When Balwinder Rana came to this country in 1963, aged sixteen, he didn’t expect things to be as bad as they were for South Asians living in Britain.
‘I was one of only five Asian students studying at Gravesend College in Kent,’ he tells me. ‘I remember very clearly when Enoch Powell made the ‘rivers of blood’ speech: I was in the common room talking, and a student came round and threw a newspaper in front of me with the headline “send them back says Enoch Powell”. He smirked and laughed at me with others.’
Rana saw a sudden shift in public attitude after Powell’s speech. ‘There were, of course, racist students, but before then they kept quiet. This rhetoric suddenly gave them some confidence. I remember standing in the queue for lunch – they were sniggering at me and shouting “Enoch Powell is right”.’
The experience of having to fend for yourself in the absence of any institutional support would come to shape the activism of Balwinder and many other South Asians growing up in Britain in the postwar period. There was a clear necessity for South Asians to organise politically to challenge racism – so against a backdrop of abuse from both street gangs and the state, independent, working-class movements were formed by South Asians up and down the country. They were known as the Asian Youth Movements.
Mukhtar Dar was a founding member of the Sheffield Youth Movement, and was also later active in the Birmingham Youth Movement. ‘Ours was a generation baptised in fire and forged in the righteous struggle to defend our communities against a vicious tidal wave of street racism,’ he says.
‘A racist siege was unleashed, fuelled and backed up by state racism, which resulted in a culture of ‘Paki-bashing’. Our homes, shops, places of worship were attacked, and our people were murdered on the streets. As second-generation Asian youth, relegated to the margins and dumped on the scrap heap within the belly of the imperialist beast, it fell upon us to counter this racist onslaught.’
Their rallying cry was ‘come what may, we’re here to stay’. ‘We organised, mobilised, and fought the three interconnected ‘isms’ of fascism, racism, and imperialism. This was the biggest grassroots political movement in the history of South Asian communities in the UK,’ explains Dar.
The first Asian Youth Movement was set up in Gravesend, Kent in 1969. Balwinder Rana was the founding president of the organisation.
‘We had heard all the stories about Indian anti-colonial revolutionaries who fought for Indian independence. We knew our history was a history of struggle,’ Rana says. He and his friends reached out to other young South Asians through Gravesend’s Indian hockey and football teams, and started talking to them about the necessity of political self-defence.
They decided to launch publicly during 1969’s Indian Independence Day celebrations; the group booked a hall, and invited the local MP, mayor, and councillors, and also made a conscious decision to invite those working in professions where racism was rife. For instance, bank managers, many of whom who had refused to give Asians mortgages, were invited, as were headteachers and railway staff.
‘We had live entertainment, and we did a lot of publicity to get a big audience,’ says Rana. ‘We wanted to let them know that we were united: we were an organisation, and we were going to demand to be treated equally. Over 100 people signed up.
‘During one of our first meetings, someone said there was a pub down the road where they didn’t serve Indians drinks. There was no better time. We went to the pub: There were very few people inside. I went up to the bartender and asked for fifty pints of lager. They had the shock of their lives; in the past, if anyone went, they’d say “we don’t serve Indians”. Now, they were running around like headless chickens. Eventually, we were served.’
More than fifty years on, Rana continues to campaign against racism. This year, he helped to organise Black Lives Matter protests in West London, and prior to that, he was instrumental in setting up Sikhs Against the English Defence League.
In fact, Balwinder helped organise the counter-demonstration against the EDL in my hometown of Luton in 2011. I was only twelve at the time, but the rise of the EDL and Islamophobia more widely had politicised me and many other young South Asians in a way that felt like history repeating itself.
Fahim Qureshi, a local activist, also helped organise the 2011 counter-protest. ‘There were 3000 Asian youths who stood in Bury Park,’ he recalls, ‘the very heart of the Asian community, and blocked the whole of Dunstable Road to prevent the EDL coming into the area.’
Fahim explains that anti-racist organising in Luton has a rich history; in 1981, he helped set up the Luton Youth Movement. ‘We protested against fascist organisations like the National Front when they held meetings in Luton. There was a regular picket of the Luton Central Library because the National Front used to have their executive meetings there every month. The local council, which owned the library, allowed that to happen.’
This casual legitimation of fascism from both local and national authorities was a particular source of anger for the local Movement. ‘We thought: “Hang on a second. This is an openly racist organisation you’re allowing to organise within your premises.” They never took our views into account as young people and people of colour.’
But in a climate where violent attacks on ethnic minority communities were so common, passive aggression from local authorities was not the barrier hardest to overcome.
‘A lot of families used to get attacked,’ says Fahim, ‘especially in the outlying housing estates. That meant a lot of the elders didn’t want to get involved. They wanted to keep their heads low – but young people had had enough. They’d seen their parents suffer and they refused to cower down. They flocked to join and took to the streets.
‘We defended our communities,’ he continues. ‘We’d sit with families who were targeted. Asian families would have bricks thrown through their windows and racists standing outside harassing them: we’d go out and confront them. It was happening up and down the country, as well. Our slogan was “self-defence is no offence”.’
In such a hostile atmosphere, it was important for the various Youth Movements to work together. According to Fahim, this was especially true during the 1981 race riots.
The trial of the Bradford 12 was a watershed moment. In July 1981, there were rumours that British fascists were planning to march in Bradford, and given the history of violent attacks and lack of support from the police, members of the United Black Youth League (a splinter group from the Bradford Asian Youth Movement) made petrol bombs in self-defence. As the fascist march didn’t take place, they were never used; despite that, twelve members of the United Black Youth League were arrested. Their acquittal only came after a year-long campaign led by the Asian Youth Movements.
For Fahim, solidarity was crucial in securing this success. ‘During the trial, the Youth Movements in East London and Southall would book a coach and stop in Luton to pick a group of us up, and then we’d all set off to Bradford. We’d protest outside the magistrates’ court while the twelve were remanded in custody. There was a frequent liaison, and we supported each other’s events. We’d go down to Brick Lane to support the Bengali Youth Movement in their struggle against the National Front.’
As a country-wide force, the Asian Youth Movements also crossed religious divides, and now, as isolation and extremism surface as issues in our communities, the unifying power and diversity of the Movements provide a model that we can all aspire to. In fact, Fahim fears that the British South Asian community has lost the sense of unity that existed during the seventies and eighties.
‘We’ve let ourselves become the victims of divide and rule,’ he says. ‘The British ruling class have really played on that, like they played on it during colonial rule in India. Before, we were all referred to as ‘Pakis’. It didn’t matter if we were Muslims, Sikh or Hindu. We were all the same thing to them, and we all suffered racism. In a way, it’s what united us.’
Other differences became strengths in organising, too. The majority of Asian Youth Movements were made up predominantly of young men, but some, like the Sheffield group, had a significant number of women. ‘It’s important to point that out and not allow women comrades to be written out of history,’ adds Mukhtar Dar.
Anwar Ditta, a Pakistani woman from Rochdale, was a leading anti-deportation activist from the 1980s onwards who worked with the Asian Youth Movements. In 1979, Anwar was told that her three Pakistan-born children would not be allowed to join her in the UK due to new stricter immigration laws; the Home Office said they didn’t believe Anwar’s children were hers.
Despite losing her appeal and having no legal avenue left, Ditta persisted in her efforts to be reunited with her family. Her campaign gained momentum and eventually led to a documentary by Granada TV, in 1981, which proved that her children were hers through blood tests. The Home Office was forced to make an embarrassing U-turn. Anwar’s success inspired others to keep fighting against racist immigration legislation, and Anwar continued to speak at public meetings, exposing the prejudices of the immigration laws of the time.
Alongside their support for specific campaigns, many of the local Asian Youth Movements pursued a broader programme of political education for their members. Mukhtar Dar recalls his study group: ‘We studied the history of racism but also colonialism and the looting of the Indian subcontinent. We’d take our members away for residentials, show films and study pamphlets.’
In that, the Asian Youth Movements looked outward as well as inward. ‘We organised as Asians,’ Dar says, ‘but we had broad fronts. When we organised campaigns, we’d pass resolutions to trade union branches and Labour Party Wards. We had the Sheffield Defence Campaign which involved a lot of other Left organisations, trade unions, and Labour Left organisations.’
Dar’s group also took delegations to Northern Ireland. ‘Ireland was an important struggle for us. I remember when I was arrested for graffitiing “free the Bradford 12” in Sheffield – I was taken to the police station and verbally and physically abused by the special branch, and as they were chucking me out, there was an Irish man being dragged in with his face almost on the floor and his hands behind his back. He shouted “Tiocfaidh ár lá”, which means “our day will come”.
‘What we were going through in terms of our struggle against racist violence – we could see the Irish people were coming through a similar struggle. Their struggle for national liberation and the discrimination they faced led us to form alliances. We took minibuses of Asian Youth Movements from Birmingham, Sheffield, and Newham over to Northern Ireland to build connections with the Irish youth there.’
Engagement with Northern Ireland was part of the broader anti-imperialism that Fahim cites as a core value of the Movements. ‘The anti-imperialist stance came from the politically conscious leadership. They managed to unite our struggles in the UK to Palestinian struggles, to the struggles of the Irish people, and to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. We made those links – both ideological links and organisational links.’
All of those struggles remain radical today, but as the twentieth century wore on, anti-racist activism in Britain, specifically, was increasingly institutionalised. For Mukhtar Dar, this was one of the key developments that led to the Movements’ demise.
‘They smash your kneecaps with racism and then they give you crutches in the form of grants to stand up on,’ says Dar. ‘The youth of 1981 and 1985 were an almighty lion that could roar and could bite. The system got scared, and looked to how the struggle in America was contained. The system created the race relations industry.’
Dar is damning of the institutional performances of anti-racism that accompanied—and continue to accompany—true institutional harm. ‘On the one hand, you had the immigration restrictions accompanied by rhetoric which problematised immigrant communities and legitimised racism; on the other hand, Race Relations Acts were being passed.
‘Unfortunately, many people were co-opted into those kinds of institutions. The struggle moved from the streets and into council chambers. Suddenly, jobs came into being where people would be paid to tackle discrimination.
‘As working-class youth,’ Dar adds, ‘we could see this phenomenon playing out in front of us. We had communities of Asian and African-Caribbean people, who were united against a commonality of racism, suddenly becoming divided because crumbs were thrown into the ghettos.’
The activists who formed the Asian Youth Movements of forty and fifty years ago continue to battle against optics-based anti-racism today, pushing for meaningful community activity that makes a real difference to peoples’ lives. In light of that, Fahim has a message for Britain’s new generation of South Asian youth: ‘If anything, things haven’t changed. They’ve become much worse. You’ve got a real extreme right-wing government in place, pushing through some very draconian stuff under the guise of the Prevent agenda and mass deportations.
‘So come out and organise,’ he says. ‘Take up the baton. We’re sleepwalking into disaster if we don’t organise ourselves and confront racism. It’s only because we confronted racism in the streets and politically that there were changes made at that time; we need to do the same thing now.’