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The Leicester unrest shows the urgent need to rethink the Equality Act for online spaces

The recent unrest within the city of Leicester shows not only the contemporary consequences of Imperial partition, but also the inability of the UK to deal with matters of race and religion within ethnically diverse communities that also exist in dual spaces such as online social media platforms. These events call for the reformation of the Equality Act 2010, where religion and immigration status become protected characteristics.

Leicester has historically been the UK’s pride of multicultural cohesion and community, with the city being one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation. It is known for its large South Asian community, specifically Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities originating from India and Pakistan. Many of Leicester’s inhabitants arrived following the 1948 British Nationality Act which gave Commonwealth citizens the right to move to the UK, a right that has been gradually eroded through the implementation of consecutively xenophobic immigration policies. However, the city has been an exemplary model of cultural diversity, seeing very little large-scale conflict since the Second World War.

That being said, following the Asia Cup cricket match between India and Pakistan at the end of August, the city has been home to large scale protest and violence between the Hindu and Muslim communities. There are many different speculations as to why the unrest was sparked, some claiming that a Hindu group of supporters attacked a Muslim, and others claiming that it is an overspill of tensions between the two nations of India and Pakistan. Regardless of reason, these communities have taken to the streets in protest turned violent, with protesters vandalising religious buildings and objects, using discriminatory slogans and even inflicting bodily harm. The nation's response? A temporary police task force and unlimited ‘Stop and Search’ powers, as well as media coverage that belittles and racialises. What happened to this utopia of community multiculturalism?

The UK Government should hold itself accountable for the current events within Leicester, as it can all be rooted in the error of partition, where in 1947, the UK Government created mass displacement by poorly constructing the supposedly secular nations of India and Pakistan. This already fractured relationship has then been tested by the rise of Indian nationalism under the BJ party, with Prime Minister Modi promoting a harsh, anti-Muslim stance, which has infiltrated the Hindu diaspora. Furthermore, the current ‘War on Terror’ narrative that nations such as the UK have been promoting, have villianised South Asian communities, especially those that practice non-western religion, and used threat framing to perpetuate racialised stereotypes within the media. This has resulted with coverage of the unrest within Leicester showing little sympathy or regard for the impact that British colonialism still has in the daily lives of these individuals. They are not recognised as British Citizens within their own right but as immigrants who are taking peaceful British cities and pushing them to the brim with terrorist ideologies.

Fundamentally, we need to do better. Whilst the relationship between different South Asian communities is complex, it is one that the UK has significantly contributed to the deterioration of with no remorse. It is time that the UK Government better protects the rights of these individuals, recognising that they are British Citizens and victims of colonialism, not immigrants under suspicion. The recent news reports and social media discussions regarding ‘Muslims as second class citizens’, derived from the power to strip individuals of citizenship laid out in the Nationality and Borders Act, also contributes to the tensions. Such claims can be embedded within the psyche of individuals in society and can transpire conflict against and between already marginalised communities. Thus, when introducing such laws, an equality risk assessment must be carried out by the government as the outcomes of these policies are not only top-down constructs between the government and communities, but also are seen as creating hierarchies between communities at the grassroots level, sometimes justifying further oppressions.

We also must consider the role of equality and protected characteristics within social media platforms. At present, there are a number of campaigns occurring that are placing pressure on social media companies to mark and/or remove harmful content, particularly content that can compromise mental health. Similarly, we ask that social media companies remove content that can infringe on equality of protected characteristics. In the case of Leicester, fake news has spread via social media, which has heightened emotions and thus translated into the tensions we have seen over the past week.

It is also important to take steps to protect the social characteristics of these individuals in an aim to create a multiculturally diverse and equitable society. By protecting Religion and Immigration Status in an intersectional way under the Equality Act, the residents of Leicester and the UK more widely, would be encouraged to respect and protect religious difference irrespective of the views and the Hindutva ideological subscriptions that are on the rise India. We must work to build a tolerable society in the UK irrespective of the intolerance that may exist in other countries.

The religious and/or immigrant background of individuals in society should not open them to bias within the media, or invalidate their ability to protest, and make them vulnerable to police interactions, which the white populace would never experience. It’s time that we see these people within their historical and local contexts, and design policies that afford them the respect and equality to which they are entitled.


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