“This is the worst election I have ever seen in my life,” says Dr Abdulrehman Rajpura. The 77-year-old retired GP and former chairman of the local mosque had just hung up the phone to an officer from West Yorkshire police, pleading for protection for himself and his home.
On Sunday afternoon Rajpura was with a group of Labour activists in Batley when they were physically attacked and pelted with eggs, he told the Guardian.
Then he woke on Monday to find that someone had taken the poster outside his house endorsing Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater and replaced it with one of George Galloway, the Workers Party of Britain candidate and pro-Palestine campaigner who delivered a shock defeat to Labour in nearby Bradford West in 2012.
Both Leadbeater and Galloway are campaigning in an increasingly tense byelection campaign in Batley and Spen, which many locals worry has increased divisions within both the wider community in the West Yorkshire town, and the Muslim community more specifically.
On Sunday, Rajpura was with a group of Labour activists on Whitaker Street in Batley, including the former MP Tracy Brabin and Shabir Pandor, the leader of Kirklees council, when they were attacked.
Rajpura described being asked to look at a campaigner who had been knocked to the ground and kicked while on the floor. “He was shaking and bleeding from the right hand side of his head,” he said. Police were called.
The former GP helped him find his glasses, which had been knocked to the floor, and headed back up the road with a young woman by his side. Then he says “an Asian man in a mask” threw eggs, which hit his leg and smashed, dirtying his clothes. “I thought: oh my Lord, this could be a stone.”
Rajpura said he wished he could catch the assailant but was unable to “because of my age”. A longtime Labour supporter, he is well aware that the murdered MP Jo Cox – Leadbeater’s late sister – was targeted by a far-right terrorist in part because of her support for the local Muslim community and passionate defence of immigration and community cohesion.
He returned home from the incident on Sunday feeling, for the first time, “worried about myself, as well”. The byelection had “definitely divided the community”.
On Monday evening police issued an image of a male they want to identify in connection with assaults on males canvassing in Batley. Three men are believed to have been involved in the incident and were described as Asian and as wearing hooded tops.
Rajpura, who arrived in the UK from Gujurat, India, in 1974, began working as a doctor in Batley in 1980. “There have been so many elections done, but this is the worst election I have seen in my life. This is a democratic country. We are worried and concerned. This is a great country. How can we work together as British citizens?” he said.
The lamp-posts near Rajpura’s home are plastered with leaflets for Leadbeater, Galloway and the odd poster for the Conservative candidate, Ryan Stephenson, who Labour fear will claim victory in Thursday’s vote.
Galloway’s green campaign bus frequently passes, while a taxi bearing Ukip’s purple colours in Batley marketplace encourages locals to boycott the “London-centric” mainstream parties.
Leadbeater was canvassing a few streets away, flanked by two police officers. Last week she was chased and heckled on the campaign trail by men who were not from the area who demanded to know her views about LGBT rights and Kashmir. Galloway denied they were his supporters. There was an increased police presence across the area on Monday.
Another Labour activist who was there on Sunday claimed three or four young Asian men “started pelting one of our campaigners with eggs, another guy stepped in to stop them doing it and then they started swinging for him. They punched him a couple of times, knocking him down and then started kicking him when he was on the floor.
“They … attacked a few people and then ran off and came back a couple minutes later with more eggs. The person stood furthest forward was an elderly retired GP and they were right in front of him, throwing eggs and basically attacking an old man.”
The activist said that while no one was seriously harmed, the incident had left a lot of people feeling scared and reluctant to go out in the constituency for the remainder of the campaign.
“I was terrified to be honest. They reached in their bags to grab eggs but I was terrified they were going to pull out a knife. I’m scared to go out campaigning. We can’t ignore the fact that this happened in the seat where Jo Cox was murdered.
“There was a big group of us campaigning together on Sunday. If it had been four or five, I hate to think what would have had happened.”
The incidents have left many Labour activists scared, with one saying she feels apprehensive to canvass this week. Another, Jan Williams, had come from Knaresborough in North Yorkshire to leaflet on Monday.
A spokesperson for West Yorkshire police said: “Enquiries remain ongoing regarding an incident in Whitaker Street, Batley, at about 4.30pm on Sunday in which eggs were thrown at males canvassing for a political party.
“One man was further assaulted in the incident. Kirklees police has recorded four crimes of assault in relation to what took place and officers are conducting active inquiries into the matter today.”
A spokesperson for Galloway said his supporters had not removed any posters but accused Labour councillors of doing so, adding: “We wouldn’t be surprised if Labour had removed the poster themselves in a bid to whip up faux outrage.”
Anyone with information can contact Kirklees District CID on 101 referencing crime number 13210322000. Information can also be given online here or anonymously to the independent Crimestoppers charity on 0800 555 111.