British Indians and the UK elections

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British Indians (also Indian British people or Indian Britons) are citizens of the United Kingdom (UK) whose ancestral roots lie in India. According to latest figures, Indians comprise about 1.4 million people in the UK, making them the single largest visible ethnic minority population in the country. The largest group of British Indians are those of Punjabi origin, accounting for an estimated 45 percent of the British Indian population, followed by other communities including Gujarati, Malayali and Marathi communities.

Traditionally, British Indians were largely supporters of the Labour party, however, during the last 15-20 years a considerable shift towards Conservative party has been noticed.

The expat Indians wherever they live, constitute a big pressure group in their host country. A recent example of this is the Canadian elections, which took place last month, and in which Indian pressure groups played a key role. Now, a similar a concern is reported with regard to the next month’s UK’s general elections. The concern has particularly come from Labour Party candidates, who are citing campaign by “India-linked Hindu nationalist group” targeting Labour candidates.

There are reports that supporters of India’s governing nationalist party the BJP will be actively campaigning for Conservative Party candidates against the Labour Party during the general election.

The group, known as the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) will be focussing on 48 marginal seats during the campaign, and believe the British Indian vote in these constituencies could swing the election.

Kuldeep Singh Shekhawat of OFBJP, has stated that they were campaigning against the Labour Party for its perceived criticism of India regarding the Kashmir conflict.

The Labour Party has been criticised by Hindu nationalist groups after it passed an emergency motion, which was perceived as criticising India’s conduct over the contested territory of Kashmir.

The OFBJP is now organising events in Hindu temples, social groups and community bodies to call on British Indians not to vote for the Labour Party, according to news reports.

It is unclear whether OFBJP receives funding from the main Hindu nationalist party back in India.

Eviane Leidig who studies political extremism – with a particular focus on the Indian and Western far right, at the University of Oslo, has observed that the Conservative party had seen an increase in the number of British Indian, particularly Hindu, voters in the 2015 and 2017 elections. According to her British Hindus have long played an active role in grassroots mobilisation and political party campaigning in the UK, part of this is due to a growing anti-Labour stance.

Ms Leidig’s research has found parts of the British Hindu community regards the Labour Party as having control over what they perceive as the “Muslim (i.e. British Pakistani and Bangladeshi) voting bloc”.

The campaign has alarmed some Labour Party MPs standing for re-election, who say the prospect of foreign interference by “religious hardliners” could stir up inter-community tensions.

Earlier, in July, Canadian officials warned of potential election interference from the BJP in Canada’s upcoming elections. In a report, the civil servants accused India and China of trying to promote sympathetic candidates and spread misinformation.

In the UK it is extremely unusual for a group explicitly tied to a foreign political party to openly declare its intent to campaign for a specific British political party during an election.

Overseas Friends of BJP UK (OFBJPUK), founded in 1992, says it aims to “spread a positive message of the BJP Government in India” led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has attracted recent controversy and international condemnation by stripping the disputed territory of Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status. The residents of Kashmir are now living under severe lockdown, with TV channels cut, curfews and thousands of troops deployed to the region.

​​In a statement Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who is standing to be re-elected as the Labour MP for Slough, has said that there has been a lot of talk in recent years about foreign external interference in elections and surely this is just another prime example of it. He also said the Labour Party was not “anti-India”, as some critics have claimed. He has further stated that unlike what some people may try to portray, the Labour Party is not anti-India, anti-Pakistan, or anti anyone else. We merely stand up for and have always stood up for the human rights of all – regardless of background, colour or creed, he said.

The UK’s Charity Commission has intervened in the issue of political activity by Hindu temples before also. Just before the 2015 and 2017 general elections, the National Council of Hindu Temples (NCHT) sent out emails urging Hindus to vote Conservative. The Charity Commission intervened on both occasions and forced the NCHT to withdraw its advice.

Last month the NCHT also sent a letter to Jeremy Corbyn accusing the Labour Party of “internal apartheid” and “anti-Indian racism”. It said that Labour had kept its “Indian members” in the dark about a motion over Kashmir that had been passed at the party conference. The NCHT also claimed that Labour was “perilously close to becoming direct supporters of Islamist terror organisations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS”.

British Hindus are also being targeted by WhatsApp messages urging them to vote against Labour in the general election, accusing the party of being “anti-India” and “anti-Hindu”.

The messages have also included videos by far-right anti-Muslim activists and have raised fears they are attempting to exploit tensions between British Pakistanis and Indians, as well as different religious groups.

At the party conference in September, Labour enraged the BJP when it passed a motion calling for humanitarian and international observers to enter the disputed region of Kashmir. The motion came after Delhi’s decision in August to revoke the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir.

This move by OFBJP might boomerang against them, as the campaign might be seen as interference in a foreign country’s affairs. The analysts also wonder how and why the organisation is trying to rake up issues which are India-centric, in an election which has got nothing to do with it. Every political party and government is free to form its own opinion on an issue and if the Indians have any grouse against any party, then they should try to use the channels available in that country or to force a government to government level talk on the issue. This move will only taint the image of Indians in all those countries where they are present in big numbers and will be seen as not giving up their Indian baggage in spite of obtaining coveted passports of other countries.

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