Leicester Disturbances Between Hindus and Muslims: An Explainer
By Dr Chris Allen – School of Criminology, University of Leicester
What happened during the disturbances?
Since late August, violent confrontations between groups of Hindu and Muslim men have taken place in the city of Leicester. According to the mainstream media, the start point for this was a cricket match between India and Pakistan that took place on 28 August 2022. Videos circulating on social media shortly after showed a large group of men – some carrying India flags – walking through parts of the city chanting “Death to Pakistan”. While doing so, a police office and Sikh man were violently attacked; initial reports suggesting the latter being attacked for being mistakenly identified as Muslim.
A few nights later, more videos appeared on social media. One showed a group of men – one of whom was carrying a knife – running through a Hindu area of Leicester seemingly attacking people and property. Another showed a man pulling a religious flag from the front of a Hindu house. On the same night, a young Muslim man was confronted by a group of men who asked if he was Muslim before violently attacking him.
With tensions high, things escalated on 17 September when an impromptu gathering of around 200 Hindu men subsequently marched through a Muslim-majority area in the east of the city. Wearing masks, hoodies and balaclavas, the men chanted “Jai Shri Ram” – translated as “Hail Lord Ram” – a phrase synonymous with Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) violence in India.
Following claims some involved in the march had attacked Muslims, a large number of Muslim men began to gather in the area in response. Separated by police, a flag was forcibly removed from a Hindu mandir while bottles and other missiles were thrown between the two groups. The following evening saw further confrontation during which the outer wall of a mosque graffitied and a Hindu flag burned. To date, at least 47 people have been arrested.
What caused the disturbances?
Aside from the mainstream media’s emphasis on the August cricket match, a number of different sources in the city suggest relations between some of the city’s Hindus and Muslims have been deteriorating for some time, exacerbated by a range of socio-political and socio-economic factors such as a decade of austerity measures and cuts to local services. That said, the shift to violence seemed to occur in May this year when a young Muslim man was violently attacked by 30 Hindu men carrying bats and poles. Subsequently hospitalised for a broken arm, the attack is said to have not only increased tensions but was also a pre-cursor of what was to come.
In light of the chanting of “Jai Shri Ram”, the role and influence of Hindutva on the disturbances has come under scrutiny. A right-wing nationalist ideology dating back to the 19th century, Hindutva is premised on the belief that Indian national identity and culture are inseparable from the Hindu religion. In its contemporary form, Hindutva promotes hatred towards all religious minorities especially Muslims and is inspired by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary movement: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the current ruling party in India has been referred to as the political wing of the RSS.
If Hindutva has played a role in the disturbances, the Leicester Mercury has already claimed it has been imported into the city by new migrants from India rather than being an issue within the city’s established Hindu communities. Others have similarly claimed the disturbances were imported into Leicester also, not least following reports that eight of the 18 people arrested on Sunday 18 September were not residents of Leicestershire: six being from Birmingham and nearby Solihull. That the Leicester disturbances were followed by protests outside the Durga Bhawan Hindu Temple in Smethwick near Birmingham afforded them with further evidence.
What has been the response?
Throughout the disturbances, Leicestershire Police was proactive in communicating information about its policing of the disturbances. That said, at no time did the police specifically refer to Hindus or Muslims in its communications, preferring instead to speak about “the community” or “communities”. Since the cessation of the disturbances, the police have been communicating with the public about subsequent arrests and about a number of ongoing investigations.
A similar tone has been evident in the response from religious leaders representing the city’s Hindus and Muslims. In a joint statement, religious leaders described Hindus and Muslims as “a family” who share a city that is “a beacon of diversity and community cohesion”. They too however also alluded to the cause of the disturbances being imported into Leicester, concluding their statement by asserting “we will not let you succeed”,
Within the city’s leadership, Labour councillor Sharmen Rahman said the disturbances had been “a catastrophic failure for the city”. Seeming to suggest the leadership had not gone “unwarned”, the failure to appropriately respond was for her at least extremely problematic. Unlike Rahman, the city’s mayor Sir Peter Soulsby claimed to be “baffled” by the disturbances. In response, Soulsby announced a city-wide review into the disturbances. Suggesting that the review would be expected to make immediate headway and be finished within weeks, Soulsby added that the review would also investigate whether the disturbances were “motivated by extreme ideologies imported from elsewhere”.
With little consensus emerging from the political spaces, the independent Member of Parliament (MP) for Leicester East Claudia Webbe attributed blame for the disturbances on “fringe elements” within the city inspired by extremist and right-wing ideologies. Noting how social media was used widely to share information and misinformation about the disturbances and to further exacerbate existing tensions, Webbe called on the government to intervene to stop the disturbances spreading beyond Leicester.
The government’s response has been somewhat muted however: only the Home Secretary Suella Braverman visiting Leicestershire Police on 22 September being of note. Pledging to work with the city to “restore safety and harmony”, Braverman called on the police to do its job “without fear or favour”. Around the same time, Conservative MP Bob Blackman sent a letter to Braverman blaming the disturbances on “Islamic extremists” during which he alleged they committed “appalling attacks on Hindus in Leicester, Birmingham and elsewhere in the UK”. A somewhat lone voice in terms of the cause of the disturbances, Byline Times has questioned the integrity of Blackman’s claims given him being a long-time supporter of the BJP in India.
What are the challenges moving forward?
While the city is currently calm, the possibility of further disturbances cannot be dismissed out of hand. Irrespective however, events and responses to date prompt a number of challenges that require additional thinking.
The first relates to the review and the need for it to be a means to build trust, for there is very real potential for it to make things worse if it is seen to be partial. Independence, impartiality and integrity are important if the review and its findings are to be the foundation upon which to rebuild trust.
There are a number of ways the review can do this.
One is to avoid placing too great an emphasis on notions of ‘communities’ and ‘community’. As research shows, applying the notion of ‘community’ to ethnic and religious minorities not only lazily assumes minorities have more in common with each other than anyone else but so too does it serve to homogenise. If over-emphasised as regards the disturbances, it will have the very real potential to suggest the problem becomes ‘theirs’ – rather than ‘ours’ – thereby putting the onus on ‘them’ to provide ‘solutions’ to what is likely to be a vast array of social ‘problems’.
This is especially true of religious communities and the role of religious leaders. While religious leaders do have some role to play, it is entirely possible that they may be oblivious to what is happening around them and are out of touch with those outside their immediate circles of influence. It is worth reminding ourselves that religious leaders are unlikely to engage those who do not attend their place of worship or practice their religion differently from the ‘mainstream’ of the tradition. Importantly, there is little to suggest that the disturbances were ‘religious’ per se.
In light of Soulsby being apparently ‘baffled’, to believe the disturbances could never happen in Leicester suggests either wilful ignorance or collective denial. For this reason, those leading the review must avoid lazily pointing the finger of blame at outsiders and imported ideologies. For a city that has for more than two decades presented itself as the most ethnically harmonious city in Britain, not only would blaming outsiders ensure Leicester’s reputation remains intact but so too would it ensure the city’s leadership circumnavigate scrutiny. Neither should be an option.
Finally, it is important the review takes seriously the presence of Hindutva ideologies in Leicester, the influence of the RSS, and the role either or both performed as regards the disturbances. Given reports suggest concerns having been present within the city since at least 2019 and the reference to the city’s leadership not having been previously ‘unwarned’, the review needs to not only take Hindutva seriously but so too investigate it fully. While the review should investigate all extremist ideologies, avoiding mere ‘whataboutery’ is necessary if the review and its findings are seen to be credible and contribute to the same from happening again in the future.