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Defiance: How South Asians Fought Back Against the Fascists

Taj Ali

In the 1970s, British South Asians faced a vicious tidal wave of racism from street gangs and the state. A new series details how they fought back — for themselves and those that came after them.

Photo by Barry Beattie/ANL/Shutterstock

One Friday night, in the long, hot summer of 1976, 18-year-old Gudip Singh Chaggar had gone to the cinema with his friends. Chaggar never made it home. The young engineering student was stabbed to death by racist thugs just outside the Dominion Cinema on Southall High Street. 

A pool of his blood remained on the pavement the next day. Suresh Grover, then a curious 22-year-old passer-by, politely inquired about what had happened. ‘Go away, it’s just Indian blood,’ was the abrupt response he received from a police officer. 

This dismissive attitude and indifference to the violence inflicted on South Asians came as no surprise to Grover. Just a few years earlier, while Grover was living in Nelson, Lancashire, he had been stabbed in a racist attack. Despite his pleas, no police action was taken. 

After the killing, the leading fascist Kingsley Read was quoted as saying: ‘One down, a million to go.’ This was the era of ‘Paki-bashing.’ Homes, shops and places of worship were attacked. South Asians young and old were murdered on the streets. 

That day, Grover instinctively took some paint and wrote on the pavement: ‘This racist murder WILL be avenged.’ Southall was soon to explode in fury. 

Defiance the new Channel 4 documentary series on the struggles of the British South Asian community during this period starts on the streets. This is the story of working-class youth who refused to turn the other cheek.  

Grover’s generation was baptised in fire and forged in the righteous struggle to defend their communities against a vicious tidal wave of racism both from street gangs and the state. From Southall to Sheffield and from Brick Lane to Bradford, independent working-class movements were set up to physically defend communities from racist attacks.  

Through the use of rare archival footage and testimonies of those on the frontline, Defiance provides a raw, poignant, and heart-breaking account of the struggles South Asians endured. 

The stories of South Asian resistance are told by those who were on the frontline the likes of Balraj Purewal, ‘our general on the streets’ according to his comrade Grover. As he relates one account, Purewal pauses. ‘I need a minute because I’m there,’ he tells us a sharp reminder of the trauma that still lingers on to this day. It was a difficult watch for my dad, who grew up in Luton in the 1970s, where racist thugs were running riot and terrorising the South Asian community. Many of the roads I frequently walk through today were a no-go for his generation. 

It is significant that the voices of women such as Pritpal Sahota and Avtar Brah of Southall Black Sisters which are so often lacking in the re-telling of this story are amplified. Sahota was just 16 when she took part in the Southall protest against the National Front in 1979.

Connecting The Dots

Defiance also details the story of Altab Ali, a Bangladeshi garment worker who was murdered in Brick Lane in 1978. Thousands would go on to march across London, taking the coffin of Altab Ali to Downing Street. Rajonuddin Jalal, one of many local Bangladeshis who fought the National Front, recalls that this was the beginning of the resistance movement. A newer migrant community, they were assisted by the Southall Youth Movement who, by this point, had cut their teeth in street fighting and self-defence. 

On a lighter note, the series also touches on other aspects of the South Asian experience. Jalal makes reference to a heightened interested in wrestling and a fascination with the glitz and glamour of the West End. There are disco scenes with Desis dancing, and the use of Bollywood and qawwali — things we’d often hear in my dad’s car growing up — provides an authentic cultural backdrop.  

Defiance does not shy away from connecting the dots between the perpetrators of violent racist attacks and the political and media climate which enabled and empowered them. Then, as now, such attacks did not occur in a vacuum. We hear a montage of a Thatcher speech about Britain being ‘swamped by immigrants’. In the opening sequence of the series, there are front-page headlines referring to ‘floods’ of migrants arriving from East Africa, underlining the media’s role in creating the climate of hostility and intolerance. 

The racist siege South Asians faced was unleashed, fuelled, and backed up by rhetoric from the top. And the parallels to today are so glaringly obvious throughout the series. 

Defiance also shines a light on the tensions that existed within the South Asian community, highlighting a generational divide between the first and second generations. The second generation born in this country grew up with racist abuse from teachers and pupils. The first battles took place on the playgrounds of the schools they were bussed out to. 

