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Rishi Sunak, his family, and India’s far right By Imran MullaandPeter Oborne

The British prime minister’s connections with Hindu nationalists are unsurprising given his own family’s experiences with Hindutva groups

At first glance, there was nothing unusual about UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s attendance at a religious ceremony in Cambridge late last summer.

Nearly every prime minister attends cultural events celebrating the country’s diverse faiths, nationalities and traditions.

But on this hot 15 August afternoon, something seemed awry.

The event, held in a jam-packed tent at Cambridge University, wasn’t advertised as featuring Sunak, nor was it promoted by the prime minister’s social media accounts, 10 Downing Street or the ruling Conservative Party.

It was India’s Independence Day and Sunak kicked off his surprise visit at Cambridge’s Jesus College by taking to the mic and bowing towards presiding preacher Morari Bapu.

“Bapu, I am here today not as a prime minister but as a Hindu,” Sunak said as he clasped his hands together as part of the traditional namaskar greeting.

“For me, faith is very personal, it guides me in every aspect of my life,” he said, triggering a round of applause from the crowd.

‘Links between Rishi Sunak and far-right, rabidly Islamophobic Hindu supremacists are deeply concerning’

– South Asia Solidarity Group

“Being prime minister is a great honour but it is not an easy job, there are difficult choices to make, hard choices to confront and our faith gives me the courage, strength and resilience to do the best for our country.

“Our values, and what I see Bapu does each day of his life, are the values of selfless service, devotion and keeping faith,” Sunak added.

The 77-year-old Bapu, who remained seated on a raised platform and warmly welcomed Sunak’s flattering remarks, however, was no ordinary religious preacher.

A missionary from India’s western state of Gujarat, Bapu has long-held ties to the Sangh Parivar, loosely translated as the Family of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a constellation of Hindu nationalist organisations responsible for political violence against Indian minorities.

Modelled on 1930s European fascist organisations, including the Nazis, the RSS is a Hindu nationalist paramilitary group that routinely targets Muslims and other minority groups.

RSS supporters say the organisation advocates a nationalist ideology which upholds Hindu culture and values, but critics claim that it is “founded on the premise of Hindu supremacy”.

In recent years, the RSS has been intimately associated with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its meteoric rise to power, as well as dozens of other Hindu right-wing groups across the country.

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Whilst Bapu has himself maintained a relatively low political profile, some of his comments and activism alike have had far-reaching implications for both Hindus and Muslims globally.

The preacher boasts over a million followers across his various social media platforms, and his videos, which involve him reciting and explaining ancient Hindu scriptures, have amassed more than 100 million views on YouTube alone.

Among many of India’s 200-plus million Muslims, however, Bapu is less known for his social media presence and is instead tied to the construction of the controversial Ram temple in Ayodhya.

The temple was established on the ruins of the historic 16th-century Babri Masjid, which was destroyed by a Hindu nationalist mob on 6 December 1992.

Last August’s event at Cambridge University, where Bapu spoke at Conservative peer Lord Dolar Popat’s invitation, the focus was on the Hindu deity Ram.

The construction of the Ram temple had served as a linchpin issue for the BJP for years and was part of its wider discourse over secularism, religious freedom, and the complexities of historical heritage.

In India’s last election cycle in 2019, Bapu campaigned aggressively for the temple and joined ranks with the chief of the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, to lobby for its construction.

At the time, Bapu declared that Ram’s work needed to be done. Meanwhile Bhagwat urged the RSS’ nearly 600,000 members to listen to the preacher.

Fast forward two years, and amid the coronavirus pandemic that was crippling India, causing financial turmoil and stoking intra-communal violence, Bapu still managed to raise close to £1.75m ($2.2m) for the temple’s construction.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets Hindu preacher Morari Bapu at the consecration ceremony of the Ram temple in Ayodhya on 22 January, 2024 (Screengrab)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets Hindu preacher Morari Bapu at the consecration ceremony of the Ram temple in Ayodhya on 22 January, 2024 (Screengrab)





By the time Sunak met him last August, Bapu had emerged as the temple’s largest donor.

