Emerging conflicts in the Asian Youth Movements

United Black Youth League, Bradford.
United Black Youth League, Bradford.

Anandi Ramamurthy analyses the emerging divisions within the Asian Youth Movements around the issue of state funding. One faction opted to accept and was slowly absorbed into the functioning of the local state apparatus as individuals made careers for themselves in the Labour Party. Meanwhile, the other faction split off to form the United Black Youth League, opting instead for a more militant path.

Submitted by Ed on February 17, 2019

During the early years of the AYMs, the organisations relied primarily on resources and funds that they mobilised themselves and most organisations remained independent of state institutions. As these organisations began to consolidate, differences of opinion emerged about the type of activities that they should prioritise.

The AYM’s deliberate disruption of the National Association of Asian Youth Conference in Leicester in May 1979 to encourage delegates to leave the conference and confront the fascists on the street shows the contrasting position that existed between groups operating under state patronage and those that were established as a result of self-help. Bradford's experience provides an example of the impact of state funds which some members believed would destroy the autonomy of their organisation. This eventually proved to be correct.

In the early phase of AYM (Bradford), the youth pooled resources that they collected for themselves. This did not mean that they had no formal organisation or offices. Both Southall and Bradford for example found empty spaces to occupy and used these offices for their organisations. In Southall, the youth movement squatted in offices belonging to the National Association of Asian Youth before formally renting their own when they applied to the Commission for Racial Equality for funding in 1978 (Purewal 2006). In Bradford, the youth made use of a building on Lumb Lane that had been a compulsory purchase by the council and was targeted for demolition.

As Tariq Mehmood recalls, the group paid no rent and ran the place through donations:

we had a run-down office. It was on the corner of Lumb Lane... we had a room downstairs which we sort of cleaned out and we had an office upstairs, with a typewriter and a telephone. These were big facilities you know, we assume computers, but we were Letrasetting and its very important to realise that we were the literate children of very often illiterate workers. So these facilities were enormous for us at the time... a little while later we managed to get a table tennis table and put that downstairs.

Tariq was in fact appointed as the first employee of AYM (Bradford). Members paid him the average factory wage through membership contributions. Tariq recalls the sense of accountability that existed because of the collective donations that paid his wage:

we were acting almost like a communist party, not a youth movement really, we had executive committees, we were able to organise a much more effective structure. We had records, we could keep minutes but it was not like working in projects now. I was very proud of the fact that everybody was paying money out of their own pocket and they were questioning me and what I did at the end of the week. And our facilities could not be abused because we were raising the money ourselves, but I think it allowed us to have a much more organised structure and it was very difficult to organise without having full-time organisers.

Around 1980 however, the youth movement decided to apply for funds from the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). Tariq's reflections provide an account of the way corruption and divisions slowly crept in:

I think we applied for £3,000 ... I started to get a lot more money, we had a telephone we could use, we had all the basic facilities. But I felt I was becoming corrupted by the money that had come in. And two or three things happened. Before the money was there, it was always the 25ps that were coming in. People were connected directly, putting in money, it was not deducted through a bank account, they came in and gave me the 25 pence, that got put into a pot. I was paid out of the pot. When we had money in our bank account from a CRE grant... I could make a call, any executive member could make a phone call, but ordinary members couldn't make phone calls, the bill would have got too high, a division was coming between us. And why take the 25p from members now? We had £3,000 in our account and I felt that by people not giving money they were losing contact with the very process that we built. And when we were sending coaches to London for example, we raised the money, we didn't have to give an answer to anybody, we could spend our money on whatever we wanted. But the money from the CRE had to be audited, we were accountable for it. And one day I was thinking about how things changed. I felt that the AYM initially was a people's organisation and once we received funding we were answerable to an institution; the very same institution that we were fighting—the British state. A people's organisation should only be responsible to the people, not to the funders.... And I took a very strong exception as time went on believing that we shouldn't apply for the money.

