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Books: Non-fiction - An important story of Asian youth

BERNADETTE HYLAND takes a look at a neglected narrative in the history of migrants in Britain

Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements
by Anandi Ramamurthy
(Pluto Press, £17.50)

 

South Asian communities have a respected place in the history of the left in this country, a tradition that includes Shapurji Saklatvala, born in Bombay, who was elected as a Communist MP in 1922 and Rajani Palme Dutt, born in Cambridge of Indian and Swedish parents, who became the leading theoretician of the Communist Party.

In her new book, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements, Anandi Ramamurthy traces this thread of history and activism and shows its importance in political life today. 

She says: “I wrote this book because in 2003 I found that the discourse around south Asians was so dominated by faith. 

“Neither I, nor my family or friends could identify with this, even on a cultural basis. 

“I felt it was really important to recall a history where we defined ourselves on the basis of our politics and south Asians have had a long involvement in British political life.”

Black Star puts into context the history of black and Asian working-class communities in the anti-racist campaigns in the 1970s and ’80s. 

These were campaigns that sprang from an anti-imperialist and left-wing tradition which the south Asian community brought with them from countries such as India. 

Ramamurthy explains how, after the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, the mainly male migrants were forced to bring their wives and children to this country, fearing quite rightly that the new legislation would lead to the forced division of their families. 

From the 1960s the environment for migrants, of all colours and including groups such as the Irish, worsened: “Racist violence was also not simply perpetrated by gangs on the street but also by the police and state institutions.”

It was the children of the postwar immigrants who in the late ’70s made up the activists in organisations such as the Asian Youth Movement which grew in large cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham as well as in Bradford, Bolton and Burnley. Many of the largely male organisations were made up of people as young as 15 years old and others who were in their twenties and had had experience of being politically active in their colleges and workplaces.

“They took up issues that impacted on their communities as a whole to respond to the climate of racism, which young people and their families experienced in a period of rising unemployment caused by an economic downturn that led to the decline of the manufacturing sector in Britain,” says Ramamurthy.

Key to these organisations were notions of self-organisation, defending their communities and building solidarity with other anti-imperialist groups to challenge the conditions of their lives and circumstances.

The AYMs used the term “Asian” as an inclusive one, and by the use of localities such as Bradford in their name they invited other groups such as the Afro-Caribbeans to join them. 

It was also open to all cultural and religious outlooks including members from all the major faiths in south Asia. 

And, unlike their parents, they saw Britain as their home and their struggle in terms of “Here to stay and here to fight.”

Ramamurthy shows how the Bradford Asian Youth Movement was one of the largest, best-organised and influential of the groups and how it was at the forefront of defending its community.

“The case of the Bradford 12 (in 1981) was pivotal in challenging the state’s attempt to criminalise communities.”

Nineteen-eighty-one was a year when unrest spread across the country and when young people in Bradford made petrol bombs in case they had to defend their community against fascists. 

A dozen young men were arrested on charges including “conspiracy to make explosions … for unlawful purposes.”

One of the Bradford 12, Tariq Mehmood, commented after their acquittal: “The police made a mountain out of a molehill and in so doing made a monument to our beliefs; the right to self-defence by a community under attack.”

Ramamurthy shows how solidarity was a key characteristic of the work of AYMs as in the Bradford 12 case. 

The defence committees were made up of the local community, as well as activists in outfits including the Socialist Workers Party, lesbian and gay and Irish groups. 

Immigration cases dominated the political landscape of the late ’70s and in particular the case of Anwar Ditta, who fought for years to get her children to join her in Britain.

“In building solidarity, the campaign liaised with trade unions, left organisations, religious organisations and celebrities.” 

The support was not just national but international, including a poem written by Bobby Sands for Anwar. 

In the end she succeeded in being reunited with her children. 

From the late 1980s this broad-based black identity based on class and anti-imperialist perspectives changed to a more softly focussed identity and cultural politics. 

As Ramamurthy comments, “The promotion of faith-based organisations by the state ensured the privileging of conservative voices through the formation of religious based councils amongst Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. This fragmented the previous socialist voice that found expression in organisations such as the Asian youth movements.”

From the ’90s the problems of young Asians have been defined as ones around ethnicity and culture, rather than as that of institutionalised racism, street racism and poverty. 

The post-September 11 2001 environment, which has created growing Islamophobia, has left many Muslims isolated without the links to anti-racist groups and organisations which were a characteristic of these movements in the ’70s and ’80s.

In writing this book Ramamurthy feels that there are many lessons that present-day campaigns have learnt from the Bradford 12 case, including the Stephen Lawrence campaign and climate campaign activists.

In conclusion she quotes Tariq Mehmood and Amrit Wilson: “We believed a better world was possible … there was a feeling that we could fight and win.”

Black Star is an important book in reminding us that the Asian community has played an notable role in the history of the left in Britain and the principles of solidarity and self-determination are key to creating organisations that will undermine the sense of hopelessness that is endemic in society today. 

Anandi Ramamurthy will be speaking at the following meetings: Saturday November 2, 2pm-5pm, Birmingham & Midlands Institute, Birmingham; Wednesday November 20, 4pm-5.30pm, Harrington Building, Room 337, University of Central Lancashire, Preston; and Saturday November 23, 6.30pm, Housmans Bookshop, 5 Caledonian Rd, London.

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