In 1969, Balwinder Rana founded the first Asian youth movement in Britain, the Indian Youth Federation of Gravesend in Kent. For two years in the 1970s, he was a full-time national Asian organiser for the Socialist Workers Party. In 1979, he served as the chief steward in Southall during the protest against the National Front rally, during which the police killed Blair Peach. He set up Sikhs Against the EDL in 2011 and today is a leading member of Stand Up to Racism in West London. Balwinder spoke to Esme Choonara about his involvement in more than 50 years of anti-racist and class struggles.
EC: Let’s start with your arrival in England in the winter of 1963. Could you say something about why you came to Britain and the circumstances around that?
BR: I was 16 when I came to Britain from a small village in the Punjab. We had some land in India that was cultivated by sharecroppers and we kept cows for milk. My father had been an officer in the Indian army, and then he became a secondary school teacher. My eldest brother had graduated and was a teacher too, but he earnt only a hundred rupees a month, which was about £8 in British money. He could earn a lot more in this country, so he was the first to come.
After the Second World War there was huge demand for labour in Britain. However, after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, didn’t want Indians to move abroad; he thought it would suggest that India couldn’t feed its own people. Nevertheless, some Indians started going over the border into Pakistan since it was easier to get to England from there. In Pakistan they would hide and cut their hair to look like Muslims, but it was still very dangerous.
The first people from my own village came to Britain in about 1952. In those days, it was very expensive to get here. Initially, it was the farmers’ sons, who were mostly uneducated, who started to come over. Then people who were more educated, such as my brother, started thinking, “Why don’t we go as well?” Nehru said that people could go abroad to study but not as workers. So people like my brother started obtaining university places in Britain, but once they arrived they would go straight to work in factories.
My brother landed in Britain in 1961, and the next morning my cousin took him to start a job in a bakery in Twickenham. In 1962, the first immigration law was passed in Britain, which started a voucher system. One of the vouchers was for ex-army people, so my father went over too. He brought my older brother, who was just starting university, with him. So the three of them were here. They were all proud Sikhs but they had to have their hair cut to find work in factories. I was left as the “head of the family” in the village.
My sister, who was the eldest of the five siblings, also came to Britain with her daughter in 1962 to join her husband, who had been a college lecturer back home but was now working as a bus conductor. My sister had been the first girl from my village to go to school and then on to university, and she had also been a teacher in India. In Britain she had to work in a factory too; almost the entire family had now truly joined the English working class.
When I turned 16, my family asked me to come over as well. I told my father I only wanted to come if I could be sent to college, and he agreed. I left school and arrived in Britain in December 1963.
I had never been to such a cold place. My father came to meet me at Heathrow airport. It was the first time I had seen white people. We got on the bus from Heathrow to go to Twickenham where my father lived. On the way, there was a big car park full of cars, and my father said to me, “Look at all those cars, they belong to workers. In this country you don’t need to study to buy a car. Even workers can buy a car.” From that moment, I knew that he was not going to send me to college.
After a couple of weeks I went to live in Gravesend, Kent, with my brothers. I was shocked—where they were living was a real slum. It was a four storey block of flats and there was one toilet right at the bottom in the back garden. They were renting two rooms on the top floor, which were shared between my two brothers and two of their friends, with a shared kitchen and no bathroom. We had a really nice house back in India. Now, we had to go to the public baths once a week to wash. That was quite shocking. My brothers spent most of the time at work and largely ate baked beans with bread.
I was really upset and I wanted to go back to India. However, soon my eldest brother, at just 24 years old, bought his own nice house and we all moved in there.
EC: So you weren’t expecting this? You didn’t know about the poor living conditions before you arrived?
BR: Not at all—no one in the villages used to talk about the conditions their relatives were facing over here.
A couple of weeks after I had arrived, my eldest brother asked me to go and look for a job in a papermill. I couldn’t speak much English—all I knew was, “Job, please!” So I went to a factory and outside was a big metal barrier. I went up to the man in the hut next to it and said, “Job please!” He said, “Your people are not allowed to cross this barrier.”
I told my brother and he instructed me to try somewhere else. So I used to get up every morning and walk from factory to factory and say “Job, please!” Due to the “big freeze” of 1963, there weren’t many jobs in Gravesend that winter. Then a family friend who lived in Slough, Berkshire, told us that there were more jobs there. I went to stay with him and he took me to the youth employment exchange. They sent me to a local factory with a slip.
It was a small factory making plastic mouldings. The owner was an old man and two young white boys also worked there—the owner offered me a job and I started the next day. This was a happier time because the two white boys were quite friendly and the old man was quite a nice chap. I was bigger than the other boys and so I had the heaviest work, but I didn’t mind. Me and the two boys used to sit together at lunchtimes to eat our sandwiches and talk to each other, although they never showed any interest in India or anything about my life. We mostly talked about the Beatles.
