Book review: “Black Star – Britain’s Asian Youth Movements”

Est. read time: 7 min

“Civil liberties, from a working class point of view, are about having the space in which to engage in political struggle – to organise alternative bases of power which can lead to the transformation of society, to record the struggle as it progresses and to express, in theory and in practice, an independent class position. This space is always contested and the occupation of any part of it carries no security of tenure…” (Ian Macdonald QC)

This extract from a review of E P Thompson’s ‘Writing by Candlelight’ (1980) by the internationally renowned immigration and human rights lawyer, Ian Macdonald QC, captures in every detail the historical significance of the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs) in Britain which helped to define and reconfigure the ‘political culture’ in Britain in the 1970s through to the late 1980s.

Anandi Ramamurthy has ensured, through her study of the AYMs, that the politics they made and their dismantling of the settlement the state and the Labour Party thought they had reached with Britain’s South Asian population would not be written out of the history of post-war Britain and of the growth of South Asian communities in the UK.

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The official line in policy circles was that traditional family and religious values would make the Asian workforce more pliable and less demanding of workers’ rights and would keep Asian youths in check so that they would be less a threat to social order and less a drain on resources than their West Indian peers. Meanwhile, government could continue to whip up racist hostility against Asians, especially in response to the mass expulsion of Asian families from Kenya (1968), Uganda (1972) and Malawi (1976).

In just over 200 pages, Ramamurthy describes and analyses the origins, development, political practice and internal and external challenges facing the AYMs, situating their political trajectory very much within the racialized politics of the political parties, of successive governments and of the trade unions. Young Asians organised themselves to redefine the political narrative and demonstrate to the state that they stood in a different relationship to Britain as their home by birth, or by adoption, than their parents. If their parents generation saw themselves and were conveniently seen by the nation as ‘immigrants’, they wanted no part in that. They were ‘here to stay and here to fight‘!

They had to confront consensual politics, the police who were emboldened by the racist stance of Parliament itself, as were the National Front, Column 88 and other neo-fascists who felt they had the right to move around Asian and African communities propagating racial hatred and intimidating residents. Racist murders, firebombing of homes and places of worship and destroying properties were commonplace, as was the pastime that became known as ‘Paki bashing’.

The book provides a most helpful account of how the AYMs organised communities to resist state oppression and fascist attacks alike, including the activities of the fledgling United Black Youth League that led to twelve of their members being arrested and facing imprisonment. Having been charged with creating explosives and with conspiracy to use explosives and endanger life, The ‘Bradford Twelve’ were acquitted, having successfully argued to the jury  in their trial that it was their right to organise themselves to act in self defence against neo-fascists who harassed their communities under the protection of the police.

(In 1983, the journal ‘Race Today‘ published a comprehensive analysis of the Bradford Twelve Trial and its significance for the British state’s relationship with the South Asian community in their pamphlet ‘The Struggle of Asian Workers in Britain‘).

‘Black Star’ deals with internal issues such as the role and profile of women in the AYMs, the relationship between AYMs and the ‘leadership’ within Asian communities that were very much a construct of local and central governments and with the AYMs’ relationship with African grassroots movements and their political campaigns. The author makes the entirely valid point that the predominantly male leadership and members of the AYMs did not join up the dots between the various discriminations and forms of oppression women members faced. Acknowledging and dealing with their own sexism and patriarchal tendencies was clearly not high on their agenda.

That said, I must take issue with her when she argues that male AYM members, who had mobilised widely and frequently in support of women facing deportation as a result of fleeing domestic violence and leaving their matrimonial homes, were focused on racist immigration policies and not so much on the domestic violence that had traumatised the women facing deportation. This is not my recollection.

I was Chair of the Black Parents Movement (BPM), Manchester, from 1976 until 1987 and jointly led with the AYM (Manchester) anti-deportation campaigns on behalf of Nasreen Akhtar, Jaswinder Kaur and Nasira Begum.

Two things were uppermost in our minds: the need to ensure that the women’s safety was never compromised and the need to emphasise in our submissions to the Home Office that they had a human right to be treated with dignity and to be free from violence and that, consequently, whether or not their resident status was on account of marriage, their decision to walk out of an abusive relationship was wholly justified. They were not the property of their husbands and therefore their right to stay in the country should not depend upon them continuing to put their life at risk in an abusive and harmful marriage.

The relationship between the BPM and the AYM was solid and the latter were fully supportive of our campaign against the deportation of Cynthia Gordon, a Jamaican mother of two British born children who had been resident in Manchester for over 20 years.  Cynthia had gone to Jamaica to care for her sick, elderly mother and had stayed for just longer than the two years allowed to those who wish to retain their residency status in the UK.  We launched a major campaign against her deportation and succeeded in getting Timothy Raison, then Home Secretary, to grant her leave to remain. Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is the fact that it accurately depicts the reality of African and Asian solidarity that BPM and AYM (Manchester) and Bradford Black Collective and AYM (Bradford) represented.

The story Anandi Ramamurthy tells is a far cry from today’s discourse which is epitomised by the ghastly moniker, BAME, Black Asian and Minority Ethnic. We can only hope that young people and their parents, of whatever ethnicity, demand that this book is included in the school and college curriculum, if only to help teachers and young people understand that before the ‘War on Terror’ and Islamophobia, South Asian communities needed to engage in a defensive war on neo-fascist and state terror that was relentlessly visited upon them.

It is worth remembering, for example, that despite the scores of racist murders that were committed year on year in Asian communities, the police did not employ in white communities the Stop and Search tactics that were used so liberally within African and Asian communities, even when they knew that there were active and provocative National Front and Column 88 cells operating within those communities.  No Section 60 Stop and Search powers were sought by the police to deal with neo-fascists who routinely terrorised Asian communities in that period.

‘Black Star’ is a shocking reminder of how racial violence was perpetrated against South Asian communities in Britain as if the neo-fascists were the military wing of the political class in the Labour and Conservative parties who spared no effort in projecting to the country and the world a view of Asians and Africans as an alien and troublesome presence; a ‘problem’ to be contained as distinct from a section of the population that was essential to the reshaping of Britain economically, culturally and politically.

Anandi Ramamurthy is a Senior Lecturer in Film and Media at the University of Central Lancashire.

Picture (home): “Some books” by Ben O’Bryan (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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