Here in India, Hindu-Muslim clashes that threaten houses of worship, force shops to close and inflame passions on social media no longer constitute news. It is noteworthy, however, when they break out not in Madhya Pradesh but in the English Midlands.
Almost 40% of Leicester’s residents are of South Asian origin and the city has often been held up as a successful model of integration. Even now, official statements and media reports about the violence have taken pains not to puncture that reputation. Some have blamed “outsiders,” especially from nearby Birmingham, for the trouble. Police have complained that disinformation spread through social media fired up the mobs. And many observers have stressed the pacifying influence of “community leaders.”
There’s some truth to all those statements. But they miss the larger story, which is that the sectarian politics of the Indian subcontinent can no longer be contained within the subcontinent. Such divides are being globalized, spreading alienation, disinformation, political partisanship, radicalization and violence in their wake.
Take social media. Today, political mobilization in South Asia is driven largely by online content — and, increasingly, by made-to-order misinformation. This is true for Hindus, Muslims and even Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Indeed, the subcontinent is making new and innovative advances in hate speech. Bigots are no longer content to relabel and retweet incendiary videos; they are creating their own fake content and labeling it as “entertainment.”
Just last week, a viral video — retweeted by, among others, a spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — appeared to show a Muslim clergyman abusing a young woman. The video was in fact created specifically for “educational” — rabble-rousing — purposes. The scenes it depicted were imaginary, according to a portentous disclaimer, “because the reality is too bitter to be told or shown.”
Social media has also dissolved boundaries between locals and “outsiders.” Technology makes it easy for angry co-religionists to collaborate and egg each other on, even if they aren’t physical neighbors. Until a decade ago, for instance, riots in India were predominantly an urban phenomenon. Then, in 2013, the advent of social media allowed mobs from different villages to launch a coordinated attack on Muslims in rural Uttar Pradesh, displacing tens of thousands of them.
The uneasy peace that has long held in places such as Leicester — negotiated by local faith leaders and maintained by separating the different communities — cannot survive this new age. If Leicester has more Hindus than Muslims, then a provocative march will be organized in a Muslim area. If the Midlands as a whole have more Muslims than Hindus, then they will in turn combine to intimidate Leicester’s Hindus. And on and on, to the level of the nation itself.
Nor will politics-as-usual solve the problem. Rather than speaking directly to minority voters, too many British politicians and administrators still rely on “community leaders” of doubtful opinions and increasingly limited authority. Why would a young British Asian man listen to his local imam or pandit when he consumes media from the subcontinent that is full of far more entertaining, and incendiary, voices?
Besides, it is too easy for politicians, in the UK as well as India, to exploit these sectarian divides. Priti Patel, until a few weeks ago the cabinet minister in charge of law and order, recently described her Tories and the BJP as “sister parties.” At least one Hindu Labour MP has accused his own party of employing a “divide and rule” policy in which, he implied, Hindus were at the bottom of the pile.
The worst possible outcome would be for Hindus and Muslims in the Midlands and the wider UK to start voting for different parties based on their religion. Then adoption of the subcontinent’s divisive politics would be complete.
That “divide and rule” comment — a reference to how the British supposedly controlled a diverse and divided subcontinent for two centuries — gets to the heart of the problem. Over the past fortnight, some in the UK have tried to examine how the echoes of empire still animate aspects of national identity. Yet they have failed to see how actual policies in today’s Britain, in what the state does and does not do, in its acceptance of ghettoized communities and its dependence on “faith leaders” as interlocutors, eerily reflect how the Raj once kept the peace half a world away.
The modern British state cannot afford to continue ruling distantly through community leaders, allowing Hindus and Muslims in the UK to live separately and build up grudges against each other. Those policies no longer work in South Asia — and they certainly won’t work elsewhere.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”
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