After about three weeks, the old man’s son turned up. He was in his 20s. Right from the beginning, he was rude to me. He started to call me a “black boy” and tried to make fun of me in front of the other boys. He only did it when the old man wasn’t there. After three or four days, the son called me “black boy” again so I said, “If you say that again, I’m going to hit you!” He said it again, so I hit him, but he didn’t want to fight as I was a lot bigger than him. He just opened the front door, threw my bag out and said “go”. I went out, waited for the old man and told him his son had sacked me. He looked angry and ran inside. I was thinking he was going to come back, say sorry and get his son to apologise. Instead he came back and said, “Sorry, you’ve got to go.” I was really angry and insisted on getting my money and my P45 form before I left. At that moment, I decided I was going to get more education and better opportunities.
I went back to the youth employment exchange, but they said they couldn’t help me because it was my fault that I had lost the job. So, once more, every day I would go from factory to factory looking for work. Lots of these factories had signs saying, “No Blacks, No Irish”, so I’d miss those out.
One day I went to the Chix confectionary factory, which became quite famous due to a strike led by Asian women there in 1979. At the time it was all white women and girls working on machines making sweets that went into boxes on a rail with a weighing machine at the end. You had to weigh these heavy boxes, write down their details and put them onto palettes. There was a chap working there who was in his 20s. The foreman asked if I could do that job and I said yes. When I came to start work, the foreman had sacked the man and given me the job on half the pay because I was only 16.
After six months, I left the job because I wanted to go to evening classes and, after all this heavy work, I used to be too tired to study. I found a job with less heavy lifting and started going to evening classes to do O levels.1 That was in Slough. From there I moved around for three years working in different factories. At that time, almost everyone I knew was working in a factory or on the buses. I knew one person who had done O levels and got himself a job in a chemical laboratory—he was the only person I knew who had a better job.
So after doing some O levels, I got a job in a laboratory too. Then, in 1967, I went back to Gravesend to study full-time for A levels, as in those days you could get a grant. But I still used to work in factories in the summer.
EC: How did you and your brothers respond to the racism you faced?
BR: A few weeks after I came to Britain, I was with my eldest brother and his two friends in a pub. As we left we were confronted by what were called “teddy boys” in those days. My brother and his friends were at college together in India and they had been good athletes. My father had a shot gun, and if anyone had said anything abusive to them back home, my brother would have probably shot them. But here my brother and his friends seemed so cowardly—they were saying, “Sorry, oh sorry!” to these teddy boys who were threatening them. So I said, “There’s three of them and four of us, why don’t we fight them?” They said, “No, that’s not how things are done here.”
My brother had a wife and kid back home and they all had responsibilities. They were worried about going to prison. But I was only 16 and didn’t really care—I wasn’t putting up with it. That was the difference.
The older generation felt powerless in many ways. My father was a proud man and a much respected person in his village, but here he was not the same man. He seemed somehow diminished. Two years after I arrived, my mother brought over my younger brother who was only 13 years old. She left him with my eldest brother and took my father back home with her because she really hated it in Britain. He passed away a few years later.
EC: You were at college in Gravesend studying for your A levels when Enoch Powell made his infamously racist “rivers of blood” speech in 1968. What impact did that have on you?
BR: I can still remember hearing the speech—it was all over the media. There were only three or four other Asians at the college at the time and I remember sitting in the common room and reading the News of the World or some similar newspaper. On the front page it said the fascist National Front (NF) were going to start a mass campaign. It sent a cold chill down my spine. I thought that some of the students may turn against us and that we would be humiliated and attacked in the streets. I also remember the dockers marching in support of Enoch Powell, which was terrifying. I knew Enoch Powell was a Tory politician, and at that time I thought politicians followed the rule of law—I didn’t understand that the laws were racist and anti-working class. It was quite a shock to see someone in such a position whipping up racism. The NF getting organised was more than just local racists calling us names—it was a much bigger thing, a movement. I could see the future for us getting much darker. Very soon, a wave of racist attacks spread across the country, disgustingly dubbed “Paki bashing”.
EC: How did you start organising to resist the rising racism?
BR: There were a few racist attacks in Gravesend and people were getting worried. So I started talking to other Asian students in my college and said that we needed to do something in Gravesend.
Initially, three of us students—myself, the late Rajinder Atwal, who sadly passed away in 1982, and Mohan Bhatti—joined up with three others—Tari Atwal (no relation), Harjinder Bhullar and Chain Singh—who were working in the local factories, and started to talk about forming a youth organisation. We sought out other Indian youth; at the time there were around 6,000 migrants in Gravesend and most had originated from the Punjab. Some of us played in the Indian hockey or football teams, so we spoke to people there. We also started to visit the local gurdwara and other Sikh temples in the neighbouring towns in order to raise awareness about the developing climate of racial hatred and the importance of forming a youth organisation.
