Keir Starmer, don’t pander to fascists & their allies in Britain

A statement by Indians for Labour & South Asia Solidarity Group

We are deeply concerned by Keir Starmer’s decision to write to the Hindu Forum Britain (HFB), an organisation which is closely aligned with Narendra Modi’s far-right BJP government, in an apparent attempt to improve relations with the Indian community in the UK. In this statement, we will be examining the three main issues raised in the Hindu Forum’s response to Starmer (caste discrimination legislation, Kashmir and ‘Hindu-phobia’) as reasons why Labour has supposedly lost the support of the Indian community in the UK. We will explain why we would urge Starmer to hold Modi’s government to account on these interlinked issues, and support those who stand up for justice over these issues as Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership had encouraged the party to do.

The human rights abuses committed by Modi’s regime over the past year – namely the revoking of Kashmir’s limited autonomy in August last year and the ensuing lockdown in the region, and the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December – have brought the Indian government into international notoriety, highlighting Modi’s position among far-right leaders globally and making Starmer’s attempt to align Labour with their sympathisers all the more disturbing and problematic.

Starmer seems to have ignored the fact that the Modi government’s new Citizenship laws and processes (the CAA, National Register of Citizens and National Population Register) would disenfranchise millions of Muslims across India and is widely seen as the first step to ethnic cleansing. The revoking of Article 370 which represented Kashmir’s limited autonomy is an act of colonialism by the BJP government against a nation which has been denied its historic right to self-determination and was handed over to India by British colonialists in 1947. It comes against a background of decades of occupation by the Indian army and human rights abuses.

Contrary to their suggestion in their letter to Starmer, the HFB does not represent the entirety of the Indian diaspora in the UK. Many of us within this diaspora – including many Labour members -have actively condemned not only these human rights abuses but also the mob lynchings of Muslims, Dalits and other minorities by mobs affiliated to the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), which is a fascist organization modelled on Mussolini’s Black shirts and is the parent organization of the BJP. These mob attacks have been rampant since Modi’s initial rise to power in 2014.

By attempting to rebuild ties with the ‘Indian community’ in the UK by reaching out to far-right sympathising organisations such as HFB, Starmer is choosing to ignore Indian Labour members that have been outspoken against the rise of fascism in India over the last few years. This suggests he is more concerned with maintaining the support of far-right groups within the Indian diaspora than with sticking to the Labour internationalist principle of condemning international human rights abuses.

Most tellingly, the HFB letter describes the points it raises as ‘issues of concern to the Hindu/Indian community’, implicitly denying the existence of hundreds of thousands of non-Hindu Indians in the UK (Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and people of no faith) including many that are outspokenly against the atrocities committed by the Modi regime.

The first of the issues raised in the HFBletter is the caste discrimination legislation – a law which Dalit organisations have campaigned for since 2000 in response to the caste discrimination and abuse which is rife in the Indian diaspora. The law was effectively passed with the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 imposing a ‘duty’ on the government to make caste an aspect of race in the Equality Act of 2010 but has since been scuppered by the Tories in response to pressure from the HFB and other Hindu Right organisations.

HFB describes it as ‘a corrupt piece of legislation that targets the Hindu community’. This evokes the Hindu-right argument that caste discrimination is a colonial myth created by the British to undermine Hinduism. It ignores the well-known and widely documented reality that Indian society is itself stratified according to caste and atrocities against oppressed castes are not only widespread but according to the government’s own figures have increased under the Modi government. Unfortunately, caste discrimination is also rife among the Indian diaspora in the UK.

The second central issue raised in the letter is Labour’s policy on Kashmir under Corbyn. The letter claims Corbyn’s passing a motion to bring the issue of the siege on Jammu and Kashmir to the United Nations represents his ‘Anti-India stance’. This is an attempt to silence condemnation of the revocation of Article 370 as a human rights issue, despite the UN repeatedly raising concerns about the Kashmir situation.

The mention of ‘Hinduphobia’ in the HFB’s letter, and the parallels drawn between this and anti-Semitism, are deeply worrying given that this idea has been propagated by the BJP and their supporters in India to shut down dissent and criticism of their fascistic measures. The letter compares this ‘Hinduphobia’ to anti-Semitism, urging the party not to ‘make the same error’ as they did with the Jewish community in allowing ‘racist elements within its own rank unfettered access to megaphone their prejudice’. The only ‘evidence’ provided of this Hinduphobia is, absurdly, the caste legislation and the Kashmir motion. The terms ‘Hinduphobia’ and ‘anti-Hindu’ have, in fact, been used to justify Islamophobia and repression in India. Unlike anti-Semitism, terms and notions such as ‘Hinduphobia’ have been fabricated by the Hindu right in India – particularly through orchestrated social media trolling campaigns – and clearly do not have traction in a Hindu majority country ruled by a majoritarian Hindu regime.

This portrayal of Labour as ‘anti-Hindu’ and the entirely false equivalence with anti-Semitism has previously been suggested by the UK Hindu Council, and reads as trivialising of the very real historical and contemporary issue of anti-Semitism. Moreover, the HFB’s use of this rhetoric is emblematic of the close links between the Hindu Forum and the BJP itself, which regularly brands its critics ‘anti-national’– most recently the Chair of the Delhi government’s own Minorities Commission was charged with Sedition and ‘promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion’ for saying that Muslims in India were being persecuted. As explored above, the letter also exemplifies how the notion of Hindu-phobia is used to deny the existence of, and silence protest against, caste-based discrimination in the UK.

Starmer’s decision to reach out to the HFB appears part of a wider realignment of Labour policy towards uncritical support for Modi’s fascist government, and towards accepting the Hindu right’s narrative around Indian communities in the UK. This is in response to the consistent displeasure with the party under Corbyn from UK Hindu-right organisations, including the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the overseas wing of the RSS.

Last week, Starmer also met with the executive team of Labour Friends of India (LFIN), in a similar vein of rebuilding trust within the Indian community by repositioning Labour on Kashmir. Rajesh Agrawal, current Chair of LFIN and Deputy Mayor of London, is a staunch and explicit sympathiser with the RSS. Agrawal has been pictured attending an event with Manoj Ladwa, a member of the HSS and former Communications Director for the 2014 ‘Narendra Modi for Prime Minister’ campaign. (Notably, Ladwa is also a founder member and first President of National Hindu Students Forum UK, further demonstrating the close links between many UK-based Hindu-right organisations and their counterparts in India.) We ask that Keir Starmer acknowledges our concerns about this relationship he appears keen to establish and represents the majority within the Indian diaspora who do not align themselves with the ongoing fascism of the Modi regime, rather than pandering to the wishes of its allies in the UK.

Indians for Labour @Indians4Corbyn

South Asia Solidarity Group: @SAsiaSolidarity