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Defiance: Fighting the Far Right review – a powerful tale of British Asians who fought against racism
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Defiance: Fighting the Far Right review – a powerful tale of British Asians who fought against racism

With a prime minister, first minister for Scotland and London mayor all of south Asian descent the UK has changed dramatically in the 50 years since the events of Channel 4’s Defiance: Fighting the Far Right. While anti-British Asian sentiment is still rife – and you only have to look at the treatment of Britain’s cricket stars or read about the 31% pay gap between white men and Pakistani women to realise that we don’t live in a post-racial utopia – the progress made in the decades since the events of the programme is still staggering. Increased tolerance is not something that naturally evolved, however, and this three-part documentary shows how the British Asian community stood up to the racism that sought to destroy it – and fought for their right to live with dignity.

This series – produced by Riz Ahmed’s production company – covers the period between 1976 and 1981 when the population in Southall, west London, was 50% Asian and the area was targeted by the National Front. It begins with the stabbing to death of the teenager Gurdip Singh Chaggar. His murder shook his community but was met by indifference by the police – and led to a bone-chilling threat from the former National Front chairman John Kingsley Read: “One down, one million to go.” When the people of Southall took to the streets in protest they found themselves confronted by far-right thugs and a police force uninterested in protecting them from the wave of violence.

Beyond these harrowing events the series looks at the murder of the 24-year-old textile worker Altab Ali; the killing of 33-year-old activist Blair Peach during an Anti-Nazi League demonstration; and the murder of an entire family in Walthamstow, north-east London. It chronicles the protests following Ali’s murder that were dubbed the “Battle for Brick Lane”, and the story of the Bradford 12, who had to take on the British justice system after they were found to be stockpiling weapons in preparation to defend themselves from an impending assault from the National Front.

Hambrough Tavern Southall riots 1981View image in fullscreen

It is a harrowing but powerful tale of a community that refused to turn the other cheek. It is one that has timely relevance given the efforts to suppress the protests against the slaughter in Gaza – with Rishi Sunak labelling marchers as extremist threats to democracy – and given that a (then) Tory MP claimed London’s British Asian mayor is under the control of “Islamists”.

The series refuses to allow a false narrative of “peaceful protests” that re-writes history into a cosier tale about multiculturalism. It is unacceptable to believe that rights for British Asians happened because of the goodwill of the majority – and thus erase the bravery of the activists who risked their lives because enough was enough. It also frames the period’s racism as extending far beyond the violent confrontations and depicts the more “respectable” face of bigotry in an era when brownface and Asian characters as objects of ridicule were rife on TV and politicians would legitimise the fear of a “different culture” threatening British identity.

The documentary features interviews with many of the activists of the time and elegantly cuts between footage of them during the era and as present-day talking heads reflecting back on their defiance. Particularly engaging is the testimony of Balraj Purewal, who founded the Southhall Youth Movement. He appears in archival footage as a young man with a spectacular set of sideburns, stating the importance of setting an example for the whole nation. In the present, he has lost none of his zeal, recalling that “we made Southall a no-go area for racists, but the rest of the country was watching”.

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‘We made Southall a no-go area for racists’ … Balraj Purewal.View image in fullscreen

While the series honours the efforts of the activists, it does not congratulate Britain on a job well done. Even though the UK’s government doesn’t outwardly resemble the ones led by James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher, there are still dark parallels. As Purewal puts it: “The political parties are falling over each other to be more anti-immigrant.”

As the third episode concludes and we are left at the start of the 1980s, there is a rocky road ahead for the British Asian community and the country as a whole. But it’s a moving and powerful reminder that what progress has been made is thanks to the moral fortitude of those who came before us. The bravery of these local heroes is something that the residents of Southall, Brick Lane, Walthamstow and Bradford can take pride in. And for the audience now, it’s a reminder that when you are surrounded by dehumanisation, it’s not enough to hope the passage of time will fix it, or that society will somehow evolve itself out prejudice. There is only one correct response to bigotry – and it is defiance.

Source: theguardian.com