In January, when the temple was consecrated, the preacher’s outsized role became apparent, with Bapu being honoured by Modi at the ceremony.

India’s largest opposition party, the Congress Party, refused to attend the ceremony, as did the leaders of other parties.

Several prominent Hindu religious leaders also argued against the event, not on the grounds that it would offend the country’s Muslim population or inflame tension, but that it contradicted Hindu scriptures since the temple was incomplete. Some were also opposed to Modi’s leading role in the ceremony.

But not Bapu.

He was a stalwart defender of the proceedings and insisted that Modi’s role was crucial as he “represents the nation”.

MEE asked Downing Street whether Sunak was aware of Bapu’s heavy financial support

for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Number 10 referred MEE to the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Leicester riots

For some Britons, Sunak’s earliest months in office solidified fears that his government wasn’t prepared to address the growing threat of far-right Hindutva ideology and its importation from abroad.

Not to be confused with Hinduism, a religion practised by a billion people worldwide, Hindutva is a 100-year-old political ideology that aims to turn the constitutionally secular India into an exclusive Hindu state.

Within weeks of assuming office, Sunak was forced to contend with the blowback from an unprecedented spate of violence between Hindus and Muslims in the multicultural Midlands city of Leicester.

Nearly 200 Hindu men wearing masks and balaclavas marched through Leicester’s Highfield area chanting “Jai Shri Ram,” which translates from Hindi to “hail Lord Ram” or “victory to Lord Ram,” words that are increasingly  appropriated by perpetrators of anti-Muslim violence in India.

For decades, Hindutva organisations had embarked on a campaign of trying to mainstream their ideology by aligning Hindu religious symbols with Hindutva ideology.

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Following the march, some Muslims came out onto the streets leading to scuffles with the Hindu mob.

At the time, the mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby, went on the record and said that Hindutva ideology played a role in the unrest.

Soulsby said that “ideologies that have their roots in the Indian subcontinent” played a role in the events. He was asked whether he was talking about Hindutva and answered: “Yes.”

Claudia Webbe, who was still a sitting Labour MP at the time, said that “we have fringe elements led and inspired by extremism and right-wing ideology rearing its head in the UK and in the peaceful city of Leicester”.

In response to growing public outcry, in September 2023, the Sunak government appointed Lord Ian Austin, then trade envoy to Israel, to lead an independent review into the unrest.

Austin, however, was already a controversial figure among large segments of the Muslim community, especially in the Leicester area, for having falsely claimed that the pro-Palestine campaign group Friends of Al-Aqsa were Holocaust deniers.

Following Austin’s appointment, and in the time since then, more than 100 Leicester-based Muslim organisations and individuals have committed themselves to not engaging with the review.

In May this year, the panel leading the review said it was aiming to publish its findings in October. At the time, it appealed to community members to come forward with any evidence they had concerning the violence.

Later, in January 2023, Sunak faced criticism from several groups over his government’s response to India’s punitive reaction to a BBC documentary series.

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The series ‘India: The Modi Question’ revealed that a British foreign office report in 2002 held Modi – then chief minister of the state of Gujarat – as “directly responsible” for a pogrom which killed over 1,000 Indian Muslims.

In response, the Modi government banned the documentary and a month later, on 14 February 2023, the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai were subjected to a tax raid, widely condemned by rights groups and Indian journalists as intimidation and retaliation for the documentary.

Speaking in parliament, Sunak dismissed questions about the documentary and said that he did not “agree” with the BBC’s characterisation of Modi.

Aakar Patel, the chair of Amnesty International India’s board, told MEE that it was “disappointing” that Sunak decided to take a swipe at the BBC documentary series and not address the serious allegations that it reported on.

“The BJP carries out its majoritarian agenda under the carapace of constitutional pluralism. This is fake and must be challenged especially by those under attack from it who have agency,” Patel said.

“It is disappointing for this reason that Sunak chose to allow the BBC to be bullied for its journalism.”

Sunak’s immediate family

For some, Sunak’s reluctance to address the threat posed by Hindu nationalism to democratic principles, equality and human rights, stems from his own family’s experiences with Hindu nationalist groups.

