Ansar Ahmed Ullah
Londonঃ While many in the UK are aware of Altab Ali’s tragic, senseless and racially motivated murder in 1978 in a park that now bears his name and observes annual Altab Ali Day on 4 May in Whitechapel, East London, many aren’t aware of the long struggle the Bengali community faced in the East End of London.
It should be mentioned here that from the mid-1970s many Bengalis who lived in the East End of London, were experiencing racism, social deprivation and high level of unemployment. For the Brick Lane Bengali community, who were under constant attack from the racists as early as 1976, the murder of Altab Ali, a leather garments factory worker, was a turning point, especially of its youth. It led to their mobilising and politicisation on an unprecedented scale.
On 14 May 1978, 7,000 Bengalis marched from Whitechapel, East London to Hyde Park behind the coffin of Altab Ali in a show of unity and strength against racial violence. This was followed by a rally at Hyde Park, which then progressed onto 10 Downing Street to hand in a memorandum to the British Prime Minister demanding justice and protection.
This was one of the biggest demonstrations by the Bengali community to ever seen in Britain. The Bengali community soon after began to organise into youth groups, community and campaigning groups and linked up with anti-racist movements. The year 1978 saw the emergence of the second generation of Bengali community activists who would later enter mainstream politics in the 1980s and continued their fight to 1990s.
Mayar Akash, an activist himself during the 1990s with the Progressive Youth Organisation (PYO) initially based at the Montefiore Centre and later at the Davenant Centre, picks up the story of anti-racist activism during the 1990s with a series of books.
During the 1990s he was working as a youth worker for the PYO now disbanded. It was an organisation set up the Bengali youth of the seventies, the vanguards, who protected the community from racist violence.
In the 1990s it was Mayar Akash’s turn to rise to the occasion when Quddus Ali, a Bengali young man, got beaten up and left for dead in 1993. Quddus Ali was in a coma for months and survived but was permanently disabled. The same year, for the first time, a far right racist candidate from the British National Party (BNP) got elected to Tower Hamlets Council. In 1994 another young man Mukthar Ali was attacked and beaten up severely.
During the early 1990s Mayar Akash’s peers along with the youth were in the forefront of the racial confrontation. Mayar Akash mobilised collectively to address the fascist and racists in the borough. He documents the series of events and organisations, including Youth Connection’ that were at the forefront of anti-racist struggle. During this time he had also photographed the events.
Mayar Akash said, ‘Twenty years on I was compelled to put my experiences in writing with my pictures that I took. I felt it would be a sheer waste of effort and energy for these images to fall by the wayside and our representation of the time to fade too.’
These books have been written with the young people in mind. They are not too hard to read and have pictures to support and keep the reader intrigued to reach the end of the books. There are six books in the series, of which four to date have been completed and two more are soon to be released this year. They provide a chronology of events from 1978 to 1994.
Mayar Akash was born in Bangladesh but grew up in the East End of London. As a result of his upbringing with the British education and Bengali culture, he feels his life has been very enriching and colourful.
The experiences of growing up in the East End of London have developed him questioning much that has happened to his life such as childhood, teenhood, adulthood, marriage, friendship, family, religion, racism, love, life, pain, despair, happiness, depression and loss; some of few fibres that makes up his life.
The first book in the series is ‘Re-awakening’ capturing the effect of Quddus Ali’s intended murder in 1993. In his book he describes how the Bengali community was awaken, However, the vanguards of the seventies had a re-awakening, who had been there following Altab Ali’s death. In the book Mayar Akash describes the efforts and experiences of youth of 1990s in words and pictures.
In his second book set in 1994 ‘Young Voice’ he continues from the “Re-awakening” and focuses on the young people of the time and the young leaders being supported by senior activists. Key people emerged from this movement who went on to become leaders and some went on to further afield. But he captured those that were no leaders but normal every day young person.
His final book in this series ‘Tides of Change’ set in 1995 focuses on the senior community activists and how they rose to the occasion to address racism.
Mayar Akash’s next book in the series of the “Bangladeshi East End” is about “Vigil”, the Vigil that was held for Quddus Ali in front of the Royal London Hospital. Once again it is a series of photos that he took and actual accounts from young people who witnessed hearing the agitators executing their plan along with the police mishandling of the emotions of the adolescent youth.
His forthcoming book is about the physical contribution to the area such as the Brick Lane Arch designed by Meena Thakor, funded by Bethnal Green City Challenge and Altab Ali Arch designed by David Peterson in 1989, a welsh artist & blacksmith commissioned by Tower Hamlets Stepney Neighbourhood.
His books are available on Amazon, on-line book sellers and in books shops to order published by MAPubliser.