Some local Indian businessmen had formed a cartel and every Sunday they used to show Bollywood films in the local cinema, but the inflated prices caused a lot of discontent, especially among the youth. The crunch came when the cartel hired a large entertainment hall, Woodville Hall, to celebrate Indian Independence Day on 15 August. They were charging a high entry price and many people were unhappy because in other towns the Indian Workers’ Associations (IWAs) celebrated the day free of charge.2 Some of us stood outside the hall and shouted about what a disgrace it was that these gentlemen were exploiting the memory of those who sacrificed their lives to win Indian freedom in order to line their own pockets. We also promised that we would soon celebrate Independence Day ourselves and that it would be free.
Many people boycotted these celebrations and a large number of young people followed us into an impromptu meeting in a church hall across the road. I took the chair and laid out a plan to form a youth organisation and its objectives. We gave it the name of Indian Youth Federation and proceeded to elect an initial executive committee of 11 members.3 I was elected the president.
About half a mile away from the meeting hall there was a pub that was known not to serve Indian customers. So, we decided to march down to the pub right away and demand to be served. The bar staff and a few of the customers who were present had the shock of their lives as we all piled in. I approached the bar and said, “Fifty pints of lager, please!” The bar staff were previously known to ignore Indian customers or would tell them outright that they didn’t serve Indians, but now they were running around like headless chickens to serve us.
We booked the same Woodville Hall, which had more than a thousand seats, for mid-September and proceeded to organise speakers and entertainment. We invited the Indian high commissioner, the local MP and the mayor as well a number of councillors and the late Vishnu Sharma, who at the time was the organiser for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.4 We also sent invitations to local headteachers, bank and building society managers, and the manager of the local citizens’ advice bureau. At the time it was very difficult for our people to get mortgages and places for our children in the right schools. So, in part, the purpose of these invitations was to introduce ourselves to local officialdom and to show that now we were organised and that we would no longer be pushed around or discriminated against.
Many of the invited dignitaries turned up and the hall was packed by families from Gravesend and the surrounding towns. As promised, there was no entry fee, but people were so happy that they gave us more than enough money to cover our costs. Our organisation was launched with a bang.
Over the next ten years we hired this hall about three times a year, putting on functions with entertainment and speakers. Speakers included writer and activist Tariq Ali, the socialist journalist Paul Foot, Tony Cliff of the Socialist Workers Party, Paul Holborow of the Anti Nazi League and the leaders of Britain’s main IWAs. Some famous Indians visiting Britain also attended, including the old revolutionary Bhagat Singh Bilga, the writer Jaswant Singh Kanwal and the poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi.
We set up our own Bhangra group, which later went independent and became quite famous on the European Bhangra circuit.5 For the local Mayday march and celebrations in 1971 we hired a flatback lorry, and on top of it we had our Bhangra group dancing. The dancers were much appreciated by the crowds lining the streets. However, when the procession ended in a nearby park, the dancers were attacked by a group of racists. We fought back and drove them off. In the process one of the attackers was hospitalised. Nevertheless, most of the local white people supported us and the local paper also blamed the racists for ruining the day for everyone.
EC: What other activities did the Youth Federation get involved in?
BR: We tried to offer advice to whoever needed it in the community. At the time many people did not speak English and we would often translate for those who needed our help and would even accompany them as interpreters to the police station and the courts.
The dowry system was a big problem within the community at the time so we held a conference to educate young people about the negative aspects of the custom, which often burdened the brides’ families with massive debts.6 The highlight of the conference was when a number of youth pledged not to demand or accept dowry when they got married.
In 1976, we launched Unity, our own magazine, which was edited by our general secretary, Harjinder Bhullar. It was largely handwritten in Punjabi, but we also included stories in English, mainly photocopied from Socialist Worker, Race Today and Searchlight. It was printed at the Socialist Worker printshop. We distributed the paper by hand to more than 500 homes and from Asian-run shops and the gurdwara. It was free.
The NF had been gaining support after the deep economic crisis of 1974 and started marching around the country, so we often organised coaches to join the counter-protests. However, Gravesend had seen relative peace and, so far, no intrusions by the NF or other fascists.
On the 4 June 1976, 18 year old Gurdip Singh Chaggar was murdered in Southall in West London. A few days later, former NF chairman John Kingsley Read, now leader of a splinter fascist group called the National Party (NP), responded to this racist murder by saying, “One down, one million to go.”
Two months after this, I was shopping in Gravesend High Street and came across a group of NP supporters trying to sell their papers. It was a big shock. I went around knocking on our members and supporters’ doors. We quickly got a large group together and started to challenge the fascists. However, the police soon arrived and stood between us, telling us that the NP had every right to sell their papers. We complained that the NP were shouting racist slogans and their paper also contained stories that incited racism, which was illegal under the Race Relations Act.
