In 2021, the UK lost a mighty anti-racist warrior

Anwar Ditta’s passing comes amid yet another major assault on civil liberties and equality in the UK.

Anwar Ditta pictured leading a demonstration as part of her campaign to bring her children from Pakistan to the UK on November 15, 1980 [File: Photo courtesy of Anwar Ditta]

As 2021 ends and we reflect on the tragedies and disasters of the past year, many of us remember those we have lost. In the United Kingdom, those involved in the anti-racist struggle are mourning the passing earlier this year of the mighty Anwar Ditta.

“Through your life and your children, you are eternal,” wrote the Irish Republican revolutionary Bobby Sands in his 1980 poem dedicated to Ditta. These words so aptly capture Ditta’s legacy. Her fight, passion, and uncompromising pursuit of justice have made her one of the most important figures in the contemporary struggle against racism and state repression in the UK.

Ditta became known internationally as a “warrior” after she waged a public fight against the Home Office’s racist treatment of her and her family in the 1970s and 1980s. Her impact, however, expanded well beyond her own case, as she went on to defend countless people fighting deportations, facing state repression, as well as those resisting oppression internationally, even reaching audiences at the Women’s World Congress in Prague.

Born in Birmingham, England in 1953, Ditta spent her early years in Rochdale and the rest of her childhood in Pakistan. There, at the age of 14, she married Shuja Ud Din and had three children with him: Kamran, Imran and Saima.

In 1975, after her husband moved to the UK, Ditta joined him. Lacking the appropriate travel documents, Ditta was forced to leave her children behind in Pakistan. Upon applying for them to join her in the UK, the Home Office was actively hostile and consistently obstructed the family’s reunion.

By 1979, the authorities informed the family that they were “not satisfied that Kamran, Imran and Saima were related to Anwar Sultana Ditta and Shuja Ud Din as stated”. From the Home Office denying that the children were biologically hers, to claiming that they were her sister-in-law’s, to even questioning that she had lived in Pakistan, Ditta was presented with increasingly outrageous justifications for the official refusal of family reunification.

It would take six years of relentless protest, evidence gathering, appeals, and lobbying before Ditta and her husband would once again see their three children. However, this was only made possible because of the public campaign that Ditta had launched to bring her children home.

Her efforts began on the day she stood up, in front of a crowd attending an anti-deportation meeting at Longsight Library in South Manchester in 1979, and spoke about her family’s treatment at the hands of the Home Office.

She had been told to attend the gathering after exhausting every legal means at her disposal. Ditta had never previously addressed a public event, and recently described how her husband kept pulling at her kameez, telling her to “sit down” and to “stop talking”. But she continued to tell her story, laying the foundations for what became the Anwar Ditta Defence Committee (ADDC).

The organisation became a sort of a rainbow coalition made up of diverse communities – left-wing activists, trade unionists, anti-racist groups, the Indian Workers’ Association, the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs) and so many more – who answered Ditta’s call to fight the UK’s racist practices. It became about more than her individual case.

It captured the imagination of a generation that was fighting against the rise of far-right, ever-more draconian, anti-migrant policies, and repressive state practices – issues that continue to define the UK in the present.

Waging years of tireless struggle while working to support her children amid punishing poverty, exacerbated by mounting legal bills, Ditta did not give up. She often referred to the solidarity of so many people and groups – and especially the AYMs – as being her source of infinite strength.

In the end, the powerful and broad base of resistance that she built up in the course of her campaign, was what led to her victory. In April 1981, the family was finally reunited.

Throughout her struggle, all the odds were against Ditta. She was a poor, Asian, Muslim woman. She had no institutional power or resources, and had had no formal schooling beyond the age of eight. She was from those segments of society that the state expects to be able to oppress without pushback. The Home Office dehumanised Ditta and her entire family, accusing them of every lie and scam imaginable, all in the name of tightening British borders. And yet, she persisted and she won.

Ditta’s struggle had implications well beyond the UK’s Asian community. Sands, who was imprisoned for his activities with the Irish Republican Army and who was on hunger strike until his death to protest the refusal of the British state to recognise Irish Republican detainees as political prisoners, described the connection people like him felt towards her fight in these words:

“In the face of brutality and Racism

We shall hold fast together. There is faith

Because you have us and we bleed with you.”

Ditta’s work also heavily influenced writer Tariq Mehmood. In 1981, amid a growing number of attacks on migrants and people of colour by the British far right, Mehmood was part of an anti-fascist group, which was preparing to resist a fascist march. He, along with 11 other members who became known as the Bradford 12, was arrested and charged with “terrorism”. Ditta took up their cause and supported them until their acquittal.

“When all legal doors for justice are closed to you, what can you do, but protest against this injustice and turn to people for support. That is what Anwar did, and in the process, she was transformed from a small woman, to an undefeatable giant,” Mehmood told me. “She’s a giant whose commitment to anti-racist movements is truly unmatched and must be honoured”.

This is the essence of what Ditta represents for so many, and no doubt will continue to, as people read about her landmark case and exemplary campaign, against the xenophobic, racist border practices of the British state. In fact, it is now more important than ever to draw inspiration from Ditta’s fight.

Indeed, today, as we see the extension of the very laws that were introduced during the time that Ditta was seeking to bring her children over to the UK, we must reflect on what she achieved and why we must build the kind of broad coalition that she brought together, to fight on against anti-migrant policies and rhetoric.

As Ditta, herself, explained: “I’ll tell you what immigration controls mean – black children having X-rays at airports to prove their age. Black women given ‘virginity’ tests by immigration officials and every black person facing interrogation by customs.”

Ditta, unfortunately, also had to live with the lasting impact of the UK’s immigration system. The separation from her children, who had for so long been apart from their parents – the youngest was only three years old when Ditta left Pakistan – put a severe strain on their relationship. “I proved they were my kids to the government, to the immigration officers, to the whole world. But I could never prove to my three kids that I loved them,” Ditta said in sadness almost 20 years after her battle. That trauma never left her.

Borders, and the ways that states enforce them, are always violent. They kill. They destroy families. They physically and psychologically harm the people they target. Ditta’s case was not the first to demonstrate the racist nature of such “controls”, nor unfortunately the last. This was something she reiterated throughout her life, as she kept fighting against the UK’s racist immigration policies and as she defended countless people who were facing deportations.

“Mum just wanted to share her knowledge and try and help as many people as she could. Whenever anybody turned to her for help, she would never turn them away,” said Ditta’s youngest daughter, Hamera, who was born in the UK.

She told me that her mother was her hero, and that she had “a real fighter spirit”, which meant that “she never ever gave up”. “The one thing about mum is that she just had too much love inside her and she wanted to share it with as many people as she could”, she added.

From the confines of a British prison, Sands also felt Ditta’s love. He wrote that we must always continue to resist in the face of oppression “Because love always conquers hate”. Not abstract love, professed as an ideal, far away from the pain and muck of life. Real, concrete, solid love, built through struggle, and fortified through the collective desire for a society built anew. It is Ditta’s love forged in struggle that is eternal and that we must carry in our memory of her.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.