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The Death of Altab Ali and the Beginning of Confrontation Against Racism and Fascism

Info: 3374 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 18th Nov 2021 in Society

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Abstract

The present day Great Britain or UK is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world and people of diverse cultures make the country multicultural. British Bangladeshi community represent a significant portion of immigrants coming from different countries. However, the path to diasporas was never than easy. The community had to struggle and fight against hatred, racial discrimination and fascism, which was often overwhelming, intimidating and brutal. The murder of Altab Ali propelled the anti-racism and anti-fascism movement across UK, organised and led mainly by Bangladeshi youth. Their fight for justice and equality shaped the modern Britain as we see today. The chapter is an effort to depict the struggle of British Bangladeshi community, the aftermath of Altab Ali murder and shapes of the community in UK.

Introduction

Immigration is a topic of social and political concern across the globe and usually it has positive economic effects on native populations in a country. Immigration leads to multicultural and ethnically diverse society. However, the path to this inclusive society is often confronted by racial discrimination and violence, as experienced by British Bangladeshi community in UK.

Brick Lane and its surrounding neighbourhoods in London are considered as Little Bangladesh in UK due to predominant Bangladeshi settlement in the area. Some of the ancestors of British Bangladeshis travelled to UK during British colonial period in undivided Indian subcontinent and eventually became settled in the country. Earliest report of Bengali migrant was said to be Saeed Ullah, who migrated to UK for work.

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It is also said that he came to take revenge for his Sylheti relatives who were killed during the Sylheti uprising of 1782, also known as the Muharram Rebellion. This is considered as one of the first ever anti-British movement, which took place in early December by the Sylheti Muslims against East India Company. Other records showed that Sylheti cooks were employed by East India Company during 1873, who travelled to UK as lascars on the ships to work in restaurants [1].

First few arrivals before World War I eventually initiated the process of "chain migration" from Sylhet  region of Bangladesh. They led to substantial numbers of people migrating from rural areas of the region to London and other big cities in UK and favoured establishing the relationships between relatives in UK and the region [2]. Their sole purpose of immigrating to UK was to find better quality of life, employment and avoid conflicts in the region before, during and after the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971.

Before 1971, Bangladesh was known as "East Pakistan", which came into existence when British colonial period came to end at the Indian subcontinent in 1945. Two different countries (India and Pakistan) based on religion was established. Pakistan had two parts, i.e. East Pakistan and West Pakistan, geographically thousands of miles apart from each other. The people who migrated in the UK during this period became mostly settled in Tower Hamlets council of London, particularly around Spitalfields and Brick Lane.

To avoid conflicts during 1971 and initial few years of political turmoil in Bangladesh, a large number of people immigrated to UK. In addition, in 1970s, UK immigration laws were reformed, which allowed a number of Bangladeshi immigrants to come and look for jobs. Job opportunities for the new settlers mainly included employment in low paid sectors, with unskilled and semi-skilled work. They usually worked in small factories, predominantly in textile and clothing factories. With the increasing popularity of Indian cuisine,  some Sylheti people were encouraged to start restaurants offering Indian style food.

Initially, a number of Bangladeshi restaurants, shops and other small businesses were established in Brick Lane and surrounding areas[1]. Subsequently, the influence of Bangladeshi culture and diversity began to flourish across the East London boroughs. However, the period was not so easy and convenient as we see today and experienced a rise in the number of repetitive racial attacks on Bangladeshis in the area.

In fact racist attacks on the Bengali community had significantly increased throughout the 1970s. Attacks took place in different forms, for example, windows were smashed down with the bricks and they were thrown through windows, doors were smeared with excrement. These incidents left the Bengali families intimidated in such a way that they felt insecure to leave their houses. White youths known as "skinheads" appeared to roam around in the Brick Lane area and they were mainly supported by British Nationalist Front (BNF). They came in groups to vandalise the properties and physically assaulted children and women. Bangladeshi children were allowed to leave school early; women walked to work and other places in groups to protect themselves from potential violence.

