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Defiance—How Asian people fought the far right

A new TV documentary this week examines the struggle against the far right from Asian people’s perspective. Yuri Prasad says it reveals a proud history of resistance
Issue 2900

A march in Southall in 1976 as shown in Defiance

Amid the horror of racist violence in Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s sprang resistance. Defiance, a three-part Channel 4 documentary available this week, is a righteous celebration of those who reclaimed their streets from the racists.

Descriptions of racism featured in the documentary often have an otherworldly feel today. Then the fascists of the National Front (NF) were on the rampage with an army of violent and disillusioned young people behind them.

Tapping into the widespread feeling of economic decline and social crisis, the far right also appealed to sections of the working class and helped ramp up the levels of racism.

And fascist demands for “repatriation” were boosted by mainstream politicians who talked about Britain being “swamped” by migrants.

The climate was one of hate and fear.

The rate at which black and Asian people were being killed at some points reached one a fortnight, with beatings, stabbings and even firebomb attacks becoming increasingly common. The police invariably treated victims as suspects and only rarely agreed to classify assaults as “racial.” 

But amid the horror there was hope—there was resistance. And Defiance is a righteous celebration of it. 

The series recalls street battles and counter-attacks —and, for the first time, it tells the story from the perspective of Asian people.

Most importantly, it shows that Asians were never just passive victims.

The three documentaries look at three key battlegrounds—Brick Lane, in London’s East End in 1978, Southall in 1976, 1979 and 1981, and Bradford in the wake of anti-fascist resistance in 1981. 

They weave together contemporary interviews and archival footage to explain the severity of the times. Karamjit Singh recounts in painful detail the morning in 1976 when he learned that a racist gang had murdered his 18-year-old brother Gurdip in Southall.

The attack sparked a new wave of resistance under the banner of the Southall Youth Movement. And it also fed a wider national mass movement against racism. 

Socialist Worker supporter Jo Lang talks about the anti-racist uprising in Southall three years later that led to the police murder of her friend and comrade Blair Peach. Her recounting of the day is a tough watch, even for those familiar with the story.

The battle against the NF in Southall became one of the most important in the history of British anti-fascism. Along with the murder of Blair, hundreds of people were arrested, and many were seriously injured. Despite that, the town’s name became synonymous with resistance. 

The footage of the array of protests in Southall and Brick Lane is impressive in its detail. There are interviews with the then young activists who spell out their strategies and lay into the cops for their racism.

Many of those same activists are then re-interviewed today, and it’s brilliant to see that they’ve stuck to their principles.

For me, the most moving testimony comes from Zubia Darr, who was a young child in Walthamstow, east London, in 1981.

She recounts how her childhood friends and neighbours Aqsa and Kamran were murdered along with their mother and brother in a racist arson attack.

Recalling the times, she says racists had daubed graffiti everywhere around where she lived, and she describes the feeling of being called a “Paki” as akin to a “bullet to the chest.” 

Defiance is a vital telling of British Asian resistance, but it is not without problems. The most important of these is the way the programmes detach the rise of the Asian youth movements from the mass anti-racist force that grew alongside them.

The Anti Nazi League, formed in 1977, was quickly able to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people all over the country.

The archival footage in Defiance cannot help but feature its famous yellow lollipop placards during the battles in Southall, Brick Lane and Bradford.

And it’s clear that large numbers of white anti-racists joined in all the important struggles. However, the documentary narrative chooses to ignore that phenomenon.

That creates something of a binary division that few people recognise as reflective of the times. One of the consequences of this approach is that “real” Asian resistance is rendered young, male, and largely without politics.

That’s not true. First, many Asian fighters, of all generations were avowedly on the left and saw themselves as part of it.

For example, the Indian Workers Association, which Defiance derides rather than ignores, did play a heroic role in many anti-racist struggles, including Southall.

And in the mass anti-racist movement it helped create, many women felt able to play a significant role. Second, lots of Asian youth movements were themselves avowedly political. 

Bradford’s United Black Youth League, referenced in Defiance, is well known for having taken up questions of Palestine and Kashmir, for example.The Sheffield Asian Youth Organisation came to the aid of striking miners during the 1984-5 strike.

