‘Civil liberties, from a working class point of view, are about having the space in which to engage in political struggle – to organise alternative bases of power which can lead to the transformation of society, to record the struggle as it progresses and to express, in theory and in practice, an independent class position. This space is always contested and the occupation of any part of it carries no security of tenure.’
This quote from the immigration and human rights lawyer Ian Macdonald QC captures the historical significance of the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs) in Britain, which helped to define and reconfigure the political culture in the 1970s through to the late 1980s. Anandi Ramamurthy has ensured, through her study of the AYMs, that the politics they made would not be written out of the history of post-war Britain and of the growth of South Asian communities in the UK.
The official line in policy circles was that traditional values would make the Asian workforce more pliable, and would keep Asian youths in check so that they would be less of a ‘threat’ to social order than their West Indian peers. Meanwhile, government could continue to whip up racist hostility to Asians, especially in response to the mass expulsions of Asian families from Kenya (1968), Uganda (1972) and Malawi (1976).
In just over 200 pages, Ramamurthy describes and analyses the origins, development, political practice and internal and external challenges facing the AYMs. She situates their political trajectory very much within the racialised politics of the political parties, of successive governments and of the trade unions. Young Asians organised themselves to redefine the political narrative and demonstrate to the state that they stood in a different relationship to Britain, as their home by birth or by adoption, than their parents.
They had to confront both consensual politics and the police, who were emboldened by the racist stance of parliament itself, as were the National Front, Column 88 and other neo-fascists who propagated racial hatred against Asian and African communities and intimidated residents. Racist murders, firebombing of homes and places of worship and the destruction of property were commonplace, as was the pastime that became known as ‘paki-bashing’. The book provides a most helpful account of how the AYMs organised to resist state oppression and fascist attacks alike. This includes the activities of the fledgling United Black Youth League that led to 12 of its members being charged with making and conspiring to make an explosive substance. The ‘Bradford 12’ were acquitted, having successfully argued that it was their right to organise themselves to act in self defence against neo-fascists.
The book deals with internal issues such as the role and profile of women in the AYMs, the relationship between them and the ‘leadership’ within Asian communities that was very much a construct of local and central government, and the AYMs’ relationship with African grassroots movements. The author makes the entirely valid point that the predominantly male leadership and members of the AYMs did not join the dots between the discriminations and forms of oppression that women members faced. Acknowledging and dealing with their own patriarchal tendencies was clearly not high on their agenda.
That said, I must take issue when Ramamurthy argues that male AYM members who had mobilised widely and frequently in support of women facing deportation as a result of fleeing domestic violence were focused on racist immigration policies and not so much on the domestic violence that had traumatised the women facing deportation. This is not my recollection.
I was chair of the Black Parents Movement (BPM), Manchester, from 1976 until 1987 and jointly led with the AYM (Manchester) anti-deportation campaigns on behalf of Nasreen Akhtar, Jaswinder Kaur and Nasira Begum. Two things were uppermost in our minds: the need to ensure that the women’s safety was never compromised, and the need to emphasise that they had a human right to be treated with dignity and to be free from violence. They were not the property of their husbands and therefore their right to stay in the country should not depend upon them continuing to put their lives at risk in an abusive and harmful marriage.
The relationship between the BPM and the AYM was solid – the latter were fully supportive of our campaign against the deportation of Cynthia Gordon. Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is that it accurately depicts the African and Asian solidarity that BPM and AYM (Manchester) and Bradford Black Collective and AYM (Bradford) represented.
The story Anandi Ramamurthy tells is a far cry from today’s discourse, which is epitomised by the ghastly moniker BAME: black, Asian and minority ethnic. We can only hope that young people and their parents, of whatever ethnicity, demand this book is included in the school and college curriculum. It shows that, even before the ‘war on terror’ and Islamophobia, South Asian communities needed to engage in a defensive war on a neo-fascist and state terror that was relentlessly visited upon them.