In most cases, parents began to impose curfews on their children, for their own safety and did not allow them to go to playgrounds and outsides; as a protective measure, flats were installed fire-proof letterboxes and doors to protect against racially motivated arson. Even some provocative National Front marches took place in the vicinity of Brick Lane, which ended in violence.

The racially motivated groups blamed immigrants themselves for ‘not integrating with British society and culture’ and at the same time, the police even accused families around the area for setting fire to their homes for insurance purposes when they inquired any arson. In an extreme and condemned event on 4 May 1978 just before council elections took place, a Bangladeshi textile worker by the name of Altab Ali was murdered in a racially motivated attack and left in a pool of blood in the Whitechapel road. He worked in Hanbury Street near Brick Lane, and was on the way back home past the park to Wapping when he was brutally attacked by a group of racists [3].

The murder of Altab Ali ignited the protest against violent racial abuse and violence and seven thousand Bangladeshi came down to the streets. The communities began to organise themselves and subsequently led to the formation of new youth movements. Bengal Youth League (BYL) and Bangladeshi Youth Movement (BYM) were formed with the idea of reclaiming streets from the racists and protecting the communities against racial attacks. These organizations coordinated the biggest march of Bangladeshi people from Brick Lane to the Houses of Parliaments along with the solidarity from people of different cultures. BYL, BYM and other organisations active in labour movement and anti-racial campaigns were crucial to street mobilisations to confront fascisms.

In this regard, white leftists who stood for workers’ unity and socialism provided supported  for the youth movement. These campaigns worked against the ideas of racial difference, discrimination and for equal rights in jobs and salary as well as for greater unity of people from black, white and Asian origin [4, 5].

Altab Ali became a symbol of protest and solidarity in fight against racism and fascism. Bangladeshi became successful in establishing their rights and defeated the fascist organisation National Front. The event of the murder of Altab Ali had far reaching influence on the way that the Bengali community are portrayed in the today's Britain.However, it should be noted that the Asian Youth Movements are the powerful examples of political movements influenced by black politics and different religious communities came together towards a version of secularism which unified people in these difficult times.In the following section, a series of consequences are described, which the murder of Altab Ali brought in Bangladeshi community.

Beginning of confrontation towards racism and fascism

Before the murder of Altab Ali, a very people knew a little about Bangladeshi community. The antiracial movement brought by Bangladeshi youth drew the attention of media and common people in Britain. The first demonstration against racism started from  the Saint Mary's church courtyard at East London. This demonstration later gathered in Hyde Park with thousands of people who chanted the slogans against racism and ended by handing over the letter to 10th Downing Street demanding the stop of racial attack and discrimination.

This movement was supported by different anti-racism organisations, trade unions and other radical organisations. The slogans reflected emotions, dissatisfaction and strong determination of Bangladeshi community. Some of the examples were, "Here to stay, here to fight", "Self Defence, No Offence, We Want Peace", " End police brutality", " Black and white, unite and fight", “What do we want? Justice now" “Who killed Altab Ali?”  “Smash, smash, smash the National Front” [4].

Bengali youths in front line in the movement against racism

In the battle for Brick Lane, Bangladesh Youth Movement (BYM) played the most pivotal role in 1978. Though this organisation was founded in 1976 at the Asian Studies Centre at East London, it was in the front line for every antiracism movement in the following years.  Bengalis usually gathered in this centre and organised demonstrations and movements under the leadership of Barrister Lutfar Rahman Shahjahan.

This organisation, along with other two organisations, worked for the movement towards accountability of police force and establishing housing rights for homeless Bangladeshis. For the representation of Bangladeshi youth, Tower Hamlets Law Centre played an important role and manage the liaison with law enforcing agencies. In addition,  it set up a 24 hour help line to provide supports for the victims of racial attack and abuse.

Following the murder of Altab Ali, the summer of 1978 was considered the golden time of anti-racial movement. During this period, the movement against racism and fascism gathered momentum and gathered pace at national level. BYM started working in collaboration with Southhall Youth Movement and Bradford Youth Association. The success of movement at East end inspired the movement in other regions.

In the face of this movement, Nationalist Front became defeated at the Tower Hamlets and they were forced to relocate their headquarters from Bethnal Green. These movements in the 1970s and 1980s brought together many progressive secular and leftist parties who believed in multicultural inclusive society, where there would be guarantee of freedom, equality and justice.

Establishment of different entities

After the end of anti-racism movements, the leaders and the youth organisations contemplated about future activities, which led to the formation of "Federation of Bangladesh Youth Organisation". This organisation published a bilingual newsletter named "YuvaBarta"  and produced four documentaries for Channel 4. Meanwhile, the media and Government organisations became well aware of Bangladeshi community in UK. British Government's Home Affair's select committee prepared a report on Bangladeshi community in which Tower Hamlets' Racial Equality and Federation of Bangladesh Youth Organisation played the major role. This led to declaration and inclusion of Bangladeshis as British Bangladeshis and Federation of Bangladesh Youth Organisation acquired more institutional form.

The impetus created for civil rights, following the success of the anti-racist movement, also gave a voice to the women's section of the community. A group of professional women came forward to establish the Jagonari Womens Association so that women right could be established within Bangladeshi community and beyond. They were supported by the Federation of Bangladesh Youth Organisation and other organisations. They were successful in getting a plot of disused land on Whitechapel road next to the Davenant Centre to establish the Jagonari Womens Centre.

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Following the success of the anti-racist struggle, the Bengali community organisations were re-defining their roles in regard to educational needs. This new role was often linked with token gestures of funding from the authorities. Bengali Educational Needs in Tower Hamlets (BENTH) was the theme of an education seminar, which was later converted into an education campaign group. There was a strong feeling amongst the community activists that the future progress of the Bengali community dependent on educational achievement that could potentially lead to public sector jobs.This resulted in specialist youth work, teacher training and Bengali mother tongue projects. BENTH also used to produce an educational supplement to raise educational issues called the BENTH Bulletin [6].

Naming of Altab Ali Park and establishment of Altab Ali Arch

Altab Ali Park is recognised as one of the major symbolic places to the Bengali community and regarded a matter of pride. Altab Ali Foundation was established in 2010 by....They have been holding annual vigil on 4th May at Altab Ali Park to mark the death anniversary, declared as  the Altab Ali Day since 2010. The day is represented as solidarity against racism and extremism in the East End, which is usually attended by hundreds of community leaders, activists and antiracist activists. There had been a long standing demand from the local Bangladeshi community to rename St Mary’s Garden [7].

This was successful in 1998 when the park was renamed Altab Ali Park, an initiative brought forward by the Stepney Neighbourhood of Tower Hamlets Council to commemorate the racist murder of Altab Ali. Before that it was called St Mary’s, the site of a 14th Century white church called St Mary’s Matfelon from which the name of the local area "Whitechapel" was derived. It survived bombing in the Blitz during World War II, however, a few years later a lightning strike finished it off.  A few graves stones remain today.

The Shaheed Minar, which commemorates the Bengali Language Movement, stands in the southwest corner of Altab Ali Park. The monument is a smaller replica of the one in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and symbolises a mother and her martyred sons.

Altab Ali Arch commemorates Altab Ali and other victims of racist violence murdered by racial attacks in different time. Tower Hamlets commissioned a Welsh artist and blacksmith named David Peterson to build a wrought iron arch for the entrance of the park in 1989. The design took into account both Bengali and European architecture. It comprised of red coated metal wrapped around and interwoven through a tubular structure with a meaning to signify the integration of different cultures in the East End of London.

Participation into mainstream politics

In early and mid 1980s, many participants of anti-racism movement became interested in mainstream politics and joined different political parties. Majority of Bangladeshi community supported the Labour party due to their more liberal policies than other political parties. However, many were unable to become the member of this party due to hesitation and indecision of senior party members.

