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Racism and Resistance: How South Asians Fought Back

Mukhtar Dar

Mukhtar Dar, a former member of the Sheffield Asian Youth Movement and the Pakistani Workers Association, speaks to Tribune about the rich tradition of political activism in the British South Asian community – and why it’s time to reignite that fighting spirit.

Interview by
Taj Ali

In the seventies and eighties, amid a climate of intense racism from both street gangs and the state, South Asians had no choice but to organise in their own communities. At a time when violent assaults in the form of ‘Paki-bashing’ were commonplace and racist murders would hit the headlines every other week, through the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs), young people fought tooth and nail to defend their communities and demand a dignified life lived with hope, equal rights, and justice. Alongside organising self-defence, they pursued a programme of political education rooted in unapologetic socialist and anti-imperialist politics. From Handsworth to Soweto and from Gaza to Derry, the Asian Youth Movements crossed both ethnic and religious divides and built international solidarity. This rich and proud tradition of political activism provides vital lessons for us today.

Mukhtar Dar, an activist, artist, and archivist, was a founding member of the Sheffield Asian Youth Movement and the Manchester Black People’s Alliance, later joining the Birmingham Asian Youth Movement and the Pakistani Workers’ Association. He became the unofficial artist of the largest grassroots anti-racist movement in the history of the UK’s South Asian communities. Drawing on his hitherto unseen extensive archive of original photographs, artwork, and political ephemera, Dar’s groundbreaking exhibition Blacklash took audiences to the heart of the struggle, during which there were moments of exemplary solidarity between Asian and African Caribbean peoples. Tribune visited Mukhtar’s exhibition at the Birmingham Museum to speak to him about his experiences of that tumultuous time, and what they can teach us in our own moment of crisis.


Your exhibition starts with a black and white photograph of a South Asian youth standing in a subway in front of a swastika and the National Front insignia. This photograph seems to encapsulate the level and viciousness of the racism you dealt with in the 1980s, the context in which your own anti-racist activism took place. Can you talk about the story behind it?


This is Sultan, a member of the Sheffield Asian Youth Movement, on a routine street patrol. The city centre coach station was one of the many areas where the fascists put up their racist graffiti and we went out there to challenge them and trash their graffiti.

As the exhibition’s opening photograph, the image captures the conditions in which we found ourselves. In the late seventies and early eighties, Britain was in the midst of a deep recession. Politicians from across the political spectrum closed ranks and blamed the rising unemployment, poor housing, and the lack of welfare provision on the presence of Asian and African Caribbean communities. We became the convenient scapegoats for all that ailed this society. Racist immigration laws legitimised discrimination and unleashed a culture of ‘Paki-bashing’. Physical attacks became a way of life — our people were attacked on the streets; our homes and places of worship were petrol-bombed; and the death toll from fatal stabbings began to mount across the country.

Within this toxic, hostile environment, far-right parties like the National Front and British National Party emerged out of the gutters and began to gain considerable electoral support. Far-right paramilitary organisations like Column 88, Combat 18, and the British Movement paraded through the heart of our communities. The police, who were supposedly there to protect us, invariably arrested the victims while the racist perpetrators walked away scot-free. It fell upon us, as second-generation Asian youth, to defend our communities against this tidal wave of vicious and pernicious state and street racism.

To avoid any repercussions from our activity on our parents, some of us left our homes and moved into an AYM house which was code-named ‘The Bus Shelter’. In the basement, we had weight training facilities and upstairs we had our offices. We kept newspaper cuttings of attacks and minutes from Community Police Liaison Meetings, including a big thick folder called the ‘fascist file’. This listed all the names, addresses, and workplaces of local fascists.


How big were the street patrols that the Asian Youth Movements organised?


This image of the subway captures the racist reality in the ‘belly of the beast’ and our resistance to it.

Where there were attacks taking place, we had a strategy for community defence. The street patrols were as large as we needed them to be. We were a cadre-based organisation with a core membership; however, we could mobilise larger numbers of supporters if and when needed. When there was an attack on a restaurant — which led to the formation of the Sheffield Asian Youth Movement — we had several minibuses of members turn up, and we started to fly-post the Darnall area. There were probably about twenty-five or thirty people on the streets.

We had scouts at the front, and there were police vans in front of them. We were prepared to fly-post while the police were on the streets and even the police station while the police were inside; we had a code through whistles, whereby once the police started looking back, we’d whistle, slow down, and disappear into the side streets before regrouping.

We had that confidence, given what we were facing. We believed that our struggle was a righteous struggle, and we had the support of our communities.

The level of racist attacks that were taking place at that time was horrendous. Even the police, who always refuted racism as a motive in the attacks, admitted racist violence was on the increase. The police colluded and connived with racists and were institutionally racist as they had to implement racist laws.

