The UK riots: A view from India

Student Life

It’s difficult to see your home country apparently falling to pieces from a distance – a fact becoming more and more apparent as I follow coverage of the UK riots from New Delhi with two other Oxford students. Trying to explain the unrest to our inquisitive Indian pupils is proving problematic. An ever-repeated ‘Why?’ coupled with the odd ‘But that’s crazy’ would be a representative response. Firstly, there’s the sense that we are missing something. Is the reason we can’t wrap our heads around the violence simply that those closer to home have a better perspective of the motivations behind it?

With 16,000 police officers and armoured vehicles on the streets, the situation is difficult to process. Pictures of women jumping from burning buildings and community support officers sporting bloodied eyes are becoming bafflingly unexceptional. Statistics aren’t much help either. We’re told that over 500 people have been arrested since the riots began, but also that London’s cells are full. Do police stations London-wide really only have room for your average-sized primary school? If so, that fact mustn’t give anyone confidence that the disorder can be dealt with swiftly.

On the one hand, some news outlets have taken to reporting that the riots can’t possibly continue for much longer and will be a distant memory in a few days’ time. Yet there’s the nagging worry that this is an ill thought-out “It’ll be over by Christmas” (or ‘Let’s bash out this Libya mess’) attitude, and Christmas 1939 will soon turn into 1945. World War metaphors also aren’t entirely inappropriate – parts of London genuinely look like the aftermath of the Blitz. Other journalists are clearly over-egging the omelette, or whatever culinary euphemism involving damaged poultry is appropriate. Boris Johnson being heckled on a trip to Clapham is not a sign of unprecedented disorder. Wait. Actually, it’s happened before and it is (cue G20 flashbacks). But it still doesn’t deserve to be reported with sensationalism along the lines of ‘The people are answering back totheirleadersnowITSALLGONETOPIECES!!’. People are already burning things astonishingly frequently. That’s disorder enough.

What about the economy? The fears of a double-dip global recession, stoked in the UK by the news that the Bank of England is set to release a less-than-heartening growth forecast, will not be quelled by unhelpful reports that the riots could cost the UK taxpayer over £100million. Even though this figure is relatively minuscule, it won’t help calm already volatile financial markets, and is sure to provide plenty of material for the next news cycle once the worst of the rioting is over.

But we have seen some hope. Viewed via our low-speed, 2G internet dongle, one person who hasn’t been heckled is this heroic Londoner. Wiser expletives have never been spoken, showing there’s still some sense among the senseless. It’s easy to hype up the violence, especially with unconfirmed and speculative reports about rioting spreading to a new area or the police deploying rubber bullets. When churned through the media machine, violence becomes self-perpetuating and the looting of one shop can lead to copycat acts and the disruption of a whole city centre. The burning buildings and amassed police in Manchester seem to be a result of this process. Word gets out that it is okay to loot. The law has already been broken, so why not grab a few freebies?

Of course, it may not be this simple, and one brave voice may not make a difference. In my Delhi bubble, I’ve also been discussing the interesting theory that regime change in the Middle East leads to high oil prices which leads to the fear of a recession which leads to domestic unrest – if this convoluted chain of events happened in 2008/9, is the same chain occurring now? The fact is that we don’t know the underlying cause of the unrest, but we do know that it can in no way be justified as a proportionate response to the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police.

Some might question the timing of the IPCC’s statement that Mark Duggan did not shoot at police (as had been previously reported) as unwise but the IPCC, like the police, are very much damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they had held back the information with the hope of not provoking further violence, they would eventually have faced accusations of a cover-up which might have in turn provoked further disorder. They may have decided that this is explosive information whatever the context, and so best to release it as soon as possible and have the consequences over and done with.

We’re told that action is being taken. Politicians are flying back from holidays, the excitingly-named COBRA is meeting at 9am tomorrow morning and the news has broken that Parliament will be recalled. In Delhi, we’re simply hoping that things will have blown over by the time we land at Heathrow in two weeks’ time. But for now, even with endless British optimism and the humour provided by Iran’s condemnation of UK police brutality, there is no clear end in sight, even from India.

(Photo: AP/PA, Lewis Whyld)