“Jai Shri Ram” on the streets of Leicester as India’s Hindu nationalism stretches beyond its borders

“Jai Shri Ram”, translating from Hindi as “hail Lord Ram” or “victory to Lord Ram”, is meant to be a harmless informal greeting, a proclamation of one’s faith and an expression of praise for a well-known Hindu deity.

Sadly, the expression has taken on far more sinister connotations in recent years. For far-right Hindu nationalists in India, who have been significantly emboldened over the past eight years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the slogan has been appropriated as a rallying cry for violent extremists.

CSW receives regular reports of communal violence in which the perpetrators have either chanted those three words while carrying out their attacks, or in some cases pressured their victims to declare them, forcing them to contradict their own religion or belief.

One of the most infamous recent cases involves a 24-year old Muslim man, Tabrez Ansari, who died in Jharkhand in June 2019, days after a brutal beating in which a lynch mob forced him to chant “Jai Shri Ram” whilst he was tied to a pole. As is often the case, the police failed to intervene, instead detaining Mr Ansari after his attackers had finished beating him, and subsequently preventing him from seeing his family whilst in custody until he succumbed to his injuries four days later.

Mr Ansari’s death prompted nationwide protests; however attacks of this nature have continued unchecked. In September 2019 three men were lynched in similar circumstances in Jharkhand after they were accused of cattle slaughter, while in February 2020 nine young Muslim men were forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram” before they were brutally killed in the midst of riots in north-east Delhi.

It is therefore deeply concerning when these same words are heard in the streets of Leicester; as they were over the weekend of 17-18 September when the British city, previously viewed as a model of social cohesion, experienced an alarming outbreak of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims after weeks of tensions following a cricket match between India and Pakistan on 28 August, when a Sikh man was violently assaulted in a predominantly Indian area in Leicester by fans who marched in celebration of India’s victory while shouting “death to Pakistan.”

According to some observers, underlying tensions between the two communities came to the fore in May, when a teenager was attacked by around 30 people reportedly identified as supporters of a right-wing Hindu nationalist group.

The latest clashes are said to have erupted after at least 300 masked young Hindu men organised a march on a route incorporating a predominantly Muslim area, coinciding with the approaching funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, when there was a limited police presence as officers throughout the country had been deployed in London. Leicestershire police later claimed in a statement that they had had no prior warning of the protests.

As they passed through the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood the marchers chanted and made insulting gestures. They were soon being followed by a large number of increasingly incensed Muslim counter protesters, who complained that the police were not doing their job – only eight were initially dispatched to manage the march. Violence eventually broke out as the march reached a predominantly Hindu area, with footage soon circulating of a Muslim man tearing down a flag from a Hindu temple.

Particularly concerning are reports which appear to indicate that several people arrested in connection with the violence had specifically travelled to the county to participate in the march, as are allegations that some may have been armed.

By 20 September, similar tension had spread to Birmingham, with footage depicting a large crowd, believed to consist predominantly of Muslim men, gathered outside the Durga Bhawan Hindu temple in Smethwick and chanting in protest following the circulation WhatsApp messages about the visit of a controversial Hindu speaker, which had been cancelled prior to the demonstration taking place.

Predictably, the tensions have been presented as an attack on Hindus by many parts of the Indian media, while the High Commission of India in London drew attention to the “vandalization of premises and symbols of Hindu religion” with no mention of the harm suffered by the Muslim community. Meanwhile, the Pakistan High Commission in London issued a statement condemning “the campaign of violence and intimidation that has been unleashed against the Muslims” in Leicester, and the press in the Muslim-majority country has focused on the targeting of Muslims.

The religious tensions which have been rising in India, and indeed in Pakistan, in recent years are spilling beyond their borders. It was only a matter of time before extreme ideological sentiments would find their way into diaspora communities the UK. The UK and others should by now have held the Indian government to account for allowing religious extremism to proliferate to the extreme detriment of minority communities. As its effects appear to be taking hold in the UK’s own cities, the government has no option but to address it.

With a new prime minister, the UK has an opportunity to redefine its relations with India, prioritising human rights by raising concerns regarding the spread of Hindu nationalism and ensuing violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief with Narendra Modi and the BJP at every opportunity, and ensuring that any failure to act, or in some cases complicity, by the Indian government meets with a far more appropriate response.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley