With Priti Patel’s Home Office currently bolstering the Hostile Environment with a series of stricter and ever more violent laws, we remember the life of Anwar Ditta, a campaigner who fought back against the Home Office and the British government in the 1980s—and won.
Ditta passed away last week but her story has become a key milestone in the history of resistance against racist state violence. Her experience with the immigration system served to highlight just how deeply ingrained discrimination and prejudice was, and remains, in our immigration laws and state institutions.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, as Britain faced post-war devastation and a labour shortage, the government invited citizens from the Commonwealth to fill these roles and start a life here. Many families, like Anwar Ditta’s, took the government up on their offer. Migrating from Pakistan in the wake of the partition of British India, Ditta’s father made the decision to move to England, arriving first in Liverpool and then settling in Birmingham.
Ditta was born in Birmingham in 1953. A few years later her parents separated, with her father granted custody of her and her sister. They were both sent to Pakistan to live with their grandparents.
In 1968, aged 14, Ditta was married to Shuja Ud Din. The marriage had been arranged by their families. They went on to have three children—Imran, Kamran, and Saima.
Ditta’s husband moved to Denmark and then to Britain in 1974, where he lived with her mother, awaiting her arrival. They chose to leave their three children in Pakistan while they found work and settled into life in the UK, remarrying under British law to make the process of settlement easier. In September 1976, now pregnant with their fourth child, Ditta submitted the applications for their other children to come to the UK.
Immigration legislation had changed rapidly in the 1960s and ’70s. The most notable of these changes was the Immigration Act of 1971, which removed the right of all Commonwealth citizens to migrate to the UK. Ditta was born in Britain and held a British passport, but these changes meant her children had to apply to migrate, as they had been born in Pakistan.
Ditta had to wait two and half years for her children’s applications to be considered, with the authorities eventually interviewing her and her husband in February 1978. It was in this time that Ditta began organising a campaign to get her children to the UK. Nearly a year after the interview, in May 1979, the Home Office decided that it was ‘not satisfied’ that Kamran, Imran and Saima were related to the couple, and refused the application.
The authorities even suggested that Ditta’s sister-in-law was the birth mother of her children, and that there were two Anwar Dittas—one who had married Shuja Ud Din in Pakistan, and one who married Shuja Ud Din in the UK. The couple thought getting remarried under British law would make their lives easier; instead, the government used it as a tool against them.
Ditta and her husband began collecting as much evidence as they could that their children were in fact their own. Birth certificates, photographs and witness statements were compiled. The Rochdale hospital where their fourth child was born confirmed that this was in fact her fourth child. Ditta even underwent medical ‘virginity’ testing—an incredibly invasive procedure used by the Home Office in the 1970s—to prove her marital status. But the Home Office still didn’t believe her.
While this evidence was compiled, the Anwar Ditta Defence Campaign began to mobilise. At an anti-deportation meeting in Manchester’s Longsight Library, Ditta spoke about her own situation and the audience agreed to support her. Such support ranged from her immediate community to local activist groups, including the Asian Youth Movements of Manchester and Bradford, the Indian Workers Association, Rochdale Trades Council, and Rochdale Labour Party.
Between 1979 and 1980, Ditta spoke at over 400 meetings and demonstrations about her own situation and the wider injustices of the immigration system. She made sure to include in the campaign that both sides of the political spectrum were complicit in these prejudices, with both a Labour and a Conservative government continuing Ditta’s ordeal. Even with such overwhelming support, the Home Office rejected Ditta’s appeal in July 1980.
But the Defence Campaign continued. The strategy was reviewed and a new legal team was put together headed by Ruth Bundey, mentored by the barrister Ian MacDonald, who had represented the Mangrove Nine in 1970. The campaign’s growing momentum led to the making of a documentary by Granada TV’s World in Action programme, screened in March 1981. The filmmakers not only covered the campaign but also flew out to Pakistan to film Ditta’s children, where they also took blood samples.
Ditta had always offered to undertake blood tests—an offer the Home Office never took up. Blood and DNA testing is common practice in today’s immigration system, but Ditta’s case was only the second to use it.
The day after the documentary was screened and facing mounting pressure, the Home Office overturned their refusal decision. Ditta’s children arrived in the UK in April 1981, five years after the initial application.
Anwar Ditta was driven by her desire as an individual mother to be reunited with her children, but she quickly became something much bigger. Her work as an anti-racist campaigner highlighted the power of community-led activism and self-organising in fighting injustice, and after her own victory, Ditta remained a passionate defender of others facing discrimination from the Home Office, never forgetting how others had supported her fight for her family.
Her case inspired many to fight for justice; after her death, it will continue to do so for years to come.