The Legacy of 1971: how the Bangladesh independence war influenced the anti-racist movement in East London by Ansar Ahmed Ullah
Ansar recently collaborated with Toynbee Hall in celebrating Bangladesh’s’ 50 anniversary
Ansar Ahmed Ullah
Ansar Ahmed Ullah is a community activist who has lived and worked in the East End of London since the 1980s. He has worked as a community worker and has been an active anti-racist campaigner. He is currently the General Secretary of Altab Ali Foundation.
Ansar recently collaborated with Toynbee Hall in celebrating Bangladesh’s’ 50 anniversary and is currently working on a research project documenting the anti-racist movement of the Bengali community in Tower Hamlets.
This year Bangladesh is celebrating the Golden Jubilee of its independence. Bengali diasporas abroad, including here in London, are also celebrating the 50 anniversary of Bangladesh. During the Liberation War of 1971, the UK Bengali community played an important role by highlighting the atrocities taking place in Bangladesh, lobbying the British Government and, the international community, and raising funds for refugees and the Mukti Bahini Bengali freedom fighters. Bengali communities across the UK formed Action Committees in support of the liberation struggle. As concern grew for immediate family members and relatives left behind, meetings were held in towns and cities with sizeable Bengali population including Tower Hamlets. As Akikur Rahman recalled, ‘Every time in 1970/71 we had meetings going on for Bangladesh. We had people still left in Bangladesh and lots of killing was going on and we were worried at that time. So, it was very worrying period for me at that time (Rahman, 2021).’
Campaigning for Bangladesh in the UK enabled the Bengali community to reach out to the White British majority for the first time. Before 1971, as most Bengalis were economic migrants, they hardly socially interacted with the White majority community apart from in work settings. Akikur Rahman, an activist of the Bangladesh Youth Association, felt that for the first time, Bengalis were able to build a relationship beyond the Bengali community with other communities (Rahman, 2021).
Before 1978, one can find few Bengali community activism records, except for those on the squatting movement and some forms of vigilantism by young men. But the racist killing of Altab Ali on the 4 May 1978 led to a flurry of activism, initially protesting against the racist murder and other attacks on Bengali people, but later activism became more organised challenging the institutions.
Community activists have cited the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War as an inspiration for the anti-racist movement that emerged later in the 1970s. As war broke out in Bangladesh in 1971, the campaign was much more intense here in the UK than in Bangladesh as it was under military occupation, whereas here in the UK, Bengalis were free to politically active.
Some activists believed that those who had taken part in these political campaigns in 1971 both in the UK and in Bangladesh had brought over their experience of fighting injustice to the anti-racist struggles later in the decade. As SWP (Socialist Workers Party) activist Aloke Biswas believed, ‘… definitely, the freedom struggle in Bangladesh had lot to do with the people who were living here … definitely the progressive people who came from Bangladesh; mainly the student leaders and so on, they brought in the element of struggle and they were the people who were involved with the struggle in Bangladesh (Biswas, 2006).’
John Eversley, a public health advocate, noted that at least of two activists of Bangladesh Youth League (BYL) who had come from Bangladesh and had experienced the war: ‘There were two refugee doctors from Bangladesh, in fact, people who came here as political exiles. They were professionals, and a guy called (Syed) Ashraful Islam, who was the son of the murdered Vice President of Bangladesh at that time (Eversley, 2006).’ Eversley further asserted that there was definitely a link between the Liberation War and activism. He was closely associated with the BYL set up by Awami League activists, the political party that led the Bangladesh independence movement. One of the activists, Syed Ashraful Islam, witnessed his father being killed following independence in a right-wing coup. The BYL activists were aware of those in the UK who had supported the Bangladesh movement, including John Stonehouse, a Labour politician and Donald Chesworth, who was a Labour Councillor in West London at the time of the War of Independence but Donald Chesworth by 1977 had become the Warden of Toynbee Hall in Spitalfields (Eversley, 2006).
Eversley (2006) believes the methods they used to protest were probably also borrowed from the Bangladesh movement, quit India movement and even from his own Quaker tradition. He explained: ‘The choosing of direct action, and non-violent direct action, sitting down on top of Brick Lane and the occupation of buildings and all of that. I am sure there were people within the Bangladeshi community who related to that in terms of Liberation War. But also, other people brought those sorts of traditions into it, like Caroline Adams had been in India at the time of the War of Independence. She got involved in refugee relief during the War of Independence… John Newbigin again was also of the similar background (Quaker), which was a kind of Christian non-violent action, his dad have been a Bishop in India, so he knew all that of Gandhi and so on. So, I think that along with a support for human right and national self-determination (Eversley, 2006).’
