Blacklash: Lessons in organising and radicalism in Britain's South Asian community

Blacklash: Lessons in organising and radicalism in Britain's South Asian community
In the face of racist state policies, the radical traditions of Britain's South Asian community have been overlooked. A new exhibition reminds us of this unique story of political organising and collective struggle, writes Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal.
6 min read
South Asian protesters demonstrate against the killing of a Sikh schoolboy Gurdip Singh Chaggar after a racially motivated attack in Southall, London on 7th of June, 1976. [Getty]

The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to renewed focus on stories of struggle from racialised communities around the world. In Britain, a new exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery showcases a unique archive that documents the underrepresented history of Afro-Caribbean and South Asian political organisation in towns and cities across the country.

‘Blacklash: Racism and the Struggle for Self Defence’ stages the work of Mukhtar Darr, an artist, producer and activist based in Birmingham. In the 1980’s, Darr was a founding member of the Asian Youth Movement in Sheffield and went on to be involved in organisations including the Pakistani Workers Association and Black People’s Alliance.

The exhibition is made up of Darr’s personal archive of these movements and campaigns, featuring an extensive collection of placards, leaflets, posters, musical instruments and photographs – often designed or captured by himself.

After graduating art college in 1981, Darr began capturing the experiences of his community, and over the course of 20 years moved between Bradford, Birmingham, Sheffield and East London documenting these struggles as a photographer, artist and filmmaker. But for Darr his artistic pursuits were always fundamentally bound to his activism.

"South Asian’s in Britain have long had their own traditions of radicalism and political self-organisation overlooked, often cast as politically meek or inactive. The exhibition challenges this narrative"

“I had no choice really, but to put those creative skills in the service of the struggle,” he said. Darr recalls an era when fascist paramilitary organisations like the National Front and Combat 18 were prominent on the streets and in political life. This combined with police brutality and racist state policies, meant Afro-Caribbean and Asian youth had no choice but to fight back, relying on collective struggle to defend themselves. In this context, self-defence organisations began to spring up across major towns and cities.

Darr’s archive draws attention to a history that is rarely highlighted. South Asian’s in Britain have long had their own traditions of radicalism and political self-organisation overlooked, often cast as politically meek or inactive. The exhibition challenges this narrative, showcasing stories like the Bradford 12, a group of young men who, in 1982, successfully fought conspiracy charges by citing their right to self-defence.

The exhibition is co-curated by Rajwinder Pal, long-time friend and comrade of Darr’s, and  previously Modern World curator for the museum in the 1990s. Pal pushed to steer the project away from a simple historical exhibit about the Asian Youth Movement’s, and towards a greater focus on Darr’s own personal history and archive, taking us on a journey through Darr’s eyes, charting his political trajectory through the decades.

As a result, audiences can see the thread that runs between militant self-defence organisations, workers struggle, and anti-imperialism, culminating in Darr’s more recent involvement in campaigns such as Stop the War.

Pal, for whom this exhibition marks a return to the museum, notes how much has changed since he was in post, when there was far less interest in diverse stories. As a curator, Pal was responsible for ground-breaking exhibitions including ‘Black Christ’, marking the new millennium, which challenged dominant representations of Christ by exploring how global cultures have indigenised him in their imagery and iconography.

Pal notes the struggle he faced to develop this kind of work at the time, and explains that the Black Lives Matter movement has both opened more opportunities for such projects, and inspired a rage which brought back many of his own feelings and memories.

Although not involved in the Asian Youth Movement himself, Pal took a different path into activism via the trade union movement. Having arrived from India as a teenager in the 1970s, he recalls being told by his father (a teacher in Punjab who went on to work for the post office in England), “everywhere you work always join the union, and never ever cross a picket line.”

But racism was rife, and taking a stand was, he explained, “a matter of life and death”. Pal’s experience supporting the miner’s strike was transformative: “Through my own eyes I saw people like the miners, who lived in geographical isolation from diversity, go through a change. So to me, people can change through experience, and without winning over most working class people no change is possible for the better in any society.”

These intersections between anti-racism, anti-imperialism and the labour movement are evident in the exhibition, which prominently features documentation from the Pakistani Worker’s Association, as well as various strikes and walk outs. Darr notes the importance of building political coalition and alliance, explaining that the AYM’s worked with national liberation struggles, the women’s movement, and the anti-nuclear movement.

They were also deeply inspired by the Black power movement in America, studying the Black Panthers to draw inspiration for their organisation and self-help programmes. Alliances took place between Afro-Caribbean and Asian groups against the common enemy of racism, leading to the revival of the Black People’s Alliance, which had originally been established by the previous generation, including Claudia Jones, later known for founding Notting Hill Carnival.

"For Darr, the end of many of these organisations is a tragic indictment of what happens when grassroots campaigns become dependent upon state funding"

Pan-Africanism was also a great inspiration for the youth, and Darr recalls Kwame Ture instructing chapters of the All-African People's Revolutionary Party in Birmingham and Manchester to form formal alliances with the Pakistani Workers Association.

The exhibition also highlights the centrality of women to the movement. The use of forced virginity tests on Asian women, and the campaigns of women like Anwar Ditta, who was separated from her children in Pakistan, show how gender was closely linked to racist immigration policy.

Although the AYM’s were often male dominated organisations, women played an important role, and they organised in parallel with organisations like the Birmingham Black Sisters. A poster featured from the Pakistani Worker’s Association advertises an annual International Women’s Day event featuring speakers on national liberation struggles from Palestine to Ireland to South Africa.

For Darr, the end of many of these organisations is a tragic indictment of what happens when grassroots campaigns become dependent upon state funding, noting that this led to divisions and ultimately the dissolutions of the AYM’s.

“We used to say, they smash your kneecaps with the sledgehammer of racism and then they give you the crutches of state funding to create dependency,” he said. With many activists taking state-funded jobs, Darr saw the institutionalisation of struggle, with crumbs thrown into communities that were increasingly fragmentated along ethnic and religious lines.

Still, he in hopeful for the future. “Today Islamophobia is still there, racism is still there, imperialism operates around the world, unleashing war. We have climate crisis, people trying to escape poverty. But what we don’t have is the political organisations in our communities. And what I hope the exhibition can do is expose young people today to the battles that we fought, but also what are the lessons from those battles. I hope they can learn from those lessons and carry the struggle forward by building independent organisations and cross community alliances and solidarity.”

The free exhibition runs until 30th October 2022. Full details can be found online here.

Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal is writer, activist and lecturer in theatre and performance studies, whose research focuses on emotional labour and performance in contemporary work. She is based in London.

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