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Britain is haunted by its violent colonial past


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Yvonne Ridley

The British media want us to believe that the awful scenes of violence on the suburban streets of Leicester were triggered by a cricket match between India and Pakistan in Dubai last month. That narrative pushed by lazy journalists is much easier than confronting the real issues at play in this East Midlands city, because that requires some digging around in the bloody history of colonial brutality and imperialism that many would rather we forget.

The reality is that Muslim and Hindu youths in masks and balaclavas are a by-product of settler colonialism in both Kashmir and Palestine, which has spawned followers of two extremist ruling ideologies: Zionism and Hindutva. Britain's colonial past has come back to haunt it, and unless the government in Westminster gets to grips with historic injustices created during the days of the British Empire, the scene is set for more unrest in Middle England.

Both Palestine and Kashmir represent key colonial struggles created and then abandoned by Britain more than 70 years ago. If the retreating United Kingdom thought that the people it left behind would sort out their own differences after the Union Flag was lowered for the last time, it was wrong. Britain left behind fertile ground in which the violent ideologies of Zionism and Hindutva have flourished.

Zionism was launched in the 19th century to encourage the Jewish diaspora to respond to historic discrimination and anti-Semitic pogroms by creating a "Jewish state" in Palestine. Britain backed this move with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the terms of which were incorporated in the League of Nations mandate granted to the UK to prepare Palestine for independence. While Britain provided a potential solution to the quest of Zionist Jews, its meddling created a major problem for the indigenous Palestinians in mandate Palestine.

Between 1919 and 1936, the ruling British took land from thousands of Palestinians and distributed it among European Zionist settlers. Extreme force was used by the British against the local people; while their homes were demolished, around 5,000 Palestinians were jailed and 148 others were executed by the mandate authorities.

Having lit the touch paper to an endless struggle, Britain then quit its mandate early in May 1948, by which time the nascent United Nations had proposed the 1947 Palestine Partition plan. Jerusalem was designated as a "separate body" of land with special status as international territory. When the British pulled out, the Zionists declared "independence" for the State of Israel, and seized West Jerusalem. The consequent ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians is known by the survivors and their descendants as the "Nakba" (Catastrophe).

Meanwhile, in India, Britain oversaw the partition of the country into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority East and West Pakistan in 1947. The people in the princely state of Kashmir were promised a referendum to decide whether it would be part of India or Pakistan. That referendum never materialised, and the running sore of Indian occupation continues to this day.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir, which has a majority Muslim population. Pakistan views Kashmir as a natural extension of itself. Localised warfare continued throughout 1948 until the UN intervened and a ceasefire was called in January 1949. In July of that year, the ceasefire line was introduced as the Line of Control which split Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan was left with a territory that, although mostly Muslim, was sparsely populated and remote, as well as being severely underdeveloped economically. The largest Muslim group — which is estimated to include more than half of the population — falls within Indian-administered territory, with its exit routes via the Jhelum valley blocked and inaccessible. India continues to enforce a brutal occupation on its side of Kashmir using an extensive military presence and draconian laws.

Their unjust and brutal occupations have drawn Tel Aviv and New Delhi to support each other and a right-wing bond has emerged between the two colonial-settler governments. Each enforces a brutal military occupation on the Palestinians and Kashmiris respectively, giving rise to numerous human rights abuses. The UN has been ineffectual and has watched as both powers continue to grab and occupy land; drive out the indigenous people; and erase their respective cultures. Some have called this slow genocide.

As a result, both states with ultra-nationalistic ideologies have developed an increasingly cosy relationship with each other, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in India. The arms trade flourishes between them, and they share intelligence data to "combat terrorism". Moreover, Indian police officers not only receive training at Israel's national police academy, but also use the same surveillance technology for civilian crowd control and spying with drones made in Britain by the Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit.

Kashmir is now the most densely militarised zone in the world, with close to half a million Indian soldiers stationed there. The Gaza Strip in occupied Palestine has been called the most densely populated open-air prison in the world; it is monitored, bombed and shelled by Israel whenever it pleases the occupation state to do so.

