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Does The Leicester Violence Echo the British 'Divide And Rule' Policy In India?

Cricket underscores the common cultural mosaic binding us beyond geopolitical differences and political antipathy

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Media reports from the United Kingdom over the weekend have been reporting “large-scale” and “serious” troubles in the city of Leicester, Northwest of London. While the British rarely speak of “riots”, since the police prefer the term “disorder”, street clashes appear to have erupted between large groups of Hindus and Muslims, and 47 people have been arrested by the police with the aim of "deter[ring] further disorder".

Leicester has more South Asians than the British average, accounting for almost 20% of the city’s population, with 7.4% Muslims, 7.2% Hindus and 2.4% Sikhs. It seems trouble broke out in the eastern part of Leicester on 28 August when India defeated Pakistan (by 5 wickets with 2 balls remaining) in a group match in the Asia Cup T20 cricket tournament in Dubai -- and never quite settled down thereafter.

Last weekend’s disturbances were merely the latest of several similar incidents since then, involving mainly young men from the Muslim and Hindu communities.

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Sports Furore Sparked Social Media-Borne Violence

As usual, a fake social media post appears to have inflamed passions in the Muslim community, protest marches were arranged that provoked counter-protests, and a number of unsavoury incidents have taken place including attacks on shops and places of worship. This triggered a response from The Indian High Commission which issued a statement condemning “the violence perpetrated against the Indian community in Leicester and the vandalisation of premises and symbols of Hindu religion.”

Sir Peter Soulsby, Leicester's mayor, told the media that he and community leaders were "baffled" by the events, saying they had been "fanned by some very distorted social media" and "a lot of people who came in from outside".

Though the British have no equivalent of India’s colonial-era Section 144, the police have been authorised to use “dispersal powers” to break up any further gatherings, in order to avoid a recurrence of the weekend’s confrontations.

The police have also issued a warning against misinformation and rumours, urging people not to be taken in, and in turn, be careful about what they share on social media. The Mayor said that, “Social media is very, very distorted -- some of it completely lying about what had been happening between different communities.”

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Call for Peace Amidst Communal Cacophony

Saner voices among South Asians have also been raised to call for peace. Sanjiv Patel, described as a representative of Hindu and Jain temples across Leicester, expressing sadness and shock at the violence, said, "We are horrified and deplore what was going on ... Across the Hindu and Jain community, and with our Muslim brothers and sisters and leaders, we are consistently saying 'calm minds, calm heads'." He added, "Violence is not a solution to anything. This has to be a time for peace, calm and engagement."

Similarly, Suleman Nagdi, of the Leicester-based Federation of Muslim Organisations, expressing “alarm” at the goings-on, told the BBC, "We need calm -- the disorder has to stop and it has to stop now. There are some very dissatisfied young men who have been causing havoc. We need to get the message out that this must end and try to do this through parents and grandparents talking to their sons."

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Indian Diaspora: Erstwhile Role-Model for Harmony

What is truly strange about what has occurred is that the Indian diaspora has usually been an excellent advertisement for good inter-communal relations, even between Indians and Pakistanis. And cricket has normally been a stimulant for good relations within the diaspora, not a source of tension.

I remember being in Manchester in June 2019 when India beat Pakistan in the World Cup match at Old Trafford, seated in the stands amongst a mixed group of Pakistanis and Indians. Behind us, was a young honeymooning couple from Canada, the man of Indian descent, the woman of Pakistani origin. They held the flags of each other’s countries and equably cheered their favourites on. 

Despite their unusual personal circumstances, they were not untypical of the spirit of the crowd.

Given the tortured history of the two countries, one could be forgiven for expecting far more palpable tension between their supporters. But instead, both Indians and Pakistanis chanted raucously for their teams, completed each other’s slogans, roared and did the Mexican wave together. 
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Similarly, at the Dubai International Stadium in October 2021, when Pakistan beat India in the T20 World Cup, the crowd and the atmosphere at the stadium throughout the match were terrific. There was no sign of any rancour, unpleasantness or malice throughout the match, because in the UAE, Indians and Pakistanis live and work side-by-side -- and know each other socially as well. As we streamed out of the stadium some Pakistani fans started chanting “mauka, mauka” to taunt the defeated Indians, but the Indians waved their tricolour good-naturedly at them. Both were grinning. It was as if they had both won.

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Cricket Once Soldered Cross-Cultural Ties

Cricket can serve as a reminder of all that Indians and Pakistanis have in common -- language, cuisine, music, clothes, tastes in entertainment, and most markers of culture, including sporting passions. Cricket underscores the common cultural mosaic that brings us together – one that transcends geopolitical differences.

This cultural foundation both predates and precedes our political antipathy. It is what connects our diasporas and why they find each other’s company comforting in strange lands when they first emigrate – visibly so in the UK. And as I wrote about Dubai, presently, it can be considered the best city of 'Undivided India'.

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Clearly, that is not the case in Leicester, even though Hindus and Muslims of South Asian descent in the UK surely have far more in common, in relation to their experiences in British society than might separate them. There is an urgent need to remind them of their common interests and needs as a visible minority, rather than to export the subcontinent’s divisions and prejudices to a foreign land. The British practised “divide and rule” in order to perpetuate their control over India. Ironically, the legacy of those divisions might now result in their losing control of their own country.

(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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