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For decades, Leicester built communal walls. Waves of immigrants made it more toxic

East Ham and Waltham Forest are Pakistani Punjabi, Luton is Kashmiri Muslim, Southall is Punjabi Sikh, and Tower Hamlet is Bangladeshi. Each walled off their neighbourhoods to other immigrants.

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The first petrol bomb was lobbed through the windows of the Shri Pragati Mandir in Birmingham’s inner-city area Sparkbrook. Fire burned through the carpet at the Krishna Temple in Coventry, and the doors of the Veda Temple run by the Vishva Hindu Parishad were damaged in a blaze. The Shri Krishna Temple in West Bromwich, among the largest in the UK, was gutted in a similar attack. A Hindu priest in Derby had a narrow escape when his temple was firebombed.

Earlier that week in December 1992, the Babri Masjid had been demolished by Hindu karsevaks.  Iqbal Sacranie—among the key figures in the anti-Salman Rushdie movement that exploded across England in 1988—alleged some Hindus in Bradford had distributed sweets. The wave of fire-bombings across the Midlands and North of England—the first attacks on religious institutions in England since Luftwaffe bombs tore apart historic churches in 1942—was meant as revenge.

The still-simmering Hindu-Muslim violence in Leicester, mainly pitting young ethnic-Gujarati Hindus against young Gujarati Muslims, judging by details so far released by the police, should provoke introspection on why homeland hatred casts such a dark shadow overseas. Toxic competition between Islamism and Hindutva has sharpened communal battle lines in England, but the tensions aren’t new. Thirty years ago, Hindus and Muslims exchanged petrol bombs in Blackburn after a cricket match—exactly as they have now done in Leicester.

Allah-o-Akbar, Jai Shri Ram: The aggressive displays of religious identity by young men in Leicester is the product of the self-segregation of England’s South Asian diaspora into ethnic-religious ghettos. The ghettoisation has ended up reproducing the dysfunctional Hindu-Muslim relationship in the homeland.

Also read: RSS wasn’t involved in Leicester violence. But here’s why it won’t mind the blame

Leicester’s communal walls

Fifty years ago, following what he claimed were instructions from God given to him in a dream, dictator Idi Amin Dada ordered the mass expulsion of Uganda’s mainly Gujarati Indians. Within three months, some 50,000 people were forced to leave their homeland for the UK and Canada. Even the 8,000 or so Indians Amin’s laws theoretically allowed to remain were threatened by being dispatched to dig shambas, or vegetable gardens, or with mass deportation to the waste-lands of Karamoj.

Ever since the completion of the colonial trans-Uganda railway in 1902, the Gujaratis had come to occupy a critical position in the economy, selling consumer goods in the country and shipping out cotton and coffee to ports. The Indians earned great wealth, historian Vali Jamal has written, but their fortunes earned them the hatred of Ugandan Africans.

Leicester, which had grown a small East African Gujarati population through the 1960s, seemed an attractive destination. But the Labour-led city council, conscious of the sentiments of its White working-class constituency, proved less than welcoming. “In your own interests and those of your family,” an advertisement by the council bluntly proclaimed, “[do] not come to Leicester.”

The arrival of the Ugandan Gujaratis had been preceded by a deepening of racial fractures across the United Kingdom.  Enoch Powell, a prominent Conservative politician, prophesied in an inflammatory 1968 speech of the coming race war. Edward Heath, who became prime minister in 1970, promised to control immigration, but the far-Right grew steadily through the decade, culminating in pitched battles with police in 1977.

Also read: Leicester fire a result of orthodox Muslim clergy of ’90s vs new communal Hindu migrants

South Asian self-segregation

Even though Leicester now celebrates itself as the UK’s most diverse city, the self-image is deeply problematic. Educated, relatively-affluent Hindus immigrants from East Asia soon began to move out of the Highfields neighbourhood into the White working-class Belgrave. Belgrave Road—site of the so-called Golden Mile, where the recent clashes took place—rapidly grew into a thriving business hub. Working-class Highfields remained mired in poverty, as industrial Leicester imploded in the 1980s.