However, the police were not prepared to support us. Instead, the confrontation led to six Saturdays of running battles with the NP. The police tried to keep us and the fascists apart. Each Saturday more fascists started to arrive in town, and we got more and more of our youth joining us—we always vastly outnumbered them. We also had support from many white anti-racists, especially from the local Socialist Workers Party branch, which had recently been set up.7 Nonetheless, there was a lot of negative reporting in the local press, often blaming us for not respecting the NP’s “freedom of speech”. Even some of our own “community leaders” joined in, with some calling us “hotheads”.
Matters came to a head on the sixth Saturday when a group of NP thugs attacked the president of the gurdwara, an old gentleman who was the most prominent community leader, while walking past the Woolworth’s shop on the high street. The poor man was pushed through a plate glass window and left badly injured and lucky to be alive. The news spread like wildfire and we called all the available youth to come to the town centre. According to the police reports, there were about 600 of us facing only 40 NP supporters. We surrounded them and in the ensuing battle many of the fascists were injured and had to run for their lives. A few police also got injured. Some of us were hit with police tuncheons and others were arrested. But no fascists dared to set foot in our town again for many years.
EC: Brilliant! But that wasn’t the end of the fascist threat, was it?
BR: After we had sent the NP packing, the British Movement (BM), who regarded themselves as the “hard men” of the far right, issued a press statement saying, “The National Party were like women. They got beaten by the Asians. Now, we will come to Gravesend on Saturday and teach the Asians a lesson.”
That threat was posted in the Kent Messenger newspaper on Monday, and we immediately called a meeting in the gurdwara for Wednesday. On Tuesday, I got a call from a divisional commander of the Kent Constabulary asking me to meet him. I told him that there’s no way I would meet him on my own, but that he was welcome to come to our meeting and say whatever he had to say in front of everyone.
The gurdwara was packed with hundreds of people. The commander turned up with the local chief superintendent. This was the same superintendent who had previously shown such interest in preserving “freedom of speech” for fascists over our freedom to walk our streets without racist slurs and intimidation. However, the commander was very apologetic and admitted that the police had failed to protect our community. Then he asked me to tell everyone to stay at home on Saturday and let the police deal with the BM, but I told him that it was our town and we would not hide in our homes. I said that we would be in the town centre, but our youth would stay mainly in the pubs and in the gurdwara. We would only call them out if and when needed. He agreed to that and left.
I told everyone to be at the gurdwara at 9am on Saturday to be assigned their duties. On the day, people started to arrive much earlier and one of the senior football teams from the Guru Nanak Football Club even cancelled their league match to support the community. We sent two car loads of people to each of the seven entry points to the town and asked them to phone us every half hour with updates and to alert us immediately if they saw the BM approaching. The rest of the youth were sent to the pubs near the centre to wait for a call. A number of youth were also patrolling the streets, keeping a look out in case the fascists managed to sneak in. Many of our white anti-racist friends, especially from the SWP, were also in the town centre. A lot of police were also in town with many more waiting in coaches nearby.
The gurdwara had become like a festival venue. A lot of the older men as well as women and children had come there to show solidarity with the youth. A lot of food was being prepared in the big kitchens and the youth were taking turns to come to the gurdwara to feed themselves. Nearly the whole of our community was involved in one way or another.
We were getting regular calls from the youth manning the entrances into town, but there was no sign of the BM. Then a couple of our young people came running to the gurdwara and shouted, “They’re here!” I said that we would go down to the town centre to check for ourselves and instructed the others not to phone our people around the pubs until we had confirmed.
As we arrived, we saw about half a dozen local young skinheads gathering outside Woolworth’s. They were surrounded by three lines of police, but, full of infantile arrogance and stupidity, they were giving Nazi salutes and shouting racist vulgarities at us. The police commander was also there and he pleaded with me, claiming that they were “only kids”. I reassured him that we wouldn’t harm the annoying little fascists who had come to greet their “heroes” from the BM.
Then we suddenly saw a sea of heads rolling towards us from all sides as a mass of our youth raced down. The little fascists looked terrified and the police commander also looked frightened. As it happened, some people at the gurdwara had ignored my instructions and called all the pubs. The pubs emptied instantaneously as our young people raced to do their duty. Grabbing the megaphone I told them that it was a false alarm and asked them to return to their posts. We waited the whole day in vain; the BM, despite their threat, failed to summon the bottle to come into town and “teach us a lesson”. In the evening, we held a victory parade.
EC: It sounds like the gurdwara was a central organising venue for your movement. Was that because it was largely Sikhs coming to Gravesend at that time?
