Dan Katz looks at the social and political background to Tariq Mehmood’s novel While there is light (Carcanet press)
Contempory discussion of the politics of Asian “experience” in Britain is dominated by the issues such as the hijab, jihad and 7/7.
So it is good to remember a time, not too long ago, when youth from Muslim backgrounds were better known for militant struggle against racism and fascism.
While there is light is roughly based around the case of the Bradford 12. Tariq Mehmood, was one of the key defendants in the Bradford 12 trial. On 11 July 1981 he had played a role in organising a counter-demonstration to a National Front march through Bradford. After the march the police arrested a dozen young men, all members of the United Black Youth League (UBYL), and charged them with conspiracy to make 38 petrol bombs. Today Mehmood is a campaigner and film director.
The Bradford 12 case came to trial at Leeds Crown Court on 26 April 1982. But it was the experience of the 1970s that created the context for this court battle. During the 70s the number of Asians born and educated in Britain rose sharply; the various Asian communities became more confident. However Asians were often subjected to vicious racism: from employers and the police, from organised fascists, and even from other workers and union officials.
Three of the best-known industrial disputes involving Asian workers during the 1970s — at Mansfield Hosiery (Loughborough), Imperial Typewriters (Leicester) and Grunwick (London) — chart the militancy of Asian workers and the fight inside the labour movement for solidarity.
At Mansfield Hosiery, Asian workers struck in December 1972 against management’s refusal to promote them to skilled grades. Union officials opposed the strike and were publicly racist; the strikers went to an employment tribunal that found against both the employer and the union.
In 1974 mostly East African Asian workers, struck against poor wages and racist discrimination at Imperial Typewriters. Local officials of their union, the TGWU, were hostile; the strikers appealed over their heads to the national TGWU leadership for help.
A turning point was reached in the summer of 1976 when Asian workers led a unionisation battle at Grunwick, in West London. This time, and despite eventual failure, the Asian workers (mainly Gujarati-speaking people from East Africa), received serious labour movement solidarity: white miners and postal workers formed mass pickets and fought the police alongside Asians.
Interestingly the boss of Grunwick, George Ward, was from an Anglo-Indian background: the Asian community had split along class lines. The lesson was not los. Most Asian people backed the labour movement; a minority backed the boss.
In the streets racist abuse and violence was a real threat. The role of the left organisations, active in the labour movement and in specific anti-fascist and anti-racist campaigns, was crucial to street mobilisations that confronted fascists. Whatever the revolutionary left’s inadequacies, the Asian youth met active support, from white leftists who stood for workers’ unity and socialism. (In the book the naive central character notices the marchers on workers’ demonstrations, concluding that there were white people who were probably okay; he is helped by a white Communist).
Racist violence and killings produced a radicalisation. The racist murder of a Sikh youth, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, in Southall in June 1976, and the killing of a Bengali garment worker, Altab Ali, in the East End of London in May 1978 led to the creation of new youth movements.
In west London, the radical Southall Youth Movement (SYM) began to organise self-defence patrols; in the East End the killing of Altab Ali brought 7000 Bangladeshis out onto the streets as the community began to organise; the Bengali Youth League was formed.
By July 1981 Thatcher’s Tories had been in office for two years and Britain was gripped by mass youth unemployment. On 3 July a series of urban riots began in Toxteth, Liverpool, as desperate youth fought the police. The same day 300 skinheads from East London travelled by bus to Southall for a fascist gig in the Hamborough Tavern. The local Asian youth burnt the pub down with petrol bombs and in the fighting that followed sixty-one police were injured. The fighting was directed against both the fascists and the police.
In Bradford the Asian Youth Movement (AYM) was founded in 1977 and split in early 1981 after it accepted state funding.
Tariq Mehmood and Tarlochan Gata-Aura formed the UBYL. The name is significant, stressing “Black” rather than “Asian”; they looked for “Black” unity.
In the circumstances it was hardly surprising that some petrol bombs were made.
During the trial Tarlochan Gata-Aura argued that, “Given what had happened in Southall [and other places where racists had murdered Black and Asian people], I feared a skinhead attack on Bradford. My personal experience is that the police have never defended our community.” He admitted sole responsibility for making the petrol bombs for the purpose of self-defence.
The primitive attitude of the arresting policeman was clearly revealed in court: “West Indians in tea-cosy hats motoring in town centres constitute by appearance alone suspicion that they were involved in muggings.”
The solicitor for the Bradford 12 commented, “For the Asian community, this is a country where families are subjected to daily abuse, where men who protect the ideology that sent the Jews to the gas chambers walk the streets in public parades escorted by the police force.
“A doctor knifed to death by a racist who wins a £5 bet. A taxi driver has his throat cut because he, like the doctor, is the object of blind hatred because of the colour of his skin.”
The jury of seven white people and five Asians found all the defendants not guilty.
This book is not directly about these events, which sit in the background.
But for us, watching as some of the Marxist left compromises itself with the most absurd accommodations to Islam, the most striking thing about Tariq Mehmood’s book is his characters’ attitudes to religion, summed up by a comment made by one character before a plane journey. Where does he want to sit? Not next to anyone “with a beard”, because he’d like to drink.
These left-influenced Asian activists, who risked very long jail sentences to fight the far right, were people basically aligned with the socialist left, with whom they shared many values.