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From Secularism to Sectarianism: Political activism among Bengalis in the East End of London

by Ansar Ahmed Ullah, 9 February 2010

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The history of the Bengali community and political activism in London’s East End can be seen as passing through different phases. It started with localised welfare politics, then was characterized by Bangladesh’s national independence movement; that was followed by the political mobilisation of the second generation of Bengali community activists and anti-racist politics, which led to community representations, significant involvement in mainstream politics and to the global politics of Islamism.

The earliest Bengali political activism in London’s East End can be traced to the first Bengali settlers, the seafarers. The Bengali presence in the UK goes back long before the Indian subcontinent gained its independence from the British in 1947, however, it was early in the 20th century that the first large group of South Asian - including Bengali - seamen, known as "lascars", were recruited in British India to work for the East India Company, and came to the UK.

Some of these seamen had begun to settle in London’s East End from the 1850s onwards. Evidence of the early settlement of Bengali seafarers in London can be seen in the formation of organisations such as the Society for the Protection of Asian Sailors in 1857.

An early and influential Bengali figure connected to the East End of London was Ayub Ali Master, who lived at 13 Sandy’s Row (1945-59). He ran a seamen’s café in Commercial Road in the 1920s and then also opened the Shah Jalal Coffee House at 76 Commercial Street. Ayub Ali Master turned his home into an advice centre to support Bengalis, which included a lodging house, a job centre offering letter writing, form filling and a travel agency. He also started the Indian Seamen’s Welfare League in 1943. As a result Ayub Ali Master’s coffee shop was usually the first port of call for help and guidance for seamen.

By the 1950s the Bengali population was growing and the men, both seamen and others who had come by air, had established the Pakistan Welfare Association (which became the Bangladesh Welfare Association after Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971). The Bangladesh Welfare Association building is situated at 39 Fournier Street, adjacent to today’s Brick Lane Mosque, which was originally built for the minister of the church in 1750. It was the base of Huguenot charitable work with the local poor and then, at the end of the 19th century, Jewish charities were based here.

By the end of 1960s and early ’70s, political developments in Pakistan, and especially in East Pakistan where Bengalis came from, were moving fast. Pakistanis were campaigning against military rule. In addition the Bengalis of East Pakistan felt that they were getting a raw deal within the framework of Pakistan. As result, resentment grew against the Pakistani ruling elite based in West Pakistan. The cause of East Pakistan was being championed by a party called the Awami League led by a young charismatic leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In 1971 the Awami League’s demand for autonomy soon turned into the full fledged Independence War of Bangladesh.

During that war, the UK’s Bengali community played an important role in highlighting the atrocities taking place in Bangladesh, lobbying the British government and the international community, and raising funds for refugees and Bengali freedom fighters. A key feature of this period was the support provided by members of the White British majority. Among some of the members of Parliament who gave this support were Michael Barnes, John Stonehouse, Bruce Douglas-Mann and our very own Peter Shore from East London.

It is interesting to note that Bengalis were active in Bangladesh political activity before 1971, as they had supported Awami League’s Six Point programme in 1966, which demanded greater autonomy for East Pakistan and campaigned for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s release after he was arrested in 1968. UK Bengalis sent English QC, Sir Thomas Williams, to defend Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others who had been charged with treason.

From the mid - 1970s many British Asians, including Bengalis living in the East End of London, were experiencing racism, social deprivation and high levels of unemployment. For the Tower Hamlets Bengali community, who were under constant attack from the racists as early as 1975 - 76, the murder of clothing worker Altab Ali in 1978 was a turning point, especially for the youth, who were mobilised and politicised. They began to organise youth groups, community and campaigning groups, and linked up with other anti-racist activists. The groups that came out of this struggle were the Bangladesh Youth Movement, Bangladesh Youth Front, Progressive Youth Organisation and the Bangladesh Youth Association, amongst others. During 1978 the second generation of Bengali community activists emerged, who would enter mainstream politics in the 1980s.

From the 1970s to ’80s Bengali community politics moved away from preoccupations with political struggles in Bangladesh to activism in the UK. The second generation Bengali youth was at the forefront of this political struggle. The energy of these young people was consolidated by the formation in 1980 of the Federation Bangladeshi Youth Organisations (FBYO), an umberalla body which spearheaded campaigns for better housing, health and education, and against racism. The FBYO was the first truly national campaigning organisation that represented Bengali interests locally and nationally.