BR: Yes around 90 percent of those from India in Gravesend at the time were Sikhs.8 Most of us in the Youth Federation were Sikhs, although there were also some Hindus. We didn’t have our organising meetings in the gurdwara, but it was a useful base for activity against the fascists. We also had some people from “lower castes” in our leadership. We were a very secular organisation so we didn’t want to call ourselves a Sikh federation. We could have called ourselves an Asian federation, but there were only one or two Pakistani families in the area at the time. The IWAs were organising around the country, so there was also already a tradition of organising as Indians.
EC: Did any of you have political experience back in India?
BR: No, none of us had any experience or involvement with politics in India. Nevertheless, many of us were inspired by Indian revolutionary freedom fighters.
EC: Were any women involved in the organisation?
BR: No, we were all male because there weren’t many women or girls here at that time. They started coming later. Also, widespread mixing of boys and girls was not the cultural norm at that time.
EC: I note that you seemed to develop some links with Socialist Worker from quite early on, using their printing press for example. How did you come across them?
BR: We started the youth federation in 1969. Until 1974, we had no link with any left-wing political parties. We went to one or two protest marches in 1973, but we were more a community organisation.
That changed in 1974 when Kevin Gately was killed. At the time I was living in London, although I was still going back to Gravesend at weekends. In the summer of that year, the NF held a rally at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, London. There was a big protest outside, mainly involving students and white left wingers. Police attacked the demonstration and killed Gately, a student from Warwick University.
The following Saturday there was a big protest march against his killing. I went on that march alone, and when I saw the Warwick University banner, I joined the protest with them. I bought some of the left-wing papers and read them all. Then I wrote to them, asking them to come and see me.
The first person who came to see me was from the Workers Revolutionary Party and he said to me, “Oh, the National Front are not a problem. They’re not the real threat.” I told him that was just nonsense.
The SWP’s Asian organiser, Soonu Engineer, then came to see me, with one of her friends. A couple of days later, they asked me to come and meet Nigel Harris, a leading member of the SWP. I went to Harris’s house and we talked. I was surprised that he knew so much about India, and he turned out to have some Indian heritage. After that, I started reading Socialist Worker. A few weeks later, the NF were going to hold a march in Leicester, and the SWP leadership asked me if I could take time off work and come to Leicester for a week. I agreed and stayed at a comrade’s house in Leicester, going around the gurdwaras and factories building opposition to the NF.
A protest had been called by the SWP, the International Marxist Group and others to confront the NF. However, the local Labour party, churches and some of the unions called a separate march that was going to assemble a long way from the NF and march in the opposite direction. My job that week was to argue with people about why we needed to confront the fascists, but I had only limited success.
When I got back to London, I told Nigel Harris I would go back to Gravesend and organise a coach-load to come to Leicester. He thought that I was just boasting, so he told me just to come to the protest on my own, but I did take a coach full of people from Gravesend anyway. Apart from us there were few Asians there because many local Asians had gone on the other march. It was mostly young white students and left wingers plus some trade unionists. For lots of those who came with me it was the first time they came to a march like this.
EC: It must have been interesting for a lot of the Asian activists you brought to see so many white anti-fascists.
BR: Exactly—until this time I had never really come across a white person who really believed there was racism in this country. In Gravesend, there were a couple of Labour Party activists who were after me from day one. They said that, if I joined them, I could become the first Asian councillor in the country. But when I talked to them about the racists, they said, “Don’t worry! When they call you names they don’t really mean it.” So I couldn’t join the Labour party. They didn’t really understand. Indeed, Labour had also passed racist immigration laws. So when I saw white left-wingers fighting against other white people for my rights, it was a real eye-opener. I also saw that there were some other well-meaning people, but they were not prepared to confront the fascists on the streets.
EC: And is that when you joined the SWP?
BR: That was a couple of months later. I had done my A levels and went to do my degree in computer science at Hatfield polytechnic in South East England.
At the end of the first year, we had to spend six months in the industry to get some work experience. There were 60 students in my class and only three of us were Asian. All the white students got placements in the industry, but none of us Asian students did. When I went to interviews, they would send me and three or four white students. The white students would get a job but I wouldn’t. One of the other Asian students, a Sri Lankan woman, got a place due to her family connections, but two of us—me and another Asian guy—were left without any placement.
We both had to spend six months working in the factories, even though we were meant to be learning computer science. When we returned to college, we were told it would be best if we did an Higher National Diploma (HND) instead of a degree because you didn’t need a placement for that qualification. After passing my HND, I was working as a computer programmer for about 18 months. However, in the back of my head, I was always thinking that I was good enough to do a degree. So I applied for a graduate diploma and went to Leicester Polytechnic.
I joined the SWP in Leicester. The Imperial Typewriters strike had just been defeated.9 I used to stand outside the factory in the mornings, but hardly anyone wanted to buy Socialist Worker—they seemed so demoralised. I thought they must have lost the dispute because they were not militant enough, and I thought they were not militant because they didn’t want to read Socialist Worker. Later, someone explained that they had actually lost after being sold out by their own union.
