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Aban Usmani

What happened in Leicester, and did Indian media play a role?

As British media coverage remained clouded by an unprecedented boost in sales and record-breaking broadcasts brought forth by a royal funeral, clashes between cricket fans gradually brewed into communal violence and an international story in Leicester.

The Indian High Commission in the United Kingdom has now condemned the vandalism of a temple and Hindu religious symbols following pro-Hindutva mobilisation and sloganeering around Muslim businesses in the East Midlands city. While the Leicester mayor has flagged the role of disinformation on social media, more than 15 people have been arrested so far over the violence whose seeds are believed to have been sown with an India Pakistan cricket match on August 28.

But as the facts of the episodes remain unclear, media reports offer a clue to what might have led to the sharp flare-up in tensions in the multiracial city, where, according to the 2011 census, Muslims form 18.63 percent of the population while Hindus comprise 15.19 percent. Only around 50 percent of the population is British White in a city that has become a hub of Asian migration over the decades.

A Guardian report, meanwhile, quoted Gurharpal Singh, a visiting fellow at the University at Leicester, who said “Indian media outlets had reported in Leicester in highly communal terms”, and that underlying socio-economic tensions get exacerbated by fringe groups using “communal discourse”.

But how did the British press report on the episodes, and did Indian media actually report the issue in inflammatory terms?

Pakistan’s cricket defeat and ‘racist slogans’

The Leicester Mercury, a regional newspaper, reported that a man and a police officer were assaulted when Indian cricket team fans gathered in Belgrave after Pakistan’s defeat in the Asia Cup match on August 28. A video clip of the assault contained “offensive anti-Pakistan chants”, it said.

Officers warned the public to avoid the area but it was not the first such warning over a cricket match in Leicester. In June 2017, six police officers were injured in a clash between fans of the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams.

The BBC report on the clash on August 28 also did not mention any communal identifiers but pointed to “racist and hateful chanting” on videos circulated on social media. The British network mentioned that the police were treating it as a “hate crime”.

The Mirror, on the other hand, reported a “huge brawl” without any communal identifiers.

But between that incident and the pro-Hindutva rallies and vandalism of a temple on the weekend, the British media ostensibly gave the city a miss – as tensions continued to brew through social media disinformation. British media outlets resumed reporting only after the violence on the weekend.

And while the British media kept away, it was only social media handles and certain Indian news outlets that talked about the situation in Leicester – but not to ensure peace as per journalistic responsibilities. However, more on that later.

The misinformation on social media was evident, with police stepping in to dismiss rumours, such as the one about a mosque being vandalised in Leicester.

Independent journalist Sunny Hundal said that after the violence following the match, videos showing men targeting Hindu-majority neighbourhoods were circulated. British Hindu WhatsApp accounts were flooded with the message that Muslim gangs were targeting Hindu families and religious symbols, he said. Hindus started mobilising in Leicester on weekends, he said. And this triggered Muslim “activists” to converge in the city on Saturday, Hundal claimed. The journalist also pointed to racist language by “activist” Mohammad Hijab. “If they (Hindus) believe in reincarnation, what a humiliation of them to be reincarnated into some pathetic, weak, cowardly people like that,” Hijab reportedly said while addressing a gathering, which Hundal said was a search for clout.

The eventual pro-Hindutva rallies with armed youngsters and sloganeering were reported on while the subsequent vandalism of a Hindu temple and the taking down of a saffron flag invigorated sections of the Indian media – to deploy the lexicon of the Hindu right.

The weekend violence

In headlines and reports across the left, right and centre of the British media spectrum, no outlet reported the incidents on the weekend while pinning the blame on a particular community, unlike Indian counterparts such as Times Now, NewsX, Firstpost and India Today TV.

Even the Daily Mail, considered the most prominent right-wing media outlet, seemed to tread with caution as compared to these Indian outlets while reporting on the “string of violence in Leicester which is said to be between ‘young Muslims and Hindus’”. “Moment police officers are pelted with bottles ‘after flag was torn down from a temple’ during another night of violence on streets of Leicester ‘between young Muslims and Hindus’” read the headline.

The Mirror, considered left-aligned, quoted police authorities and the mayor in a report headlined “Police injured in ‘significant aggression’ in Leicester as cops brought in from across UK”. It did not mention any targeting of a community and said “rival groups of young men from the Muslim and Hindu communities attempted to fight each other”. It noted that “police have still been criticised by the public for not making more arrests”.

The Telegraph, seen as centre-right, noted that the “latest sectarian disorder follows weeks of rising tension that first erupted after the Asia Cup cricket match”. The headline said that it was a clash between “Hindu and Muslim gangs” – pinning the blame on criminal elements instead of communities.