According to research by the award-winning journalist Shyam Bhatia, Sunak’s paternal grandfather was reportedly an RSS member.

Bhatia’s research has claimed that the Punjab-born Ramdas Sunak was a member of the Kenya branch of the RSS, participating in its daily training exercises. Incidentally, the first overseas branches of the RSS was located in Kenya and Myanmar.

According to Bhatia, Ramdas Sunak trained Mau Mau militants in Nairobi during their uprising against the British Empire in the 1950s.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits the Akshardham temple on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi on 10 September, 2023 (BAPS/AFP)
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits the Akshardham temple on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi on 10 September, 2023 (BAPS/AFP)

Ramdas Sunak would later leave Kenya and move to England, where he helped establish the Vedic Society Hindu Temple (VSHT) in Southampton, although he died shortly before it opened.

Today, Sunak’s parents regularly pray there. The prime minister himself has attended the temple throughout his life, and continues to do so.

In 2014, VSHT held an evening of celebratory dances and songs when Modi first became Indian prime minister. The temple also serves as an affiliate of the Hindu Council UK, which held celebrations to mark Modi laying the foundation stone of the Ram temple in Ayodhya in 2020.

The Hindu Council UK was itself mired in controversy when in 2022, its director-trustee, Anil Bhanot, was forced to step down after it was unearthed he made a series of anti-Muslim remarks, including labelling Islam “evil”.

Meanwhile Bapu, the Hindu preacher Sunak embraced in Cambridge last August, has long been involved in Hindu nationalist mobilisations in the UK.

The preacher participated in a Hindu festival in Milton Keynes, Berkshire, in 1989 organised by a major Hindutva group that was partially aimed at raising support for the Ram temple – three years before the mob destroyed the Babri Masjid.

One ceremony in the festival involved the consecration of bricks intended to build the Ram temple.

Edward Anderson, author of Hindu Nationalism and the Indian Diaspora (2023), described the event as “one of the most iconic and spectacular moments in the history of the Hindu nationalist movement overseas.”

Sunak’s in-laws, part of the pro-BJP elite

For others, there is another reason to suggest why Sunak failed to address the scourge of Hindu nationalism.

Sunak’s in-laws, Narayana Murthy and Sudha Murty, are said to be firmly ensconced in India’s pro-Modi establishment circles. Narayana, an Indian billionaire, and the Murthy family as a whole have an outsized role in Indian public discourse.

In 2013, a year before the BJP entered government, Narayana Murthy said that the 2002 Gujarat riots should not stop Modi from being premier. By that point Modi, who had served as chief minister in Gujarat, had been widely accused of facilitating the violence and until 2012 had been banned from entering the UK.

Maya Kodnani, a politician close to Modi, was convicted of murder and jailed for playing a leading role in the riots.

The 2002 riots had long hounded Modi amid allegations that authorities allowed and even encouraged the bloodshed.

The violence had erupted after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, killing 59 people. Muslims were blamed for the fire, and more than 1,000 people were subsequently killed by Hindu mobs in the ensuing violence. Later, a government inquiry concluded that the fire was started by accident.

In 2018, Murthy backed Modi for a second term in office. But speaking to students in the run-up to the 2019 national election, he appeared to level veiled criticism at the BJP government, warning that economic progress would be impossible without “freedom of faith” and “freedom from fear”.

The next year, it was reported that India’s home ministry had deregistered Murthy’s Infosys Foundation, the software company’s charitable arm.

The foundation insisted that it had requested deregistration itself but many speculated that the government had targeted Murthy’s company because of his criticisms of Modi.

Narayana Murthy has since become a full-throated supporter of Modi, calling on all Indians to “rally behind him”.

In 2022, speaking to students in Gujarat, he lambasted the Congress Party which preceded Modi’s government, contrasting it with BJP rule.

“There was a time when most people from other nations looked down on India,” Murthy said, “but today there is a certain level of respect for the country, which has now become the world’s fifth largest economy.”

The British prime minister’s father-in-law even attended the consecration ceremony of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya in January, alongside other billionaires and industry tycoons.