I was involved with some of the other strikes involving Asian workers at this time. The SWP also produced two Asian language papers called Chingari (“Spark”)—one in Punjabi and one in Urdu. I helped Soonu to produce a couple of these. We also started producing a local Leicester Chingari, mainly edited by me and written by hand. We met a group of young Gujuratis through the anti-fascist demonstrations and one of them used to write in Gujurati, so we produced the local Chingari in three Asian languages.
I spent a year in Leicester. I got involved in student politics, set up a student socialist society and even managed to get a degree then went to India for six months.
EC: You came back to Britain in March 1976 in the midst of a racist frenzy being whipped up by the media and politicians centred on the scapegoating of Asian migrants from Malawi. This was the backdrop to the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall in June 1976, which provoked big protests in the area. How were you involved?
BR: The racist murder rightly provoked very angry reaction locally. A couple of days after the murder I went to meet the local SWP organiser in Southall. He had already made some links with young people. I met with them and they were talking about setting up a youth organisation. I suggested to them that they call it the Indian Youth Federation of Southall, but they didn’t like the word Indian because, as I discovered, some Pakistani youth were involved. Instead it was named the Southall Youth Movement.
EC: Southall is of course famous for the protest against the NF in 1979, where SWP member and teacher Blair Peach was killed by the police. We’ve previously interviewed Paul Holborow in this journal about that struggle.10 Can you tell me more about your involvement?
BR: I moved to Southall after 1976, and so by 1979 I was very active in that area and had become the West London Anti Nazi League (ANL) organiser. When we heard that the NF was going to hold a meeting in Southall, it came as a shock to the whole community. As the ANL, we started to organise along with the local IWA. The IWA president, Vishnu Sharma, was a great supporter of the ANL. He called for a delegate meeting to build the counter-protest and 80 attended. The delegates represented a multitude of local political groups, trade unions, temples, mosques and women’s organisations from around West London.
I was selected as one of the five members of the organising committee and appointed chief steward, so I led the protest in Southall. Thousands joined the protests against the NF. Local workers in the factories, at Heathrow airport and on the buses struck in support, and the shops were shut. Nevertheless, the police treatment of protesters was absolutely brutal. Southall was like an occupied town. Many anti-fascists were badly injured and Blair Peach was killed. Around 15,000 came to his funeral a few months later.11
A lot of people know about the key flashpoints in Southall, but it is less well known that a lot of the struggles against the fascists took place in the surrounding areas, not in Southall itself. These were not just little struggles; in Feltham, for example, the ANL campaigned over a long period of time to drive out the fascists. We played a key role in holding the fascists back in these areas and stopping the NF from coming back to Southall.
EC: A lot of people today won’t be aware that the SWP had a full-time Asian organiser in the 1970s. Can you tell me more about your time in that role?
BR: In 1977, I was very involved in anti-racist activity but had a well-paid job as a computer programmer. Then one day Tony Cliff called me into his office and said, “Balwinder, do you want to be a revolutionary or a careerist?” I replied, “I don’t know.” So he said, “Hand in your notice and from next week you’re our full-time national Asian organiser.”
In those days, the NF were marching all around the country. My job was to go, a couple of weeks beforehand, to wherever they were planning to march and help organise opposition. Mostly I used to get the local National Union of Students to invite me to speak and pay my expenses. I would go to the local gurdwaras, mosques, temples and other organisations in order to build for counter-protests.
I spent quite a lot of time in East London. The NF had their headquarters there, and this led to many racist attacks and murders including the murder of Altab Ali in 1978. I supported the magnificent struggles against the NF, led by the Bengali youth, and helped with the formation of the Bangladeshi Youth Movement.
My other job was to produce the Chingari newspaper. The trouble was that to produce something like that really required a group working on it and, although we had a few Asian comrades, they were scattered around the country. The times were changing too—a lot of younger Asians could read English.
I was also organising around the strikes involving Asian workers. I regularly went to the famous picket lines at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in West London.12 The role of Asian women workers is often overlooked; it wasn’t just at Grunwick where women played a leading role. There were quite a few strikes in the Midlands led by Asian women as well as the Chix strike in 1979. Much later, there was also the 1995 Hillingdon Hospital strike. I set up the strike support group for that dispute and for the Gate Gourmet strike at Heathrow in 2005.
The Asian women who started coming to Britain in the 1960s mostly came from peasant or farmer backgrounds. It was not customary for them to work in factories in India, so they initially started working from home, sewing clothes and so on. When they started venturing into work in the factories, they soon realised they were at the bottom of the pile, facing sexism as well as racism. So they began to organise and that led to some really strong strikes.
