Just a few days before the 2015 UK general election, a leaflet suddenly appeared in the London constituency of Harrow East, accusing Labour candidate Uma Kumaran of branding British Hindus as “casteists”. It called on them to support the Conservatives.
Kumaran, a Hindu herself, was “appalled that my faith is being used against me” and slammed the leaflets as “gutter politics”. They were produced by an outfit called Dharma Sewa Purvapaksha, registered in Rugby, Warwickshire. Its founder, Mukesh Naker, acknowledged he was a Conservative Party member and was angry that the Labour Party wanted to outlaw discrimination on the basis of caste.
Now Naker is back. In late November, the Electoral Commission approved a third-party campaigning organisation called Operation Dharmic Vote: Naker is its ‘responsible person’ and it has a page on the Dharma Sewa Purvapaksha website. ‘Dharmic’ refers to religions that originated in India: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. It excludes Christianity and Islam even though they have been in the subcontinent for centuries.
openDemocracy has been sent a leaflet distributed by ODV in Leicester during the current election campaign. It asks voters whether they want amrut (‘nectar’ in Gujarati) or “poison” – implying the Labour candidate, Claudia Webbe. One page is headed: "3 good reasons why you should vote for Conservative candidate Bhupen Dave and NOT Labour."
Naker has known and worked with Dave for years, a source tells me. The ODV leaflet claims it is not party political.
openDemocracy has also learnt that the National Council of Hindu Temples (UK) (NCHTUK), arguably Britain’s largest Hindu body, has suspended its general secretary, Satish Sharma.
openDemocracy revealed two weeks ago that Sharma had been personally advocating for the Conservatives on social media in recent weeks.
Two trustees of the charity – one of them its president, Madhu Shastri – have confirmed Sharma’s suspension, without explaining what prompted it. The Charity Commission has also commented on Sharma’s activities. It told openDemocracy:
We engaged with the National Council of Hindu Temples after we became aware of comments by the charity’s General Secretary relating to the forthcoming General Election. The trustees provided assurances that this was not done in the charity’s name and that they have processes in place to protect the charity’s independence.
Separately, we have sent a letter to a number of umbrella organisations representing Hindu charities, including NCHT, asking them to remind their charitable members of the law on charities and political activity.
NCHTUK was rebuked by the Charity Commission for advocating for the Conservatives in the 2015 and 2017 elections. The commission’s rules clearly state: “Trustees must not allow the charity to be used as a vehicle for the expression of the personal or party political views of any individual trustee or staff member.”
Minority vs minority
“My daughter goes to school in Belgrave Road,” says Andrea Burford, a Labour Party activist in Leicester. “I can't even take her to school anymore.”
Leicester’s Gujarati Hindus dominate Belgrave Road, a street next to Leicester’s city centre. Burford says she has been targeted by angry and defamatory comments on social media and in person after taking part in a protest in Leicester for human rights in Kashmir. She now fears for the safety of her family.
The dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir isn’t new, but it exploded in August when the Hindu nationalist government of India revoked the limited autonomy granted to the region under its constitution and jailed its political leaders without trial.
It flared in the UK after the Labour Party conference passed a motion condemning the India government in September. Last month the party said the dispute is a matter between India and Pakistan. But ‘pro-India’ Hindu supporters have continued to present Labour as no friend of the country.
The social media war
The Institute of Strategic Dialogue – a think tank devoted to combatting polarisation and extremism – has seen division trending on open social media networks in the run-up to the general election. Research associate Mackenzie Hart says:
We observed a number of newly created Twitter accounts that explicitly targeted British Hindu voters. These accounts promoted anti-Labour messages, encouraging the Hindu community to vote for the Conservatives in the upcoming election.
The accounts also engage with underlying currents of anti-Muslim narratives and hatred towards the Muslim community, which reflects a trend we have seen throughout the election campaign. The activity of these accounts suggest a level of coordinated, grassroots mobilisation, enforcing a narrative of sectarian voting in the UK.
This follows wider trends that we’ve seen in the run-up to this general election, where specific communities, religious groups, and constituencies have been targeted by hyper-partisan online messaging. This sort of campaigning is concerning and has the potential to polarise the British Indian community.
What’s new is that the governments of both India and Pakistan recognise the impact their diasporas can have in shaping overseas opinion. They and their supporters and have aggressively targeted them through TV channels. In one example, a current affairs programme on the Indian broadcaster WION News claims that Pakistan is trying to “infiltrate” the British parliament through the Pakistani spy agency (the ISI) “sponsoring memberships” of the Labour Party.
In another, the Indian TV channel NewsX has broadcast a presenter saying that British Indians are “rising up” against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour because the party has become “anti-India”.
These clips have circulated on WhatsApp groups in the UK, which have become full of angry rants against other religious communities. Betrayal and revenge are common themes.
openDemocracy has seen social media from British Hindus saying that their community is moving en masse towards the Conservatives. The polls don’t bear out these claims yet, but if they turn out to be true, it could change the outcome of the election in places like London, Leicester, Leeds and perhaps even Nottingham.
Leicester and Harrow have seen the most vicious battles between ‘pro-India’ and ‘pro-Kashmir’ activists. Both areas have many ethnic minority residents. Caught in the middle are British Hindus and Muslims, who are being told they need to support their community by voting the ‘right’ way or be considered traitors. Whatever happens on 12 December, the divisions and bitterness of this campaign will be felt for years to come.
We have asked Mukesh Naker and Satish Sharma for comment. None has been received at the time of publication.
Below are some of the messages the author has received and seen. Some have been stitched together to save space.