On 9 May 2022, the community of Shaheen Bhagh, one of Delhi’s Muslim neighbourhoods, woke up to 200 policemen and a battalion of armed militants lined up outside their doors. The women began to come out of their homes, assembling in Dharnā (a peaceful sit-in demonstration). They knew what was about to come. At 11.30am, a bulldozer arrived. Slogans grew louder into a mass uproar as protesters surrounded it. The demolition drive paused when several women, including Congress leader Arfa Khanum, despite having a fractured leg, leaped past the police and onto the bulldozer.
For years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been trying to transform India into a Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) regime. Hindutva extremists are openly calling for the genocide of India’s 200 million Muslims to form a new Hindu state. The BJP has doggedly pursued a regime to deprive Muslims of their rights, from criminalising Hindu-Muslim marriages and erasing the chapters on democracy and secularism from school textbooks, to endorsing a propaganda film that depicts Muslims as bloodthirsty traitors – not far from Nazi films like Jew Süss.
This persecution of Muslims that started with lynchings and incarcerations has expanded to include what has become the ‘bulldozer politics’ – the rumble of state-sponsored bulldozers in Muslim-majority areas razing mosques, homes and shops. Groups in saffron show up to cheer the demolitions and wave Hindutva flags as hundreds of Muslim families watch from behind the barricades as their livelihoods disappear into clouds of dust and debris.
Given this context, it was especially grim to see Boris Johnson sit in a JCB bulldozer during an April visit to India, as he attended the inauguration of a new factory in Gujarat, posing for cameras with the British company whose same machines have been flattening Muslim homes.
That trip to India, where both leaders discussed a major free trade agreement, and the subsequent reunion at the G7 summit last month (where Johnson accepted a hand-painted tea set from Modi), have been seen by many exasperated Indian Muslims as a provocative disregard for their experience.
“Imperial Britain has always been in the driving seat of the bulldozer”
Yet this betrayal is not new. Imperial Britain has always been in the driving seat of the bulldozer, revealing the UK’s role in both setting and enabling violence against Muslims in the country.
The scapegoating and punishment of Indian Muslims were tactics first employed in the 19th century by the British colonisers to ease conquest. After fabricating a monolithic fantasy called ‘the Indian culture’, the British homogenised ‘India’ as ‘Hindu’. “They [the Empire] appeased the majority Hindus by promising to ‘save’ them from Muslims,” explains Nabiya Khan, an activist and poet from Delhi.
Lord Minto, the mastermind behind ‘divide and rule’ policy, carefully orchestrated divisions within the Indian army on the basis of religion to avoid a united uprising against the British. He saw Hindu-Muslim unity in India as a danger to the empire, so he branded Indian Muslims as ‘invaders’. We see this echoed centuries later as the BJP regime labels Indian Muslims as “anti-national terrorists”. Meanwhile, the BJP regime uses colonial-era sedition laws to incarcerate writers, journalists and activists to repress political dissidence.
This legacy seeped even further into Indian society. “The ‘masculine’ British coloniser considered Hindu men ‘too feminine’,” says Laila Kadiwal, a sociologist based in London. “Today’s Hindutva uses violence against Muslims as a revenge to overcome this ‘emasculation’.” Hindutva extremists regularly circulate fake news of Hindu women being abducted and converted to Islam by Muslim men, known as “Love Jihad”. “[Hindutva] men’s obsession with saving Muslim women is also a direct replica of how the British Empire wanted to ‘save’ the brown women,” adds Sara Ather, an Indian writer and activist.
The UK continues to deny the skeletons in its closet, and the image of Johnson seated on a bulldozer in India has become symbolic of how today the country is more than just a complicit bystander to the impending genocide.
“Hindutva couldn’t have sustained itself without consistent international support,” says Saima Azim, a PhD scholar from Delhi. “The support from the UK comes in mysterious ways,” she says, explaining that the language used in mainstream media perpetuates a certain image. “I see the UK mainstream media calling it a ‘communal clash’ or ‘Hindu-Muslim antagonism in India’ instead of calling it a genocide and ethnic cleansing… When we correct their seemingly ‘neutral’ terminologies, that correction doesn’t seem to travel back to the UK. This is also how they gaslight the reality of Palestinians.”
The free trade agreement, which hopes to be resolved by October, has been hailed as a “new era” in the UK and India’s partnership. Both countries also agreed on a programme to advance cyber security, which follows dedicated efforts from the UK defence ministry to push the sales of defence technology and data handling expertise to India rather than weapons – the country being the world’s largest importer of arms. Yet for years the Modi government has been using online surveillance as a tool to crack down on civil rights.
The arbitrary arrests of several Indian Muslim journalists, for example, have been based on their online activity from years ago. In June 2021, WhatsApp sued the Indian government for repeatedly compromising users’ privacy and a year later Twitter filed a lawsuit against the Indian government for attempting to compromise user’s security and asking to remove content on civil rights and press freedom.
The insidiousness of the UK government’s support for the Modi regime isn’t confined to foreign policies. Home Secretary Priti Patel’s admiration for her “dear friend” Modi’s vision of a Hindu state and her support for the fascist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the progenitor of BJP that claims India belongs to people who are ‘biologically’ Aryan Hindus – is shared by many upper-caste Hindus in the UK. RSS even has an office in Leicester, called the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh.
It’s a stark reminder of how 20 years ago, Channel 4 News revealed British funds raised by the charity Sewa International were being funnelled to Hindu nationalist groups and directly incited violence in the Gujarat Riots that led to the killing of 2,000 Indian Muslims.
“It’s particularly alienating to be an Indian Muslim in Europe because the diaspora is monopolised by upper-caste Hindus who cheer Hindutva and condone Islamophobia,” says A, who asked to remain anonymous.
Still, many people in the UK are trying to resist and expose the British government’s silence in the face of human rights violations in India. Earlier this month, hundreds of Indian Muslims and their allies took to the streets of London, calling for the government to stop enabling facism with friendly tea-ing and trade deals.
But as Johnson resigns, he will always be remembered as Modi’s “khaas dost” (special friend) who helped the BJP regime strengthen ‘domestic security’ – which is just code for suppressing dissent against Modi’s regime.
“The British colonisers never really left,” Laila adds. “They have reincarnated into a predatory and genocidal alliance.”
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