‘The First Time Politics in Our City was Played on Religious Grounds’
A number of arrests have followed violence between Hindus and Muslims in Leicester – a city traditionally associated with successful multiculturalism. Adrian Goldberg speaks to Shockat Adam, a Muslim community activist, who grew up in the east of the city, for the Byline Times Podcast, about his belief that the fires are being stoked by Hindu nationalism in India
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AG: The disturbances are a surprise because, from the outside, Leicester always looks to be one of those places where multiculturalism works very successfully.
SA: You’d be absolutely right to think that Leicester has been the byword for diversity; cohesion. Yes, we’ve had our problems, but we are always seen as a beacon for other cities around the world… Traditionally, this area of Leicester is where many migrants first moved to in the city. It was the place where I landed from Africa, along with my Hindu brothers and sisters and Sikh brothers and sisters in the 70s.
That was the area I grew up in. It’s cohesive, we went to school together, we grew up together, we played football together. And we worked together. Yes, we had our issues, every society does, but nothing to this extent and never on the lines of religion.
The violence flared initially at the end of August following an India versus Pakistan cricket match…
India and Pakistan have been playing cricket for decades. One wins, the other loses. There’s always a little bit of cheering, little bit of banter. It has never, to my knowledge, erupted into violence in our city. In fact, the majority of the people in Leicester who have Muslim heritage are from India, so a lot of them who follow cricket support India.
So what’s changed?
There are two strands driving what is happening in Leicester.
One is, we have had a very new community arrive in this city [from the west of India]. They (and when I say ‘they’ I don’t mean the whole community, but parts of the community) have taken a little bit of time to settle into the norms of the area – the culture. So, for example, drinking out of hours, loud music, partying, littering, etc., which causes friction in any community. This then increases to loud music being played at prayer times, loud music being played in cars and hooting outside the mosque after cricket matches on independence days, etc. So this all adds to the anxiety in the community. Individuals then drink at night, they harass or hassle women going by, but it’s not because they’re Islamophobic, it’s because they’re drunk.
Unfortunately, our authorities and our police have not got a handle on this and resentment has been allowed to fester and grow between different communities.
The second issue is that there has been an undercurrent of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and [Hindu] nationalism creeping into our city. Some of these members of the new community have come to this country from an India which is in the fervour of nationalism, and the RSS, so they have come with a background of [Hindu] supremacy.
What is the RSS?
The RSS has a nationalistic agenda. It’s not Hinduism. Hinduism is a great religion and it’s a generally peaceful religion. RSS was an ideology that was formulated approximately 100 years ago as a theory of the supremacy of the Hindu community over everybody else.
So RSS were against the secular formation of India, and the individual who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi belonged to the RSS. Now it has a political wing, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which is in power in India [under Prime Minister Narendra Modi].
So the RSS is not Hinduism, but it has been adopted by some Hindus as a brand of right-wing nationalism. It is the philosophy of Narendra Modi’s Government and that’s made life in India sometimes very difficult for Muslims in recent years?
It’s been horrendous for many minorities – not just Muslims, but also Dalits, the Sikh community, and the Christian community have also suffered under the RSS.
Recognised human rights organisations like Amnesty International have been banned from India for reporting on RSS atrocities to the Muslim community. We’ve seen the Gujarat riots [in 2002] where thousands of people were massacred.
We saw the Delhi riots a couple of years ago, where there was indiscriminate killings of Muslim individuals. And there’s a catalogue of incidents that happen on the basis that ‘you’re a Muslim, and I’m a Hindu’. And unfortunately, it’s still going on today.
How does the RSS relate to the BJP?
The BJP is the political wing of the RSS. This was a result of colonialism and from a time when India was finding its feet. The narrative was out there that there is a state for every other religion, so therefore India should be for the Hindus. That was that ideology. Whereas the forefathers of India at independence were passionate that India should be a secular country, and it should be for all and for all religions, the RSS oppose that ideology.
Why do you think there is a link between that kind of Hindu nationalism that the RSS represents and the events we’ve seen in recent weeks on the streets of Leicester?
In the 2019 General Election, in Leicester, [the incumbent] Labour MP Keith Vaz [was standing down], and a candidate [Claudia Webbe] was brought in who held views on [the disputed territory of] Kashmir.
‘Overseas Friends of BJP’ were canvassing on the streets of Leicester, recommending that all the [Hindus] should not vote for Labour because a vote for Labour would be a vote for Muslims. There were leaflets that said you have a choice of either voting for purity or voting for poison – poison being the Labour candidate on the basis that Labour Party had become the ‘party of the Muslims’.
On the back of that, we had Labour councillors resigning because they felt that the Labour Party was a Muslim party and not a Hindu party. And this was the first time that politics in our city was being played on religious grounds.
When was that the first time you became aware of the politics of India seeking to play out in Leicester?
At the end of 2017, there was an application to convert a building into a prayer hall or a madrassa. Now people can have legitimate objections on the grounds of noise or parking, etc. – there’s nothing wrong with that, everybody can exercise their right to legitimately object. But people were objecting because it was a ‘Hindu area’.
I detest that term because I feel it ghettoises our communities. But this was a term that I heard, off-the-record, from an elected official at the time – that this is a “Hindu area”.
We had objections on the official Leicester City Council website from people from all over the country, objecting that ‘we cannot have a mosque in a Hindu area, because we all know that they teach terrorism, we all know that there are extremists. We all know that our girls will not be safe when you have Muslim men in these areas. And we do not need a mosque near a temple. They can go into their area and will stay in our area’.
A lot of these objections were not even from people from Leicester – the addresses were in London. This was a concerted effort by an organisation.
Before the 2019 General Election, the Conservative Party itself appealed to the BJP and asked it to not seek to interfere in the election. So this wasn’t just a myth among Muslims in Leicester...
When our ex-Prime Minister [Boris Johnson] went to India recently, he was inundated by Muslim organisations and human rights organisations to raise offences that were being carried out against minorities – but he was in no position or not willing to raise this issue. We are in the situation where we need to trade with India. So our hands are tied, because we do not want to upset our very powerful allies.
It’s not all one-sided. Some of the videos on social media from the streets of Leicester around this have involved young Muslim men making it very clear that they will not be pushed around. If you were a peace-loving Hindu that would put fear into you…
It certainly would, and that’s undeniable. And when, unfortunately, hate raises its ugly head, there’s an element that comes along, which is has nothing to do with the initial issue and fans the flames even further.
Adrian Goldberg is the Editor and Producer of the ‘Byline Times Podcast’ and ‘Byline Radio’