With our backs up against the walls, a lot of people began to organise self-defence classes, which are depicted in one of the photos here. Under these conditions, our existence was reduced to what we called ‘combat breathing’. Twenty-four seven, we didn’t know when the attack would take place. We would sit in cafes, waiting for the pubs to empty, and inevitably the racists would come drunk and shout abuse at the waiters, and it would kick off. But we’d be there, and we’d be tooled up. We weren’t particularly big, but we were organised and we turned victims into fighters.

One photo here shows a restaurant owner, Raja, whose restaurant was petrol- bombed. We started organising meetings there, and from being a victim, he became a fighter and a key member of the Asian Youth Movement. Our members like Zaffar were followed and arrested by the police on trumped-up charges, but we would picket the police station until they were released.


The second image in this exhibition shows a group protesting, and what stands out to me straight away is the sheer diversity of the crowd. You’ve got a man in a turban, you’ve got women wearing headscarves, you’ve got black, white, and brown people standing together. How did you manage to cross those racial and religious divides?


Alliances were key in those days. While we had been inspired by the Black Power and civil rights movement in America, we were rooted in the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles which were taking place in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Indian subcontinent. When our parents’ generation came here from the Caribbean and the subcontinent, they came with the lived experience of anti-colonialism and now had to confront the common enemy of racism. That was the basis on which Black became a political colour, and the colour of our fight, as opposed to the colour of our skin.

It was behind the inner-city ‘Black barricades’ that Asian and African Caribbean activists came together to build unity in struggle and forge alliances and solidarity between all oppressed people against racism, colonialism, and imperialism. In Sheffield, one of our good friends Peter Jackson was a white guy from a working-class background. He lived with us and would be in tears hearing about the history of looting, plunder, and genocide. He became an honorary member of the AYM and a humble class warrior. Our members were Asian, but our supporters were African Caribbean and white.

While we organised autonomously, we were not separatists or cultural nationalists. We were involved in many broad fronts and supported other struggles against injustice. This was a period of intense political upheaval and class struggle. You had the Yorkshire Ripper on the rampage killing women. When women were beginning to organise, to reclaim the night, it echoed our experience; so there was a natural empathy, and natural alliances formed. The fear that they felt was a fear that we felt with racism on the streets.

Then there was what was happening in Northern Ireland. We were told hunger strikers were criminals, but no criminal, as far as we were concerned, would be prepared to lay down their lives. Ireland was England’s first colony; and, for us, providing unconditional support to the Irish people in their national liberation struggle was a litmus test of our anti-imperialism. We organised several delegations to Northern Ireland to connect our struggles and learn from the republican movement.

Unlike many other AYMs, Sheffield had both male and female members. Our members were from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, believers as well as non-believers, aspiring professionals and unemployed — all of us united in our common struggle against racism and imperialism which we firmly believed had to be fought from a working-class perspective. We visited every inner-city black area. We went to Toxteth, St Paul’s, Manningham, Chapeltown, Southall, and Handsworth to build connections and widen our networks.

We also supported progressive national liberation struggles. The three key ones in addition to the Irish struggle were the struggle in South Africa against apartheid, the gaping wound of human consciousness; the suffering, the fortitude, and the resilience of the Palestinian people, a massive source of inspiration for us; and, of course, the Kashmiri struggle, [which] was really key. In Birmingham, we have 200,000 Pakistanis, and 75 percent of them are Kashmiris, so we were very much involved in that struggle too.


There are a lot of interesting drawings, posters, and images that you’ve collated for this archive. Talk to me about your background as an artist.


As a child, there were two things I was good at. One was long distance running. I grew up in a village in Pakistan, but my father was working here [in the UK], which meant that I went to city school, rather than the one in the village. But I spent my bus fare buying sweets, so coming back, I’d have no choice but to run all the way.

The other was art, because of its sense of magic. Coming from a poor and humble background, things that we couldn’t possess, I drew. I remember sitting in the window with a slate, and I would draw things like aeroplanes and cars. The sense of magic when you see these things when you don’t have the means to own them — if you can draw them, it’s almost as good.

Then, when I went to art college here, I was one of two non-white art students. It was all about European art, and we were having to emulate it. I was very much trying to be invisible — to integrate, to be part of society. But you can’t be painting pretty pictures when people in your communities are being murdered.

Being chased by fascists made me realise no matter how hard I tried to fit in, to be invisible, assimilate, to integrate, I was always going to be an outcast and relegated to the margins. I was very much inspired by the Community Arts Movement, and the discussions taking place in the Black Arts Movement, which were very much about art in the service of working-class struggles and creation for liberation.

