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Altab Ali and the Battle for Brick Lane


68The 37th Annual Altab Ali day took place this week beginning with a solemn and dignified wreath

laying ceremony. It brought together veterans of the 1978 era and a number of current leaders and

organisations from the wider anti racist movement. Below Rajonuddin Jalal, a former Tower Hamlets

Council deputy Leader and prominent in that famous struggle highlights some key events and


The annual celebration of the Altab Ali Day is a very important event in the anti-racist and anti-

fascist calendar. This year we mark the 37th anniversary of the murder of Altab Ali, which gave rise

to the resistance movement by the Bengali community in the east end of London and led to the

“Battle for Brick Lane 1978”. The Bengalis successfully defended their areas, defeated the National

Front- a racist political party with its headquarters in Shoreditch.

The existence of the Bengali community was not widely known in the UK. That is until the racist

murder of Altab Ali in May 1978, which led to the resistance movement beginning with the first ever

Bengali march when some ten thousand Bengalis took to the street, supported by anti-racist

organisations, trade unions, and anti-Nazi League. The informal name for this period of activity

became known as The Battle for Brick Lane and at the time slogans such as “Here to stay”, “self

defence is no offence” and “Black and White unite and fight”, were common refrains as Bengalis

took to the street en mass. I believe those slogans reflected people’s anger, feeling and

determination against racism and fascism.

Young Bengalis were at the forefront of this anti racist movement. One of the key youth

organisations that played a pivotal role and continued to be torchbearer of the movement

throughout the 70s and 80s, is the Bangladesh Youth Movement. Founded in 1976, BYM was borne

out of the Asian Studies Centre in Myrdle Street, Whitechapel. This was a key meeting place for the

Bengali community led by Barrister Lutfur Rahman Shahjahan. It linked with two other organisations

mobilising local people against racism, housing rights and police accountability. TocH Hostel in the

Minories, near Tower Bridge, used to provide housing and recreational activities for young homeless

Bengalis. Peter East, a friend of Lutfur Rahman Shahjahan, ran this centre. This centre provided

many activities. Caroline Adams from Avenues Unlimited Youth Project helped with organising

camping projects at the centre in Myrdle Street.

The 1970s saw the emergence of a squatting movement and Bengalis in an effort to improve living

conditions embraced this. This led to the creation of the Bengali Housing Action Group-(BHAG),

which used to organise the squatting movement for homeless Bengalis and physically respond to

racist attacks. The key members of this organisation included: Terry Fitzpatrick, Mala Dhondy,

Farook Dhondy, Nurul Haque, Anwara Haque, Khasrul Haque, Abdus Subhan Gedu and Rahim Bakth

amongst others. The Tower Hamlets Law Centre played an important role by representing Bengali

youth activists. They established a 24 hour help line for victims. Mainly Nick Walker, Mithu Ghosh

and Jamal Hassan provided the legal services.

The second base for recruiting young Bengali activists was at the basement of Bangladesh Welfare

Association at 39 Fournier Street, off Brick Lane. This is a freehold community centre bought by the

first generation of the Bengali settlers in Tower Hamlets. The Bangladesh Youth Association used

this as its base. The main leaders of this group were Shamsuddin, Akikur Rahman, Chomok Ali Noor,

Abbas Ali, Koran Ali, Manik Miah and Rana Miah amongst others.

The third base was another meeting point for the Bengali community in the western part of Tower

Hamlets, at the Cannon Barnett night school. This centre attracted a group of young people who

used to be guided by Abdul Aziz, Late Zafar Khan, John Newbegin and sometimes Muhammed

Haque. Although they had not established an organisation, but they used to fight against racial

attacks and were a part of the “Vigilante” groups that operated in the area. This group was publicity

shy but later formed the Progressive Youth Organisation (PYO) in 1979. Some of the names of young

people who played a key role included: the two Abdus Salam, Ruhul Amin, and Najabath Miah Niazi.

Summer of 1978 – the golden era of the anti-racist movement in Tower Hamlets

As a result of the successful and ongoing movement against racism and fascism, momentum

continued to gather behind the London and nationwide anti-racist movement .Bengali youth

organisations in Tower Hamlets linked up with the Southall Youth Movement and the Bradford

Youth Association. The success of the ant-racist movement in the East End of London was inspiring

youth organisations throughout the UK. The younger generation became more determined to

continue the ant-racist movement with the establishment of the Hackney and Tower Hamlets

Defence Committee. The inner circle behind this alliance also chalked out a more vigorous and

radical action programme, including patrolling the top of Brick lane/Bethnal Green every Saturday

night to stop the gathering of National Front thugs, who would normally plan their Sunday

rampages. This group also demanded the closure of the NF stall selling racist propaganda and

closure of their headquarters in Bethnal Green/Hoxton. Another demand was to end police brutality

and sit down protests held at the Bethnal Green Police Station.

The movement defeated the national Front in Tower Hamlets. The NF was forced to move their head

office from Bethnal Green. However, they continued to enjoy support in the ballot boxes!

The anti-racist movement of the 1970s brought together progressive, secular and many left wing

political activists. These key leaders believed in a secular, multi-cultural and socially progressive

society, ensuring freedom, equality and justice for all human beings.

Participation in mainstream politics

By the early –mid-eighties the activists attention was turning to mainstream politics and political

parties. Vast majority of the Bengali community used to support the Labour Party and felt a natural

affinity with this party. During this period the Labour party was often run as a private club, dictated

and dominated by a select group of individuals. Many Bengali people applied for membership of the

Labour Party, but their applications were not acknowledged and reportedly thrown into the bin.

Although a handful of us were recruited as members, by middle class white activists, Dan Jones, Paul

Beasley, Geoff white, Phil Maxwell, Jill Cove and Bobby McDuff. There was growing frustration

amongst the community activists prevented from joining the party. As a result key community

activists decided to convene a meeting at 52 ½ Hanbury Street, London E1. At this meeting the

People’s Alliance of Bangladesh was formed and selected a number of independent candidates to

fight the Spitalfields by election. Eventually Nurul Hoque, an ILEA teacher, was elected defeating a

Labour councillor! History it seems has a habit of repeating itself!

Way forward

Yes, we have won the battle against racism and fascism and did defeat them through the Battle of

Brick Lane in 1978. But, they have re-emerged with a new agenda, action plan and strategy. Are we

making the appropriate response to defeat them? I believe we need progressive vanguards to lead

the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement. I believe that the fragmented EDL and BNP do not enjoy a

lot of support amongst the ordinary public. EDL will only provoke on the streets, because they know

that the police force have a duty to protect them in the name of freedom of speech. We have to

defeat institutionalised racism, which adversely affects our everyday lives. Our march goes on

equality, freedom and justice-but who is going to be the torchbearer and vanguard of our future


The mainstream parties will harp on immigration, use islamophobia as a cover for racism and pander

to the populist fantasies of UKIP. For ourselves, as in 1978, we have to rely on our own strength,

autonomy and independence to carve a progressive alliance and united front to defeat racism and