The youth took the opportunity to gain access to the local political system and to various funding streams that were channelled through the local council, the greater London authority and the Local Education Authority. They also saw the importance of building alliances with activists outside the Bengali community, such as other Asians from Hackney, Newham, Camden and Southall, as well as with those from the White majority community, including Jewish East End activists.

1982 saw the first Bengalis elected to Tower Hamlets Council. Nurul Haque, an independent candidate from Spitalfields, became a councillor, defeating a Labour candidate. This was followed by Ashik Ali, a Labour candidate, who became a councillor in St Katherine’s ward. Today, Tower Hamlets Council can boast the largest number of Black/Asian/Bengali councillors in the country, with a total 32 Bengali councillors (23 Labour, six Respect, two LibDem and one Conservative. This includes four female councillors from the Labour Party).

It is also interesting to note that at the next General Election, in 2010, all the parliamentary candidates from Bethnal Green and Bow (Labour, LibDem, Respect, Green - the Tories have not declared their candidate but it is most likely to be a Bengali) are Bengalis. If that is the case, then, regardless of party affiliation, a Bengali is certain to make history by being the first to enter the House of Commons.

By the 1990s another key development, the increasing importance of religion - in the case of Bengalis, Islam - was taking place. This was partly due to New Labour Government incorporating faith in its agenda. Sukhwant Dhaliwal traced this trajectory in 2007 in a speech at a Asia Watch Public Forum, entitled From Anti Racism to Religious Identity Politics.

In addition, in the weeks after 11 September 2001, with the prospect of a US-led war in Afghanistan, the Stop the War Coalition was founded in London, bringing together a number of organisations, the largest of which was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and more importantly MAB (Muslim Association of Britain) associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and MCB (Muslim Council of Britain) whose leadership was associated with the Jamaat-e-Islam. The inclusion of MAB and MCB mobilised thousands of Muslims, including the young, to get involved in the anti-war movement. This brought large numbers of third generation Muslims into global political campaigns for the first time.

The MCB - linked Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist political party in the Indian sub-continent, operates under the auspices of various charities and religious organisations centred around the East London’s biggest mosque. Its activists have managed to infiltrate all the major political parties, including the Respect Party which came out of SWP-MCB partnership.

The SWP, under the banner of Anti-War Coalition and Respect Party, has been working with Islamist groups. This wasn’t surprising as, in 1994, Chris Harman, one of the SWP’s chief ideologists argued that the party should make common cause on the issue of "anti-imperialism" with Islamist movements, in part as a way of recruiting their members.

George Galloway’s victory in 2005 in the Bethnal Green and Bow area, amid allegation of antisemitism, became in international event, since it was seen as a protest against the Labour Party’s foreign policy. But it also demonstrated the strength of the Islamists within the community and the dramatic shift in British politics when it came to securing the support of Muslim voters. It reaffirmed that global issues were prioritised in the Islamists agenda and, when it came to appeal to the Bengali voters, the "Muslim" sentiment was the focus of the election campaign. It’s not difficult to understand who the intended audiences were when Galloway made the statement: "If you make war against Muslims abroad, you are going to end up making war against Muslims at home." (George Galloway made this statement at a meeting of the East London Community Organization, TELCO, on 20 April 2005, quoted in S Glynn 2006). It is no secret that, as Sarah Glynn (2006) has recorded, the East London Mosque (ELM), the Islamic Forum Europe (IFE) and the London Muslim Centre (LMC) extended their support to Galloway and that their members worked to secure his victory.

Today the challenge for the secular Bengali Muslim leadership is to prevent its young people from being drawn into Islamism. They need engage with non-Bengali secular groups, just as they did during the independence movement of Bangladesh in 1971 and the anti-racist struggle of 1978, to face the Islamists head on.

Further reading

Richard Phillips, Standing together: The Muslim Association of Britain and the anti-war movement, in Race & Class, Institute of Race Relations, SAGE (2008).

Sarah Glynn, Playing the Ethnic Card: Politics and Ghettoisation in London’s East End. Institute of Geography Online Paper Series: GEO 018 (2006).

This article was published in Jewish Socialist magazine, no 59 Winter 2009-10 issue, based on a presentation made at "Rising from the East: A day to explore communities, culture and politics in London’s East End’ organised by the Jewish Socialist’s Group on 15 November 2009 at Toynbee Hall, London, E1. Information for the article was taken from Swadhinata Trust’s wider research project "Tower Hamlets Bengali Heritage Trail", funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.