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‘We won this place’— uncovering Bengali migrants’ fight for housing

In her new book ‘From Sylhet To Spitalfields—Bengali Squatters in 1970s East London’, Shabna Begum tells a story of resistance
Issue 2874
Bengali squatter movement

A housing co-op in Stepney Green (Picture: Angela Phillips)

Struggle and resistance ensured that Bangladeshi migrants could build a home for themselves in the East End of London.  Today some celebrate Bengali migrants as a ­liberal success story of integration. Others try to cash in on their accomplishments to sell the very streets Bangladeshi ­restaurants made famous.  

But neither party recalls the 1970s squatters’ ­movement that enabled these migrants to make a home in Tower Hamlets, on the edge of the City of London.  Nor do they want to ­discuss how people were forced to ­organise self‑defence against a ­barrage of racist violence led by the fascist National Front.  

Author Shabna Begum’s realisation that her parents and other first generation East End Bangladeshis would soon be dead pushed her to collect their stories. 

She has carefully moulded their accounts into a new book, From Sylhet To Spitalfields, that brims with resistance. It, at last, tells the story of how squatters took on the local council and authorities—and eventually won legal ­recognition as tenants. 

Among many, she talks to Abdul Kadir who arrived in Britain in 1957. He had lived in the East End for decades by the time he wanted to bring over relations from Bangladesh. 

For a time, his family of five lived in a single room ­without even a proper ­bathroom. Council housing officers refused to hear his case. 

Finally, Kadir decided to take matters into his own hands. He saw an empty flat on a nearby council estate and said to his wife Sufia that they should take it, knowing that many ­desperate Bangladeshis were doing similar. 

“So, I went and I broke the door, and once inside I called out to someone I knew. I got him to stay there. You needed to have a mattress or two to (legally) claim it, so all the way from my flat I got a mattress, I carried it all the way over.”  

But within minutes of the family’s arrival, dozens of racist youth gathered outside to attack them. 

“We were pelted with stones from all directions,” says Kadir. “They broke all the glass, the front and the side windows, all of them. The police came, not to see who had broken the windows, but to ask why we were there and to get us out.” 

Kadir told the cops they’d have to go to court if they wanted to evict him. And he also stood up to a racist housing officer who tried to force them out.  

Eventually, there were so many squatters in the area that housing officers gave up trying to keep them out. 

Begum highlights the role that women played in the movement. They fought off bailiffs and officials during the day when their partners were at work, and it was women who had to protect their ­children from daily abuse. 

Recalling her altercations with police and housing officers who came to her door, squatter Sufia says, “What were they saying, who knows? But you can tell from their tone. I would just say, ‘Come back another day, I don’t understand’. 

“Of course, I did understand, they were telling me to get out, but I just kept saying, ‘I don’t understand! (laughs).”  

The squatters often took over buildings abandoned by the council in preparation for slum clearance. And they ran their own type of housing list that prioritised families and older people for housing.  

This type of ­requisitioning needed organisation, and in 1976, the Bengali Housing Action Group was formed— under the influence of the left radical group the Race Today collective. 

Soon hundreds of families that the state had abandoned were being aided in a self-help fashion. Begum’s history of ­resistance is particularly valuable because of the way mainstream politics then and now tends to characterise migrants. 

Politicians invariably see them as a “problem” that needs to be managed and “outsiders” that cannot lay claim to the same rights as white British people. 

That’s why council housing in Tower Hamlets and beyond was allocated on an assumed “belonging” to an area, rather than need. 

It was a policy deliberately designed to exclude immigrants but also to create the illusion among white ­workers that those in power valued their supposed kinship. 

From Sylhet to Spitalfields undermines a popular myth— that Asian people, and Asian women specifically, are too meek to stand up for themselves.  Back then it was common to hear even good trade ­unionists describe Asians as bosses’ fodder, used to bring wages down. 

Bangladeshis and others like them could never be organised, they insisted. 

This prejudice continues. Women across Asia are today assumed to be under the control of their fathers, husbands and brothers and in need of “Western liberation”. 

As Begum shows, many East End Bangladeshi women refused to play this part.  And the housing struggle shows migrants can organise in the most imaginative ways and can embrace the most ­militant methods. 

Far from a weakness in the workers’ movement, they can be its strength. Begum is not afraid to target the racism of those at the top, and the way they spread poison to those below.  

She explores the way the speeches of Tory MP Enoch Powell and future prime minister Margaret Thatcher fanned the flames of racism, and how both legitimised widespread “Paki-bashing”.  

The term came into ­widespread use in the early 1970s after newspapers began reporting violence directed against East End Bangladeshis. For its part, The Observer noted, “Any Asian careless enough to be walking the streets alone at night is a fool.” 

No wonder then that ­resistance to this racist violence forms another big part of the book.  Jalal Rajonuddin was one of many young Bangladeshis that wanted to fight back. 

He told Begum, “I remember the period when people used to go out only in groups so that if they came under attack they could try to save or defend themselves.  “That’s how life was. The community was under siege.” 

But local politicians were keen to suggest that Bangladeshis had brought the violence upon themselves because they had “failed to fit in” and integrate. 

Husnara, a mother of four, took inspiration from the Bangladesh War of Liberation against Pakistan in 1971.  

She told Begum, “We all had to fight, even us (women)… we had so much trouble, but we even enjoyed that fight (laughs) if I’m honest.  

“Life was sad and happy. In Bangladesh there was one war, here there was another war—and we won this place, we claimed it.” 

Some in the squatter’s movement sought to defend the community from racist gangs by roaming the area in groups, ready to fight them. But another strand of resistance was also forming—the mass demonstration.  

Starting in 1976 Bangladeshi street protests became popular and drew in wider forces from the left, especially after the racist murder of Altab Ali in May 1978. 

Some were sceptical about radical groups, and even ­hostile, but far from all.  Rafique Ullah arrived in Britain as a young boy in 1972 and was at that time a member of the Bangladeshi Youth Front that helped build the Altab Ali protest. 

He told Begum, “We never had mobiles… But more than 10,000 people came from Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.  

“Those were the industrial towns, our people used to be there, they came—by coach loads. 

We had Socialist Workers Party, Anti Nazi League support us too. They came attending our demonstration. Without their support we would not be successful.” 

The book goes on to note the way community organising was to pull many of the best activists into broader political life—and not a few into narrow self-interest.   It also shows that at the height of the struggle Bangladeshi migrants were able to challenge institutional prejudice and racism on the street. 

It was those battles that made it possible for Bangladeshis to live and work across Tower Hamlets. 

However, Begum also shows how divisions on questions of politics and strategy within this group of migrants returned to the fore once the immediacy of battle had passed. 

From Sylhet To Spitalfields – Bengali Squatters in 1970s East London by Shabna Begum is available at Bookmarks Bookshop

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