13 October 2022
This Dispatch examines the multiple and complex causes of the recent tensions and violence in Leicester, as well as the responses of the media and various groups, including pro-BJP, Islamist, Sikh, and extreme right-wing communities.
There have been ongoing tensions and incidents of disorder between some in the Muslim and Hindu communities of Leicester. As of 23 September 2022, a total of 47 people has been arrested as large groups of young Hindus and Muslims have taken to the streets in tit-for-tat protests.
Some reports claim that increased tensions between these two faith communities started in May when a Muslim youth was attacked by an unidentified assailant. Since then, several incidents have been reported in Leicester, with some activists alleging Hindutva supporters are responsible.
Social media has been blamed for exacerbating an already febrile atmosphere after provocative footage of violent scenes and protests were circulated on WhatsApp and Facebook, exacerbating local tensions amongst communities. These tensions culminated in the violence which followed a cricket match between India and Pakistan on 28 August 2022. India and Pakistan have an extensive history of sporting rivalry, and this has been presented as the ‘trigger point’ for underlying divisions within the city itself and the increasing influence of tensions in India on Muslim and Hindu diasporas.
A complex combination of factors – recent, historical, local, international – have played a role in the current Leicester tensions.
Recent disputes regarding the sudden expansion of the Daman Hindu community, who predominantly migrated from Portugal and entered the low-wage employment market in Leicester, have coincided with existing tensions over the use of local facilities which had hitherto been the preserve of Muslim communities. These younger Indian migrants have been accused of partying late, playing loud music and consuming alcohol, all activities which are said to have created friction with more conservative Muslims. Compounding this, tensions between Gujrati and Pakistani communities have been simmering for several months, with flashpoints including the burgling of a Hindu temple during the Navratri festival.
More recently, Hindu nationalist Sadhvi Rithambara had been invited to attend an event at a temple in Leicester. The event was subsequently cancelled and Rithambara did not travel to the UK, but her role as the founding chairperson of the Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Hindu nationalist group Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) in India has further raised the temperature in the community.
In mid-September, a video emerged of masked Hindu men marching along Green Lane Road, close to a Hindu temple, as well as several Muslim-owned businesses. Videos on social media showed the men chanting “Jai Shri Ram”, which loosely translates as “hail Lord Ram”, a Hindu greeting that has increasingly been appropriated by perpetrators of anti-Muslim violence in India and has been used in political discourse by the BJP.
While Hinduism comprises a broad set of Vedic traditions and philosophies with roots and customs dating back more than 4,000 years, the term Hindutva (Hinduness) has come to be associated with a narrow political ideology of the Hindu right, represented in mainstream politics by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is also the ideology of the cultural body known as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Core (RSS), which was founded in 1925 and with which the BJP has strong links.
Since the rise of the BJP on the Indian political scene from 1990 onward, and its recent successes in national elections in India, the relationship between Hinduism as a religion and Hindutva as a political ideology has come increasingly to the fore. Indeed, the relationship between Hinduism and Hindutva has been likened to that between Islam and Islamism.
There has been widespread coverage of the events in Leicester among Indian media. Some reporting asserted Hindus are coming under attack by Muslims. For example, an op-ed in the English-language newspaper Hindustan Times wrote that the violence was caused by “Pakistani organised gangs”. This was reflected on social media in India where the Twitter hashtag #HindusUnderAttackInUK (a variation of BJP’s well known #HindusUnderAttack mantra) was trending, with some users blaming the violence on “jihadi terror”.
Interestingly, the Iranian State-backed channel Press TV has not only reported on the tensions but sent one of their UK-based journalists to Leicester. His reports claimed that a “shroud of terror has descended onto the streets of Leicester,” and alleged that “British Muslims are fending off Hindu extremist attacks.” Press TV has had its UK licence revoked, effectively banning it from broadcasting in the UK, and YouTube has removed Press TV from its UK platform.
5Pillars – a Muslim news website which was previously deemed to have incited hatred against the LGBTQ+ community by the press regulator Impress – has also reported from Leicester, similarly blaming the tensions on “Hindutva gangs” and falsely claiming there has been “complete silence from British Hindu organisations on the Hindutva violence and intimidation in Leicester.” The international outlet Middle East Eye has claimed that “Hindu nationalism has pushed Leicester to the brink.”
BBC Monitoring has also investigated the misinformation that has spread across social media, as well as alleged linkages to organised Hindutva groups, concluding that, “Some people link the disorder and the reaction to it to the Hindutva ideology. They believe that Indian politics is being imported to the city, but thus far the BBC has found no direct link to such groups in the run-up to the disorder.”
Pro-BJP and Hindutva influencers
Within a few days of the fallout from the India / Pakistan cricket match, pro-BJP activists were taking to Twitter and framing Hindus as sole victims of the hostilities. This was the first example of the misinformation that has become the hallmark of the Leicester tensions, and tagging other British pro-BJP activists in the tweets ensured this misinformation would spread.
The Instagram account of the pro-BJP social movement InsightUK posted criticism of Sikh commentor Sunny Hundal amid claims of Hinduphobia, based on an article (now removed after threats to its author) published in the Independent. Soon after, the aforementioned hashtag #HindusUnderAttackInUK and its variants appeared on the Twitter timelines of an anti-Muslim, pro-BJP YouTuber.
These hashtags gained momentum on social media as both Hindu and far-right commentators promoted a distinctly anti-Muslim viewpoint, claiming that “mobs of Pakistanis” were “looking for Hindus to attack.”
