T HE VIOLENCE that erupted two weeks ago between Muslims and Hindus in the English city of Leicester, home to a large population of Britons with South Asian ancestry, appears at last to be dying down as police flood the streets. It began with brawls and quickly escalated into attacks on mosques and temples.
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Much about the lead-up to the “senseless violence”, as local leaders call it, remains obscure. Certainly, both sides bear responsibility. Young hotheads have drunk deeply from the wells of global Islamism or Hindu chauvinism. The mayor pointed to some “very distorted social-media stuff”. Yet the violence was shocking all the same. Leicester had long been a place where people of different faiths rubbed along.
Events in faraway Leicester bear on Banyan’s Asian preoccupations, largely because of the reaction of the government of India. Its high commission in London condemned the “violence perpetrated against the Indian community in Leicester and vandalisation of premises and symbols of [the] Hindu religion”, but, pointedly, did not condemn Hindus’ violence against Muslims.
Admittedly, Pakistan decried a “systematic campaign” of violence and intimidation against Muslims. But then Pakistan, a state founded on putting Islam (and by extension communalism) at its core, would look after its own, wouldn’t it? The Indian state, by contrast, long sought to represent a secular ideal that rose above communal divisions.
That ideal also informed the internationalist, inclusionary rhetoric of India’s foreign policy. The notable omissions in the Indian High Commission’s statement are indicative of a break in policy since the rise to power in 2014 of Narendra Modi, the prime minister. He is cheerleader-in-chief for Hindutva, a strident form of Hindu nativism promoted by his Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP ).
The Indian government’s response was notable in another respect. Most of Leicester’s South Asian Muslims have their ancestral roots not in Pakistan but, like its Hindus, within the borders of India itself. Mukul Kesavan, an Indian writer, writes that to identify only with its Hindus “is to withdraw…the ancestral claim to India from the Muslims of Leicester.”
This is all of a piece with the BJP ’s majoritarian approach at home, where Hindus constitute four-fifths of the country’s 1.4bn people and Muslims about one-seventh. Islamophobia is rampant among BJP stalwarts (though Mr Modi usually carries a dog whistle). When Hindus and Muslims have clashed in Delhi or in BJP -ruled states, authorities have bulldozed Muslim homes in retribution. Mr Modi’s Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 grants Indian citizenship to refugees from neighbouring countries—so long as they are not Muslim.
As Mr Kesavan argues, standing up for Hindus abroad bolsters Mr Modi’s standing among Hindus at home. Mr Modi has long understood this aspect of personal power. Before the pandemic he staged huge rallies for the Indian diaspora in America and Britain. On visits abroad he pointedly combines diplomacy with prayer. Mr Modi paints India as a kind of Hindu Zion.
In the American capital this week the foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, lambasted those supposedly spreading false views of India, such as the Washington Post. He defended the government’s suspension of the rule of law and the internet in majority-Muslim Kashmir as motivated only by pure intentions. The minister is representative of Hindutva at the heart of the foreign-policy establishment. A paper in International Affairs, an academic journal, by Kira Huju of Oxford University describes how Indian diplomats hewing to the secular, internationalist line have been squeezed out, silenced or marginalised in favour of hardline hacks. Not only that, diplomats abroad must now promote a Hindu-inflected alternative medicine known as Ayurveda, as well as take instruction in the promotion and practice of yoga.
All this surely erodes the abilities of an already underfunded foreign service. Whether that has the capacity fundamentally to alter the course of India’s foreign policy is less clear. Hard-nosed priorities remain guarding against growing Chinese assertiveness and deepening ties with America and Europe. Western countries, especially when run by wannabe strongmen who love joining Mr Modi on stage, are remarkably tolerant of India. But intervening in others’ domestic affairs, as India has in Leicester this past month, seems bound to generate friction in future.■
Read more from Banyan, our columnist on Asia:
Why Narendra Modi criticised Vladimir Putin in Samarkand (Sep 22nd)
South-East Asia’s monarchies struggle with succession (Sep 15th)
The clout of Ohtani Shohei, Japan’s greatest baseball star (Sep 8th)