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How Black and South Asian British communities resisted empire at home

Communities of colour in Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, and London laid the pathway in the 70s for modern activism.

Sheffield March Photographer Unknown Tandana Archives

Photograph of an Asian Youth Movement march in Sheffield, with permission from Tandana Archive


We are here because you were there

A. Sivanandan

Colonisation does not end with the countries’ winning back independence, but continues as a legacy long after in the form of destabilising political relations, wealth inequality, enforced division of land and class often via border systems, cultural dominance, international sanctions and the treatment of refugees and Commonwealth subjects who choose or are forced to migrate.

The mistreatment of migrants within Britain’s borders whose countries had been occupied by Britain for decades is an extended function of imperialist oppression. Those multi-generational communities who make up a rich part of British identity in the present day were initially sought after as cheap and accessible sources of labour to harvest the results of Empire. The value their labour brought was in fact another looted wealth of the colonised countries.

To demand that the subjects of nations you have colonised live under unequal conditions and treatment at home, and even to suggest they should be ‘useful’ to exist in Britain; to demand that refugees stay away despite playing a role in the destabilisation of safety in their countries of origin, smacks of the cognitive dissonance that is characteristic of imperialism. The British Empire’s ability to construct and control borders is a fundamental tool to lessen the power of collective community, and thereby intends to hinder their ability to live freely and with equal prosperity to white communities.

Sheffield’s Youth-led Resistance

Throughout the 70s, there were multiple grassroots organisations which came into being in response to a plethora of oppressive tactics directed at non-white communities, through deportations, living conditions, discriminatory policing, health inequalities and poor labour rights, and then further catalysed by the murders of Asian youth, including Altab Ali, by white racists. Blair Peach was killed by a police officer in a Southall anti-racism demonstration against the National Front in 1979, which fuelled a national demonstration and anti-policing activism.

With the police protecting the meetings and interests of the National Front, and violent white nationalists upholding the criminalising views of the UK government, Black and South Asian communities knew that they themselves were the strongest form of defence for their areas. There were multiple divisions of Asian Youth Movements formed, including Southall, Manchester, Bradford, and Sheffield, to protect their community from thuggish behaviour of state and individual by installing patrols and using physical resistance, numerous Black Sisters movements, most notably in Southall, Birmingham and Liverpool, as well as the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent and Awaz, who introduced a practice of intersectional feminism into communal defence. For example, the women’s groups campaigned against virginity testing at airports and the non-consensual use of birth control on women of colour. All were also strands of a larger anti-racist ideology which incorporated vigorous work on anti-imperialism and anti-deportation.

Birmingham-born Anwar Ditta fought her own campaign to bring her children from Pakistan to the UK, when the government said that she could not prove they were her children – despite her offering to take a DNA test. She ran a nationwide campaign with the support of the Asian Youth Movements in Bradford and Manchester, alongside other grassroots campaign organisations, becoming a powerful voice in the wider movement. She supported the Bradford 12 in their legal case, whilst an already active group of white and non-white Sheffield polytechnic students who had organised into the Black Consciousness Group were inspired to band together with other young Asians and form the Sheffield Asian Youth Movement.

Three prominent members were Matloub Husayn-Ali-Khan, Jasbin Singh and Mukhtar Dar. For many years, they campaigned against deportations throughout Sheffield, including for Ranjit Chakrovorty, and involved themselves with other local defence campaigns like the Ahmed Khan defence campaign. They published a newsletter known as Kala Sho-or, which they translated as ‘Black Consciousness’.

Across the resistance of this period, the groups created a political alignment in the form of Blackness – this “Black consciousness” often referred to as political Blackness – within Black and Asian communities who saw clearly how to surmount their struggle for freedom in the context of the era. At the time, political Blackness embodied a unity across communities subjected to political oppression within Britain. It allowed for a harmonised and substantial resistance movement which fought together at a crucial time. However, the concept did not survive over the decades as it fell short of dealing with the acute difficulties of balancing the important hierarchies of racial injustice, the individualisation of racial targeting by the state, including police tactics which pitched communities against one another, and the presence of anti-Blackness within other non-white communities.

Internationalism

The Asian Youth Movements campaigned against apartheid in South Africa, they sent a convoy to Ireland during the partition, and supported Palestinian liberation. By taking an internationalist perspective, they were able to visualise the connection between border violence abroad and at home, and build an effective multi-tiered campaign that was integral to the safety of all communities and Britain as a whole.

Their campaigns and their imagination were not limited by a nationalist approach. Grassroots activism understood the role of an imperialist structure in the form of both foreign and domestic policy on delivering the violence which had integrated into Britain, and that to recognise and begin to dismantle the processes of it was key to any resistance movement. For many of the diaspora from the Commonwealth, the familiarity of border-generated violence is a memory of ancestral resistance and the recognition of its ability to repeat if left undefended.

From 50 years ago to now, we spiral into a repeating history of changing immigration laws and global colonial conflict, which this year includes the introduction of new visa rules that ban migrant workers from bringing loved ones if they take up low-paid work shortages such as caring for the elderly; the persistent legislation alterations allowing for deportation of refugees to Rwanda, despite many refugees affected being displaced as a result of Western assaults on Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan over previous years; the supply of arms to Israel, a colony mandated by the British in 1917, as it continues its assault on Palestine killing more than 30,000 civilians; the crisis in Sudan as it reaches the highest level of internal displacement in the world long after the British occupation contributed to North-South wealth inequality bestowing the conditions of conflict, and many more consequences of an alive-and-kicking imperial power.

The racism abroad is the racism at home, because it makes up a system of division which adds wealth and prosperity for the Global North through detracting and destabilising the wealth and prosperity for the Global South. There are both visible and invisible borders drawn by the Global North which prevent true autonomy and self-determination of peoples due to the border system’s proximity to imperialism.

The coloniser enforces borders by seeking to use diversity to serve a divided and self-interested purpose, plants enough seeds of nationalist leadership for conflict to perpetuate and retreats into the shadows to benefit from political alliances, trade deals and warmongering, reaping the benefits without taking responsibility for the drastic and global social cost.

And yet resistance movements in Britain today are demonstrating a generational legacy from the 70s activist movements and embody the same spirit of internationalism and grassroots campaigns once again. They provide a ferocious hope for a better world.


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