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Toxic Hindutva Indian politics rearing its head in the UK

November 23

Kuldeep, a British Sikh, fears that Indian politics is now turning up on the streets of the UK, which he calls “toxic”, “awful”, and evidence that “sectarianism” is affecting British politics.

He is talking amid an election campaign in which the UK arm of Indian PM Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has pledged to campaign for the Tories against Labour in more than 40 seats.

It was sparked by a motion backed at Labour’s annual conference in September calling for the people of Kashmir to be given the right to determine their own future. Modi had stripped the disputed territory of its semi-autonomous status and put it into lockdown.

Labour’s move was seen by some, including the Overseas Friends of the BJP (UK), as “anti-Indian”. The party has now been forced into a climbdown amid pleas from its own British Asian MPs.

Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi has talked of “foreign interference” in the UK election and warned against dividing communities.

But does the Kashmir episode speak to a wider infiltration of Modi-style “Hindutva” (Hindu nationalism) and Islamophobia in British political debate?

Messages are circulating among “all sorts of people in all sorts of chats” on WhatsApp in a way that was “not at all” seen in previous elections, according to Kuldeep.

Although there is no way of knowing the scale of the messaging, WhatsApp’s encrypted service has been used effectively by Modi’s government in India to push propaganda to large groups of voters, and group chats are popular among British Indians.

They include accusations that Labour is “against India”, and include far-right style suggestions that the party is in some way responsible for grooming scandals across the UK, which have often involved mainly Pakistani-origin men.

Behind that, voters speak of Labour being “captured” by Muslims. Islamophobic hate crimes are on the rise under Modi in India.

The situation has been exacerbated by selection rows, including Jeremy Corbyn’s ally Claudia Webbe being parachuted into outgoing MP Keith Vaz’s heavily Asian, and Hindu, Leicester East seat.

Again, WhatsApp messages have circulated describing it as a “slap in the face” for “Indians/Hindus and Sikhs” and urging voters to back the local Tory candidate.

Labour Friends of India, meanwhile, has criticised the party for selecting just one British Indian candidate in a seat the party is actually deemed likely to win.

The first ever election poll of Britain’s 1.5m-strong British Indian community this week showed Labour’s support declining 12 points from the 2017 general election to 34%, although the party remained ahead of the Tories on 24%.

India Inc, which commissioned the Optimus survey, said the British Indian vote could prove decisive in what may well be a tight election. There are 15 constituencies, out of a total 650, in which Asians constitute more than 40% of the population, 46 where they number more than 20%, and 122 more than 10%.

Bharat Shah is one British Hindu who had already switched from voting Labour in 2010 and 2015 to the Tories in 2017 – partly driven by his support for Brexit, but also because of a perception that Corbyn favours Muslims.

Speaking about the upcoming election, he says he will be “forced to vote Conservative” in Milton Keynes North, now a marginal seat.

“I am quite liberal and on my traditional values I would vote Labour,” he says.

“But Labour – I think it’s been taken over by [the] very hardcore radical left. Labour has also been taken over by – I shouldn’t be saying it – but people who wear their religion as their identity.

“Labour has been captured by very radical Muslims and the like.”

    Certainly the feeling of nationalism is greater among Indian communities than it has been in the past

Leela, who is also British Hindu, has always voted Tory but believes fellow members of the community are “cheesed off” at Labour’s position on Kashmir, describing the party’s policy row-back as “a victory”

“Lots of people we know said they will not vote Labour this time,” she says, speaking from Blackpool North.

“I think they [Labour] don’t care – they only want Pakistani votes.”

A Labour source close to the Indian community talks of an “ongoing decline” with those voters, saying the party has “taken the Indian community for granted” while the Tories have stepped up their efforts.

The Kashmir episode “further degenerated” the relationship, but it also comes against the backdrop of Modi.

“Certainly the feeling of nationalism is greater among Indian communities than it has been in the past, and hence they are more sensitive around issues that pertain to India,” the source says.

“There’s definitely an element of that.

“I think it’s important that we don’t import these south Asian politics into Britain, and politics that divide the community.

“But with the internet and so on – social media – we live in a very hyperconnected world and so it’s slightly hard to tackle.”

Eviane Leidig, a researcher at Oslo’s Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right who has studied Hindu nationalism and connections between the radical right in India, the UK and the US, says communal tensions have existed in Britain “for decades”.

“But it hasn’t been so visible. The circulation of these WhatsApp images – previously these types of incidences have been quite closed and not so visible, but the fact they are now circulating so much on social media is a new phenomenon,” she adds.

Meanwhile Hindu nationalist narratives have become “mainstreamed and legitimised”, and are “now sort of acceptable among the diaspora”.

And there are links between Indians around the world and the Modi government, which Leidig says has tapped into the IT skills and money of the diaspora for fundraising and social media operations abroad and within India.

“That’s why Hindutva has become such a global phenomenon,” she added, “because you have the diaspora overseas helping to fulfil its circulation online.”

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