The recent outbreak of communal tensions in Leicester after an India-Pakistan cricket match is a classic case of the Rashomon effect. There are different accounts and interpretations of how it began and what it means, depending on who one asks. Some attribute it to the animation of Hindutva politics abroad, and others blame British Islamists for the state of play. The mayor of Leicester has pinned the blame on distorted social media posts while separately underscoring the history of harmonious inter-community relations. But what stood out was the Indian High Commission’s criticism of local authorities for failing to protect the Indian community and prevent the vandalism of Hindu temples.
India’s stand is not new. Successive Indian governments have been sensitive to the targeting of Indians (often Hindus) abroad. When such instances occur, India discreetly takes it up with host governments. The difference today is that such diplomacy is being done openly, and with no inhibition about articulating religious particularities. To better understand why this is the case, and what it means, one needs to ask: Why now? Hindu nationalist mobilisation of the diaspora, its right-wing internationalist solidarities, and global ideological competitions, are only part of the explanation.
Leicester violence marks a turning point for three inter-related reasons.
One, it brings into sharp relief the depth and scale of Britain’s decline since Brexit. The British state is struggling not just to project influence abroad, but also to manage domestic fault-lines. Two, the composition and politics of the subcontinental diaspora in the UK has undergone a shift over the last two decades. When British Muslims of Pakistani heritage were tackling the violent dialectic between Islamist radicalisation and Islamophobia, the Indian community was entrenching itself in British civic life. Three, mobilisation of the Hindu Indian diaspora is also meant to exploit British vulnerabilities and reshape London’s strategic priorities in India’s favour. Let’s unpack these aspects.
The UK has been stuck in a world where its sense of national self as a big power with a grand history is untethered from the realities of shrinking capabilities and self-inflicted harm. Fuelled by the troubles of the 2007-09 great recession, English nationalist overconfidence only grew after the failed 2014 Scottish referendum. The Brexiteer’s aspiration to be more like the US, an actual global power, further limited the UK’s potential just as the Tory and Labour parties took turns to implode and give the country four prime ministers in six years. There’s a good chance of a fifth before the next elections given Liz Truss’s commitment to tank the economy.
Such a surreal mismatch between ideas and realities has exacerbated pre-existing fault-lines. The Scots are reconsidering quitting the union, there’s uncertainty about the Northern Ireland Protocol that regulates cross-border UK-EU trade, and public institutions from education and healthcare to policing are underfunded and stressed. Such decline has led to an inevitable outcome: A slow but steady erosion of public trust in the state’s ability to consistently prevent social discord, deliver public welfare, and effectively manage economic distress. These realities have exposed the former imperial power to external interventionism and influences like never before.
Combine this with the differing origins and evolving trajectories of the subcontinental diaspora. The Pakistani diaspora, mostly from Mirpur in Kashmir, came to the UK in and after the mid-1960s to escape distress at home, and struggled for inclusion in Britain, with many finding solace in Islamic orthodoxy. It initially mobilised politically to ensure community welfare and, during the 1980s and ’90s’ Cold War environment, to influence London’s approach on the Kashmir dispute. The so-called Global War on Terror, which sharpened the Islamophobia-Islamist dialectic, ensured that such mobilisation became increasingly pro-Labour given the Tory party’s conservatism.
In this context, the possibility of counter-mobilising the economically-successful but internally-stratified Hindu Indian diaspora existed even before 2014. India’s wariness of an electorally-conditioned pro-Pakistan tilt of the Labour party and a powerful belief that the British bureaucracy was sympathetic towards Pakistan and lenient on Khalistan activists only compounded over the years. Even Tory Prime Minister David Cameron failed to pivot in India’s direction given divergences over the Afghan war, mutual mistrust, and London’s decision to make student visas onerous (dropping Indian student numbers by half).
This brings us to the third aspect, that is, the actual mobilisation of Hindus.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2015 London visit and the massive welcome event at the Wembley stadium underscored the ground-shift in the British Indian diaspora. But this diaspora was not electorally weaponised till 2019, by which time the after-effects of Brexit were apparent, Modi had landed another landslide victory, London was at odds with both Brussels and Beijing, intent on leaving Afghanistan and, without irony, promising to rebuild “Global Britain” through the Commonwealth. This is when the right-wing alignment between Hindu and English nationalists truly kicked in.
The spectre of Jeremy Corbyn — a left-wing Labour politician who criticised Modi for the 2002 Gujarat riots and promised a hard-line on Kashmir — being elected to power, tilted the balance in favour of an electoral intervention. Unlike Russian cyber bots who shaped public opinion during the 2016 Brexit referendum and US presidential elections, Hindu right-wing bodies simply canvassed the 1.5-million strong Indian diaspora to vote for Boris Johnson and framed Corbyn as a threat to Indian national security.
The fact that Indian passport holders with UK residency have voting rights (from referendums and general elections to local council elections) added electoral heft. The electoral intervention, legal but politically charged, was meant to checkmate London’s perceived pro-Pakistan bureaucratic impulse, actual British Islamists (who’re now exploiting the diaspora polarisation to reinvent their careers), and the Labour party by reshaping British politics from bottom-up.
Rishi Sunak’s rise as a prime ministerial contender and public indulgence in religious rites underscored how close the Hindu right-wing came to realising its goal. Sunak is still in the game, and with China’s ascendancy as a primary strategic threat, Whitehall is now focussed on “pleasing India”. From deepening defence cooperation and increasing student numbers to negotiating a free-trade agreement, the UK today seems more dependent on India than the other way round. This is despite India’s economic woes, and lack of criticism of Russia despite multiple Western asks.
The timing of and ambiguity around the communal tensions in Leicester are a by-product of these geopolitical processes. By the time the UK stabilises, the story of harmonious relations among British South Asians could become a relic of the past. The ugly after-effects of these developments will ultimately be left for the desi diaspora to deal with. Unless community leaders stand up against such polarisation, we’re entering uncharted territory that could prove costly both for India and for Indians in the UK.
The writer teaches at SOAS University of London and is the author of ‘My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal’ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)