Infosys, the IT services company Narayana founded, supplies technology to Israel that is used to surveil Palestinians. One of the company’s directors is Uri Levine, a former Israeli military intelligence agent.

The news website Declassified reported in November that Infosys had “appointed Israeli military intelligence veterans to senior positions”.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty pose for a photo during their visit the Akshardham temple in New Delhi on 10 September, 2023 (BAPS/AFP)
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty pose for a photo during their visit to the Akshardham temple in New Delhi on 10 September 2023 (BAPS/AFP)

Rishi Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, earnt millions in dividends from the company in 2023, according to the Guardian.

The couple were both directors of the UK arm of her father’s investment firm, Catamaran Ventures. In 2015, Sunak resigned from his post when he became an MP. But his wife remained a director. In September 2023, the directors decided to liquidate the company.

Between 2016 and 2018, while Akshata Murty was a director, Catamaran Ventures invested in Kovai Media, which during that period owned influential Indian media outlets OpIndia and Swarajya.

Both are widely seen as pro-Modi, pro-BJP outlets.

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One of OpIndia’s directors, Ashok Kumar Gupta, is close to senior figures in the BJP. The London Story, a Netherlands-based think tank, found that in 2017 and 2018 OpIndia “constructed a negative narrative, in which Hindus were framed as victims and Muslims as murderers, terrorists and otherwise problematic.

“Importantly, in 2018 OpIndia was subject to a leadership change, as RSS affiliates assumed senior positions in the news outlets,” London Story reported.

MEE found that several OpIndia articles published between 2016 and 2018 had a clear anti-Islam slant and peddled the anti-Muslim conspiracy theory of “love jihad”.

The term has gained traction in the Indian press and is used by the Hindu political and religious right to describe an alleged phenomenon, without any evidence, that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marrying them and forcibly convert them to Islam.

During the same period, Kovai Media also owned Swarajya, an influential right-wing magazine known for its pro-Modi stance.

As an indicator of Swarajya’s politics, one 2017 article decried reservations, a type of affirmative action, as “pandering to Muslims”.

A 2023 article in a journal published by Pluto Press accused both OpIndia and Swarajya of promoting a “deeply inflammatory, anti-Muslim, and Islamophobic narrative”.

“With Hindu supremacist groups gaining influence in the UK, the revelation about the involvement of a UK-based company and its politically powerful directors present a significant threat to social cohesion in the UK and establish Hindutva’s jeopardising global network and presence,” the UK Indian Muslim Council told MEE.

Then there’s Sunak’s mother-in-law – Sudha Murty.

Chair of the Infosys Foundation, Sudha Murty has emerged as a strong supporter of Modi, contributing a chapter to a book published in 2022 that celebrated Modi’s achievements in politics. Amit Shah, the minister for home affairs and a close Modi ally, wrote another chapter for the same book.

Sudha Murty’s own chapter celebrated the “winds of change” that came with Modi’s rule. Modi, she wrote, is “as deeply rooted as a banyan tree,” a “big tree with a big personality” from which “bees and humans can both enjoy the honey and the aroma of flowers”.

In 2023, the government awarded her the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian title, in honour of her social work.

And earlier this year, Sudha Murty, 73, was nominated to serve in the upper house of India’s parliament.

Modi publicly expressed his delight, saying her “contributions to diverse fields including social work, philanthropy and education have been immense and inspiring”.

Ismail Patel, a Leicester resident and chair of the Friends of Al-Aqsa group, said that whilst he took no offence to Sunak’s personal religious beliefs, it was crucial that all political parties avoid Hindu nationalist groups which promote “a mindset that justifies violence and the exclusion of not only Muslims but anyone perceived as other.

“Rishi Sunak’s association with the Hindutva movement is a cause for concern. Connections with nationalist groups can cloud judgement when it comes to maintaining multicultural harmony at home,” he said.

“Some have pointed to Hindutva’s Islamophobic rhetoric as a contributing factor to the 2022 riots in Leicester,” he added.

