ON February 8, 28-year-old Harminder Singh Jhagra was stabbed to death in a brawl between two rival Sikh groups in Cranford Park, Hayes, an are a near the west London suburb of South all "a Mecca for Asians in Britain". Initial rumours that this was a fight between Sikh and Muslim youths raised racial hackles, but the police and community leaders acted quickly to defuse the tension.
In another instance of violence, scores of Sikh and Muslim youths fought it out near a pub in the neighbouring area of Slough. But this was no ordinary brawl between drunken youngsters. The boys wielded kirpans and knives and hurled petrol bombs.
These incidents have brought to the fore the tensions that have been brewing between the youth of the two communities for quite some time now. Last summer, on Id-ul-Zuha the police picked up150 youngsters from the two communities. This year on Id-ul-Fitr in spite of high-profile police presence, approximately 40 youth were arrested. But since then the situation has been under control and the Lord Mayor of Slough, M.S. Mann, claimed there had been no untoward incident for two weeks.
Although the bulk of the Asian community in South all is law abiding and peaceful, the rivalry between the Asian gangs has instilled an element of fear among ordinary folk going about their business. And this tension is manifest in the Slough and Hounslow areas, too, which like South all have a sizeable population of South Asian origin.
Ironically, for South all Asians, word 'gang' has not always been a term to fear. The Holy Smoke and Tooty Nung gangs came into action in the '70s and '80s when the racist National Front hooligans could pick up fights with South all Asians at will. The Asian gangs, which emerged as are sponse to the white racist hooliganism, now seem to be taking the law into their own hands and are fighting each other. A new Sikh grouping, the Sher-e-Punjab, seeks to counter the so-called Muslim fundamentalism being encouraged by a West Asian group called Hizb-ul-Tahrir.
Explanations for the resurgence in gang violence range from the obvious to the bizarre: the high rate of unemployment amongst the youth, petty crimes, cultural conflict or peer pressure. Pressure groups working in the area say "excessive police presence" on the streets is also provocative. But community liaison officer for the South all Police, Inspector Drew Davidson, says his men are policing the streets on the explicit request of the local business community. According to him, it is essentially a case of too many ethnic groups with conflicting cultural and religious backgrounds living in a small geographical area; the youth, in an attempt to establish their separate identity, are flexing their muscles.
Says the chairman of the Vishwa Hindu Temple's board of trustees and a member of the Community Action Group, Roshan Lal Bhandari: "Cuts in the facilities by the council have left no such place where these teenagers can meet and do something meaningful. So they just hang around in the streets and get into trouble. Due to small businesses being affected by recession there aren't many job options either."
What baffles the police and the leaders of the communities in Southall is the fact that these young Asians gather in these areas on Baisakhi, Diwali or Id , making the trip from as far away as Bradford, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham with clear intentions of confrontation and causing disruption. Sikh leaders blame Muslim fundamentalists for it but A.S. Shahid, another member of the Community Action Group and general secretary of the Abu Bakr Mosque, disagrees: "It is not Muslims only. It is a handful of youths who understand nothing about their faith, yet create trouble in its name. Today's younger generation has lost its cultural values and has very little tolerance for others." But in school meetings with the Group, youngsters blame their parents and elders for creating fear in their minds and bringing the elements of subcontinental politics here.
In the last few years there have been some demographic changes in these west London suburbs. While the Sikhs are no longer the largest ethnic group here, they still seem to wield more political clout in the local administration. At present, of the 15 councillors from five electoral wards in the Southall area, 13 are Sikhs and two are English. The local MP is also a Sikh. But now with a number of Punjabis moving out to posher areas, a large number of Muslims from recession-hit areas in northern Britain have moved into the Southall Broadway where there is a larger presence of Muslim businesses. Over the last couple of years a large number of Somalis have also moved into the area. Therefore, in the forthcoming elections the power equation may change.
Already in places like Birmingham, the Asians are being accused of filing bogus party membership forms in order to get selected as Labour Party candidates in the forthcoming elections.
However, leaders from the various ethnic groups do not feel that this is responsible for youth unrest. Jaspal Singh Bhabra, the general secretary of the Ramgarhia Gurudwara in Southall, feels that such demographic changes are the natural corollary of progress in any mixed society and are not an issue at all. Says he:
"The tension is not in the community, it is only among the group of young people who are not gangsters in the usual sense of the word. The friction is partly due to the girl-boy situation in a mixed education system."
In fact, almost all Asian leaders hint at a dissatisfaction with co-educational schooling, but refuse to elaborate. A part-time student at Westminster College, 23-year-old Omer, hazards an explanation: "The problem comes when a girl, say,from the Sikh community falls in love with a boy from the Muslim community or vice-versa and they decide to get married. Mixed marriages have always been a controversial issue in any society, but more so in the Asian community here, because, for marriage the Muslims insist on girls converting to Islam. So, if the Sikh youths see their girls going out with Muslim boys they create trouble and the same happens the other way round. Since the arrival of the Sher-e-Punjab from Birmingham, the situation has become even more aggravated."
An article published in the latest edition of Des Pardes , a Punjabi weekly newspaper, says Sikhs suspect a planned move by Muslim fundamentalists to encourage their young boys to lure Sikh girls into marriage. The mayor believes that such articles are damaging to race relations and insists that the problem can be solved by changing the Asian society's outlook and bringing about more openness in familial interactions.
To ease the tension, the police has launched a new initiative by forming a South all community group. This comprises leaders from the main religious communities in the area, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs. Members of the group, along with the community police officer, visit schools and try to understand the problems these youngsters face. Similar programmes are being initiated in other areas as well. But given the chequered history of efforts at inter-ethnic camaraderie, one wonders whether they will be enough.