Tariq was not the only member who could see state funds bringing in the onset of corruption, others such as Tarlochan Gata Aura shared these views. Marsha Singh, who eventually became MP for Bradford West asserted a different position, arguing that these funds were part of black people's rights and black people should access such funds. While all citizens did have a right to access Council services, this did not address the impact of funds on a people's organisation formed to raise the political concerns of a community. At their annual conference in early 1981, Tariq and Tarlochan argued that the non acceptance of state funding should be part of the AYMs aims and objectives since 'a people's organisation should only be accountable to the people'. Youth centres they argued were in any case not what youth needed. Youth needed work, not youth Workers. Saeed Hussain, a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party in early 1981 recalls the debates of the time: 'I think the AYM (Bradford) ... at that point... was struggling to make that decision as to whether it wanted to become part of the institutions or whether it wanted to actually remain independent.' The final vote was tight, but Marsha's position won the day by one or two votes and the AYM split from this moment onwards. In following the path of funding, AYM (Bradford) were similar to Southall and other youth movements in the East End and Haringey who were eventually absorbed into state structures.

The split in AYM (Bradford) was representative of two trends that were to exist in many anti-racist organisations at this time one that increasingly sought respectability and the other that wished to maintain their external pressure group status. Marsha Singh's personal career interests and actions can be seen as representing the trend that sought respectability and a space within local government. From 1981 onwards AYM activity became increasingly revolved around the youth centre rather than the radical agitational politics of previous years.

The United Black Youth League

The members who left AYM (Bradford) following the split set up the United Black Youth League (UBYL). In forming their new organisation activists recognised the contradiction that existed between their political identity as black and AYM as an organisation which defined itself along ethnic or geographic grounds. As Tariq reflected, 'it was a logical progression from Indian, to Asian to Black'. For Saeed Hussain

The UBYL was very clear that we were a Black organisation ... we were a part of Black communities and we would work together with all other organisations as equal partners on issues such as anti-fascism, immigration, as well as anti imperialist issues, building links nationally and locally.

We never actually formulated or formalised policies. The whole idea was for the youth to formalise it although the basic aims and objectives were understood, which were to unify the black community, i.e. Asians and Afro-Caribbeans. We had about one general meeting per week and then some of us spent quite a lot of time as well on other campaigns. The numbers varied. There were more or less 10 people permanently every week and others alternating. The numbers gradually increased. There could be 25 people. (Bradford 12 Internal Bulletin 12:7)

The fact that a predominantly Asian organisation called itself black was significant at the time. The other key organisation to have done so in 1979 was Southall Black Sisters. The commitment of UBYL to joint action and solidarity between black communities was consolidated by their defence of an African Caribbean security guard who was charged with assaulting a police officer. In early 1981 after an incident at a bar in Queens Hall, Gary Pemberton, who worked at Bradford College was accused of assaulting a police officer and found guilty at the magistrates court. Student members of the UBYL knew Gary and as Shanaaz recalls he was well liked by students: 'He was a fantastic person, we used to go in and chat to him and he used to advise us about boys and all sorts! He was a really great guy'. Following his conviction, the UBYL set up the Gary Pemberton Defence Campaign. They exposed the case as yet another example of police criminalisation of black people. It eventually became clear in his appeal that it was the police who had attacked him. Through active mobilisation for his appeal at Bradford Crown court UBYL helped win Gary's case. In the spirit of the Panthers, who took it upon themselves to watch police on the beat, UBYL exposed the name and number of the police officer who had assaulted Gary as Colin Malcolm Mackenzie, Police Officer 399 (tandana.org SCI 86). The tactic won Gary his case, although it was to antagonise the police who in the long run appear to have been determined to destroy the organisation.

The success in establishing UBYL created a substantial degree of animosity between AYM and UBYL although they continued to work together on immigration and self-defence campaigns, including the Anwar Ditta Defence Campaign and Jaswinder Kaur's Defence campaign (see Chapter 5). The AYM took a firm decision not to support the activities of UBYL. In the minutes of an AYM meeting from 24 January 1981 the AYM declared that while they supported Gary Pemberton, they would not support his Defence Committee. The arrest of 12 leading members of UBYL in the Bradford 12 case meant that the existence of UBYL was to be short lived. The differences between those that wished to organise independently and those that sought to integrate with the state was to increase following the summer of 1981.


