The Monitoring Group provides advice, assistance and support to victims of hate crime.

How did you become political? 

I was born in India, but grew up in East Africa, so I’m really a Ugandan Asian. From Uganda I went to University in the USA, and it was during my undergraduate days, when I was studying in California, that I really got involved in politics. This was during the time of Black Power movement and feminism was just beginning to take off the ground, so it was really at Davis, University of California, that I started to get involved with student politics. I was engaged with anti-racist politics on Davis campus. Politically, they were exciting times. For example, there was the Free Angela Davis campaign. We went on demonstrations and I remember going to Oakland for an anti -racist demonstration, and that was the beginning of my awareness of what was happening to black Americans. 

It was a very different situation for Asian students in those days, I am talking about the late 1960’s and early 1970s. We were, I would say, orientalised but that was different from what African Americans had to contend with. Coming to England marked a changing point, because it was here that I was called a ‘Paki’ for the first time. Although I was involved in anti -racist politics in America, it was quite different to be called a ‘Paki’ yourself, it affects you personally, and at the level of the subjective experience it is a question of the difference between expressing solidarity with another group as opposed to facing racial abuse directly yourself. I was quite shocked and taken aback. This event set me on the path of anti- racist work here in Britain, and also socialist politics as well. 

My family wasn’t particularly political, I was the only one, but nor were my family right wing or anything like that so it wasn’t a big problem that I was political. I think they just saw me as rather eccentric. Although my father wasn’t involved in politics, I think he might have been a political person in a different era. He supported my desire for education though he wasn’t very happy about my going to America but when one of my teachers talked to him in my support he was fine about it. I found my father to be a supportive influence in my life. 

How did you end up in Southall in 1976, and what were the political dynamics? 

I came to Britain in 1971 and lived in London for a while and then went to work in Bristol. I was doing my PhD and working part time, undertaking research in the area of what was then described as ‘ethnic relations’, and came to Southall in 1976 to do field work for my PhD thesis. What I remember particularly about that year was that it was a very hot summer. In Southall, I was doing comparative research interviews with Asians and White people about intergenerational change. My focus was on the similarities and differences between what young people and their parents thought across ethnicity boundaries. I was talking to young people about their educational experiences and their experiences at home in Southall, and through our conversations I began to recognise that racism was a critical issue affecting the lives of these young people. So although my thesis was about intergenerational change rather than about racism per se, nevertheless racism emerged as an important factor. When Gurdip Chaggar was killed in Southall that summer, I was shocked and began to realise how critical the situation was. My job contract in Bristol came to an end before I could finish the PhD so that a year later in 1977 I moved to Southall to take up a new post with the National Association of Asian Youth. From 1977 onwards, as I started working at the National Association of Asian Youth I came to meet politically conscious young people and other activists in Southall. Two organisations were particularly active: the Southall Youth Movement and the Indian Workers Association. There were some tensions between the leadership of these two organisations. 

The IWA had been a left leaning organisation in relation to working- class politics in factories etc; and whilst these concerns were still around in 1976 they did not hold the same significance for young people. SYM seemed to feel the IWA had changed and it was not so radical anymore. SYM was more concerned with street level everyday racist conflict and questions of policing and so on. I should say that the membership of SYM was mostly young men, there weren’t many women involved in SYM. Before we formed Southall Black Sisters, that was in 79, there was a group of us who set up a Young Asian Women’s group. Some of us started meeting and became aware of the problems facing women in Southall in terms of, for instance, the effects of immigration legislation, problems related to housing and benefits, and violence against women; problems related to the state, but at the same time internal family problems; the whole question of the patriarchal values which prevailed not just amongst Asians, critical though this was, but also across the wider society. We formed Southall Black Sisters in 79 not just as a women’s group but as an explicit feminist project. This resonated across the country, so for example, at a later stage Pratibha Parmar and I helped set up Leicester Black Sisters. There was a Black Sisters group in Bristol as well. Left politics were quite complex in Southall. 

