The British Asians who fought fascism in the seventies
Blair Peach’s death 40 years ago followed the killing of a schoolboy – two murders that ignited an anti-racist struggle.
London, United Kingdom – On a sunny Saturday in June 1976, teenager Suresh Grover was in Southall chatting with a friend outside the Dominion Cinema when he noticed a police officer standing next to a pool of blood.
“I asked him, ‘Did somebody die there?'” Grover told Al Jazeera. “And he turned to me and said ‘It’s just Indian blood’. He was very rude and left the scene soon after. I was shocked – this was an officer saying it was just Indian blood and not of equal worth.”
The blood had flowed from the body of Gurdip Singh Chaggar.
The 18-year-old student was killed the night before in a racist attack in the west London district, which had recently become home to a large South Asian population, particularly from India’s northern Punjab state.
Grover, now 62, said: “The next day we went to the police station, surrounded it, made speeches and Southall came to a standstill. By the end of the afternoon around 5,000 people – men, women, Asians, Afro-Caribbeans – had gathered in a show of unity, solidarity and defiance. It was the first time this sort of protest had happened and it had a profound impact on Southall. That day, the Southall Youth Movement was born.”
The Southall Asian Youth Movement was a group of mostly young Asian men from the area.
In the months that followed Chaggar’s murder, they campaigned for more rights and an end to racial hate crimes and police brutality.
The movement led to similar action in other cities, including Bradford, Manchester and Sheffield – together they would come to be known as the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs).
But three years later, little had changed in Southall.
The far-right National Front group announced a meeting in the area on April 23, 1979. Police ignored pleas to cancel the gathering, which the community considered provocative, and a large anti-fascist march was planned for the day.
Various accounts attest to the police violence in clashes that followed.
Hundreds of protesters were arrested, others were hospitalised with serious injuries and New Zealand-born teacher Blair Peach lost his life after sustaining head wounds.
A report by the Metropolitan Police, which emerged in 2010, stated that Peach was “almost certainly” killed by police but no one has ever been held accountable for his death.
Tuesday marks 40 years since the demonstration and Peach’s death.
Campaigners have called for a new inquiry into his death.
To mark the anniversary, events will be held in Southall and other parts of the country to commemorate Peach, Chaggar and this significant period in Britain’s race relations history.
“For those of us who were part of this lived experience from 1973 onwards, we didn’t know what the history was, we just asserted ourselves because we were born or raised here and were not going back to our motherlands,” said Grover.
“In order to take on the struggles against racism nationally, we realised the need to link up with other communities who were going through similar experiences of racism. The youth movements didn’t last very long, but it was a very pivotal moment.”
We really believed that Britain didn't do us a favour by bringing us here - it exploited our poverty to bring us here, then it exploited our labour when we got here and then made us live in slave-like conditions.
While figures suggest South Asians have been living in the UK for around 400 years, the community grew significantly in the post-war years as Britain faced a shortage of workers, including in factories and the health service after World War II.
From 1971 to 1981, the estimated number of South Asians more than doubled from 478,000 to 993,000.
“The first wave of workers were men who came without their families. But in the 1970s, as new immigration laws set in and people started to settle, things started to change. There was an increase in racism in the workplace, housing and for young people in schools,” said Anandi Ramamurthy, author of a book on Britain’s Asian Youth Movements and a lecturer in media at Sheffield Hallam University.
Tariq Mehmood, a writer, was one of the founding members of Bradford’s Asian Youth Movement. Born in Pakistan, he arrived in Britain with his father in the late 1960s.
“We grew up with a system of bussing. This meant that we were taken out of the areas where we were living and sent to school five or six miles away because they didn’t want too many non-white children in one area,” he said. “We were subjected to a lot of violence.
“The violence got so bad during secondary school that they used to release all non-white children half an hour before white children so we wouldn’t get attacked. So my very first impression of this country was the intensity of the racist violence against us.”
Grover had arrived from East Africa at a young age and lived in England’s northwest, but left after he was attacked by a racist gang.
By the mid-1970s, tensions were peaking.
“We were seeing the growth of the far right, a number of racist murders, the calling for the repatriation of black and brown people and protests at airports,” said Grover. “There were scaremongering stories in the tabloid press blaming immigrants for a shortage of jobs and housing, and for bringing diseases into towns.”
For members of AYMs, being part of a self-organised group was a way to deal with the hostility and violence.
Grover said: “We were setting ourselves apart from our parents’ generation. We were saying we will not tolerate violence against us. We were mostly Sikh, Hindus and Muslim men.
“We began setting an agenda which was more youth-orientated and using music and culture to get our messages out there. There were lots of sit-ins in colleges, meetings with the Home Office and the police, with almost all of them ending with absolutely nothing given to us.”
Ramamurthy said that while some women were involved, the movements were male-dominated.
“There were gender dynamics within the community and some women weren’t as easily allowed to go out. There were some women, Manchester, for example, had a small women’s group who did a lot of work on immigration but there were degrees of machoism. It wasn’t that they didn’t want women, but many women did find it hard.”
Three years after Peach’s death, in 1981, there were race riots in around 30 cities across the UK and Southall was once again in the news.
“A skinhead band wanted to play at a local pub called the Hambrough Tavern,” Grover said. “Again, we wrote to the police saying we need to deal with this before it gets violent but there was no response and the group still came. We mobilised, there were some scuffles and the pub ended up being burned down.”
That same year saw a groundbreaking case involving Bradford’s youth movement, which was focused on, among other issues, hostile migration laws and family immigration.
“We were heavily influenced by left-wing politics and had very clear principles of anti-racism and anti-imperialism,” Mehmood says. “We really believed that Britain didn’t do us a favour by bringing us here – it exploited our poverty to bring us here, then it exploited our labour when we got here and then made us live in slave-like conditions.”
In July, another provocative march through the city was being planned by far-right groups.
“We didn’t think the police were going to defend us or our areas, so we made petrol bombs. In the end, the fascists didn’t come but we were arrested on charges of terrorism,” said Mehmood.
During the trial, Mehmood and his 11 co-defendants argued that they had a right to defend themselves against racists coming into their community.
The case drew widespread support and the defendants were eventually acquitted. The case of the Bradford 12 made legal history, enshrining self-defence into English law.
But by the early 1980s, the movements had started to disintegrate.
In Southall, a new police commissioner began a new era of multi-intelligence profiling in areas known for their resistance, according to Grover.
“This crushed the Southall AYM,” he said.
Other factors such as government funding were also at play.
“What started to emerge was the division of groups into different ethnic categories like Gujarati and Punjabi for government funding. It was a very clear strategy on the part of the government and a deliberate attempt by the state to split the groups up,” said Ramamurthy.
Despite being fractured, the AYMs paved the way for the birth of self-organised groups in the years that followed, including anti-domestic violence organisation Southall Black Sisters and Southall-based anti-racist charity Monitoring Group, of which Grover is the director.
The impact of the Bradford 12 also remains strong, with the argument that “self-defence is no offence” being used successfully in cases since.
“I was playing cricket and not really interested in race, but the period totally politicised me,” said Grover.
“It was a period of youth assertiveness in anti-racist politics and a new defining era in race relations in Britain. What it encapsulates is fearless and audacious self-organising amongst black and Asian communities.
“The far right were a big threat, and the legacy is how we can learn from that past experience to develop resistance in our communities today, especially as we see the same fascist forces re-emerging in Brexit Britain.”