The Path to State Funding

While Sheffield and Birmingham continued the militancy of the early AYMs, other areas embraced what appeared to be the possibility to consolidate official authority of their organisations by involving themselves in state structures. These developments led to different priorities which were to eventually erode the key objectives of the youth movements to struggle against police harassment, challenge the racism of the immigration laws, make links with anti-imperialist struggles world wide and keep the power and voice of the organisation with the community. The state created a trajectory which enabled the youth movements to be co-opted into the mainstream by offering spokespeople from the movements, roles in local council politics and the Labour Party. An emergent black middle class took these roles. As Harwant Bains noted in his analysis of Southall, a group of professional 'ethnics' emerged in the 1980s, the 'career militants', whose 'vociferous claim to represent the militant demands of their community ... secured them state patronage' (Bains 1988:240).

Gurnam Singh from AYM (Bradford) recalled the way the state wanted to talk to the AYM after the Scarman Enquiry:

They wanted to talk to us incorporate us, give us grants and things like that and I applied for this job — unqualified social worker, Section 11... They had 300 applications. I can remember going through five sets of interviews and people with PhDs applied for this job and I got the job! Cos in my interview with the manager I said that I was active in the Asian Youth Movements and that I was involved with anti-racist politics and all these things. And he said, 'You're the person we want'... for me it was a clear illustration of the incorporation of Black politics into the state. There were a number of us that got jobs, Marsha was working in the education department, ... Anwar got a job somewhere... and there were people like Jani Rashid .... We were all now being picked off the streets as it were and given jobs. And some of us then became suit wearing and totally abandoned the struggle all together, others took the struggle into the state and I think that's what I did. (G. Singh 2006)

While the acceleration of this process was apparent after 1981, it had begun much earlier, with the establishment of Community Relations Councils and the Commission for Racial Equality as Sivanandan had highlighted. The focus by the commission and later the CRE, on education and a philosophy of integration led to a focus on racism as an issue of ignorance and the need for 'mutual understanding' as opposed to acknowledging the needs of capital, the state and the exercise of power. In this way, as Sivanandan argued the creation of a 'black rhetoric' successfully took 'politics out of the black struggle and returned it to rhetoric and nationalism on the one hand and to the state on the other'. 'The Commission took up the black cause and killed it' (Sivanandan 1982:120).

AYM (Bradford)'s changing relationship to the state, and its grant giving bodies like the CRE was already apparent in the split which took place in 1981. The impact of this shift can be traced through a collection of minutes from 23 January 1983 to 17 March 1985. These minutes record the changing relationship between the Asian Youth Movement, the Labour Party and the local council, as well as the increasing use of energy by the movement on the establishment of a youth centre. It is clear that as state patronage required accountability, so minutes of meetings were taken and collected meticulously for the record and hence furnish evidence of the way in which the organisation was encouraged by certain members to shift its direction.

The first meeting on 23 January began with a debate about 'Why Asian Youth should join the Labour Party' at which Marsha Singh (who was later to become MP for Bradford West, and was Chairperson of Asian Youth Movement (Bradford) in the late '70s and early '80s) introduced Keith Narey from Militant to the meeting. Narey argued that Asian youth should join the Labour Party on the basis that since this was a class struggle, 'together we would have a better opportunity of combating capitalism'. Unbeknown to his fellow comrades Marsha had remained a member of the Labour Party quietly undermining two of the fundamental principles around which the youth had organised until 1981 — (i) dual membership should not be permitted with the AYM because it enabled left parties to infiltrate the movement and (ii) that the Labour Party was as racist as the Tory Party as their slogan articulated: 'Labour Tory both the same, both play the racist game'.

