UK: 200-strong crowd protests outside temple in Smethwick, near Birmingham; community leaders make joint appeal for harmony

Around 200 people, many among them chanting the takbir, gathered to protest outside a Hindu temple in England’s Smethwick on Tuesday

FPJ Web DeskUpdated: Wednesday, September 21, 2022, 12:14 PM IST
Police deployed to the site of the protest outside the temple in riot gear | Twitter/@danwnews

A crowd of around 200 young men, belonging to the Muslim community, gathered outside the Durga Bhawan Hindu Centre in the town of Smethwick in England's West Midlands region, and staged a pre-planned protest outside the temple's premises.

Videos shared on the social media showed the crowd marching towards the temple, whilst chanting the takbir.

At one point, the situation got rather tense, as the crowd gathered very close to the temple compound's fence, and some members of the crowd attempted to scale the fence.

However, local police were deployed in strength at the scene, and swiftly managed to reign in the crowd, moving them to the other side of the road.

Later, an even larger contingent of police were seen at the site, this time equipped to riot gear. They closed down the roads around the temple after, after a few firecrackers and a bottle were reportedly thrown by the crowd.

Later, tensions eased up considerably, and the crowd was dispersed.

The crowd was reportedly protesting against an invitation to speak extended by the temple to Sadhvi Rithambara, Hindutva ideologue and the founder-chairperson of Durga Vahini.

Who is Sadhvi Rithambara?

Sadhvi Rithambara and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan

Sadhvi Rithambara and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan | Wikimedia Commons

During 1989–1992, Rithambara disseminated several public-speeches that urged for waging a war against Muslims. Cassettes of those vitriolic outbursts were played at numerous temples and public places in India.

Rithambara has been widely noted to be the single most powerful voice behind the whipping up of anti-Muslim sentiments across the nation, in the run-ups to the demolition of Babri Masjid; there was an overwhelming sense of passion, urgency and spontaneity, oft-accompanied by dramatic physical posturing, which instilled a non-rational collective feeling, among the audience.

The Liberhan Commission that probed the Babri Masjid demolition held Sadhvi Ritambhara along with sixty-eight others of being individually culpable for leading the country "to the brink of communal discord" for their role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.

A CBI court framed criminal charges against Rithambara in May, 2017.

On September 30, 2020, she along with 32 other accused were acquitted in the Babri Masjid Demolition Case by a CBI special court.

Leaders from both communities call for calm

Leaders of the Hindu and Muslim communities in the eastern England city of Leicester presented a united front on Tuesday as they appealed for harmony in the wake of violent clashes following an India-Pakistan cricket match, which has led to 47 arrests.

Pradyumna Das, President of the city's ISKCON Temple, read out a statement joined by community leaders outside a mosque in the city to express "sadness" over the violence which escalated over the weekend.

The community leaders demanded that the "inciters of hatred" leave Leicester alone and called for an immediate cessation of provocation and violence, both in thought and behaviour.

"Our message to anyone that sows disharmony between us is clear: we will not let you succeed. We ask all to respect the sanctity of religious places, both mosques and mandirs alike - whether provocation with loud music, flag bearing, derogatory chants or physical attacks against the fabric of worship. This is not acceptable nor upheld by our faiths," the statement said.

"We are a strong family, we will work together to resolve whatever concern may arise - we do not need to call up any assistance from outside our city. Leicester has no place for any foreign extremist ideology that causes division," he said, highlighting that Hindus and Muslims have lived "harmoniously" in the city for over half a century.

It came as police patrols continued in the city as the Indian High Commission in London issued a strongly worded statement condemning the violence against the Indian community and called for protection for those affected.

Leicestershire Police said a 20-year-old man has been sentenced to 10 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to possession of an offensive weapon during clashes in the city. Amos Noronha, from the local area, appeared at Leicester Magistrates' Court after his arrest during Saturday's incident and was quickly charged due to "overwhelming evidence".

"The sentence is reflective of the fact that this was a serious offence and he has ended up with time in prison," said Rob Nixon, Temporary Chief Constable at Leicestershire Police.

"We will not stand for this unrest in our city. There is an extensive policing operation ongoing, acting on information and reports of gatherings and offering community reassurance. Be reassured: we are working to keep you safe and to arrest and bring to justice those that are causing harm in our communities," he said.

It follows a weekend of what the police termed as "serious disorder" and "significant aggression" as Hindu and Muslim groups clashed in the wake of the India-Pakistan Asia Cup cricket match in Dubai at the end of last month.

"A policing operation to deter further disorder continued in east Leicester...In total, 47 people have been arrested for offences in relation to the unrest in the east of the city. Some of those arrested were from out of the city, including some people from Birmingham," Leicestershire Police said.

The force said it had to be supported by resources from a number of neighbouring police forces, including the mounted police unit, as the clashes escalated over the weekend. Dispersal and stop and search powers have been used repeatedly to restore calm. There were social media videos circulating showing a temple flag being ripped out and glass bottles being hurled.

The Indian High Commission said in its statement on Monday: "We strongly condemn the violence perpetrated against the Indian community in Leicester and vandalisation of premises and symbols of Hindu religion.

"We have strongly taken up this matter with the UK authorities and have sought immediate action against those involved in these attacks. We call on the authorities to provide protection to the affected people."

Diaspora group Insight UK has claimed that much of the violence was the result of "misinformation" and fake news circulating on social media. Leicester city mayor Peter Soulsby agreed, saying "very, very, very distorting" events were being shared on social media and blamed outsiders for coming into the city to stoke violence.

"We condemn damages to Hindu temples which are a place of worship and should not be disrespected," Hindu Council UK said in a statement.

"We call upon the Hindu community to work with the authorities to bring calm and peace as Leicester is renowned for its cultural diversity, unity and community cohesion," the UK-wide community organisation said, adding that it is working on developing strategies to bring about stronger inter-community relations in the city.

Leicester, in the East Midlands region of England, is known as the city with a large chunk of population of South Asian descent. The city's Belgrave Road is famous as the Golden Mile, packed with Indian-origin jewellery, food and other businesses, and also a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.

The city's former Indian-origin member of Parliament, the first of South Asian heritage, took to social media to appeal for calm.

"To me Leicester is the greatest city in the world. Nowhere else so many different people of different languages, cultures and ethnicities live together in harmony," said Goan-origin Keith Vaz, who was MP for Leicester East from 1987 to 2019.

"We celebrate Diwali, Eid and Baisakhi as one big happy family. I am saddened to see recent events...a small minority of people are seeking to destroy the spirit of Leicester," he said.

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