Dr Zaidul Hasan, one of the doctors Eversley mentioned, founded the BYL. He was involved in empowering the Bengali youth who were mostly working in the tailoring industry. In an interview in 2021, he said BYL members were politically motivated because many of their members had witnessed the Bangladesh Liberation War. BYL were engaged in raising political awareness. While in Bangladesh, he was involved in the Student League affiliated with the Awami League that led the independence movement. He said because he was highly politically trained, he knew how to lobby or approach institutions (Hasan, 2021).
Another activist of BYL, Nooruddin Ahmed, who was here in the UK in 1971, was more explicit about how their political awareness played a key role in campaigning against racism, ‘What made us different, the people behind, … had political framing back home (Bangladesh), and for them it was important that … you cannot expect a long term, permanent solution unless you address it politically. So, one of the first aims of Bangladesh Youth League was to take a delegation to the House of Commons to get connected with the MP because that’s where the decision has to be (was being made) made, and they need to be made aware of what’s happening locally, and that made, so the Bangladesh Youth League and Bangladesh Youth Movement became known as belonging to two schools of thoughts. One is Youth Leagues belong to Toynbee school of thought, right, which is more politically socially aware (Ahmed, 2020).’ He also pointed out that the Black Workers Solidarity Strike that took place on 17 July 1978 was replicated the hartal tradition: ‘Hartal is a special word in Bangladesh, basically, it’s ‘strike’, but in Bangladesh in especially in 50s, 60s, 70s ‘hartal’ was a big thing, that you bring everything to standstill … So ‘hartal‘ is a concept we are very familiar with, and so people thought we need something like that, and people responded very well … they stop going to work (Ahmed, 2020).’
In addition to those who had taken part in the Bangladesh War, Sarah Glynn (2005) who has written extensively on the politics of the Bengali community believes a small intellectual elite, students and young professionals who were involved in the left and nationalist movement contributed to the politicisation of the East London Bengali community (Glynn, 2006). She explained that this, ‘politicisation through the Bangladeshi independence struggle brought many British Bengalis into contact with the British Labour Party. 1971 helped build the foundations of the community’s long and increasingly intimate relationship with Labour politics (Glynn, 2006:22).’
’71 a source of inspiration
In terms of identity, the Bengalis were Indian nationals prior to the partition of India in 1947, and then became Pakistanis until 1971 when Bangladesh was established. In the contemporary history of Bengalis, this was the first time they had established a sovereign independent state of their own, being able to refer themselves formally as Bengalis both ethnically and in terms of nationality or citizenship. This was a source of pride as trade unionist Dan Jones remembered, ‘At that time, people were very proud to be Bengali. People would make a very big point of the Bangladesh flag and wearing it around. I guess the independence struggle of Bangladesh had a great influence on the Bengali community that inspired them to the anti-racist battle (Jones, 2006).’
Some of the Bengalis who were in Bangladesh when the war broke out had witnessed atrocities. Others were involved politically in the independence movement before the war broke out. Housing rights campaigner Mark Adams recalls one such person, ‘I remember one Sikandar Ali, he was involved in the Liberation War. He was a formidable character and he told us his story of escaping the Pakistani army by hiding in a river with straws. He became one of the founding members of Spitalfields Housing Committee. He was a very formidable brave character (Adams, 2006).’ Female activist Shila Thakor referred to those who were politically engaged, “There were some people who were involved in politics in Bangladesh, and were actually quite politically aware, they were the ones who are good at mobilising people and say ‘this is not right, there is something wrong here and we need to do something about it and we don’t have to put up with it’ (Thakor, 2006).
So, when it came to fighting racism in 1978, the 1971 independence movement provided a sense of pride, strength and confidence to the activists. As youth worker John Newbigin described, ‘I think there was a kind of a rediscovery of perhaps the kind of self-confidence, which had characterised what people thought during the War of Liberation and Mukti Bahini Bengali freedom fighters (Newbigin, 2006).’ Another activist Pola Uddin, now Baroness Uddin, talking to researcher Eithne Nightingale believed her experience of war has contributed to her fight for social justice not only in her country of birth but in Britain too. “Such early exposure to wars and conflicts define an individual in wanting to be free, to be courageous enough to stand and say, ‘We’re not going to take it’. I think the entire movement that arose in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s in this country, specifically within the Bangladeshi community, is because of the experience of being brutalised and occupied (Nightingale, 2019).” Rajonuddin Jalal, an activist of the Bangladesh Youth Movement like Pola Uddin, recognised that his experience during the war and in East London influenced his activism, ‘What happened in Bangladesh and in Tower Hamlets made me stronger. It inspires you to fight for freedom and equality (Nightingale, 2019).’
