Dear NYT, Leicester Tensions have roots in Weaponized Social Media, not in India
Photo Courtesy: The Telegraph, UK, and Reddit
The day is August 28, 2022. Pakistan and India, participating in the Asia Cup cricket tournament in Dubai, play a match against each other. India wins, bringing a smile on the faces of Indian cricket fans all over the world. Pakistan will go on to win the next Pakistan-India face-off in Asia Cup, on September 4 and eventually make it to the tournament finals, where Sri Lanka emerges as the eventual winner (1). Ordinarily, these ups and downs in sports are welcomed by cricket fans, as this is what makes tournaments exciting. However, the enthusiasm of the fans watching the match on the August 28 resulted in unfortunate consequences for the city of Leicester, in the United Kingdom.
As is the case nowadays, where the “fog of war” often seems to descend even on reporting of routine events, several versions of what thereafter transpired in Leicester started to do the rounds, none with universal buy-in. This piece primarily quotes the findings of two reports published by two different think tanks, in November 2022. The first was authored by Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a UK-based foreign policy focussed think tank (2); and the second was by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), a US-based organization whose declared mission is to identify and focus on cyber-social threats (3).
There was some boisterous banter after the match between the fans of the two sides, in Leicester, on August 28. Then on August 29, a twitter handle put out a video in which chants of “Pakistan murdabad” were heard, with the fans of the two sides jostling each other. The tweet, since deleted, tied the post-match fisticuffs to “Nazi lovers in the UK” and “Hindutva”. This narrative was amplified by a tweet from Majid Freeman, on August 30. He called the people chanting against Pakistan, “Hindutva cowards” and claimed that they were really chanting against all Muslims. Majid is a British aid worker, who has in the past expressed sympathy with Al-Qaida on his personal social media pages (4).
Matters worsened after an e-mail dated August 31 by the Leicester Police Chief Inspector, Paul Allen, to the Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths, repeating the narrative that a small group of people had called for “death to Pakistan” and “death to Muslims,”, was leaked (5). A day later, Allen updated media that after investigation the police had found no verifiable evidence pertaining to chants of “death to Muslims”. By then though, the Twitter bird had already flown. Here, it must be pointed out that a literal translation of “Pakistan murdabad” means “death to Pakistan”. In both India and Pakistan, “murdabad” is also often used as part of a slogan, wherein it means “down with” (6). The more common understanding of “Pakistan murdabad” as a slogan would thus be, “down with Pakistan”.
The timeline in the NCRI report highlights that between August 30 and September 4, there were tweets from several British Pakistani accounts portraying Hindus as a dangerous threat, calling for an appropriate response. On September 5, Hindu homes in Leicester were attacked. At this point, many India-based handles began to express outrage. Within a few days, there were posts about “Hindutva RSS thugs harassing Muslims” and warnings to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) not to mess with Pakistani gangs in the UK, who would be pushing back. In a worrying albeit increasingly commonplace trend, unverified social media postings fomented unrest on the ground.
One of the appendices in the NCRI report tabulates several incendiary posts which were later debunked by the police, after investigation. For instance, Majid Freeman deleted his September 11 tweet claiming that Hindus asked a man if he was Muslim and assaulted him, after police confirmation on September 17 that such an incident had not occurred. A tweet on September 12 alleged that three Hindu men had kidnapped a Muslim school girl. Another one on September 17 was about Hindus attacking a mosque. Leicester police confirmed that no such incidents had occurred. A viral tweet on September 18 purported that the Hindu temple in Ealing Road had commissioned “Angel Tours” buses to transport “Hindutva RSS” members to Leicester to mobilize violence against Muslims. The owner of “Angel Tours” clarified that his buses were not linked to the temple in any way.
A post on October 4 about a temple in Birmingham being set on fire by Islamists on September 19, was responded to with a clarification by the West Midlands Fire Service (Birmingham) that the building was in fact a supermarket which had caught fire. The NCRI report concludes with the observation that inflammatory social media posts played a key role in fanning the violence in Leicester. Disinformation was spread about Hindus being genocidal. There was also co-ordinated activity from self-identified Indian accounts which were feeding into a populist hyper-nationalist narrative, in the face of attacks against diasporic communities. NCRI is also critical of mainstream media platforms including the BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times, and other outlets, for failing to perform due diligence on Majid Freeman and amplifying his voice. He was a key agitator in the events of Leicester. The report recommends dialogue between religious groups, community members, and law enforcement agencies towards strengthening community relations. It also highlights the importance of responding collaboratively to social media rumours.
The HJS report too in its conclusion expresses concern regarding Majid Freeman regularly being provided a platform to express his views and his projection as a “community leader”. It also notes that the people accused of being “RSS terrorists” appeared to have no links to nor an understanding of the RSS. One of the recommendations in the report is that city councillors and the mayor receive training on due diligence processes to ensure discontinuation of engagement with self-declared “community representatives” who have not been subject to appropriate due diligence checks.