I remember my mentor Ijaz saying it’s not your requirements as an artist, it’s the requirements of your people. Designing and painting banners was a collective process and I would use the opportunity to engage new members to talk about the depth of our oppression and the heights of our resistance. Art was not for art’s sake; art allows us to consolidate our political advances and create a political culture of resistance. For me, the dilemma was this: do I pick up the megaphone, or do I pick up the camera? Picking up both was the ideal situation.


This image shows you speaking at a meeting in a mosque, at what looks like quite a young age. How old were you when you really got into activism?


I was 21 years of age. In this image I’m talking about the need for us to organise to defend our communities. We weren’t just fighting racism; we were also holding our communities to account. It was a struggle for democracy within our communities. When the elections took place, we would speak to our elders.

There were essentially two ideological positions. One was with the system. Some of our community leaders who could speak bits of English were seen by the authorities as people that could mediate the conflict that was developing; and some of them took a position of pleasing, integrating, and working with the authorities.

But we’d seen that whole thing fail because the people in power were part and parcel of what we were going through. We took a different position and that was: no justice — just us. We had to organise.

After all, state racism fuelled street racism, the fascists, and the far-right. We could deal with the fascists, we could fill up minibuses, we knew where they lived. But the major issue was state racism. And the Labour Party and the Tory Party were responsible for state racism through the immigration laws — the Nationality Act and the Commonwealth Act. Our slogan was: ‘Tory, Labour, both the same, both play the racist game.’

As far as we were concerned, we saw very little difference between them. Both represented the interests of British capitalism. In fact, we saw the Labour Party being far more dangerous in some respects, because they reinforced illusions; they were the mediators that stopped any reaction, any alternatives, from developing.


This era was, of course, a time of industrial militancy, and there were many standoffs with the Thatcher government, not least the miners’ strike in 1984. We’re also painfully aware of the racism that existed within the trade union movement at the time. As socialists, what was your relationship like with those involved in such industrial disputes?


We knew that the struggle against racism would have to be based on class, so we had very good class instincts. Class led us to recognise that we have a class interest in uniting with other workers, other peoples that are oppressed, and working with them. When the miners were on strike, we would take minibuses to the miners to offer our solidarity.

I remember one occasion, early in the morning, around five o’clock, when we were picking up members to take them to the picket lines. I was throwing these little pebbles at a window to wake up one of our members, and he came down, sleep coming out of his eyes, pissed off at the fact that he had been woken up so early.

But he got in the back of the van and we drove up to Orgreave. When we arrived at the picket line, one of the miners turned around and said, ‘What the fuck are the Pakis doing here?’ And the guy who I’d woken up turned around to me and goes, ‘Shit man, you get me up at five in the morning and I come here and get this racism from the miners?’ And I said, ‘Well bro, we can see the bars and some of them can’t.’

There were individuals within those communities who had racist views. But when we went into those mining communities, we recognised that just as we were a tightknit community, they were too — a community constituted by its relations to the means of production; and, as a community, they saw their future being eradicated. They had the same hatred for the police as we did, for the scabs, for the people who were selling out within their ranks.

So there were a lot of synergies and there was a commonality. And not just with the miners — with the Irish communities, with the African Caribbean communities, we had common experiences and a common fight. Even though we organised autonomously, we saw our struggle as one.

There’s a leaflet further down in this exhibition which says ‘Belfast, Orgreave, Mosside, Burngreave, one struggle, one fight.’ In that, I’ve used a picture of an Asian, a miner, an Irish person, and an African Caribbean, all being kicked by the police. Alliances were a key part of our anti-imperialist, anti-racist struggles.


Alongside posters and banners, you’ve got drums and speakerphones here with political slogans on them. How significant were these as tools in the struggle?


This photo is of an Afro Caribbean bookshop. The same skinheads that attacked that bookshop were the ones that attacked a Bangladeshi family. That’s just one example of how the enemy was the same. We defended the bookshop, and we defended the Bangladeshi family.

I used whatever creative skills were at my disposal in the service of the struggle. I came up with the overall visual aesthetic of a given campaign to ensure that it encapsulated a strong black militant aesthetic and the demonstration for me was my canvas. I choreographed the procession; designed the placards, the banners, and the flags; and led the chants and played the drums. I drew images of freedom fighters and wrote revolutionary slogans on my collection of drums, which included dhols, duffs, and bodhráns.

A bodhrán is an Irish drum; this one was given to me by an Irish republican when we visited Northern Ireland. The drum was banned by slave masters and colonialists because it was used in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Indian subcontinent to send secret codes and signals. It raised people’s passions and rallied them to rise up against their oppressors.

The drumstick, the megaphone, the camera, the pen, and the paintbrush — all these were tools I used as an artist in the service of the struggle.


Your movements were anti-imperialist to the core, weren’t they?


Putting the historical jigsaw together, we understood that racism was part and parcel of colonialism. The prosperity of the West was diametrically linked to the poverty within the former colonies. Racism was part and parcel of imperialism, slavery, and colonialism. We were part of a worldwide international struggle of oppressed people.

