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International Socialism, September 1976


John Rose

The Southall Asian Youth Movement


From Notes of the Month, International Socialism (1st series), No.91, September 1976, pp.5-6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


John Rose writes: The emergence of a militant anti-racist Indian youth organisation in Southall in the last few weeks took the entire local left by surprise. In fact, youth organisation was the inevitable conclusion to the spontaneous youth movement that sprung to life in the hours and days following the brutal racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in the heart of Southall at the beginning of June.

For days the youth, or rather the boys and the young men, took to the streets crowding in their hundreds round the murder spot. The police looked on helplessly as the youth cursed whites in English and Punjabi and lobbed the occasional tin can at white drivers, particularly those with big cars!

‘Blood for blood’ was one of the key slogans in the first few days though the two main characteristic slogans of the movement as it crystallised became ‘Smash Racism’ and ‘No Politics’. Several whites were beaten up including a Communist Party member and a News Line photographer. The removal of this racial revenge element in the movement was due almost entirely to the conscious intervention of a dozen or so Indians in their early twenties who now form the core of the Southall Youth Movement Committee. They went round the town warning off the self-styled anti-white gangs that were forming. Their authority was accepted because some of them already had reputations as good fighters and organisers against racism in the schools – particularly in the fights with skinhead gangs several years ago.

Their authority was also accepted because they saw the importance of the militant anti-racist street demonstration as a way of channelling the feelings of revulsion against the murder. Although the SYM Committee was never elected it is based upon broadly based representation from all those areas where the Indian youth are concentrated – the schools, colleges, factories, temples and sports teams.

And it was accepted because it reflects the desire of the youth for independence from an older generation of political and religious leaders who seemed incapable of fighting back against the racists.

It is this last point that explains the demand for ‘No Politics’ that the youth keep raising and which is causing such confusion on the left. The notorious Southall Indian Workers’ Association leadership bears much of the responsibility for this feeling of cynicism about politics. In the last few months the Southall IWA has:

  1. been involved in a long running public scandal concerning the disappearance of funds,
  2. been constantly accused of ignoring basic community issues, particularly racism, and being too concerned with business interests,
  3. cancelled long overdue elections,
  4. become a publicity machine for the defence of repression in India.

Though it should be added that the other community based political organisations and the temple leaderships are also seen as wanting to manipulate the militancy of the youth for their own ends.

The test of the leadership of any movement is its ability to mobilise support. The Southall Youth Movement has passed this test. It has brought out hundreds on a number of demonstrations, ignoring the traditional ‘demonstration’ etiquette of the left wing organisations by chanting slogans rhythmically rather than shouting and accompanying them by home made drums of cans and sticks. Further, the Southall youth astonished even seasoned members of the International Socialists by organising a mass sit-down in Piccadilly Circus on the 11 July demonstration when two of their number were arrested for chasing racists on the pavements and refusing to budge until their comrades were released.

It is quite remarkable the extent to which the political organisations have misunderstood the youth movement and have been unable to relate to it. In fact the behaviour of many of the organisations has confirmed the ‘no politics’ syndrome among the youth. Most have been down to Southall on a recruitment raid, the two crudest British based organisations, the Labour Party Young Socialists (Militant) and the Liberals with Peter Hain, actually put Southall IWA speakers on their platform thinking this was the way to credibility – much to the mirth of the youth.

The Indian based organisations, because they are essentially emigré and preoccupied with the Emergency in India, are no better at relating to the youth who care much less about Indian politics than about racialism in Britain. The Naxalites (Maoists), whose elan and romanticism one would have thought might have attracted some of the youth actually managed to get not one youngster to their meeting. (Despite claims by the Daily Telegraph that it was the Naxalites and the International Socialists who were manipulating the militant demonstrations in Southall!). The Communist Party of India (Marxist) hasn’t had a meeting – instead it has announced its own youth organisation – with an anti-racist programme identical to that of the SYM! It is not just ignorance that makes the youth hostile to Indian politics; it is also a feeling summed up by Harpal Gill for the SYM at one of their meetings

‘We’ve got two anti racist demonstrations instead of one because our leaders are split over the (Indian) Emergency. But this has nothing to do with us. We live here.’