Amongst the several articles quoting Majid Freeman that appeared in the days following the
unfortunate events in Leicester, one was by Megan Specia in The New York Times (7). The tagline of the article was that Leicester is the latest example of how toxic politics in India has migrated overseas. What follows is a few extracts from the article and a brief commentary on each extract.
“…Experts say it is only the latest example of how the toxic politics that are roiling India- and leading to persecution of Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities- have migrated to other parts of the globe…”
An assertion here is presented as incontrovertible fact. Data though suggests something else. The population of Muslims in India has increased from 14.2 percent of the total population in 2011, to about 14.6 percent of the total population in 2021 (8). During the first term of the much-maligned BJP government, from 2014-19, nearly 23.7 million Muslims benefited from government scholarships. The figure in the preceding five years was 23.3 million (9).
Since the other large diasporic community involved in the Leicester incident was from Pakistan, a comparison with the plight of minorities in Pakistan would be in order. Farahnaz Ispahani, member of the National Assembly of Pakistan from 2008 to 2012, wrote in 2013 that at the time of partition in 1947, almost 23 percent of Pakistan’s population comprised of non-Muslim citizens. By 2013, this number had declined to approximately 3 percent (the formation of Bangladesh in 1971 too would have had some contribution towards this steep fall). She highlighted that non-Muslim minorities such as Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians had been the target of suicide attacks and were converted to Islam against their will (10). Further, as an example of state sponsored discrimination, the Constitution of Pakistan does not allow a non-Muslim to occupy the office of the President or the Prime Minister (11). Dawn, one of the oldest dailies in Pakistan, had quoted in 2011 a study which after review of more than a hundred textbooks from grades 1-10 in use in Pakistan, found systematic negative portrayals of religious minorities therein (12).
Considering the above, would it be fair to say that the Leicester incident is the latest example of how the toxic education and politics that are roiling Pakistan — and leading to the persecution of Hindus, Christians, and other religious minorities — have migrated to other parts of the globe?
“…Since India’s independence struggle, Hindu Nationalists have espoused a vision that places Hindu culture and religious worship at the centre of Indian identity. That view, once fringe, was made mainstream when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party came to power…”
The facts pertaining to Indian independence struggle have been selectively presented here. The Muslim elite which had lost power due to the decline of the Mughal Empire and advent of British colonization of India, had at best an ambivalent approach to the Indian independence movement. Their attitude is better captured in the following excerpt from a manifesto on Hindu-Muslim relations issued in 1928, by the noted essayist Khwaja Hasan Nizami. It said, “…Musalmans are separate from Hindus; they cannot unite with the Hindus. After bloody wars the Musalmans conquered India, and the English took India from them. The Musalmans are one united nation, and they alone will be masters of India…” (13). The insecurities and the Islamist worldview of this elite birthed the two-nation theory, one of the key reasons behind the vivisection of India in 1947.
The cultural philosophy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government was succinctly put forward by S Jaishankar, the Minister of External Affairs, in an interaction with the students at Howard University in the United States, in April last year. He called for an understanding of India as a civilization state and as a democratic polity (14). Some in India disagree and think of India as a nation born in 1947. This is a subject of fierce debate in the Indian public sphere, as should be the case in any democratic society, when there is a difference of opinion. Lively, even angry discussions about this vital issue, are commonplace in Indian media. For those sceptical about harmonious co-existence of cultural values rooted in particular histories and (secular) democratic norms, the following extract from the then British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech in 2011 might provide some food for thought. He had said “…. We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so… And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger……But what I am saying is that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today” (15).
“…Fatima Rajima, a sociologist who researches British Muslims, said the clashes in Leicester reflected a spread of sometimes violent extremism across the broader Indian diaspora driven by Hindutva, the divisive political ideology that has been endorsed by Mr Modi’s governing party…”
Ms. Rajima is certainly entitled to her views and even in India, noisy prime time debates on news channels about what “Hindutva” means are very common.
In a 2019 interview, Arif Mohammed Khan, currently the governor of the state of Kerala, had highlighted the one key distinction between an “Islamic State” and a “Hindu Rashtra” (the purported goal of Hindutva): it was that there are no “Zimmis” in a “Hindu Rashtra” (16). In Sharia law, a zimmi is a non-Muslim subject who is granted freedom to worship and is entitled to the protection of life and property of the state, although constrained to pay special tax and not granted the full legal status accorded to Muslim subjects (17).
