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‘Defiance – Fighting the Far Right’ – TV programme charts trauma of violent racism in 1970s and 1980s and resistance…

‘Defiance – Fighting the Far Right’ – TV programme charts trauma of violent racism in 1970s and 1980s and resistance…

Programme makers and contributors talk about vital issues today in relation to British history and Asian communities…

THERE was a time when it was not safe for Asians to walk down a street in many parts of the UK – for fear of being attacked.

Anoop Pandal, Defiance series producer; Kavita Puri, broadcaster and author; and Suresh Grover from the National Monitoring Group

A new three-part series, ‘Defiance’ on Channel 4, starting this evening (9pm BST) looks at a period in the 1970s and 1980s when communities fought back – organised and rallied against the National Front, a violent racist Fascist group which also was a political party and stood at elections.

There was considerable social and political turmoil at the time and many institutions like the Police and the Mainstream Media displayed open antipathy and indifference to violence against Asians and some were consciously hostile.

Suresh Grover

On Saturday (April 6) several contributors, programme makers and artists, gathered at The Whitechapel Gallery in East London to discuss the legacy and relevance of such a TV production today.

Several drew parallels to what was going in Palestine currently – arguing that a legacy of Imperialism, Colonisation and oppression continued/continues to drive inequality, injustice and violence.

The TV programme focuses on several areas – Southall in west London; Brick Lane, east London and Bradford in the last programme – covering the Bradford 12 – when a group of Asians were charged with what today would be termed terrorist charges.

Kavita Puri

They were all freed finally – successfully arguing that the petrol bombs they had ‘prepared’ were simply a form of self defence and a response to racist violence, which the Police didn’t care about, leaving many fearing for their lives, when racist thugs would descend upon Asian areas or randomly attack Asians. In the 1970s the term, and practice of ‘P**i-bashing’ was common and not much challenged.

The programme covers two murders which shook both communities to the core but was also a catalyst for cross-community solidarity.

In Southall, Gurdip Singh Chaggar was murdered in 1976 – he was stabbed to death on the street and the programme begins with his death and the community reaction.

Anoop Pandhal

Just two years later, Altab Ali was also stabbed to death in what was then St Mary’s Park, almost opposite The Whitechapel Gallery. Today, the park has been renamed in his memory. His death sparked a wave of resistance and saw community leaders from Southall join those in Brick Lane organising to stop racist violence.

The proximity of the murder and the response to it was not lost on Satiyesh Manorajah, series director of ‘Defiance’.

“There were (Asian) street patrols (around Brick Lane) with people monitoring what was happening – it wasn’t safe for Asians to go out alone,” he said in the final session of the three talks at Whitechapel on Saturday. He said people often waited to go out as groups to ensure their personal safety.

Poppy Jay, broadcaster and programme maker, told the audience how different it was growing up in the area in the 1990s.

Poppy Jay broascaster and TV director

“It was just us (as in British Bangladeshis).”

She said she took huge inspiration from the way people in her community had organised and fought for equality.

“We won, we are still here,” she said saluting the bravery and solidarity the Asian community displayed at the time.

Speaking at the same final session, Kieran Yates, who is of Punjabi heritage, and author and journalist also saluted the way people had come together.

“Existence is resistance,” she declared.

Several times during this session the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza was raised and people felt there were parallels today in the way that mainstream institutions and politicians controlled narratives and sought to downplay minority rights and concerns.

Shabna Begum, moderator of first Resistance
session and interim CEO Runnymeade Trust

In this session, the trio were asked to speculate by moderator and broadcaster Bidisha whether Prime Minister Rishi Sunak knew the history of anti-racism struggles covered in the three programmes.

While there was a mixed response, Bidisha summarised the way some politicians such as Priti Patel, the former Conservative Home Secretary, might think about racial justice.

“They see it as a sign of weakness,” she suggested – adding that they saw such issues fall within a ‘victim’ narrative.

It is inconceivable that Patel didn’t face racism when growing up – her parents ran a newsagent shop in outer London in the 1980s and 1990s and racist attacks on Asian-run convenience stores were common up and down the country at the time.

In the opening session on Resistance, Suresh Grover now national coordinator of The Monitoring Group, an anti-racism organisation, and a major contributor to tonight’s opening instalment of ‘Defiance’ – recounted how Southall had been sparked into action following the death of Chaggar.

Responses session – Bishi, music composer ‘Defiance‘ and artist, and artists Michelle Williams Gamaker, Alia Syed and moderator Alice Correia,

He had written on the pavement where Chaggar had fallen that the murder would be avenged.

“I didn’t know at the time but it was exactly how Bhagat Singh (an Indian freedom fighter hanged by the British) had responded,” he shared.

Anoop Pandhal, series producer of ‘Defiance’ said that many had tried to make TV programmes on this before – but getting Chaggar’s brother and father to contribute was a turning point, she believed.

Satyiesh Manoharajah series director ‘Defiance‘; Jay; Yates and Bidisha, moderator

“Them telling their stories is so powerful.”

In that first session Kavita Puri, BBC broadcaster and author of ‘Partition Voices’, said that this history needed to be part of the curriculum.

In the second session on Saturday themed Responses, TV ‘Defiance‘ music composer Bishi, artists Alia Syed and Michelle Williams Gamaker discussed visual and other creative responses to the trauma. This debate was moderated by Alice Correia, art historian. Syed said there had been similar issues in her native Glasgow and had documented resistance there. Bishi said she looked towards cross cultural inspiration in making the music, while Gamaker said growing up she had not been aware of this history, but it had impacted her artistic practice significantly.

Richard Martin, director of education and public programmes at the Whitechapel Gallery introduces speakers to the Defiance talks

Other issues raised included

*No police officer has ever been tried for the murder of Blair Peach, the teacher and anti-racism campaigner who was attacked and beaten by police officers from the notorious Special Petrol Group (SPG) on the day of the Southall March against Racism.

*The need for Institutional Racism to continue to be tackled

*Desire for political blackness to re-emerge – with different communities coming together to fight racism as one; in the 1970s and 1980s, many black Caribbeans and Africans joined the same fight for equality and vice versa

*The hostility and negative reporting by the mainstream media and way it used language such ‘swamped’, and flooded’

*Countering the idea that multiculturalism has failed

*Many on Saturday urged for these events to be considered as part of our common history and taught in schools

*Pandhal said when researching, many had said it was a time of huge trauma and could not speak about it. Jay said that despite her parents living through much of it – they didn’t talk about these events with her and that several programme makers had never spoken about their involvement in resisting – not even their children knew.

*Begum felt that there was too much “deliberate amnesia” around what had happened

Main picture credit (top half): ©Photo by Bill Cross/ANL/Shutterstock Racial March Through Southall; other pictures ©BigTalentMedia (acv)


Defiance: Fighting the Far Right is on Channel 4 at 9pm tonight (April 8) and continues tomorrow, Tuesday and concludes on Wednesday, April 10 – Channel 4 link (UK only) –


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Written by Asian Culture Vulture