Ansar Ahmed Ullah
Contributing Editor, Shottobani
London: Forty years on from the tragic and untimely death of Altab Ali in 1978, a three day series of events took place to mark the significant turning point in East London’s race relations. Altab Ali’s senseless and racially motivated murder in a park in Whitechapel that now bears his name, mobilised both the Bengali and wider communities to take a stand against hatred and intolerance.
A ceremonial event was held by Tower Hamlets Council on 4 May in Altab Ali Park to mark Altab Ali Day and included poetry and a site-specific performance by ‘A’ Team Arts in celebration of protest, alongside wreath laying and speeches from Tower Hamlets Head of Arts Steve Murray, Nooruddin Ahmed, Altab Ali Foundation and Rafique Ullah, Altab Ali Trust amongst others.
On 5 May ‘Brick Lane 78’ play was performed by Purbanat theatre company at the Brady Arts Centre. This powerful drama captured the spirit of 1978. The performance was followed by a panel discussion comprising of playwright Murad Khan, activists of 1978, Jamal Hassan, General Secretary of Action Committee Against Racist Attacks, Akikur Rahman of Bangladesh Youth Association & Chair of Altab Ali Foundation, Rafique Ullah, Chair of Altab Ali Trust & Jamal Miah of Bangladesh Youth Front. The discussion was hosted by Urmee Mazhar of ATN. The evening event also included the book launch of ‘Battle of Brick Lane 78’ by A K Azad Konor who was an activist of Bangladesh Youth Front in 1978.
An exhibition at the Brady Arts Centre entitled ‘1978: Hope not Hate’ opened on 3 May as part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s First Thursdays programme and will run until 29 May. The exhibition incorporated a striking selection of photographs, posters and prints which documents the strength of the anti-racist movement in subsequent years. Contributors included photographers David Hoffman, trade unionist & painter Dan Jones, Daniele Lamarche, Tom Learmonth, Phil Maxwell, Syd Shelton, artist Alice Sielle, Paul Trevor and Raju Vaidyanathan.
On 6 May, the last day of the events documentary films were screened under the title of ‘Purbo Pictures: South Asians on Film’ and included panel discussion: Diaspora through the lenses. Short films included South Asian Britain, Credo and Purbo London, all of which were poignant portrayals of Asian life in the UK. Screenings were followed by a panel discussion with a distinguished line-up of film-makers and artists that included Farrukh Dhondy, Imruh Bakari, Tom Learmonth and Bengali film maker Ruhul Amin, hosted by Clelia Clini of Loughborough University.
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 1975 – 1976, the murder of Altab Ali, a leather garments factory worker, in 1978 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 locals 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 held by 10,000 Bengalis, which progressed onto10 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 youth groups, community and campaigning groups and linked up with anti-racist movements and organisations. The year 1978 saw the emergence of the second generation of Bengali community activists who would later enter mainstream politics in the 1980s.