It should not be a matter of surprise that so much of the playbook and fault lines of Indian politics are being reproduced among the Indian diaspora. Perhaps what people are surprised by is the fact that these fault lines are no longer at the level of just the coarsening of discourse or cultural fissures, but are taking overtly confrontational forms. In some ways, this is not surprising. Long-distance diasporic nationalisms have always been a feature of global politics. Culturally, these have often been more intractable than the politics in home countries for a variety of reasons. Diasporic nationalisms and identities are often more abstract, eschewing all complexity, and able to indulge in those abstractions because there is no skin in the game. They often do not have to face the consequences of the violence and dislocations of that identity-mongering. But in some ways, we may be entering a new phase of the ways in which these nationalisms play out. The recent clashes in Leicester in the United Kingdom, and the building polarisation in New Jersey are two recent instances of how diasporic politics, especially on the Hindu-Muslim axis, is taking a new and deeper turn.
That the cultural tensions of South Asia spill over or are even magnified abroad is not news. The proximate cause of the Leicester clashes was ostensibly tensions after an India-Pakistan match. This is ironic. I remember older veterans of what used to be called “race relations” in Britain telling us when we were students in the Eighties that there apparently used to be separate collection drives and mobilisation during the India-Pakistan wars but it never spilt over into conflict between the two communities. In the late Eighties, there was a lot of British Sikh anger against the Indian state, but it was seldom publicly, as far as anyone can remember, directed against other non-Sikhs. If anything, intra-Sikh jostling was far more pronounced over matters of doctrine and institutional control.
The decisive change came in the wake of two developments. The first was the violence in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babari Masjid in India. That moment in Indian politics saw widespread violence in Britain especially in Bradford, Sheffield, Leeds, with temples attacked and a petrol bomb thrown at a Mosque. Many of the current Hindu leaders of the diaspora came out of that moment. The second was the increasing focus on Islamic fundamentalism. The idea of using Britain as a launch pad for jihadi ideology was present in some groups. That in turn licensed full-blown Islamophobia amongst many non-Muslim communities. In this context, the Hindu-Muslim fault line became far more visible, and began to define the contours of diaspora politics more visibly. The clashes in Leicester are not unprecedented.
But there are three things that make this moment in diaspora fractures more distinctive both in the US and the UK. In the Eighties, after clashes broke out, there will still an attempt across communities to see their respective states, or mainstream politicians in those countries, as a relatively neutral arbiter; in fact, the whole point was not to draw politicians in the UK or US in accusations of partisanship in India’s communal conflicts. We are still awaiting a full, authoritative account of the events at Leicester. But in the discourse, at least, one is struck by the fact that the narrative of “Hindu victimhood” is even pointing fingers at the local state, as if it was somehow partisan in failing to protect Hindus.
In the US, Hindu-Muslim politics is spilling into the inner core of the Democratic party. The Teaneck Democratic Municipal Committee may be a small entity. But it has called for investigation of “domestic branches of foreign hate groups,” especially those aligned with Hindu Nationalism. Hindu nationalists now openly loathe the so-called “Left Wing” of the Democratic Party. Some of these narratives may be self-serving. But increasingly, you will find diaspora politics accusing the politicians of their adopted country of communal bias, in a conflict that has little to do with them. Imagine the situation of New Jersey or Leicester politician who now has to be judged on whether they are, in an Indian context pro-Hindu or pro-Muslim, whether they take Hindu phobia or Islamaphobia more seriously. This is unchartered territory in many ways.
The second big change is the explicit involvement of the Indian state. The Indian state’s statement condemned “the violence perpetrated against the Indian community in Leicester and the vandalisation of premises and symbols of Hindu religion”. Notice no appeal to Hindus not to take out intimidating marches, or the acknowledgement that marches chanting Jai Shri Ram might be adding to the tension. While the statement begins with violence perpetrated against the Indian community (not clear who the “non-Indians” are who perpetrated it), the purpose of the statement was to subtly signal out the Indian state as a protector of Hindus. In short, the Indian state itself is now going to intervene in a partisan manner in these conflicts. It will not be a party of peace but of more polarisation. After all, a Vishwaguru wearing a robe of Hindutva cannot but export all the divisions that come with it.
We need to await verified and authoritative accounts of what happened in Leicester, and which groups were involved; there may also be Islamic organisations fishing in troubled waters created by Hindutva. The playbook seems familiar to anyone who knows Indian riots: The use of rumours, groups from outside the local community, and marches to create polarisation in otherwise peaceful communities.
The locals may have an investment in peace. But the third big change is that their global ideological patrons of conflict will have an investment in politically milking these incidents, in a context where all inhibitions on ethnic nationalism are gone. Now, we are not in the realm of long-distance nationalism, but in a global political market that is looking to construct narratives of victimhood that can be used in any global context. The surveys by Milan Vaishnav, Devesh Kapur and Sumitra Badrinathan, of Indian diasporas in the Anglophone world, paint a complex picture. But there is no doubt that cultural polarisation is growing. There is also no doubt that Hindutva is not about the defence of Hinduism or Hindu interests, but a global ideology of hate and asserting cultural dominance. It is bizarre to think you can have this much dissemination of hate without it having violent political consequences. Now that inhibitions have been broken, brace for more conflict.
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express