Gujarati voters not to vote for a Muslim of Pakistani heritage.
These messages were sent out to “Patel” households (so some baffled Muslims received them too), and I remember speaking to a Gujarati Londoner with the surname who had received them. “It’s about playing on people’s subconscious prejudices. The India/Pakistan thing is a big thing,” he told me.
As with other instances of gang violence in the UK today, incitement and rumour spread fast through social networks behind the scenes in Leicester this month. Disinformation appears to be a driver of the unrest, now spilling into Birmingham too. Some messages over recent years have been more overt, however, and those who push them, including politicians, must consider their duty to heal rather than create divides.