While both sides of an argument were aired, and Geoff Robinson (former member of IS) spoke on why Asian Youth should not join the Labour Party, highlighting the Labour Party's bad record of attacks on workers as well as immigration issues, the fact that such a debate took place in an Asian Youth Movement meeting is significant. Given that Marsha as Chair of AYM had enabled this discussion it is not surprising that at the following meeting the decision was made to allow members of the youth movement to join the Labour Party although it was recognised that 'the AYM as an organisation could in no way affiliate or work within the structure of the Labour Party, but as a pressure group we as the AYM would have the best effect' (AYM Bradford 6 February 1983).

The AYM constitution that had originally incorporated socialist and anti-imperialist principles in its aims and objectives was also questioned and re-written in this period. Marsha argued that the AYM fell between being a mass organisation and a cadre-based organisation, and the previous structure of AYM was too complicated with too detailed a constitution and that it needed simplifying. In essence, the changes that took place led to the dismantling of the cadre-based core to AYM (Bradford) that had made it the most powerful and influential of all the AYMs nationally (AYM Bradford 1983 Green Lane Youth Centre). The new aims focused on opposing discrimination, educating the youth about the relationship between discrimination and inequality and recognised the right of black people to organise independently, but there was no recognition in the new aims and objectives to the fact that 'the only real force capable of fighting racism was a workers movement, both black and white,' nor was there any commitment given to international solidarity. These aims and objectives fitted with the growth of a state based anti-racism which in the pursuit of funds divorced racism from class struggle.

In reflecting on the demise of AYM (Bradford), by the mid 1980s, as Anwar recalled, 'it was not a group with teeth anymore'. Anwar, a prolific and energetic organiser who had been involved in the organisation from its inception saw this trajectory as beginning in 1982:

From 1982 onwards, AYSI were on a slippery slope downwards... Marsha began to remove himself from the driving seat of the AYM in order to develop his own political ambitions while at the same time influencing a group of people that railroaded changes in the organisation that were in conflict with the constitution... what Marsha was doing was placing people within the organisation strategically... that he could control from behind the scenes and I just felt 'this is going more and more Labour Party', the Labour Party started to have meetings in the Saathi Centre, everything started to revolve around the Labour Party... and it started to operate in a more dictatorial way. (Qadir 2006)

The shifting perspective can be seen in the leaflet for a picket against David Waddington organised by the AYMs and Bradford socialists, which was headed 'protest against the racist policies of the Tory Government'. The previous assertion of Labour and Tory as consolidating racist immigration laws was diffused through such anapproach. As time wore on Anwar for example, who 'did not want to get used in the drive towards providing fodder for the Labour Party' resigned from the organisation in 1986.

The debates about the relationship between the Labour Party and the AYMs took place at the precise moment when black members of the Labour Party were debating the need for black sections within the party on the basis that autonomous organisation had been an 'organisational principle' amongst black groups over the previous decade. Shukra suggests that the organisers of LPBS (Labour Party Black Sections) '"forgot" that autonomous organisation emerged from debates about how to form a revolutionary consciousness' (Shukra 1988:71 ). Rather than forgetfulness, it could be argued that organisers within the Labour Party wished to develop a relationship between those organisations that had been associated with a revolutionary consciousness for their own political credibility. This can be seen in the way in which the Labour Party began to adopt the rhetoric of black struggle to attract members. A Labour Party Young Socialists leaflet for an Asian Youth Conference in Bradford in 1984 for example, contained a collaged collection of images of protesting Asian youth, some holding Bradford 12 placards, directly appropriating the history of independent black struggle (tandana.org NIH 193).

This appropriation of their own history was not really challenged by the AYM. The only comment in the minutes about an invitation to participate was dissatisfaction with the way they were invited. While there is no evidence of any AYM member's involvement in the organising of the conference, the political ambitions of AYM leaders such as Marsha Singh were being carefully forged at this time. His political ambitions were apparent from the days when he and his school friends ran their own 'House of Lords'.