These shortcomings aside, Defiance is, and will be, a vital resource for all those who celebrate anti-racist resistance. In its telling of history, the series has key messages for everyone fighting racism today. It says to treat the state and its police as your enemy, and that if you want to end oppression you must take matters into your own hands.

Defiance is on Channel 4 TV’s online player

Episode 1: Brick Lane

Defiance opens with a picture of Asian life in both Southall, in west London, and Brick Lane, in the east.

In Brick Lane Bengalis mostly worked in the rag trade, sewing clothes in overcrowded sweatshops. But they existed in a sea of racist hostility. 

Brick Lane (Picture: Socialist Worker)

Gangs of thugs would terrorise families that lived on some of the worst housing estates in Britain. And behind them stood the National Front (NF).

East End fascists had a base that stretched back to Oswald Mosely in the 1930s. The NF sought to control the vital Brick Lane market street.

Its paper sales were designed to rally disgruntled local white racists to their cause—and act as a provocation to the Bengali population. 

Defiance charts the struggle after the racist murder of garment worker Altab Ali in May 1978. It’s told through the leaders of the Bangladeshi Youth Movement (BYM), including Rajonuddin Jalal. 

The BYM and others led a march of 10,000 Bengalis and anti-racists from Brick Lane to Downing Street. And they physically fought to clear the Nazis out of Brick Lane.

There are brilliant interviews and footage from the historic Bengali workers’ strike in 1978, but unfortunately, there is no mention of the struggles that preceded Altab Ali’s murder.

Bengali squatters had used the most militant tactics to obtain housing and defend it from local racists.

The spirit of radical anti-racism in Brick Lane was surely born out of these earlier battles. 

Read more: From Sylhet To Spitalfields: Bengali Squatters in 1970s East London by Shabna Begum. £16.00 And Socialist Worker’s review of it

The Battle of Brick Lane 1978 by AK Azad Konor. £9.99 

Episode 2: Southall

The battle in the Punjabi heart of west London is the most contentious in the series. Defiance does justice to the huge scale of the protest and depicts well the way the whole town revolted against an NF attempt to hold an election meeting there in 1979. 

It is particularly good to see footage of People Unite’s Clarence Baker from the time and interviews with him in the present. 

The police had beaten him so hard that they smashed his skull and left him in a coma, from which he emerged only months later.

But the exclusive focus on the Southall Youth Movement (SYM) as the instigating force behind the protest is simply wrong.

The main march organisers on the day were the Indian Workers Association (IWA). It called an 80-strong delegates’ meeting two weeks before the National Front arrived and decided upon a mass demonstration and strike on the day. 

Some 40 organisations were represented at that meeting. The group asked Balwinder Rana to be the march chief steward. 

He says the period running up to the demonstration was wild, with scores of activists leafleting factories for the strike, and going street by street to ensure a good turnout. 

One day before, some 5,000 people marched from Southall to the Ealing Town Hall, three miles away, to deliver a petition to the Tory Council demanding it ban the NF rally. On Monday the numbers of protesters swelled as the strike brought more workers on to the streets in the afternoon and Anti Nazi League supporters joined. But Balwinder gets but a few moments in the episode.

The treatment of the IWA raises a wider question of who gets to decide what constitutes “Asian resistance”? Clearly, both the IWA and the SYM represent such resistance.

Did the programme-makers decide that one is more “authentic” than the other, and if so, why?

Read more: ‘Fifty pints of lager, please!’ —half a century of British Asian struggles, interview with Balwinder Rana

Socialist Worker article Beating the Nazis in the 1970s. We did it before, and we’ll do it again 

Episode 3: Walthamstow and Bradford

The story of the arson attack in Walthamstow, east London, is made more gut-wrenching because of the interviews with Detective Chief Superintendent Don Gibson. Gibson oversaw the murder investigation.

From the beginning, he appears to have settled on the idea that Mr Khan, the badly burnt survivor of the attack, should be a suspect. 

According to the then Socialist Worker journalist Joanna Rollo the cops were keen to present the fire as “electrical”. 

But the fire brigade not only declared the fire arson, it also completely dismissed the police suggestion that Mr Khan may have initiated it.