Out of their pain, anger, and frustration came a much more militant stance. Young people would disrupt a meeting organised by the Indian Workers Association, demanding a more direct and urgent response to the murder of their peer. Hundreds would go on to surround a police station demanding the release of their peers arrested for street violence. The Southall Youth Movement would conduct regular street patrols. ‘Here to stay, here to fight’ was their motto and fight they did.  

For the younger generation, there could be no cooperation with the very same police force that criminalised them, abused them and even killed them, as episode two details with the murder of Blair Peach. Clarence Thomas, who was left in a coma after being battered by the police, highlights how the police had referred to him as a ‘black bastard.’ Balraj Purewal describes how officers stuck fingers out at them and made NF gestures through windows. 

The police themselves are given ample opportunity to tell their side of the story often very unconvincingly. One former Met detective sergeant, however, Shaf Mogul is very open about widespread racism in the Met, recalling how open and frequently racist slurs were used. 

Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of the series is episode three. Zubia Darr shares her heartbreaking recollections about the arson attack on the home of Parveen Khan and her three children in Walthamstow, where petrol was poured through their letterbox and the house was set alight. To this day, no one has been convicted for their murder. 

PC Don Gibson, a former Met detective chief superintendent who covered Walthamstow, demonstrates no empathy whatsoever, implying that this was not a racist attack despite ample evidence from firefighters and fellow officers that it may well have been. The Met police have been accused of ‘surrendering’ to the killer by abandoning their investigation so early.

Self Defence Is No Offence

Episode three also looks at the trial of the Bradford 12, when in 1981, 12 young Asian men were arrested for preparing to defend their community from fascists. 

When members of the United Black Youth League a splinter group from the Asian Youth Movement heard rumours that fascists were preparing to march through Manningham, they prepared petrol bombs. They were never used and were made with the understanding that they might be needed to defend people from incredibly violent attacks. Several weeks later, 12 young people were arrested on conspiracy charges. A year-long campaign by the Asian Youth Movements and others was waged to free the Bradford 12. 

The broader campaign in support of the 12, which was crucial to securing their freedom, is explored using rare archival footage and the testimony of Mukhtar Dar, a founding member of the Sheffield Asian Youth Movement. 

Equally as important, was the cross-examination by the defence counsel. Tariq Mehmood, Michael Mansfield and others were able to pick holes in the police argument, and it quickly became clear how much the story had been built up as a media story for the police to look assertive and authoritative and how sizeable chunks of the police narrative had been clearly fabricated. Defiance provides a brief overview of this story, introducing it to a wider audience for the first time, but there is far more to be said about the case and the United Black Youth League themselves. 

The group already had a deeply organised, well-developed self-defence operation against racist groups. They had been patrolling the streets for many weeks against gangs of Paki bashers in the Manningham neighbourhood. The actions of the Bradford 12 were far from an exercise in vigilantism. This was conscious political action from a highly disciplined organisation. 

The United Black Youth League placed strong emphasis on political education, organising study sessions and producing newsletters to educate their mainly working-class members about the past and the present. Like many of the youth movements, they championed unapologetic anti-imperialist politics. They saw the link between racially targeted people in Britain and the threads of oppression everywhere from Southall to Soweto and from Gaza to Derry. 

Indeed, at panel discussions on the series in Whitechapel and Southall, Suresh Grover connected the dots between the past and the present. ‘How’s it possible for people in Southall not to demonstrate on what is happening in Palestine? That is colonial violence taking place on a daily basis. It’s what happened in India,’ he told the audience at the Dominion Centre to loud applause. 

To condense such an important, nuanced and complex story into three episodes is indeed a formidable task the story of the Bradford 12 and United Black Youth League more generally could be a series in its own right. 

This only further demonstrates the need for more programmes like Defiance to showcase the rich tradition of political activism in the British South Asian community. The series provides much-needed exposure to a history that has thus far warranted virtually zero attention on TV. Many viewers will, no doubt, encounter these stories for the first time. Crucially, the series has sparked a long overdue conversation on racism — past and present. 

And, importantly, the fight is far from over. The killing of Blair Peach is still not resolved. The police officer who killed him continues to walk the streets of London and, to this day, no one has been convicted of the arson attack in Walthamstow. 

As we see a rise in hate crime and increasingly racist rhetoric from politicians and pundits alike, let us honour those who came before us by redoubling our commitment to fighting racism in all its forms.