In an earlier interview with the Swadhinata Trust, he said, ‘I think there would have been a subconscious relationship in that, people like me, who came to this country at the age of twelve would have remembered the War of Liberation in Bangladesh. I and my family and my generation supported the independence of Bangladesh. A new identity, in a sense our own identity of belonging to a community, having the right to speak our own language, I think it must have played a role in giving us the strength and the impetus for our movement or fight for our survival in Tower Hamlets (Jalal, 2006).’
This narration of political assertion is in opposition to many Bengali young people who led the anti-racist mobilisation, painted a picture of despair and hopelessness during the 1970s. Yet, Dr Zaidul Hasan from Bangladesh and Aloke Biswas from India, and others as suggested by Glynn (2006), had a political grounding in their respective countries before facing racism in the UK. With their political understanding and experience, they faced racism as a political challenge. They engaged with the working-class Bengali tailors to organise against racist attacks. They advocated that people should take part in the political process (Ahmed, 2020). While doing that, they built alliances with left-leaning political parties for support and lobbied British policymakers within the government and mainstream political parties. Undoubtedly, campaigning for Bangladesh in the UK enabled the Bengali community to reach out to the White British majority community, creating new political awareness, which impacted future engagement at various stages as it did in 1978 and beyond. It was also the first time Bengali women came out as Nooruddin Ahmed recalled, ‘People don’t realise or don’t know… it was the Bangladeshi women who were the first ones to come over to the in the … streets of London in various parts of this country during 1971 (Ahmed, 2020).’’
Whether the actual War of Bangladesh of 1971 acted as an inspiration for the anti-racist movement or not, some of the activists had direct political organising experience from Bangladesh’s independence struggle. Others who were here in the UK in 1971 had also taken part in huge rallies in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere. The elders were definitely part of the Bangladesh independence movement, especially the leadership of the Bangladesh Welfare Association and the Brick Lane Mosque. Their experience, political awareness and organising skills contributed to the anti-racist struggle in East London.
Akikur Rahman interview by Fawzia Mahmood on 11 February 2021 for Four Corners – Swadhinata Trust project Brick Lane 1978: The Turning Point
Aloke Biswas interview by Jamil Iqbal and Charlie Sen on 1 May 2006 for Swadhinata Trust project Tales of Three Generations of Bengalis in Britain
Dan Jones interview by Jamil Iqbal and Ansar Ahmed Ullah on 6 March 2006 for Swadhinata Trust project Tales of Three Generations of Bengalis in Britain
Dr Zaidul Hasan, interview by Sarah Ainslie on 11 February 2021 for Four Corners – Swadhinata Trust project Brick Lane 1978: The Turning Point
Glynn, S (2006) The Spirit of’71: how the Bangladeshi War of Independence has haunted Tower Hamlets published in the Socialist History Journal 29 pp 56 – 75
John Eversley interview by Jamil Iqbal and Charlie Sen on 23 March 2006 for Swadhinata Trust project Tales of Three Generations of Bengalis in Britain
John Newbigin interview by Jamil Iqbal and Charlie Sen on 21 March 2006 for Swadhinata Trust project Tales of Three Generations of Bengalis in Britain
Mark Adams interview by Jamil Iqbal on 24 March 2006 for Swadhinata Trust project Tales of Three Generations of Bengalis in Britain
Nightingale, E (2019) Chapter 6: The Battle of Brick Lane: The story of young activists who arrived from East Pakistan, subsequently Bangladesh 1969 – 1973, Unpublished
Nooruddin Ahmed interviewed by Jan Fuscoe on 22 October 2020 for Four Corners – Swadhinata Trust project Brick Lane 1978: The Turning Point
Rajonuddin Jalal interview by Jamil Iqbal & Charlie Sen on 11 March 2006 for Swadhinata Trust project Tales of Three Generations of Bengalis in Britain.
Shila Thakor interview by Jamil Iqbal on 9 May 2006 for Swadhinata Trust project Tales of Three Generations of Bengalis in Britain