I was the SWP’s Asian organiser for two years and they were exciting times. There were so many Asian workers involved in strikes. But I found sometimes that it was a big jump for them to go from participating in a strike to joining the SWP. There were lots of reasons for this. One was that most Asian workers at that time were not originally from the working class and often saw the factory as a temporary phase. However, eventually we started recruiting younger Asian members from the universities and colleges. That was how the SWP started in the first place—with intellectuals and students, then more working-class people started joining. It was the same with the Asian comrades as well.
We also had a separate organiser, Kim Gordon, who organised among black people of African and Caribbean heritage, producing another newspaper, Flame. He did similar work to me, but I think there were more black people than Asians in the SWP at that time, especially in London, so he had a group around him while I didn’t.
EC: So you didn’t really work together? Was the Asian work separate from the black work, except when you were working together on similar campaigns?
BR: Yes, and that really reflected the general situation. A lot of the strikes that developed with Asian workers involved very few black workers in those workplaces. This reflected the separation of the population more generally.
EC: How did things progress with the youth movements and the SWP?
BR: Towards the end of the 1970s, youth movements were springing up around the country. There was the one in Southall in 1976, then in Bradford, East London’s Brick Lane and many other places. About that time, the class struggle was going down, especially under the Thatcher government, but the anti-racist activity among the Asian youth still seemed to be going up. There was a feeling among some comrades that we needed a separate black and Asian organisation—a left-wing organisation or youth movement that would be separate from the SWP but related to the party. But Cliff and others argued that in the end you can’t have a radical black movement growing when the class struggle is going down. He was right, but a number of black and Asian comrades did not agree and left the SWP. I stayed, but initially I was not so sure about where I stood in this argument.
Nevertheless, what happened was what Cliff and others had predicted—soon the black movement started to decline as well. It could not be sustained in the absence of sizeable class struggles. Some of the activists who had came up in radical black struggles were bought off by the system. After the Scarman Report into the 1981 Brixton uprising, the government dished out lots of grants for “ethnic projects”.13 For many activists it became more important to get a job and play the game of winning grants than to build a mass movement.14
As these struggles declined, different activists started becoming more prominent. These included black nationalists and also religious activists. This began with the Sikhs. A new movement had emerged in the Punjab to demand an independent Sikh homeland, Khalistan, after Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi’s divide and rule policies culminated in an attack on the holiest shrine of Sikhism.15 These movements started getting supporters in Britain. Many Sikh activists came to Britain in order to escape police repression and started organising in this country.
Then with the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1988 many Muslims started coming out on the streets, though they were not fighting explicitly against racism but rather against this book. Then Islamophobia was increased and entrenched by Western imperialist wars in the Middle East.
EC: You haven’t really mentioned Muslims being involved in the struggles of the 1970s. Was your impression that they weren’t involved, or was it just that they weren’t specifically involved as Muslims?
BR: Muslims were involved just as much as anyone else in working-class and anti-fascist struggles, especially in the areas where lots of Muslims lived such as Bradford. When I went around the areas surrounding Manchester such as Blackburn, Bolton and Preston, there were lots of young Muslims involved. In Luton there were lots of Muslims involved as well. They would come out on the streets. So I think initially all Asians were fighting together. The make-up of the struggle just reflected the areas where they were located.
It was only when that struggle started going down that religious differences became more pronounced. There was also a combination of other things as well. As Asian people became more established in this country, some started going into business, setting up small shops and bigger businesses. They were also building bigger gurdwaras, mosques and Hindu temples. They started taking up issues which were more from the subcontinent as well. We have spoken already about Khalistan and about Rushdie, but there were also some Hindus supporting the chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.16 People were being turned against one another.
The original solidarity among the activists was not just among different Asians but extended to solidarity with black people of African and Caribbean heritage as well. So that’s why initially we all just called ourselves “black”—especially among activists—but this began to break down. First, people saying, “We are Asian. We don’t want to be called black.” Then we saw splits among the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. More recently, some Hindus have said that they don’t want to be called Asian since they don’t want to be associated with the Muslims, because they have fallen for the Islamophobic propaganda from the right wing media. Some Sikhs have also fallen for this.
EC: I guess this is the background to you setting up Sikhs against the English Defence League to try to overcome some of the divisive Islamophobia you describe?
BR: Yes. Early on the English Defence League (EDL) were saying that they were only against the Muslims. That was a lie, but some Sikh youths fell for it and joined the EDL. One Sikh became very prominent and was soon a spokesperson. I saw him with the EDL when I was at a counter-protest in Bolton. He and two others were holding the Sikh flag, which I found very insulting. So I wrote a statement against the EDL and took it to the gurdwara in Southall, the biggest Sikh temple in England. It took me quite a bit of persuasion to get them to sign it. I then went to the other gurdwaras around Southall and East London as well as to the universities in order to get young Sikhs involved. I also got the IWAs involved. Then we went to Birmingham and got six gurdwaras to sign up. We launched a mass campaign and issued this prominent Sikh EDL member with an ultimatum—he had three weeks to resign or we would have him “excommunicated”. He resigned after only one week.