The shift in direction for the AYM from a militant/campaigning organisation to one providing social services can be seen from the list of roles ascribed to the executive committee at the Annual General Meeting held on 27 February 1983. Apart from the roles of chair, secretary and treasurer, these included sports secretary, social secretary and education officer. There was no designation for even one campaigns officer. The discussion on future activity listed 'Priority to be given on Centre' as the first activity, followed by the suggestion that a newsletter would go out every two months. The full time worker was given the role of keeping in regular contact with members and the sports and social secretary were to work towards the organising of social activities. The campaigning issues made up the last four points on the list of future activities and three of these were linked to council initiatives in terms of an equal opportunities programme, housing policies, education policies. Only the final point — the support of deportation cases up and down the country with a directive to support as many as possible — linked with previous AYM priorities.

It is clear from the minutes of meetings that follow over the next few months that campaigns continued to be run and supported over the next few years but as time went on the commitment to these initiatives dwindled. AYM (Bradford) supported the Ayre Valley Yarns dispute in which 22 Asian workers went on strike after their shop steward Liaquat Ali was sacked for attempting to organise a union in 1983 (tandana.org JRI & JR3). They also played a central role in establishing the Dewsbury Defence Committee which campaigned to defend three Asian youth charged with actual bodily harm and damage to police property after the Asian community had been repeatedly attacked in Dewsbury with no police intervention or support (tandana.org SC49). The highly successful 'Defend the Bradford 18' campaign which saw 18 Bradford families facing deportation link together was also conducted in this period (tandana.org SC8 & SC9).

Yet inevitably with the development of a youth centre, the purchase of a building, the demands of the council began to take over. Even Marsha Singh, later MP for Bradford West, who was principally involved in steering the organisation onto its new path, recalls that after the Bradford 12 campaign: 'I think AYM had had its day by then.' The report of the full-time worker now employed for the AYM, Idris Bashir, in the Asian Youth Movement Newsletter from September 1983, makes the focus on the establishment of the new Saathi centre and its related activities clear:

a large part of my work has been involved in looking for premises for our centre. Now that we have obtained the centre there is still much to be organised before it opens. ... Other work I have been involved in concerns the building of better communications between various voluntary groups, council officials and other youth workers in the city.

In Bradford the change from a militant organisation to what eventually simply became a youth centre took some years. The changing attitudes and perspectives of AYM (Bradford) were apparent to youth in Birmingham and Sheffield, as they tried to maintain their independence from the state. As Mukhtar from Sheffield commented:

we began to see Bradford in some ways disintegrate... Bradford Twelve had galvanised a generation, it politicised us, it brought out some of the politics around co-option. ... when we visited Bradford AYM we saw that they'd got this youth centre where they'd taken the posters of the martyrs off the walls because they had been given saunas and weight training rooms and some of these people began to dress in three piece suits. (Dar 2006)

One significant change of AYM (Bradford) after 1981 was the focus on local rather than international issues and a keen interest in education services. While local concerns and issues of education had always been at the centre of AYM activity, the youth had previously organised their own educationals, making substantial use of Bradford Central Library and using its café as a meeting place for debate. The early movement had also been active in making links between their own struggles and international ones, providing the organisation with a strong anti-imperialist perspective. As Sivanandan had declared in 1987, 'for us South Africa was not "out there", it was in our kitchens' (Sivanandan 1987, Workers Film Association 2011). Post-1981, some of the key campaigns in Bradford involved issues surrounding state education; this included a campaign against the racist headteacher Ray Honeyford who had attacked the post-Scarman development of a multicultural education policy in an article in the Salisbury Review and their support for a Bradford Council of Mosques campaign for halal meat for Muslim pupils in Bradford schools.

The campaign against Honeyford was both a strong grassroots campaign as well as one which enabled AYM to engage with the council on debates about education in a multicultural society. The AYM were instrumental in organising the Drummond Parents Action Group which picketed the school, demanding Honeyford's resignation after he condemned multiculturalism's policies of cultural enrichment as 'the approved term for the West Indian's right to create an ear splitting cacophony' and condemned bilingual education by distorting the facts to suggest that it prevented South Asian children from learning English and integrating into a crystallised construct of Englishness to which South Asian migrants would always stand outside (Singh 1984). The AYM produced policy documents such as Reading, Righting, Rithmatic, Race to challenge Honeyford's position, as well as the council's lack of attention to racist harassment at Eccleshill School. They argued that there were not just three 'R's, but four Rs, to include racism (AYM Bradford 1984b).

