25 Sep 2022  |   05:07am IST

Hindus and Muslims, and Amos Noronha

Vivek Menezes

There are many odd, disturbing and worrisome aspects to the unexpected, unprecedented flare-up   on ostensibly Hindu-Muslim lines   in the ancient city of Leicester in the UK, and also the sheer mystery of why 20-year-old Amos Noronha is the first person to go to jail for it.

Here’s what’s on the Leicestershire Police website: “A 20-year-old man has been sentenced 10 months in prison following his arrest during the disorder in East Leicester. Amos Noronha, of Illingworth Road, Leicester pleaded guilty to possession of an offensive weapon. He was arrested Saturday night during the police operation in East Leicester. An additional 18 people were arrested on Sunday night for a number of offences including affray, common assault, possession of an offensive weapon and violent disorder. In total, 47 people have been arrested for offences in relation to the unrest in the east of the city.”

The police took pains to note that “Some of those arrested were from out of the city, including some people from Birmingham”. Temporary Chief Constable Rob Nixon said, “We saw last night a group of people from other cities come to our city to disrupt and cause harm. We will not stand for this unrest in our city. Be reassured: we are working to keep you safe and to arrest and bring to justice those that are causing harm in our communities.”

What happened in Leicester? Don’t believe social media because one thing we do know is Indians are being stoked to outrage about it. BBC journalist Abdirahim Saeed outlined on Twitter that, “there were at least 500K English-language tweets from last 7 days that mentioned #Leicester in context of recent tensions. Over 50% originated from acts geolocated in India. However, 97% of volume for 'Hindu under attack' tags were made up of retweets. This is a tell-tale sign of inauthentic amplification.”

So, whatever happened in the faraway East Midlands, there seem to be big stakes for political gain in India. This is to be expected, says Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his latest Indian Express column: “Long-distance diasporic nationalisms have always been a feature of global politics. Culturally, these have often been more intractable than the politics in home countries for a variety of reasons. Diasporic nationalisms and identities are often more abstract, eschewing all complexity, and able to indulge in those abstractions because there is no skin in the game. They often do not have to face the consequences of the violence and dislocations of that identity-mongering.”

Nonetheless, the marked hostility of the clashes in Leicester – and the recent incident of bulldozers paraded in New Jersey – do signal something new. Mehta says, “there are three things that make this moment in diaspora fractures more distinctive both in the US and the UK. In the eighties, after clashes broke out, there was still an attempt across communities to see their respective States, or mainstream politicians in those countries, as a relatively neutral arbiter; in fact, the whole point was not to draw politicians in the UK or US in accusations of partisanship in India’s communal conflicts. We are still awaiting a full, authoritative account of the events at Leicester. But in the discourse, at least, one is struck by the fact that the narrative of “Hindu victimhood” is even pointing fingers at the local state, as if it was somehow partisan in failing to protect Hindus.”

Mehta says, “the second big change is the explicit involvement of the Indian state. The Indian state’s statement condemned “the violence perpetrated against the Indian community in Leicester and the vandalisation of premises and symbols of Hindu religion”. Notice no appeal to Hindus not to take out intimidating marches, or the acknowledgement that marches chanting Jai Shri Ram might be adding to the tension… In short, the Indian state itself is now going to intervene in a partisan manner in these conflicts. It will not be a party of peace but of more polarisation.”

Then, “the third big change is that their global ideological patrons of conflict will have an investment in politically milking these incidents, in a context where all inhibitions on ethnic nationalism are gone. Now, we are not in the realm of long-distance nationalism, but in a global political market that is looking to construct narratives of victimhood that can be used in any global context.” Mehta says, “there is also no doubt that Hindutva is not about the defence of Hinduism or Hindu interests, but a global ideology of hate and asserting cultural dominance. It is bizarre to think you can have this much dissemination of hate without it having violent political consequences. Now that inhibitions have been broken, brace for more conflict.”

Is that going to happen in Leicester, the very first UK city to register “majority minority” with more than 50% “non-white British” citizens? I emailed the question to Keith Vaz, the veteran Labour leader of Goan origin (he was born in Aden) who represented Leicester East in Parliament for 32 years from 1987 to 2013, and he responded yesterday: “I am shocked by what has happened. This is the first time in my 35 years in Leicester that I have seen anything like it   it is highly unusual for partisan groups based on religion to be out in such numbers. That’s why it’s important we take stock. Leicester is a special place. I call it “God’s Country” because there are so many temples, mosques and gurudwaras. We just do not want to see division on the lines of religion. Our job now is to make sure it must never happen again.”

Vaz thinks things probably did occur the way much of the media has said: “The events originated after the end of an India versus Pakistan cricket match [at the end of last month]. A group of India supporters were out celebrating, when an individual said some harsh words about one of the countries, and this sparked the concerns. The desecration of a Hindu religious symbol was totally unacceptable.” But enough is enough, “If not addressed it can get much worse. I think there has been a failure of local civic political leadership. Combined with this, Leicester has been the city with the longest period of lockdown. We have also seen a lot of migration since Brexit was announced.” 

Those are complex reasons that go far beyond Hindu-Muslim binaries, and possibly explain why Amos Noronha – whoever he turns out to be – showed up on the frontlines of what would appear to be someone else’s fight. Here are the comments of Claudia Webb, the MP who succeeded Vaz at Leicester East: “We need to look at why these 200 or so young men came on to the street wearing balaclavas and blue gloves. I believe they are vulnerable to extremist political ideologies because they have a lack of hope, a lack of good job opportunities and a lack of local facilities. The lack of public funding remains a contributing factor to these problems which is not being addressed. The reality is that we have fringe elements led and inspired by extremism and rightwing ideology rearing its head in the UK and in the peaceful city of Leicester. If we do not understand the root cause, this will spread to other areas. The government needs to intervene and ensure that social media platforms stop this from getting much, much worse.”

(Vivek Menezes is a writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival)


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