This column was originally written in the aftermath of London's burning in early August, 2011, and syndicated by the IANS (Indo-Asian News Service) to publications around the world. Updated and revised.
THE BURNING OF LONDON
By Kabir Bedi
London was burning the night I arrived on August 8th. Police sirens blared through the darkness, racing towards rioters ransacking shops and torching buildings in Croydon, Clapham and Peckham. The sheer number of vandals overwhelmed the police, brazenly pushing them back with stones, chairs and even firecrackers. BBC TV was a montage of red, yellow and orange flames burning away London’s faith in its safety.
Those haunting images brought back memories of horrific scenes I’d witnessed in recent years. Mumbai’s historic Taj Hotel engulfed in raging fires and smoke on November 26, 2008. The carnage of the London Underground bombings on July 7, 2005, when a double-decker bus also destroyed in Tavistock Square, near the West End theatre where I was performing in “The Far Pavilions”. Then again, I was in Madrid in March 2004, for the Spanish DVD release of my “Sandokan” series, when hundreds were killed with train bombings barely a mile from my hotel. And 9/11, which I’d watched, mesmerised, the day after I landed in Los Angeles. But those were savage acts of terrorism; London this night seemed more like an uprising. Dark thoughts crossed my mind. Were the uprisings of the “Arab Spring” going to be overshadowed by an “English Summer”? Something was seriously amiss. What the hell had happened here?
Mark Duggan, a black man with links to gangsters, had been followed and shot by the police in suspicious circumstances. A peaceful vigil by his family erupted into street violence that led to a chain reaction of rioting, looting and vandalism that spread rapidly across London, and then to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, cities with huge immigrant populations from South Asia. Britain's 1981 race riots had also been triggered by a confrontation between a policeman and a civilian. I wondered whether the Asian immigrants in those cities would join the rioters in the free-for-all plunder of goods and shops that was shocking the world. Despite the obvious temptations, they did not. Amazingly, they became bulwarks in the defence of social order.
Sikhs in Southall stood guard even at mosques while Muslims prayed during Ramzan. In all the burning cities, South Asians organised groups to protect their neighbourhoods. On television they spoke out loudly against the chaos that had descended on their country. Tariq Jahan, a Muslim whose son was killed in Birmingham, made a heartfelt appeal to the rioters: “Step forward if you are willing to lose your sons. End this now. Please.” In this crisis, the immigrants showed they were worthy citizens of their adopted country.
As Prime Minister David Cameron raced back from his holiday abroad and deployed 16,000 policemen onto London streets, order returned in some measure. Then the angry and vociferous questioning began. What caused such a violent conflagration? Race, said The Independent, “simmering resentments in the black community at being treated like criminals by the police”. But then, not all the vandals were black. Deprivation, said The Guardian, "this is what happens when people don't have anything… have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can't afford". Then again, many with good jobs and professions were among the looters. “Criminality, pure and simple”, said the Prime Minister. But it became clear that many had joined the rampage seeing an opportunity to rob without the fear of being caught among the thousands running amok. The debate rages on even as peace returns. Whatever the causes, it made me proud that very few those vandals originated from the Indian subcontinent. In fact, they had chosen to defend their new land valiantly.
Kabir Bedi is an internationally renowned Indian actor and columnist. His career has spanned Bollywood, Hollywood, England and Europe. In December 2010, the Italian Government bestowed him a Knighthood, “Cavaliere”, its highest civilian honour. He has been a voting member of the “Oscars Academy” (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) for almost three decades.