The ongoing communal violence on the streets of Leicester did not come out of nowhere. It did not start when the Indian cricket team beat Pakistan in the Asian Cup, as some media sources report. To understand the real roots of this violence, we need to understand the structural violence that capitalism visits upon our communities on a daily basis (in the form of low pay, poor housing, racist policing, and generally poor living conditions) and the role played by establishment politicians in Britain and in India inciting racist divisions and violence.
Poverty and nationalism
Leicester is one of the most impoverished cities in the UK, with Leicester East, where much of the violence is taking place being one of the key hotspots for poverty, with Tory supporting anti-union employers like Samworth Brothers employing thousands of workers in the area.
Leicester East is also the location of many of the city’s sweatshops, which employs some 6,000 people – something that Covid helped to shine a light on, but which in reality has a long history. Leicester East residents are disproportionately black and brown, with youth facing near constant harassment from police.
The rise in tensions and violence is interlinked with processes happening globally, such as the growth of right-wing populism that we’re seeing in Britain, but also in other countries including India. The social base of traditional capitalist parties and the establishment in general has been significantly undermined.
As a result, we have seen a rise in right-wing politicians trying to disguise themselves as ‘anti-establishment’ or ‘against the elite’ and relying on scapegoating and divide and rule tactics. In the case of India, there have been unprecedented nationalist provocations led by Narendra Modi’s BJP government targeted at Muslim communities.
The violence in Leicester is also intimately connected to the fact that a small minority of far-right Hindu nationalists (some based in Leicester and others from further afield), take pleasure out of demonising and physically assaulting Muslims. In this they share much with the other far-right activists like the English Defence League.
But as neither the state nor the police are willing or able to protect Muslims, it will always be necessary for local communities to organise to defend themselves. Such action however must be organised democratically and carried out in a way that can isolate the small groupings of far-right troublemakers from other members of their own communities, while also seeking political solutions that address the false populism of those who are intent on profiting from communal tensions.
These are tensions which can trace their roots back to the brutal divide-and-rule policies of British imperialism, which around the world sought to play religious and national groups off against each other to prop up colonial rule. The legacy and brutality of partition, in particular, continues to shape the world to this day. Politicians – in India and the UK – continue to make use of division and oppression to undermine united struggle and implement right-wing pro-capitalist policies.
Establishment politicians share the blame
We also need to understand the role played by political leaders, whether Tory, Labour, or Lib Dem, and the media in allowing these conditions to go unchallenged. In fact, some of these politicians, even some of those purporting to be on the left, have seen it as their role to stoke sectarian division in order to prevent these conditions being effectively challenged. The absence of a socialist political alternative to poor living conditions has become a driving force behind the growth of nationalism and right-wing populism, which is now spilling over into communal violence.
Disgraced former Labour MP, Keith Vaz is based in the part of the city where most of the violence is taking place. Although he is no longer the local MP, he remains the chairman of the Leicester East Constituency Labour Party where he wields considerable influence. Vaz is a vocal supporter of the far-right Indian government led by Narendra Modi.
Aided by the fact that most Labour politicians in our city have been unwilling to openly stand up against the conservative proponents of Hindu nationalism, or to publicly oppose the far-right ideologies associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), conservative nationalist groupings have been able to build a small but vocal base of support in our city by deliberately intensifying religious tensions, capitalising upon the longstanding Islamophobia promoted by capitalist politicians and the media.
The promotion of such forms of open racism was particularly evident during the 2019 General Election where a religiously motivated hate campaign was mobilised by the Tories against Keith Vaz’s then Labour replacement Claudia Webbe – although she now stands an independent MP for Leicester East. The Conservative Party have played a central role through their longstanding support for far-right Hindu nationalists (like Modi) and through their active promotion of Islamophobia.
One recent example was provided earlier this year when Boris Johnson flew to India to offer his uncritical support to the Modi government. In response, one of the left MPs that remain in the Labour Party, Zarah Sultana, the MP for Coventry South, used a speech in parliament to correctly criticise such actions:
“The Prime Minister began his trip to India with a visit to a JCB factory just one day after the company was embroiled in controversy after its bulldozers were used to illegally destroy and demolish Muslim homes and businesses in Delhi and following widespread anti-Muslim violence in India, which is widely seen as being whipped up by Modi and the ruling BJP.”
Workers’ movement can challenge division
Our city, like the rest of the world, urgently demands political solutions to the problems that are devastating our communities, whether that be violence or poverty, which create the ground on which sectarianism and division can flourish. Instead, the political solutions we need will come through the collective struggles of ordinary workers. Many are already taking united action through a growing strike wave that is sweeping across the country.
The trade union movement has an important potential role to play in the wake of this violence. Trade unions locally should take a clear stand calling for working-class unity and opposing the role played by far-right groups. As a forum for democratic discussion, the workers’ movement has potential to be a space in which the real needs of communities can be discussed – including, where necessary, the organisation of cross-community defence against violence.
This must be linked with the overall struggle necessary to end the cost of living crisis and struggle for socialist change. Groups such as the recently launched Enough is Enough can play a part in organising the kind of collective action which can help to cut across such tensions.
Right wing populism is on the rise globally, and the only answer to its political proponents lies firmly in the realm of class struggle. Globally, the wealth of a super-exploitative billionaire class grows by the day, and the working class of all faiths and none must unite to defend our communities and planet from the profit-seeking predators that seek to divide us.