Next week marks the 37th anniversary of the shocking racist murder of Altab Ali in May 1978. The late seventies are unceremoniously remembered for a number of high profile racial murders. Tossir Ali was killed in the late 60s. Ishaque Ali’s murder came within weeks in neighbouring borough Hackney. There were many non-Bengalis killed during those dark years.
Teenager Gurdep Singh Chaggar or Blaire Peach defending Southall Asians against skinheads but the murder of Altab Ali in our own community led to an unprecedented demand for justice and calls for a better, safer future; it further galvanised a section of the community, particularly the younger generation and led to greater participation in local politics and civic life. Political parties and many local agencies did not engage with the growing Bangladeshi community. Indeed, there are persistent widespread anecdotes retelling how local parties denied and even actively resisted membership to Bengalis.
Nevertheless, this did not stop the community coming together on this extraordinary occasion to take charge and leadership of our immediate and long term political and socio economic future. In the following articles, writer and activist, Ansar Ahmed Ullah, recalls some of those remarkable events, individuals and organisations who led the political struggle during that momentous era. You will read how the current top three major political achievements of Bangladeshis in UK as well many more milestones can be linked to the activities of that epochal and defining period in our recent history.
Additionally, Bangla Mirror reporter, Abu Shahid, interviewed Sheikh Dabir Miah who shared a house with the late Altab Ali. Mr Miah talks about the immediate moments and days after his friend’s sudden death at the hands of three racist thugs on the evening of a local election day. He also tells us that the annual commemorations are a great way of remembering his friend and that he plans to raise money to benefit the siblings of Altab Ali who he left behind in Chhatak, Sylhet.
From the mid 1970s, many British Asians, including Bengalis who lived in the East End of London, were experiencing racism, social deprivation and high level of unemployment. For the Brick Lane Bengali community, who were under constant attack from the racists since early 1970s, the murder of Altab Ali, a leather factory worker, in 1978 was a turning point, especially of its youth. It led to their mobilising and politicisation on an unprecedented scale. On 14 May 1978, 10,000 locals marched from the then St Mary’s Garden now Altab Ali Park to a rally in Hyde Park and then to 10 Downing Street, to hand over a petition to the Prime Minister to take action against racist attacks, behind the coffin of Altab Ali in a show of unity and strength against racial violence.
This was one of the biggest demonstrations by the Bengali community since the rallies for the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. In the same period, the Bengali community began to organise youth groups, community and campaigning groups and linked up with other anti-racist movements and organisations. The groups that came out of this struggle were the Bangladesh Youth Movement (BYM), Bangladesh Youth Front (BYF), Progressive Youth Organisation (PYO), Bangladesh Youth League (BYL) and the Bangladesh Youth Association (BYA) amongst others. In fact 1978 saw the emergence of the second generation of Bengali community activists who would later enter mainstream politics in the 1980s.
From the 1970s-1980s Bengali community politics moved away from preoccupations with political struggles in Bangladesh. Alliances were forged between some of the first generation and the younger activists. The energy of youth was consolidated by the formation of Federation Bangladeshi Youth Organisations (FBYO), an umbrella body, in 1980 that spearheaded campaigns for better housing, health and education and against racism. The FBYO was the first truly national campaigning organisation that made representation of Bengali interests and spoke for Bengalis across the borough and nationally.
The youth seized the opportunity to gain both access to the local political system and to various funding streams channelled through the local council, the greater London authority and the education authority. They also saw the importance of building alliances with activists outside the Bengali community, such as other ‘Asians’ from Hackney, Newham, Camden, Southall, Bradford and those from the white majority community of East End.
In the 1980s 34 of the 112 community groups listed by local education authority were led by Bengalis in Spitalfields ward of Tower Hamlets. As Bengali community activism grew, many activists took prominent roles in community politics. Brick Lane became the centre of Bengali activism. Today Brick Lane has become a global icon, a branding concept as in ‘Banglatown’ and the ‘Curry Capital of Europe’.
1982 saw first Bengalis elected to local council. Nurul Haque, an independent candidate from Spitalfields became a councillor defeating a Labour candidate. In the same year Labour’s only Bengali candidate Ashik Ali became a councillor from St Katherine’s ward. Today Tower Hamlets Council can boast the largest number of Black/Asian/Bengali councillors in any one borough. Todays Mayor, Member of Greater London Authority, Member of Parliament and Member of Lord are all directly linked to the legacy of the community’s effort, following the murder of Altab Ali, to challenge institutional racism and to enter mainstream politics to bring about meaningful changes for the greater welfare of the Bengali community.
The Altab Ali Park and arch
Altab Ali Park has now become symbolic to the Bengali community. To mark the death anniversary, Altab Ali Foundation was set up in 2010 to hold annual vigil on 4 May 2010 known as the Altab Ali Day. Usually hundreds of community leaders, activists and anti-racist activists attend in solidarity against racism and extremism in the East End.
After a long standing demand from the local community, St Mary’s Garden was renamed Altab Ali Park, in 1998, 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 local area – Whitechapel- derived its name. It was bombed in the Blitz during World War II, and a lightning strike a few years later finished it off, only a few graves stones remain today.
As you enter Altab Ali Park, from White Church Lane/Whitechapel High Street you will pass under the Altab Ali Arch. This Arch commemorates Altab Ali and other victims of racist violence. In 1989, David Peterson, a welsh artist and blacksmith was commissioned by Tower Hamlets to make a wrought iron arch for the entrance of the park. The design is based on both Bengali and European architecture. It comprises of red coated metal wrapped around and interwoven through a tubular structure. This is meant to signify the merging of different cultures in the East End.
Altab Ali Arch was erected on 25 – 27 September and unveiled on 1 October. A ceremony accompanied the unveiling in which there were speakers, Bengali Music and stalls. A banner was commissioned from Cate Clarke which was hung from two trees facing Whitechapel Road. Hundred children from local primary schools, Osmani and Harry Gosling made hats, flags, ribbon accessories and led procession through the arch after it was unveiled.