From a young age — late teens and early twenties — we had to put the jigsaw together as to why we were in the position we were in. That led us to study books we didn’t have access to in our schools. We developed a critical worldview which was not only about what we were fighting against, but about what kind of society we were fighting for. And that led us to socialism.

We were left-wing, even though some of us didn’t fully grasp what socialism meant. We knew instinctively, coming from working-class communities, that the only society that would give us dignity was a society based upon equality and equal distribution of wealth.

I ended up joining PWA because we were getting older. We were no longer youth. When I went to Pakistan and saw the number of people dying due to natural causes — except they weren’t natural, they were to do with the colonial looting that had taken place — I knew we had to connect the struggle against racism here with solidarity with and support for struggles back in Pakistan.

The PWA, unlike the IWA [Indian Workers Association], had come out of the struggle in the UK. The PWA also had a strong women’s wing, and we organised International Women’s Day rallies every year. In this photograph you can see the PWA’s International Women’s Day rally platform, with amazing speakers: you’ve got Nicaragua solidarity campaigns, you’ve got SWAPO [the South West Africa People’s Organisation], you’ve got the African People’s Revolutionary Party, you’ve got Black Panthers. The men are looking after the creche and picking up the kids; the women are the ones speaking on the platform. Back in those days, we were really challenging those attitudes.


The Indian Workers Association was established in Britain in 1938, and had a massive presence: I read that at one point in the sixties, half the Punjabis in some areas, like Southall, were members. Why do you think the Pakistani Workers Association came into being, when you had this existing association? I understand the influence of the IWA was beginning to wane in the eighties, and there was a split, too, but I’m interested to hear your view.


There were two phases of the PWA. The Pakistani Workers Association was initially set up by Pakistanis who came here not as labourers but as students. Many of them were students in London, and they were involved in supporting the struggle against American imperialism in Vietnam. They were active in the big demonstrations in London; Tariq Ali was involved with them. After, some of them went back to Pakistan and played a pivotal role against dictatorship, and in supporting the Balochi national liberation struggle. They produced a magazine called Democratic Pakistan.

The second phase of the PWA, which I was part of, came later, and some of the leading members had previously been members or supporters of the Indian Workers Association. They were very close to and inspired by the leadership of Jagmohan Joshi, a revolutionary. Later, the IWA was under different leadership — what we in the Asian Youth Movements called an appendage of the Labour Party. PWA may have been inspired by the IWA, but politically it was very different and much more radical, and its membership was mainly comprised of activists that came out of the anti-racist struggle in Britain.

PWA had a strong position against accepting state funding, which was an important decision — we were a political organisation, and we argued that the state first smashed your kneecaps with racism and then handed you funding crutches to create dependency. We believed in selling our labour but not our soul and we’re committed to building an independent anti-racist, anti-imperialist organisation; however, certain individuals and their egos and our lack of holding them to account led to the demise of the PWA.


You’ve also got a picture here of the formidable anti-deportation activist Anwar Ditta, who sadly passed away last year. Can you tell me about your work with her?


Anwar Ditta was born here in Birmingham. She was from a working-class background, and she struggled for many years to bring her children to Britain and prove that they were hers, including being forced to go through a virginity test. The first time I heard her speak, there was pin-drop silence. Not an eye was dry in the room. The way she was able to articulate her experiences was just incredible.

She shared platforms with the likes of Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill, and she looked and dressed like our mothers and our sisters. She was very proud of her background.

It was a real honour to dedicate this whole exhibition to her. Women are very much made invisible when we write the struggles of our communities. Acknowledging the work of people like Anwar Ditta is really important.


If you had a message for the younger generation of South Asians now, what would it be?


There’s a wonderful saying from the great revolutionary Frantz Fanon that I’ll paraphrase. Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its historic mission, and organise to fulfil it or betray it.

We in our generation stood on the shoulders of giants; we learned from them and organised to take the struggle forward. My message to young people today is that we have a legacy, a glorious history of struggle. Take that forward. Use it as a bulwark to inform you, to inspire you, and to organise.

It’s not just about social inequality. It’s also about the climate crisis. We have to address that if we are to survive. The struggle in itself was a creative process. In our most inspired moments we imagined a world free of exploitation and oppression. Study the great strides forward by human beings around the world where people tried to change the course of history to create a more egalitarian society, and learn from their shortcomings as well as their achievements.

Don’t just be aware of what you are fighting against. The most important task is to know what you are fighting for.

About the Author

Mukhtar Dar is an activist, artist, and archivist. An exhibition of his photography and political ephemera Blacklash: Racism and the Struggle for Self-Defence opened at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in 2022.

About the Interviewer

Taj Ali is an industrial correspondent at Tribune.