Narendra Makanji: activist who forced open the door for BAME people in politics

Seema Chandwani pays tribute to Narendra Makanji

April 7, 2019 · 10 min read

Narendra Makanji, who passed away suddenly this week, was a major figure in mobilising the Labour Party Black Sections in the 1980s.

He had a lifelong opposition to racism and empire, becoming a socialist and a passionate opponent of Apartheid in South Africa. As well as formerly serving as a Haringey councillor at the same time as his good friend Jeremy Corbyn (who posted a fulsome tribute to Twitter), Narendra was also a key figure in the Greater London Council, in Islington’s Race Equality Unit, and Chair of Whittington Hospital.

Even in retirement he played a key role in his community as chair of the Bernie Grant Trust and on the board of the Selby Trust, and was delighted by Jeremy’s election to the Labour leadership.

Below Seema Chandwani, now herself a Haringey Labour councillor and vice-chair of the party’s London Region, pays tribute to someone who played such an inspirational role in her life, and the lives of so many others.

Narendra Makanji with Jeremy Corbyn

‘You better not be wearing jeans to your count!’ said Narendra on polling day. I was in jeans and was planning on wearing them to the count… but, ‘Of course not Uncle, I’ve got my suit ready!’ I replied, later running home to get changed. Very few people had that power to boss me around like Narendra did.

When I arrived at the Civic Centre, there he was, sitting in the public gallery right at the front. Suited, waving his favourite ‘Keep Left’ tie at me. I texted him to tell him the first sampling looked really bad, hoping for some reassurance, but in true Narendra style he’d reply ‘being the first person to lose a seat in Tottenham would still be an achievement!’ and I laughed.

Narendra was fearless and definitely did not acknowledge the concept of failure. For him, every political move was progress. Daring to stand was a battle won. He knew of a time when BAME people wouldn’t have a chance and often told me how he was told no-one with his name would ever be elected.

He turned up to almost everything I did. I say almost – if it clashed with the cricket he’d call me insulting the organisers of the event. Sometimes I’d have no idea he was coming, until I was on stage. He knew I read my notes off my phone and would text me, things like ‘You’re the only speaker in jeans!’ or ‘make sure you highlight the lack of Brown faces here’. I’d have to find him in the audience without interruption and there he was, filming on his iPad.

Unlike most Indians, Narendra failed to be impressed with my bulk buying. He found the fact I purchased six pairs of the same jeans he disliked so much ridiculous! He instinctively always called when I was in the supermarket: ‘Why are you buying 10 bottles of Persil?’ He’d ask, almost disgusted. ‘They’re on special offer Uncle, you should be proud, it’s more Indian than Bollywood!’ I’d reply, triggering off a further debate about Indian films as I drove the trolley down the aisles. A few minutes later he’d call to say he was in the supermarket car park, as he knew I hadn’t planned how to get home.

He had a dark sense of humour. He’d introduce me to many people and often they’d comment on his mischievous side, to which he’d laugh. But I knew only too well exactly what they meant – his name in my phone was ‘Uncle NeverOutOfBother’.

If I ever left him alone for a few minutes in public, like a trip to ladies or to take a call, he’d get into a conversation with total strangers or waiting staff and I’d come back to him saying …’She’s my most expensive niece, it’s costing me thousands paying for subscriptions to all these matrimonial websites to get her a husband…!’ Some actually believed him – I’d cringe in embarrassment as they looked at me disapprovingly.

Whenever we disagreed he’d lead me to believe I could sway him with dialogue. He’d let me waffle away, and just as I thought I was close he’d then say ‘Seema, you have two options: You can either agree with me, or be wrong!’ I was speechless the first time he used this line, but it made me laugh every time he used it there after.

Within minutes of the Conference Arrangements Committee results going public he turned up at my workplace in his ‘Corbyn hat’ and red Labour roses. I was confused at the speed and he told me he got them hours before the results were announced. ‘How did you know I’d win Uncle?’ anticipating his words of faith and confidence in me… ‘I kept the receipt if you lost, don’t worry’, he replied with a look which told me you’re not getting praise and flowers!

