London was burning the night I arrived on Aug 8. 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 that burned away London’s faith in its safety.
Those vivid images brought back wrenching memories of traumatic scenes I’d seen. Mumbai’s historic Taj Hotel engulfed in smoke and fire on Nov 26, 2008. The carnage of the London Underground bombings on July 7, 2005, when a double-decker bus was 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. 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 giving way to an English Summer? Something was seriously amiss. What the hell had happened?
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 violence that led to a chain reaction of rioting, looting and vandalism that spread like wildfire across London, and then to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, cities with huge immigrant populations from South Asia. I wondered whether these immigrants were going to join the rioters in the free-for-all plunder of goods and shops that was shocking the world. Amazingly, despite the obvious temptations, they did not. In fact, they became bulwarks in the defence of order.
Sikhs in Southall stood guard even at mosques as Muslims prayed during Ramzan. In all the burning cities, they 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 who had lost his son, appealed to rioters to end the madness. ‘Step forward if you are willing to lose your sons. End this now. Please.’ In this crisis, these 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 on London streets, order returned in some measure. And the angry 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. What became clear was that many had joined the rampage seeing an opportunity to rob without the fear of being caught among the thousands that had run amok. Whatever the causes, it made me proud that very few of the vandals had originated from the Indian subcontinent.
(Kabir Bedi is an internationally renowned Indian actor and columnist. His career has spanned Bollywood, Hollywood, England and Europe. He lives in Mumbai, India. He can be contacted at email@example.com)