“Immediately following the match, there were clashes in the Belgrave area of Leicester, which resulted in eight people being arrested. There was further violence on September 5 and a total of 27 people were detained for questioning as part of a major police operation to tackle the trouble. But since then, inflammatory comments and rumours posted on social media have inflamed tensions, according to the city’s mayor,” the paper reported.

The Sun, another right-leaning daily, pointed to the mayor’s remarks that the local community was left “baffled” with the violence. "It got fanned by some very distorted social media. And then fuelled by a lot of people who came in from outside as well as some young local lads who seemed to feel it was appropriate to frighten and disturb this peaceful city," the mayor was quoted as saying. The paper mentioned the India-Pakistan match but did not use any word to indicate who instigated or started the violence.

If not detailed, the British media coverage could not at least be termed inflammatory.

But the same could not be said for India, where the Press Council of India’s norms of journalistic conduct prescribe certain standards for reporting communal violence. According to the norms, media outlets must refrain from provocative headlines and writing which may inflame passions or strain relations between two communities. “There is a greater moral responsibility on the media to do their best to build up the national solidarity and to re-cement the communal harmony at all levels,” they state.

Let’s look at the Indian media’s reportage, which mostly came without any reporters on ground.

No context, unverified videos, inflammatory headlines

On September 7, Firstpost reported on tensions in Leicester with the headline, “Anti-Hindu rampage in UK: Muslim gangs terrorising Hindus, vandalising property after India’s T20 win over Pakistan”.

The report lacked any context and was replete with unverified videos of social media users claiming Hindus were under attack. “After India’s victory against Pakistan in the 28 August T20 match of ongoing Asia Cup, well-organised Muslim gangs have been vandalising and terrorising Hindus in the UK’s Leicester city,” read the opening paragraph.

“Muslims in Leicester hunt down Hindus as tensions rise between the two communities. MSM silent as always,” read a tweet embedded in the report. There was no mention of whether these videos were even verified in the report, which contained “inputs from agencies”.

Hours later, another report appeared on the Print, with ANI’s byline. “UK: Pakistani organized gangs target Hindu areas in Leicester,” read the headline of the report which also quoted social media users.

“Gangs running riot and escalating attacks on Hindus. Innocent Hindus have been terrorized in their own properties, there have been attempts to stab and there has been rampant vandalism of Hindu properties,” the ANI quoted Rashami Samant, who last year resigned as Oxford Union president after allegations of anti-semitism and transphobia.

The ANI report did not substantiate the attack with any quote or numbers from official authorities.

Meanwhile, after the violence, Times Now, NewsX and India Today TV aired segments that attempted to piece together a story of Hindu victimhood and Muslim demonisation.

On his show India Upfront, Rahul Shivshankar of Times Now announced that Hindus are attacked in Leicester, abused in the US and hunted in Bangladesh. “In Leicester, these poor Hindus, Indians. Forget about Hindus, Indians were walking through a locality chanting Jai Shri Ram on their way to the temple, and they were beaten,” said the anchor.

Reporters of the channel, which made a commercial entry in British markets in 2015, were missing from the spot at the time of the conflict. However, a “super exclusive” ground report, which was broadcasted with tickers demanding it was “time to expose Hindu hate”, had a “contributor” and “reporter” talk about the day after the violence – this was part of a Times Now campaign called "slam Hinduphobia" hosted by Padmaja Joshi.

The reporter, Shradha Chauhan, pointed to “our saffron flags” hoisted outside the temple where the vandalism took place a day before. The “contributor”, Akshat Jaganmohan, talked about the security situation in the area.

The anchor called in Dishita Solanki, a Leicester-based entrepreneur linked to Hindu spiritual campaigns, as a concerned local citizen. Irrespective of the demographics, Solanki claimed that it was a small minority of Hindus who barely knew the language and had just settled in who were being attacked.

The story of one community’s victimhood, and demonisation of another, was repeated on India Today TV, on a show hosted by Gaurav Sawant, where Solanki was invited as “eyewitness”. Similar to Times Now, the channel chose to focus on one side of the story.

Sawant did not bother to counter Solanki when she chose to defend the armed rally by one community as a “defensive tactic” while describing the other as “petrifying”. She also said the problem was with the Hindu community as “they could not tell the police” what happened because they are migrants and “don’t know the language”.

NewsX also hosted a debate on the “conspiracy” and “Hinduphobia”, without any reporter on ground in Leicester.

Newslaundry is a reader-supported, ad-free, independent news outlet based out of New Delhi. Support their journalism, here.

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