The interventions in educational policy were valuable but were the kinds of campaigns that were much easier to tackle when trying to integrate your organisation into state structures than campaigns that addressed issues such as police criminalisation. They could easily fit into what Sivanandan described as the creation of a 'black rhetoric' and an understanding of racism as ignorance as opposed to the operation of power relations. The production of policy statements for council use was indicative of the new direction for AYM (Bradford), where campaigning was eventually uprooted from the heart of their work. As Noorzaman commented, as time went on, 'you could see the AYM being seen to be more part of the wider network of local authority organisations'.

In engaging with council policy the AYMs did, however, play a role in counteracting the rising influence of conservative faith based organisations that were also receiving state sponsorship at the time. In 1981, the council had established the Bradford Council of Mosques and in 1984 the council approved support for both the Federation of Sikh Organisations and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, both groups associated with the religious right in India. While the AYMs supported Bradford Council of Mosques' campaign for Halal meat in schools they opposed the call for separate religious schools arguing that such schools would lead to ghettoisation or segregation (AYM Bradford 1984a).

In Manchester the development was similar. Manchester, like Bradford, also got involved in debates over the kinds of education and schooling that should be developed, challenging the attempt by religious organisations to establish faith schools and single sex schools. In commenting on the effect of central and local government funding for community groups, Nilofer Shaikh recalls the new priorities that prompted her to leave the group after funding had been obtained for a youth centre with which influential members of the AYM had links:

… After it was set up they went for bigger funding to set up a youth centre for Asian youth which became the Tipu Sultan Centre. But one of the criteria for funding was that you couldn't be involved in political activities — at least not officially. I think that became a problem. A lot of people got involved and used their energies to run the centre. The group's time was taken up by organising activities to fulfil the criteria of the funding e.g. outings, youth centre sessions, playing pool, table tennis and the management of the project itself. We then had less time to do the campaigning work that we used to do before. It was around this time that I left the AYM. (Shaikh 2006)

The focus on funding absorbed so many individuals who believed that with the establishment of centres they could serve the community more effectively and in the minds of those involved the work towards establishing a centre became the narrative of achievement. For example, at a National AYM meeting on Sunday 29 May 1983, one member reported how AYM (Bradford) had attempted to establish a centre since 1978, scraping money together to pay rent. For Junior Rashid, the centre appeared crucial to the development of the organisation, as the minutes list 'To build an organisation you need a base where you can meet on a daily basis'. An AYM (Manchester) member followed this contribution with a similar story about the efforts to get a base.

Such a perspective did not go unchallenged, since for Anwar Qadir (from Bradford) the base could be seen in terms of people rather than premises. Anwar also articulated the importance of 'political finance' from members so that political, agitational leaflets could be made and the 'political side could be kept active'. Such debates indicate the conflicts and tensions in direction that emerged as the access to funds became widely available.

As Noorzman reflected in relation to Bradford, by the mid 1980s 'you see the organisation was quite fixated on opening centres and trying to deliver solutions for local issues, ... in retrospect you have to decide what kind of an organisation you want to be. If you want to be an advocacy organisation it's less appropriate to look at funding. If you want to be a delivery organisation, then you apply for funding because that's what it's all about...'.

By 1984, 'quite frankly [AYM Bradford] just became a community project... and that's why it actually collapsed, because it was no longer an advocacy organisation on quite challenging issues around... prejudice and discrimination etc. for the community.' The conflicts felt by the youth movements were also felt by women's organisations such as Southall Black Sisters. As Hendessi recalls, 'a section wanted SBS to be totally committed to the political struggle of black women. Others wanted more attention to be paid to the service provision side. The conflict erupted after a while.' (Hendessi 1989:11)