Hindu manifestos

In early June, 13 British Hindu organisations, including the Hindu Forum of Britain and National Council of Hindu Temples, released a jointly drafted Hindu Manifesto listing a series of policies they wanted enacted by the UK’s political parties ahead of the 4 July elections.

One of the groups behind the manifesto was the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) UK, considered the UK branch of the RSS. Over the years, it has sent millions of dollars to Indian RSS front organisations.

The 32-page document, among other things, called for “anti-Hindu hate” to be recognised as a hate crime.

It also called for organisations “attacking the sovereignty and integrity of India” to be proscribed, including the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and Sikh Youth Federation. Both are separatist groups banned in India.

Some of the organisations behind the Hindu Manifesto, which has been endorsed so far by several parliamentary candidates – mostly but not exclusively Conservative – have had ties with India’s Hindu nationalist establishment.

The Chinmaya Mission, a religious group that has been praised by Sunak, previously expressed support for Modi and its global head has met with the Indian premier.

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Meanwhile the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) has strong ties with the RSS and a recent history of anti-Muslim views among its leadership. Sunak visited an ISKCON temple, Bhaktivedanta Manor Temple in Hertfordshire, in August 2022 shortly before he became prime minister.

A spokesperson for the temple told MEE: “We categorically reject any form of discrimination or intolerance and are proud to welcome visitors from a variety of diverse backgrounds, reflecting our strongly held commitment to open dialogue and mutual respect among all communities.”

The spokesperson said the temple was dedicated to “fostering interfaith understanding and collaboration”.

Anderson, the writer, said that in recent years there have been “concerted efforts to normalise Hindutva” ideology within the UK.

“Although this hasn’t been limited to any single party, the Conservatives have probably been more receptive and sympathetic [to outreach effort by Hindutva groups],” Anderson told MEE.

“A range of Hindu and Hindu nationalist groups have, in recent years, exhorted people to vote Tory. The Overseas Friends of the BJP-UK – in a move that many found controversial – publicly announced their intention to encourage voters in 48 marginal constituencies to support the Conservative Party in the 2019 general election,” he added.

Aakar Patel, the chair of Amnesty International India’s board, told MEE that Downing Street had not done anywhere near enough to stop the persecution of minority groups in India.

“India under the BJP has been targeting minorities including through straight-up Nuremberg Laws type stuff,” Patel said.

“India’s friends ought really to have engaged with the BJP government to get it to stop damaging Indian society. This has happened infrequently and in the case of the UK – under Sunak – not at all.”

The future of the Tories

Whilst it’s widely expected that Sunak will be voted out of power at the 4 July general elections, it’s unlikely that his party will sever ties to India’s Hindu nationalist establishment despite its treatment of Muslims and other minority groups.

For years, the Conservatives have allowed several senior figures to maintain close ties with the BJP. A leading example is Bob Blackman, the incumbent Tory candidate for the London constituency of Harrow East.

In 2017 Blackman, who has represented Harrow East since 2010, came under fire for hosting Tapan Ghosh, who had previously called for the UN to control the Muslim birth rate and praised the genocide of Rohingya Muslims, in the House of Commons.

In 2022, reports claimed that Blackman had received over £20,000 (around $25,200) from Hindu nationalist groups linked to the BJP and RSS, “including groups which have been directly linked to anti-Muslim violence”.

In response to the allegations, Blackman told MEE this was “totally untrue”.

Still, in January this year Blackman was criticised for attending an event in parliament organised by Sanatan Sanstha UK, a British Hindu group known for its support for Hindu nationalism, to celebrate the consecration of the Ram temple.

‘It is high time that voters in the UK recognise the threat posed by Hindutva and the support it gains from PM Sunak and the Conservative Party’

– UK Indian Muslim Council

Blackman has also associated with the Overseas Friends of the BJP UK (OFBJP UK) for several years. In March 2019, ahead of India’s national election, he spoke at a pro-Modi rally organised by the group. Wearing a BJP-branded hat and scarf, he expressed strong support for the Indian leader.

Blackman would repeat the deed in March of this year.

“The friendship between India and the United Kingdom has grown stronger and stronger ever since we have been involved in government and BJP gained power in India,” Blackman told the pro-Modi crowd, although this time not wearing the saffron of the BJP.

