Barnie Choudhury: ‘We must stop the politics of religion division in Britain’


Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi

by BARNIE CHOUDHURY
Former BBC journalist

I LOVE general election night, and to be more precise, I love being in the thick of it.

So, I was super-excited to be at an election count for the first time in 15 years last Thursday (12). It was Leicester, my home city, and unlike the rest of the country, this part of the red wall was expected to stay intact. Apart from Leicester East, despite its mammoth near-22,500 Labour majority, the rest was a forgone conclusion.

But as it turned out, it was a close call. Let us look at why this was.

Every south Asian I spoke to thought that Labour’s Claudia Webbe was parachuted into this
constituency after the incumbent MP, Keith Vaz, stood down in disgrace. They were angry
that one of their own was not considered, never mind make it to the shortlist.

But that was not the only reason for their anger. Webbe had the misfortune to preside over
an ill-thought out, ill-executed and illegitimate motion at the Labour party’s annual conference condemning the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s decision to keep an election pledge to support Kashmiri Hindus who felt they had been driven out of the state.

My sources tell me that Webbe was the unwitting victim in all this. They say the former deputy leader, Tom Watson, was supposed to chair the motion but was ill, so Webbe was asked to take his place. If true, then she was wrongly labelled the villain and requires an apology.

I believe it was unwise for Labour to criticise Modi. The Conservative party was clever
enough to see this as the trap it was and avoided mentioning it. I bet Labour supporters wished their party was just as politically astute.

Modi’s influence spreads across the UK. The Hindu-Indian diaspora is massive here and
their votes can make, break and send a message to politicians. Economically they contribute to political parties and their campaigns. In under six weeks, a majority of 22,000-plus in Leicester East was reduced to just over 6,000. Unthinkable, even with the ‘Corbyn factor’ because Vaz, for all his faults, was recognised as a top-notch constituency MP. ‘Mess with us at our peril’ was their message.

But it was not just Leicester East which was targeted. I have written before about the WhatsApp group set up by BJP supporters saying any Hindu who votes for Labour is a traitor. Well, that group’s fingerprints were all over other Hindu-rich constituencies.

Take Brent North, whose MP is the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner.
Sources tell me that on the doorstep, Hindus said to Gardiner they would not be voting for
him because of the party’s stance on Kashmir. Gardiner is a decent man who loves India,
has watched more Bollywood movies than me, and can speak Hindi better than I can. He
won with a slightly reduced majority.

This cannot be good. The politics of the Indian subcontinent has always played a part in
our elections – when our parents first arrived in the UK, Labour made sure it was the party for them, and former Wolverhamp on South West MP, Enoch Powell, made the job easier.

But this time, what played out on social media was nothing more than south Asian coun-
tries interfering in our politics. A deep-dive analysis of south Asian voting in the 2019 election by a reputable organisation will, I believe, show that what began as a small
problem is now a major headache with malevolent consequences.

But it is more than interference. Lest we forget, India was founded on the principles of a
secular state. Its first prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru promised that non-Hindus
were not only welcome in the country of their birth, but they would also be safe and have the same rights as the Hindu majority. What we are seeing now is the final destruction of that dream, and what is worse is that it has made its way to the UK.

This cancer needs to be eviscerated because we south Asians forget at our peril that we are a minority. The greater our divisions the smaller our voice becomes. Indian history tells us Empire flourished on divide and rule, and we allowed that to happen. Unless we learn from history, we British south Asians are sleep-walking towards a politics of malignant religious division. And that will not help us gain the democratic rights we expect, deserve and need.