“…People in Leicester paint a complex picture of deteriorating community relations. Majid Freeman, a Muslim activist who was on the streets the night the situation devolved into violence, said it was important to understand the chronology of events…”
Both the NCRI and HJS reports have expressed grave concerns about the antecedents of Majid Freeman. The NCRI report mentions that Majid has, in the past, posted messages in support of ISIS and offered prayers for a slain British Al Qaida operative.
“…Then on Sept. 17, more than 300 people, mostly Hindu, gathered for an unplanned demonstration, the police said, which pushed toward the city’s Green Lane Road, an area with a large Muslim population. Some people chanted ‘Jai Shree Ram’, a phrase praising a Hindu god that has increasingly been appropriated by those inciting violence against Muslims…”
It is true that there have been a number of reports in recent times of chants of “Jai Shree Ram” being linked to what are called “hate crimes”. It is also true that on further investigation, many of these were found to be either fake or random crimes. For instance, in a video released earlier this year in May, a youth named Imran was shown being beaten by 15 Hindu youths who were shouting “Jai Shree Ram”. After the police established that all the youths seen beating Imran in the video were Muslims, he confessed that the video was fake (18). Another incident from a few months ago was that of a Muslim carpenter who posted “Jai Shree Ram” in a Facebook post and was then beaten by his Muslim neighbours. He was now seen a traitor (19).
Would it be fair to say that a case of “Hinduphobia” can be made when an expression that is sacred to millions of Hindus is indiscriminately linked to violence, on the basis of reports which are more often than not subsequently invalidated?
The hate speech detection models used by NCRI suggested that 70 percent of violence incited on Twitter was against Hindus, and 30 percent against Muslims. Hate speech in all forms and towards everyone deserves equal condemnation. The stance of the editorial board of The New York Times towards Islamophobia is well known. Does it also have a stance against “Hinduphobia” or anti-Hindu expressions and actions?
T S Trimurti, India’s (then) Permanent Representative to the UN, had stated in June 2022 that “religiophobia” should not be a selective exercise involving one or two religions. It should apply equally to phobias against non-Abrahamic religions as well. There cannot be double standards on religiophobia (20).
“…Amir Ahmed, a lawyer who was born and raised in Leicester and who volunteers with Muslim youth, said that Leicester had long been a seen as “sort of a poster child for multiculturalism…”
One of the recommendations in the HJS report is that those who have expressed views contrary to British values such as mutual tolerance and respect of the rule of law should not be given a platform to offer their narrative. Is being granted the liberty to posit views contrary to these core values, a part of multiculturalism or a threat to multiculturalism?
That multiculturalism can lead to parallel societies is a concern which has been expressed by several European leaders. Then British Prime Minister David Cameron, at the 2011 Munich Security Conference (21), and German Chancellor Angela Markel, at the 2015 CDU party conference (22), had both talked about this.
“…For now, community and faith leaders in Leicester and across Britain want to ensure that this kind of violence does not happen again…”
We fully agree with the above sentiment and hope that the recommendations mentioned in the NCRI and HJS reports are deliberated upon earnestly and seriously, by both authorities and community leaders in Leicester and across Britain. Let this incident be a one off, without a repetition in the future.
All links accessed on January 09, 2023
1. Espncricinfo. Asia Cup 2022
2. Henryjacksonsociety. CRT Leicester final report
3. Networkcontagion. Cyber social swarming precedes real world riots in Leicester
4. Telegraph. Terrorism in the UK
Friend of murdered hostage Alan Henning defends Isil online (telegraph.co.uk)
5. Insight UK (2022). [Twitter] September 10
6. Thefreedictionary. Murdabad
7. Nytimes. Leicester-violence-uk
8. Indiaonlinepages. Muslim-population-in-india
9. Theprint. More-muslims-govt-scholarships-modi-govt-congress-upa
10. Hudson. Cleansing-pakistan-of-minorities
11. Tribune. Why-cant-a-non-muslim-dream of-becoming-the-prime-minster-or-president-of-pakistan
12. Dawn. Pakistan-schools-teach-hinduhatred
13. B.R.Ambedkar (1946). ‘Pakistan or Partition of India’, page 303.
14. U.S. Department of State. (2022, April 13). Secretary Blinken and Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar at Howard University. 16:00
15. BBC. Uk-politics
16. The Wire. (2019, June 28). The future of India is the future of Muslims: Arif Mohammed Khan. 31:00
17. Freedictionary. Zimmis
18. Lokmattimes. Man-booked-for-making-fake-video-to-hamper-communal-harmony
19. Bhaskar. Comment-on-the-post-of-bjp-mla-rameshwar-sharma-in-bhopal-neighbors-beat-him-up-by-calling-him-traitor-to-the-community-vandalism-in-the-house
20. ANI (2022). [Twitter]. June 19
21. UK PM’s speech at the Munich Security Conference
22. Der Spiegel. Refugees: Angela Merkel Speaks of historical test for Europe