Bangladeshi community activists formed "People's Alliance of Bangladeshi in 1982" and three contestants from this alliance fought for local council election. Of the three, one was elected councilor and this success in election sent clear message to the political establishment at Tower Hamlets that the voice of Bangladeshi community could not be ignored.  The fact is that there are now several British Bangladeshi Member of Parliaments (MP) in different constituencies across UK, which could be regarded as direct outcomes of these events [6].

Identity of Bangladeshi community

At present, British Bangladeshi community have gained strong foothold and they ahve represented themselves in different levels of organisations including politics, law, science, entrepreneurship, business, teaching and research etc. Following many events since the murder of Altab Ali, they has established themselves as open, welcoming, inclusive and integrating society into British culture while keeping their sense of own culture and roots. They regularly organise social events representing Bangladeshi culture and heritage and maintain strong human values to other communities. 

All the Bangladeshis migrated outside Bangladesh, especially those living in Europe and North America become inspired by the events which took place over last several decades in Tower Hamlets and the neighbouring areas of East London. It has been internationally acclaimed that the roots of British Bangladeshi community is deeply related to this part of London, depicting its history and cultural heritage.

A number of community centres, namely The Kobi Nazrul Centre, Berner Centre, Jagonari and Davenant Centre, Weavers Trust Centre, the BWA Centre have been established in the locality to foster group activities, social support, public information, and other purposes of Bangladeshi community.  Sever schools have been established to support the community and named after key Bangladeshi public figures including: Bangabanhu Primary School, Osmani primary school, Shapla primary school and Kobi Nazrul primary school. Bangladeshi people are deeply rooted with religion whichever that is. However, they like to cohabit and celebrate their culture irrespective of their religions.

There are mosques, temples and churches for Bangladeshi Muslims, Hindus and Christians, respectively. There are religious organisations for every religion. The Spitalfields Ward in Tower Hamletswas renamed as Banglatown, registered with the Boundary Commission has define the British-Bangladeshi community on the map of UK. Erection of the Banglatown arch in Brick Lane and Bangla language Martyrs movement or Shaheed Minar has given a permanent presence of Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets. The street signage in Bengali has also provided the same effect on residents and visitors, who come to live there permanently or visit there to see identity of Bangladeshi in London [4, 6].

Conclusion

The ultimate sacrifice of Altab Ali shaped the future of British Bangladesh community in UK and placed their permanent position as citizens with dignity, security and respect. The community now contributes to economy, politics, business, entertainment, media and other branches. The achievements and pride are hard fought by overcoming the difficulties confronted by the then community. 

References

[1] British Bangladeshi accessed at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Bangladeshi#cite_note-20 on November 23, 2019.

[2] Thapan  M (2005) Transnational migration and the politics of identity, SAGE publications Pvt. Ltd. India.

[3] Begum J (2015) How a racist murder of Altab Ali changed the way the Bengalis saw themselves in Britain, accessed at http://www.altabalifoundation.org.uk/articles/How_Altab_Ali_Changed_Us(JB).pdf  on November 23, 2019.

[4] Jalal R (2012) Altab Ali Day, accessed  at http://www.altabalifoundation.org.uk/articles/Altab_Ali_Day_2012(RJ).pdf  on November 23, 2019.

[5] Hasan J (2010) Altab Ali and the 'Battle of Brick Lane' accessed at http://www.altabalifoundation.org.uk/articles/Altab_Ali_&_The_Battle_Of_Brick_Lane(JH).pdf on November 23, 2019.

[6] Jalal R (2012) Article in Bangla, access on http://www.altabalifoundation.org.uk/articles/Benguli_Article(RJ).pdf November 23, 2019.

[7] Hasan J (2010) The Importance of the Altab Ali Park, accessed on http://www.altabalifoundation.org.uk/articles/The_Importance_Of_The_Altab_Ali_Park(JH).pdf on November 23, 2019.

 

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