And earlier this month, on 17 June, the president of the OFBJP UK, Kuldeep Shekhawat, was seen sitting in Blackman’s campaign office in a video posted by the Indian news channel CNN-News18.

The OFBJP UK has repeatedly stoked controversy; earlier this month it launched a stinging attack against the country’s more than three million Muslims by peddling the anti-Muslim trope that there was an attempt by the community to Islamise the UK.

Blackman told MEE that Shekhawat is a “fully paid-up member of the Conservative Party,” and was “assisting in our election campaign”.

He did not, however, rebuke the OFBJP UK over its Islamophobic remarks.

In 2020, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the UK’s largest Muslim umbrella organisation with more than 500 affiliated organisations, called on the Conservatives to take action against Blackman following a series of incidents linking him to Islamophobia.

MEE asked the Conservative Party if any action was taken but received no response by the time of publication.

The MCB told MEE that it was yet to hear back from the party or Blackman regarding the case.

“We call on the Conservative Party to assure Muslim communities that they are serious about tackling Islamophobia, particularly in light of the General Election,” the group said.

Then there’s Lord Rami Ranger, a prominent Conservative peer, who has repeatedly triggered outrage for his comments concerning British Pakistanis.

An influential figure in the British Indian community, Ranger helped found the Hindu Forum of Britain and served as a patron of Conservative Friends of India.

In 2022, the millionaire business tycoon was fiercely critical of a BBC documentary about Modi which examined his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. At the time, he wrote the broadcaster demanding to know if “Pakistani-origin staff were behind this nonsense”.

Later, he told the broadcaster India Today: “We [British Indians] are a very hard-working community, we are not in prison as much as the Pakistani community, we do not do grooming of young girls, we do not do drug peddling.”

He also made unevidenced claims that there were “30-40 Labour MPs who depend on Pakistani votes” and that “Pakistani votes are the best because they are in ghettos”.

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Whilst his conduct was referred to the House of Lords standards watchdog for being racially charged, Ranger has continued to advocate on behalf of the Modi government.

On 12 May he spoke at an event organised by OFBJP UK wearing a BJP-branded scarf.

MEE asked Ranger why he wore the scarf, and asked the Conservative Party whether it was acceptable for a Tory peer to wear the colours of an Indian political party. Neither side responded to MEE’s requests for comment.

Not to be ignored is Priti Patel, the former home secretary who has been tipped as a likely successor to Sunak after the general election.

She’s publicly praised the HSS, the RSS’s overseas wing, and congratulated it on an event organised for the UK’s Indian diaspora. As home secretary, she also appeared at an event alongside Dattatreya Hosabale, then-joint secretary general of the RSS and a key adviser to BJP leaders.

At the time, Patel wrote that it was “an honour that he has travelled to the UK to speak about the RSS”.

Hosabale, currently the RSS’s general secretary, has gained notoriety for promulgating the anti-Muslim “love jihad” conspiracy theory.

MEE contacted Patel for comment but received no response.

The South Asia Solidarity Group, an anti-racism and anti-fascism organisation in the UK, told MEE that ties between Tory members and India’s Hindu nationalist establishment stretched back well before Sunak became prime minister and had continued during his premiership.

“Links between Rishi Sunak and far-right, rabidly Islamophobic Hindu supremacists are deeply concerning.” the group said.

“The fact that the prime minister and the Conservative Party have such close ties with these openly Islamophobic and casteist organisations, which draw their inspiration from Hitler and Mussolini, clearly makes them unfit to govern a multicultural and multi-faith society like Britain.”

The UK Indian Muslim Council told MEE that it was crucial that all of the UK’s political parties, including Labour and the Liberal Democrats, underwent training on what Hindutva is as it called for a “root and branch review of Hindutva influence in parliament.”

“It is high time that voters in the UK recognise the threat posed by Hindutva and the support it gains from PM Sunak and the Conservative Party, or any other party that succumbs to Hindu supremacist pressure.

“The integrity of UK politics and social harmony is at stake.”