The Marxist left was quite active. On many issues we all worked together. But sometimes there was a feeling, that groups from outside Southall wanted to see things happen in their own way. This created differences. The IWA did have some members who had been members of the communist party in India, for example Vishnu Sharma was one such person, so it wasn’t as if there weren’t any political sympathies. But there were tensions when some outside organisations tried to impose themselves. In other words, there were differences as well as similarities, but what was good about that period was that despite all the that, people actually talked to each other, and there was a sense that Southall could be a space for political activism, where something could be done for the better, that certain types of politics, e.g. racist, and for us in Southall Black Sisters, sexist politics had to be challenged. We felt we were part of a community irrespective of any potential conflict. How important is the period from 76- 84 in our histories? Yes, its true, I think Southall has an important place in the political scene of 1976-84, but I think Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds, Manchester, Bradford and other places are also important in this history. Apart from 1976, 79 was very critical in Southall when a large- scale police operation took place on 23 April. The police was there in thousands to enable the National Front to hold a pre-election rally at the local town hall. Southall residents and other supporters came out in force to protest as the fascist Right marched in their streets. Some people were trapped between police cordons and the police charged vans at others and hit them as they scattered. Blair Peach was killed that day by injuries sustained to the head at the hands of the police. Approximately 700 (predominantly Asian) individuals were arrested and 344 were charged and tried in court. We campaigned to try to get them free. I remember those yellow badges we all had in Southall in 1979, ‘free the Southall 344’ badges,. I still have them somewhere. There were other incidents such as the pitched battles in 1981 between young Asian men and the skinheads who had arrived in Southall at a pub in buses decked with National Front banners. In the process the pub was set ablaze. In Bradford, 12 Asian community activists were charged with conspiracy. All the defendants pleaded not guilty. This was really a period of political turmoil. A British born generation of Asian youth had come of age. The slogan ‘self defence is no offense’ took on a real meaning. At a personal level, these events had a huge impact on my academic work. In some sense I came to Southall as a naïve research student, but I learnt that I couldn’t be ‘objective’, not least because when I was interviewing white parents I was experiencing racism from them, they sat there and talked about Asians in very racist terms, as if I didn’t exist and I began to realise that actually something called ‘ objective research’ is a myth and we have to look at what we now call ‘situate knowledges’, -- that is to say that people speak from their own politically located position. In my work capacity with the National Association of Asian Youth I met with youth workers from across the country and we started a number of different groups in different cities whereby youth workers could jointly engage as professionals on their specific local and national concerns. People like Ravi Jain played an important role in supporting this initiative. We organised conferences, and set up locally relevant projects for young people in different parts of Britain. These youth worker forums were a conduit for a great deal of creative political energy. So yes, this period is a watershed in our personal and collective histories. There was a commonsense view at the time that Asian young people were much more radical than their parents, that the latter were conservative. I took issue with this position. The parental generation had been pretty radical in their own time. It’s just that young people expressed their politics in a different idiom. A number of these issues were placed in relief following Chaggar’s murder which became a focal point for the contestation of different generational political strategies in dealing with the aftermath. Questions about how to deal with racism on the streets and safety of the community became very prominent. Yes, 1976 was a watershed moment for Southall. Certainly it was. Unlike any other group, you, as Southall Black Sisters, were the first to use the term ‘Black’ to talk about Asians and Caribbeans, that the women’s group chose to do this is very significant? Well, Asians women were always active in politics from the early years of Asian migration though this is not always recognised in narratives about Asian politics. For instance, Asian women were at the forefront of a number of well- known industrial strikes. In Southall itself Harbans Bains was exemplary in her activism, and she always grappled with how women were unacknowledged. In Southall Black Sisters, we were consciously giving priority to women’s experiences. We had to address the sexism in Asian and Black communities, alongside the racialised sexism of British society. There is a particularity about sexism that we experience as Asian women, partly because of the specificity of Asian culture, but also because, as I have said, patriarchal practices of British society at large impacts through the prism of racism, so we experience that as well, and we have to deal with both. Racism was an issue even in relation to white women. So, for example, as feminists we worked with white women, but at the same time we were aware that white women could also be racist, and there was a lot of debate between white feminism and black feminism, and the exclusion of our concerns by the white feminist movements was an actual real issue for us. It’s whilst we were doing all this activist work in Southall as Asian women, we came across African-Caribbean women who had similar problems to ourselves, different and distinctive, but similar kinds of problems. It was a period when black power ideology was very strong, so I know, when we came together we were reading about Steve Biko, and what was happening in South Africa, the struggles there. These sort of things, especially anti-racism and feminism were an important part of our developing consciousness. We realised we had common struggles, even though we had different shades of skin colour, we decided to call ourselves Black sisters, rather than something else because we wanted to create unity between people from African descent and people from Asian descent. Considering the importance of this period, why hasn’t much written or documented, certainly from the Asian perspective or the Black/Asian unity perspective, there is an almost absence of documentation? That’s a good question, well there have been some academic attempts but the academic research has its own agendas and takes a different form, but documentation of radical history hasn’t happened. I’m not exactly sure why, but we can speculate that the politics and class formation in Asian communities maybe an important factor. In class terms, Asians are characterised by significant class differentiation. We do have some vanguard intellectuals and academics, but the business community is more dominant amongst the Asians, and also the politics amongst the elite in the Asian community is not very radical. Moreover, sections of Asian communities are much more into consumerism, I mean if you look at the weddings nowadays, they cost some amazing amounts. There is a whole industry sprawled around the planning and execution of weddings. Celebrity culture is very much the thing. And identity politics is part of this. Nowadays you can’t talk about the ‘ Asian’ as a palpable category: its Muslims or Hindus or Sikhs or Christians. Over the last twenty to thirty years, the ‘Asian’ category is fractured along religious lines. The category black as a common referent for people of colour has also disappeared. Southall Black Sisters still call themselves Black Sisters, but black as a common symbol to refer to Asians and African- Caribbeans in our communities is gone now. We once had an organisation called Asian Women’s Network, that linked local Asian women’s groups to the national body, and that is gone too. But yes, the history is not written so young people can’t identify with it, there aren’t that many resources, so people don’t engage with it, but this needs to be tackled especially in our schools, and within the curriculum. In some ways, the relative success of the Asian groups undermines the radical politics in some sense, some people might gravitate towards a unified black history and think this only happened in the 70s and 80s, yet forget the Stephen Lawrence campaign which still resonates today, or more recently, the Rotherham 12 campaign. 

Finally, how has your activism changed as you get older? 

In terms of your thinking you become more radical as you get older, both radical and angry, because you see things not changing as much or as fast as you would like them to. I am now involved in the editorial collective of the journal Feminist Review, and I am on the board of Feminist Review Trust. This keeps me quite busy alongside my academic work. As you get older your thinking becomes more acute, political commitments stronger, and you become clearer about priorities. But the situation is so dire at the moment, not just in Britain but globally too. But I see hope in intersectional politics, and in emerging movements for social justice.