However, according to Valent Projects’ Viktor Dimas, engagement patterns for the hashtag #HindusUnderAttackinUK strongly suggest the use of coordinated networks and bot accounts with a large proportion simply retweeting, a common sign of network manipulation.
InsightUK uploaded a video to Instagram directly attacking Leicester activist Majid Freeman which includes screenshots of tweets he had since deleted in which he had curated or amplified disinformation about non-existent anti-Muslim incidents to his 21k followers. Freeman had also claimed that one of the Hindu protests was “A very well coordinated attack by the #RSS thugs in #Leicester,” despite there being no evidence so far of any RSS presence in Leicester.
As tensions persisted, Hindu accounts posted of imminent attacks against temples in Birmingham and Wembley. The next day, the Hindu temple in Smethwick, near Birmingham, was beset by a large group of protestors who climbed the perimeter walls and shouted obscenities. The Wembley protest didn’t materialise, but the pro-BJP accounts had already highlighted the offending post – which referred to the temple as a “hornet’s nest of Nazi Hindutva” – as an example of Muslim extremism and boosted its reach considerably.
Muslim influencers and Islamists
Discussion among Islamist networks has been considerable, with three core narratives:
- the violence is perpetrated by Hindu nationalists / Hindutva;
- the perpetrators are recent migrants to the UK;
- the UK government is complicit in the violence against Muslims.
Some of the high-profile Islamist activists at the forefront of anti-Hindu agitation framed the tensions as only initiated by Hindus and repeatedly spread disinformation about incidents that turned out to be false (e.g. a kidnapping attempt, an attack on a mosque).
The director of CAGE, an Islamist-sympathetic advocacy organisation, wrote, “Further emboldened by visiting Hindutva hate-mongers and prominent Modi supporters in power like #Sunak and #Patel serving in UK’s most Islamophobic gov’t to date, its little wonder these literal thugs (Hindi origin) act like this.”
Mohammed Hijab, an activist and YouTuber who was accused of inciting antisemitism in May last year, arrived in Leicester and mocked Hindu religious beliefs. He was, however, challenged by Leicester’s Muslim communities who demanded he leave.
An unexpected conspiracy was promoted by Tasnime Akunjee, lawyer for British ISIS recruit Shamima Begum, who took to TikTok and Twitter to claim the tensions were a “race baiting” plot to give new UK Prime Minister Liz Truss “something to deal with.”
The most prominent Islamist figure to comment was Anjem Choudary, former leader of proscribed terrorist group al-Muhajiroun. On his website, Choudary compared attacks on Muslims in Leicester to the allegedly discriminatory policies of the “fascist Hindutva” Indian government. He reminded Muslims of their religious duty to defend the ummah, but simultaneously urged Muslims in Leicester to exercise restraint.
Leicester’s sectarian tensions have sparked a number of far-right narratives, mostly centred on criticising multiculturalism and diversity, with some calls for violence against protesters.
Right-wing extremists frame inter-faith violence as an inevitable symptom of diversity and “state-enforced multiculturalism”, and white nationalist group Patriotic Alternative shared a post reminding their followers that Leicester is the first British city where “white people” are a minority demographic.
Some right-wing extremist commentators suggested the media were downplaying the extent of the violence to preserve the “multicultural lie” that religious and cultural pluralism are positive forces. Other users in right-wing extremist spaces more explicitly called for violence, advocating that Muslims be shot, or that Muslims and Hindus should be left to ‘take each other out’.
Given the far-right political leanings of Hindutva ideology, it is perhaps surprising that only a small number of far-right commentators have come out in support of Hindus during the tensions in Leicester.
However, Stephen Yaxley Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) has been keen to climb aboard the pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim bandwagon. The former leader of the English Defence League shared an OpIndia article claiming that Muslims instigated the violence. He has also commented on Gettr, presenting the Muslim community as the exclusive perpetrator of the conflict in Leicester, depicting the disorder as wholly one-sided, with “braying mobs of Muslims trawling the streets of Leicester looking for Hindus.”
One unexpected development has been support for Leicester’s Muslim communities from high-profile Sikh activists. This contrasts with the historic behaviour of at least one group, Sikh Youth UK (SYUK), who previously commented on the phenomenon of “Muslim grooming gangs” and have been accused of associating with Tommy Robinson.
This change of position is likely indicative of the tensions in India between Modi’s government and some Sikh communities who believe an attempted genocide against their faith is underway, perpetrated by the government, and who remain committed to campaigning for Jagtar Singh Johal, a British man currently detained in India for ‘terrorism offences’, who they believe is being wrongly imprisoned and tortured. Memories of 1984 and the Indian army’s desecration of the Golden Temple in Amritsar (under orders from the Hindu-led government) remain fresh in many activists’ minds; as do the subsequent anti-Sikh pogroms in which thousands of Sikhs were massacred.
Contrary to populist narratives, the tensions in Leicester are not a symptom (or failure) of multi-culturalism, but a perfect storm of factors coalescing, some of which have been brewing for many years. International tensions caused by the treatment of Muslims and Sikhs in India have built a tinder box in which the diasporas now live. Local cultural and generational conflicts lit the match, while online disinformation and dishonest actors on all sides have poured fuel on this fire.
As the embers cool, the city needs the media spotlight to turn away and allow sincere community activists to quietly build the religious, cultural and generational bridges required to restore the harmony that Leicester has enjoyed for so many years.