Narendra in Black Sections in the 1980s
He was a strategic political mastermind, able to predict and foresee every eventuality. You’d sometimes talk him through a plan and you’d be so proud, until he pointed out a flaw. You’d almost feel deflated you had not realised it yourself, but then he’d make suggestions, a few tweaks to perfect. Although if you did pull something off he wanted a blow by blow account. There was Machiavellian and then there was Makanjivellian and you knew by his laughter you came close to Makanjivellian status.

Narendra possessed a calmness despite the ruthless world of politics around us. He was shrewd yet not bitter. In fact even people he’d battle with still call him a nice person. It was an art almost no-one could perfect.

He explained his strategy to me often when I’d tell him all the political shenanigans I encountered. If something vexed me he’d look dramatically disinterested, sipping his coffee and on a few occasions when I wasn’t getting the hint, he’d turn his iPad on. When I stopped he’ll stop and then he’ll say: ‘Seema! Provoke, Provoke, Provoke! But never, never be provoked! Never!’

Narendra sought out BAME activists in the Labour movement, hugely proud when Cllr Mohammed Butt became leader of Brent council and following the work of Maya Goodfellow, Ash Sarkar, Huda Elmi and Faiza Shaheen, almost as if they were his own daughters. He searched social media to find BAME candidates across the UK and tweet them support.

When I told him Emine Ibrahim and I refused to budge on the 50% BAME quota for the National Constitutional Committee he smiled, like we had surpassed his expectations.

He pushed me to stand as a councillor but when I met him and explained it had to be a young Somali woman in our CLP, he understood and agreed. He regularly expressed his concerns that we lacked Somali representatives in local politics and was disappointed she didn’t apply, but was delighted when Tottenham elected our first Somali CLP secretary.

For him, BAME representation in the Labour movement was still a fight we had not won. And when he saw some of us making moves, it gave him a boost that his life of work was still progressing. But he desperately wanted the diversity of BAME communities achieving, especially Somali, Turkish and Kurdish members; for him their time needed to come if the BAME Labour movement was to evolve.

Narendra (right) protesting against South African prime minister PW Botha’s visit to Britain in 1984. His placard reads ‘No to Botha, No to Thatcher.’

His home featured a museum of Labour Party history – he’d randomly find items and make copies for several of us. He wanted us to understand the fight that happened before we were born to enable us to even think of standing. He guided many of us through the next phase of the challenges we encountered once in positions. He regularly nagged many of us to keep records or our struggles will be lost.

Passing on the legacy to the next generation became his mission: his last WhatsApp message hours before he passed was words of encouragement to two teen members of his branch in their NUS elections.

He woke up every morning excited by the real prospect of a Corbyn government. He regularly tweeted ‘Corbyn is not for sale’. He watched and listened to every political show, keeping up to date with every move. His support for Jeremy grew even when you didn’t think it could get stronger. He never lost faith, and the tougher things got for his old friend, the deeper his solidarity became. He often told me of the sacrifices Jeremy made to ensure the Black Sections succeeded and if ever he needed help, it was our duty to be there for him.

He was so solid about his political views, clear about socialism and unwavering against racism. He never minced his words – if he didn’t agree with you, you were aware; duplicity was never a trait Narendra possessed. His sharpness and wit was impressive. His comebacks were spontaneous but you’d think they were strategically scripted. He never had to think about what to do, he sort of just knew. His mind computed all the details and out came viable options.

Narendra forced open the door for BAME people to enter politics and assume positions, and he spent the rest of his life holding open that door for many of us to walk through.

Haringey has lost a legend. Politics has lost a mastermind. The Black political movement has lost its Godfather. But his impact and legacy will continue. As he famously used to say, ‘In politics you do things for the moment or you do it for the movement.’

I’m blessed to have had this amazing man in my life. Someone who drew out my late father’s political passion back in the 80s and influenced my life to make me who I am today. I’ll miss him so much.

Thank you Uncle, Bhagwan (God) has decided it’s time for you to rest, but be assured your work will continue by the hundreds of younger people you trained, supported and invested your time in.

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