Three decades ago, scholars Deborah Phillips and Valerie Karn observed “the spatial polarisation of Hindus and Muslims in Leicester.” Each urban ward had evolved clusters around markers of religious identity, like temples and mosques.  The new enclaves, research on Gujarati immigrants by anthropologist Kenneth Hahlo showed, sometimes mirrored homeland divisions right down to the level of village and caste.

East African Hindu estate agents and solicitors grouped together to block other immigrants from buying into their new enclaves, Phillips and Karn wrote. The discrimination wasn’t one-way. “Muslims,” they recorded, “have been have been known to refuse council house offers because of the proximity of Hindu tenants.”

The same segregation process, scholar Apurba Kundu has observed, was evident elsewhere in the UK. East Ham and Waltham Forest in London are Pakistani Punjabi, Luton is Kashmiri Muslim, Southall is Punjabi Sikh, and Tower Hamlet is Bangladeshi.  Each community grouped together as protection against White racism, but also walled-off its neighbourhoods to other immigrants.

Following 9/11, new conflicts emerged. Muslims registered consistently lower attainment in education and employment than other groups, official data showed. They blamed it on religious discrimination. Hindus and Sikhs complained that counter-terrorism programmes provided disproportionate funding for Muslim groups.

Also read: Leicester clashes show UK is a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. But Hindus must keep calm

A toxic competition

Leicester’s complex demographics helped fuel communal competition. In 2001, some 15 per cent of the population was Hindu, and 11 per cent Muslim. In the 2011 census, the percentage of Hindus remained similar, and still does today. But the Muslim population share went up to 18.6 per cent, driven by the arrival of Somali and Kurdish immigrants. Immigrants of Indian origin remained the largest single block—28.3 per cent —and Gujarati the most-spoken language after English.  Islam and Hinduism, though, became competing categories for State patronage.

The competition, the work of scholar Sean McLoughlin shows, expressed itself in a surge in applications for the construction of religious sites in Leicester. Funding from the Leicester city council also ended up reinforcing particular constructions of identity—for example, Garba eventsover trans-community projects, like youth football.

For the children of the diaspora, lacking the wider cultural context and linguistic affiliations of their parents, religious identity had become the principal marker of identity.

Large-scale proselytising activity by homeland fundamentalists tore through the diaspora in the coming decade. The now-internationally proscribed terrorist, Masood Azhar Alvi, visited the United Kingdom in 1993, lecturing at mosques on “jihad, its need, training and other related issues.” Large numbers young people from the UK travelled for training at jihad camps in Pakistan, up to the 7/7 bombings of London’s transport system.

The Hindu-nationalist movement also grew dramatically in the United Kingdom through this period, political scientist Chetan Bhatt has recorded.  Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) units—first founded overseas  by Jagdish Chandra Sharda in 1947, on a Kenya-bound ship—slowly grew across the United Kingdom. Long struggles to build Hindu temples, notably the Swaminarayan Mission in north London and Bhaktivedanta Manor at Letchmore Heath, helped mobilise a new generation of Hindu immigrants around faith.

Few of the leaders of South Asian communities understood the dangers of these divisions in the 1980s. Faced with race tensions in the 1970s, the British State had turned to multiculturalism—outsourcing its engagement with issues of identity to political contractors who gained their status from their communal constituency, not advocacy of the wider community. Instead of the political and social equality they were seeking, ethnic and religious minorities ended up getting institutional patronage to maintain their differences.

The violence in Leicester will empower no-one except White supremacists, who’ve long argued immigrants import their homeland conflicts. For decades, Leicester’s Gujarati immigrant families struggled to overcome their traumatic exodus from Uganda. Their children, blinded by hatreds they barely understand, seem determined to walk into the trap they’ve laid for themselves.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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