Its investigation revealed that he had no traces of fire accelerant on his body or pyjamas and that it was extremely unlikely that he could have rescued his family in the face of such a fierce blaze.

But Gibson is resilient to facts. Instead, he says the matter is probably related to those “honour killings” that he has heard about. The second part of the episode centres on the trial of the Bradford 12. 

These were a group of young people that prepared to defend Manningham, an Asian area of the city, from an NF march in 1981.

The 12 admitted that they had prepared petrol bombs to deter the fascists from entering their area.

But they refused to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to cause explosions. Instead, they cited their right to self defence.

They won a landmark case in 1982, which remains a cornerstone for anti-fascists today 

Read more: My Story of hope—interview with Tariq Mehmood of the Bradford 12 

Socialist Worker journalist Joanna Rollo covered the murderous arson attack in Walthamstow in 1981. Here is what she wrote at the time.

The scene is Belgrave Road, a quiet leafy street in an East London suburb.

In the early hours of the morning, on Thursday 2 July, someone crept up to the front door of number 53 Belgrave Avenue, home of the Kahn family.

Upstairs Mr and Mrs Kahn and their two year old son lmran were asleep in the front bedroom. Their other children, nine year old Aqsa and ten year old Kamran, were in the room next door.

As the family slept peacefully, the assassin outside their front door opened the letter box, poured petrol through onto the carpeted hallway, tossed in a lighted match and then disappeared back into the shadow of the quiet street.

Seconds later a ball of fire swept up the stairs and engulfed the top storey. Forty-five year old Mr Kahn escaped by breaking the glass of the bedroom window and, with his legs, hands and face on fire, leaping out to the garden below.

His wife Parven and their three children perished in the fire.

At first the police talked about electrical faults in the bedroom of No. 53 Belgrave Road. For a day and a hall they maintained there were no suspicious circumstances. The fire brigade thought differently.

And anyone looking at that house can instantly see how four people burnt to death inside it. The front door and the windows upstairs are charred and hoarded up. The fire, once started in the hallway, was sucked straight up the stairs by the draught.

In exactly the same way, six months ago, a ball of fire had swept through a Deptford house leaving thirteen black people dead in its wake.

Outside the house lie the charred remains of the family’s possessions, some bedding, a child’s bike—its frame burnt and twisted by the heat—a few letters and bills, fluttering in the breeze.

Socialist Worker pages on the Walthamstow fire

The front room wasn’t touched by the fire. The net curtains and drapes are still hanging in the window which displays a child’s hand-drawn poster.

It advertises the summer fair of Thomas Gamuel’s Primary School this Saturday. For the Kahn children there will be no summer fair. They are to be buried Saturday alongside their mother.

The family’s neighbours are puzzled and bewildered by the tragedy.

“They were such a nice family,” says the woman who lives opposite. “They were very quiet and very friendly. There are only a few black families living in this street but we all get on well with the whites. There’s never been any trouble here.”

And she adds that some are now worried about their own security. The Kahn’s next door neighbour was away on the night of the fire, but tells how his wife heard footsteps outside their house just before the fire.

“It frightened her, because instead of fading away into the distance, they stopped outside, as if someone was watching or waiting. I don’t feel intimidated—I feel angry. Their youngest kid was only three weeks older than mine. It could just as easily have been my family burnt to death.”

The same angry feeling erupted at the first meeting of the Kahn Massacre Action Committee last Monday. Anger at the outrage itself but also at the way some community leaders have responded.

Instead of supporting the demonstration initially planned, the Community Relations Council, itself the target of an earlier firebomb, are simply calling for a funeral procession. To which they have invited none other than the Commander of the local—”J”—police division.

The man whose police force has yet to track down not only the murderer of the Kahn family but those responsible for a number of recent racist attacks in Walthamstow.

One local Asian’s experience shows how seriously such attacks are treated by ‘J’ Division. He was set on in the street by 20 skinheads and badly beaten.

Just after the attack a police car drove past him without stopping. When he eventually struggled down to Walthamstow Station to report the attack police there refused to deal with him and told him to go to Chingford police station several miles away.

The Kahn Massacre Action Committee is calling a demonstration this Saturday. Join them on Saturday if you can.


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