Pulled Apart

How decades of South Asian unity unravelled in Leicester

Workers participating in the Grunwick strike in London en-route to the House of Commons to lobby MPs prior to presenting a petition to the Prime Minister. The stories of such united action by Black and Asian workers against racism and economic exploitation are entirely missing from history curricula and have largely begun to die out, even in oral forms of community memory. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
31 October, 2022

Though the city of Leicester has had a recent history of ethnic animosity, the ferocity with which it descended into a maelstrom of communal violence in September caught the police, the press and local community leaders off guard. It started with a brief clash between cricket fans after a match on 28 August, though many could write that off as a common enough occurrence. But a sense of unease remained for the next few weeks, with The Guardian reporting seven communal disturbances in east Leicester.

That was to change on 17 September, when a mob of three hundred young Hindu men in face masks and balaclavas—many of them armed—marched through the Muslim-majority Green Lane Road, chanting “Jai Shri Ram” and “Vande Mataram.” It was a sight immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with modern India. The tiny detachment of police on the scene would be unable to prevent the violence that was about to take place. The mob then marched to Melton Road, where a similar number of South Asian Muslim youth had followed in response. After a senseless melee involving broken bottles, enough police finally arrived to divide the two groups.

Three days later, these tensions spilled over into the Smethwick area of Birmingham, with some two hundred masked Muslim men confronting Hindus at the Durga Bhavan Temple. Rumours had abounded that Nisha Rithambara, the founder of the militant Hindu group Durga Vahini, was going to speak at the temple. The organisers cancelled Rithambara’s tour, citing her poor health, but the communal clashes were making headlines across the world by then, and there were calls for the cancellation of at least one event in her ongoing speaking tour in the United States. After a week of skirmishes and vandalism, the police made 55 arrests.

Much of the reporting about communal tensions in Leicester tends to assume that religious divisions are natural aspects of South Asian communities in Britain. The histories of these communities could not be more different. Even though the South Asian diaspora arrived in Leicester in the shadow of the brutal fratricide of Partition, these communities shared a deep cross-religious, cross-continental unity, particularly when resisting the common experiences of racism and poverty. But as poverty and racism rise again in post-Brexit Britain, the latest incidents show the different paths South Asians have come to take in order to confront economic and cultural stagnation. The mobs at Leicester were the result of decades of British government policy and mobilisation of the Hindu Right, which had slowly unwound a community that did not previously define themselves along religious lines.