But the biggest political bankrupt of them all is the Communist Party of Great Britain. From the beginning the CP strategy has been to use the upsurge in Southall as a way of gaining electoral advantage both for local council elections and for the IWA elections when they finally occur. (There is a sordid squabble going on right now in the local party as to who the candidates should be!) It has wooed the older generation by asserting that racial unity can be achieved by linking church with Temple. Obviously the CP knows full well that most English workers don’t give a damn about the Church, but this is not the case with the Sikh Temples which have tremendous authority – particularly with the older generation. So we had the spectacle before the big 7,000 strong demonstration in Southall of the CP organiser agreeing with the left in Southall that the demonstration should have a militant anti-racist, anti-NF character. Then three days later supporting the Church leaders that the theme should be One Race, the Human Race and that the militant anti racist slogans should be shunted to the back. (This One Race slogan is now evidently the CP’s main ‘agitational’ slogan. Posters carrying it have appeared in areas very remote from Southall.)

It is possible that the CP may make some headway with those in the older generation who want ‘integration’ into society ‘as it is’ and are prepared to tolerate present levels of racialism because they are frightened and because they can still protect themselves mentally by resting on Indian cultural traditions. They may come to see the Communist Party as a political bridge to English society replacing the Labour Party which is little more than an electoral shell in Southall, populated by the 57 varieties of ‘trotskyist entrists’, middle class careerists and rampant racialists.

No wonder the youth hate politics! The youth cannot and will not tolerate present levels of racialism. They have already given chase to the racists on the streets (something the elders, and the CP, would never do) and ultimately they will give the racists chase in the factories. In their own words ‘we’re here to stay, this is our country too’. Dreams of the past can offer no protection. Their dreams are about racialism in a Southall school, not about an imagined secure community in the Punjab farmlands.

Can the youth organisation survive? We must take care in answering this question. They have thrown up an embryo institution which is trying to meet specific political and cultural needs. It provides identity for a group that feels neither Indian nor British in a context where the other community institutions are scorned. There are Indian shop stewards over the age of 30 in the food factories in the Southall area who are already regarding the SYM as their leadership. Revolutionary socialists have to work within the youth movement as though it were going to survive because this is the only way to win the respect of a radicalised youth highly suspicious of political organisations. The magnificent joint demonstration of the Southall youth and the International Socialists that burnt the Relf sign illustrated in practice an identity of interests. The next step is to establish a serious marxist cadre among the youth that simultaneously raises demands which step up the anti-racist struggle and tries to develop a working class political outlook. Here is a list of some of the possible ways forward:

  1. More systematic methods of mobilising support. The heady days when a word in the right place was sufficient to draw a crowd have gone. The Southall youth leadership are going to have to learn the delights of the duplicator.
  2. Involvement of women. The passive role of women in Indian society is mirrored in the youth movement, partly through heavy family pressure but partly also through the chauvinism of the boys.
  3. Specific and ongoing anti-racist activities. Patrol groups are definitely needed on the edges of Southall around the pubs on a Friday and Saturday evening. Exposing the National Front and National Party members who sneak into shop steward and other trade union positions.
  4. Careful observation of the police. There are plenty of rumours that plain clothes English and Indian policemen are operating in Southall. Also an improved legal defence system is needed. One of the anti-racist Indian militants found himself in court without a lawyer the other day.
  5. Youth facilities. At the moment the SYM is harassing the IWA and the Temples for cash for proper youth facilities. But other methods of fund raising may be needed.
  6. Making the practical link between racism and one of its principle causes – unemployment, ie, involvement in the Right to Work Campaign. A contingent of unemployed Indian youngsters to the Brighton TUC would have an important impact in raising the wider political issues.
  7. Training in militant trade unionism. The anti-racist fighters must now become the best trade unionists. The SYM could consciously develop a militant trade union cadre.
  8. Preparation to stand in elections. Both for the long awaited IWA elections and against Sid Bidwell in the next General Election. A young Indian anti-racist militant standing against Bidwell on a working class programme could gather support from the best fighters in both communities.

Finally, however, we have to be clear at the outset that the only long-term chance that the SYM has for growth and development is if the leadership comes to decisively adopt revolutionary socialist politics. ‘No politics’, however understandable, is in the end a blind alley.

This does not mean manipulation by a revolutionary organisation. It means revolutionary socialists fighting for a political outlook among the youth that sees the development of real ongoing activities with organised workers, with a perspective of socialist revolution and the building of the revolutionary party as the only guarantee of destroying a capitalist system which will breed more and more racists the longer it is allowed to survive.

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