We didn’t shout about it at the time, but he wasn’t alone. There was an Islamophobic movement growing behind this individual, but it was being kept in the shadows. But we had nipped that movement in the bud. That was a big victory for us.
EC: You are still an active anti-racist and socialist, so what are your thoughts about the political situation today?
BR: I have been the organiser of West London Stand Up to Racism for a long time now and we continue building in the area. It’s been a very important movement. We have kept the fascists at bay and prevented them gaining a major foothold in mainstream politics. I am really happy that we have had a mass Black Lives Matter movement in Britain that has involved a lot of people—young black and white people as well as some Asians. However, we are facing a deep economic crisis with mass unemployment. This Tory government is going to keep forcing attacks on ordinary people’s living standards.
On top of that we have the Covid crisis and climate change. So the rich and powerful are going to try their best to divide and rule. The fascists will be coming on the scene again and we have to develop a movement that can withstand the attacks and unite everyone. We also have to develop organisation in the workplaces because people have to fight for their rights. I think there’s everything to fight for, and we will see big struggles in the coming months and years.
EC: Why do you think you became a socialist?
BR: Primarily because of racism. I was brought up in a small village and, because of the sort of family I came from, I had never faced any sort of prejudice or discrimination in India. When I found myself at the bottom of the pile in Britain—humiliated, insulted and discriminated against—it was a big shock. But I was never prepared to put up with it.
First, I decided that I was going to educate myself. But I found that even education didn’t help, because I suffered similar racial discrimination despite doing professional jobs. The racists and fascists who were marching up and down the country did not care whether you were a graduate or a factory worker—to them we were all blacks and they attacked all of us. I realised that the best way to change things is doing something collectively to fight them and that’s why I set up the youth movement.
We were really looking to join with the white anti-racists. Eventually, in 1974, I found them, but I also came across two other ideas: Maoism and black nationalism. The Maoists would fight alongside us against the racists, but they believed that the best thing was to go back to India and fight the revolution there. The black nationalists wanted to organise separately rather than joining with the white anti-racists. None of these ideas appealed to me. I could see that the real solution would be black and white workers coming together. I also learned that the capitalist system is the root cause of racism and all the other major problems in the world. Thus the only way to get rid of racism and fascism, as well as regular economic recessions, pandemics and climate change, is actually ending the capitalist system. We need to replace capitalism with a society based on equality and justice instead of exploitation of workers and endless destruction of the environment. That is why I remain a socialist.
Balwinder Rana is a retired IT worker. He is active in West London SWP and is co-convenor of West London Stand Up To Racism.
1 O levels were subject-based qualifications, often taken in secondary school, which were later replaced by GCSEs.
2 The Indian Workers’ Association is a campaigning and welfare organisation with origins among Indian migrants to London and Coventry in the 1930s. There have been various branches and local associations as well as national groups. For an interview with a leader of the IWA in the Midlands, see Jouhl, 2019.
3 The group later changed its name to Indian Youth and Workers Movement, Gravesend.
4 Vishnu Sharma later became president of the IWA Southall.
5 Bhangra is a popular folk dance and musical form originating from the Punjab.
6 Dowry is the transfer of money, property or gifts upon marriage, traditionally from the bride’s family to the groom or his family.
7 The Socialist Workers Party was officially formed in 1977 and was known as the International Socialists before this. The organisation is referred to as the SWP throughout most of this article, even when it still would have been the International Socialists, to emphasise the continuity of its politics and to make the narrative easier to follow.
9 The 1974 strike at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester was an important and bitter dispute led by new Asian activists. They took on a vicious multinational employer, the racism of local trade union organisation, and attacks by the police and the NF. For more, see Prasad, 2016.
10 See Holborow, 2019.
11 For more about the events in Southall in 1979, see Tengely-Evans, 2019.
12 The Grunwick strike of 1976-8 was a turning point in trade unionism in Britain. Led by Asian women, including the formidable Jayaben Desai, it won solidarity from across the trade union movement including white workers, with mass pickets of 20,000 at its height. See Prasad, 2016.
13 The government commissioned report by Lord Scarman denied any institutional racism in the police but had to concede that the experience of economic disadvantage and racism, along with some police tactics, had contributed to the uprising.
14 See Choonara and Prasad, 2012.
15 Indira Gandhi was prime minister of India in 1966-77 and 1980-84. She was responsible for a military attack on the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. For more, including the role of British authorities in the attack, see Patel, 2014.
16 The Bharatiya Janata Party is the right-wing Hindu nationalist party of Narendra Modi, who has been Indian prime minister since 2014. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is a paramilitary Hindu nationalist group that particularly targets Muslims.