Israel builds illegal settlements on stolen Palestinian land and encourages Jewish settlers to live in "Judea and Samaria". Modi's India, meanwhile, revoked Kashmir's special status in August 2019 and introduced new rules allowing Indian citizens to buy up land and live in the territory. These moves are clearly intended to impose demographic change, just as it has been in the occupied Palestinian territories. To date, 400,000 Indians have been granted domicile status to live in Kashmir.

The similarities are clear for all to see. The occupation of Palestine involves the imposition of a Jewish majority over Muslim and Christian Palestinians. In Indian-occupied Kashmir, those most affected by the demographic shift are Muslims.

Islamophobia has been a uniting factor between far-right Hindus and far-right Zionists. The hashtag #IndiaStandsWithIsrael has trended on Twitter in recent years every time Israel has launched a military offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza. Such offensives usually draw international condemnation, but not from India's Modi and his BJP and Hindutva supporters.

Social media reveals how these colonial states operate within a framework of anti-Muslim hate. Legitimate Palestinian resistance is described as "terrorism", while Indian Security Forces and the BJP government use the same language to demonise Kashmiris as "Pakistani Jihadis" or "Islamic terrorists". Both India and Israel justify their crackdowns and killings by invoking "anti-terrorism" and dehumanising their victims.

International Palestine and Kashmir solidarity movements can be found on university and college campuses, with calls for justice and self-determination at the heart of their demands. However, there are also growing numbers of people supporting New Delhi and Tel Aviv, especially within the ranks of far-right white supremacists and Indian nationalists. Settler colonialism is making a determined comeback.

The writing has been on the wall for India's Muslims ever since Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was returned to power with a sweeping victory in the General Election. Using his renewed mandate to pursue his right-wing agenda of economic development paired with Hindu nationalism and a hard line on national security, he appears to be deliberately targeting India's Muslim citizens.

His right-wing populism weaponises Hindu nationalism (Hindutva), and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteer paramilitary organisation has a presence across Indian society. Together, Hindutva and the RSS spawn anti-Muslim bigotry in a country once celebrated for its secularism and diversity of religions, ethnicities, languages and castes. Such bigotry is now manifesting itself on the streets of Britain, in Leicester, where Muslims and Hindus have lived side by side peacefully for years.

On Saturday, a number of masked Hindu men, escorted and protected by police officers, marched recklessly along Green Lane Road in the East Midlands city during busy shopping hours. Their chants were threatening and intimidating, but why did the police allow this march to go ahead? Anyone showing the slightest dissent during Queen Elizabeth II's various funeral parades was arrested. And yet a number of clashes between Hindus and Muslims have taken place in Leicester over the past couple of weeks. Police action seems to have been limited compared with the response to anti-monarchy activists. Of those arrested, a number are known to have gone to Leicester from other cities in an apparent effort to sow discord between Hindus and Muslims. The involvement of pro-Modi Hindutva activists has been downplayed by the police and media.

Arguably the strongest condemnation of Hindutva violence in Leicester has come from the Sikh Federation UK: "The authorities must recognise and treat this situation appropriately as far-right Hindu nationalists/BJP RSS extremism and radicals that are targeting minorities [and] disrupting communal harmony." The federation criticises "police cover-ups and glossing" over of the situation.

Instead of trying to help calm the situation, though, the Indian government condemned violence against the "Indian community" in Leicester during Saturday's Hindutva march. "We strongly condemn the violence perpetrated against the Indian Community in Leicester and vandalisation of premises and symbols of [the] Hindu religion," said India's Ministry of External Affairs "We have strongly taken up this matter with the UK authorities and have sought immediate action against those involved in these attacks." Perhaps the ministry should watch this video to see who the aggressors were in Leicester.

We need to look back to 1947 to understand the roots of the latest violence resulting from Britain's colonial past. The British made a deadly mess when they withdrew from India, and did so again when they pulled out of Palestine. It is time for the government in Westminster to address both examples of glaring injustice so that the people of Palestine and Kashmir can live in peace and security, and their supporters in Britain and elsewhere no longer feel the need to demonstrate on our streets. Zionism and Hindutva are two sides of the same racist coin; neither should be welcome in Britain.


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