This month marks 45 years since the height of the Bengali squatters movement – yet accounts of Bengali housing activism have been overlooked and erased in the mainstream ever since. Today, PhD research student Shabna Begum remembers.
There is a new housing block being built a short walk away from where I live in Walthamstow, East London. The project will demolish (and relocate) a local library and create 67 new homes – half of which are of that highly dubious ‘affordable’ category. In a recent council planning committee meeting, a spokesperson for the architect explained that the design of the building had separate entrances, lifts and stairwells for privately owned tenants and that these were needed to avoid “additional risk in terms of marketability”. Pushed on the matter, the spokesperson went on to state that non-segregated developments posed a “risk” to market values. The baldness of the statement suggests that the “poor door”, which has become part of the architectural landscape of new housing developments, is not going away.
The inequities of the housing system have been further exposed during the coronavirus pandemic, as many people struggle to pay their rent, whilst others invest in spacious second homes. This is also almost four years since the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower that killed 72 people; a block owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest councils in the UK, which spent money cosmetically enhancing the exterior with inferior quality cladding, but failed to install basic sprinkler systems and fire alarms. The fact that it was disproportionately people who are “racialised as non-white” that died in that fire, and indeed that Black and minority ethnic communities generally experience higher levels of housing stress, is not news. However, our histories of housing activism and resistance to that discrimination have often been erased from mainstream accounts of social history. This can be just as problematic as the original deprivation; as stated by bell hooks, "our struggle is also a struggle of memory."
It is almost 45 years since the birth of the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG) – when hundreds of Bengali families confronting an institutionally racist housing system and the ferocious rise of National Front violence, organised into a formal squatters organisation and began to challenge the local Tower Hamlets council and the GLC, for fairer housing options for the community. Up until this point, the migrant community had been mainly single Bengali migrant men, some commuting for decades between Sylhet and London, working in low paid jobs and living in shared accommodation – sometimes in beds that did double and triple shifts.
However, by the mid-1970s and with increased racialised restrictions on Commonwealth migration, these men had begun to bring their families over, worried that they might be permanently separated if they did not act. Housing waiting list ‘rules’ inhibited their ability to qualify for council properties and many families found themselves in dreadful, overcrowded and dilapidated flats as they tried to navigate a system that was set-up against them. Where families were fortunate to secure a tenancy, they were often in the worst accommodation, from which existing white tenants had been decanted and also in parts of the borough where they were isolated and victim to racist attacks. Bengali families took direct action and began squatting empty properties around Spitalfields and Whitechapel as a solution to their housing deprivation.
Squatting was fairly widespread in 1970s London and was yet to be criminalised; squatters ranged from other housing deprived families to counter-cultural individuals and groups that were seeking alternative ways to configure their housing needs. Influenced by this, Bengali families began squatting in small numbers from the beginning of the decade, desperate to secure accommodation for themselves and their families, often assisted by white squatters. Through the course of the decade, these numbers swelled to hundreds of families and by spring 1976, with the wider support of the Race Today Collective, the Bengali Housing Action Group or BHAG which means ‘share’ or ‘tiger’ in Bengali, was created. The loose knit organisation worked to secure squats for Bengali families in need, protect them against eviction and defend them against racist attacks. Some of the younger male squatters organised wider vigilante patrols against racist attacks which nourished the more well-known anti-racist mobilisations of the late 1970s, following the racist murder of Altab Ali in 1978. But whilst the men may have been active on the streets, it was Bengali women who were the primary guardians of their squatted homes, confronting hostile estate managers and neighbours as they resisted eviction and harassment.
By 1977, the GLC, overrun by the widespread nature of squatting, announced an amnesty and invited all squatters to register and secure a formal tenancy. BHAG managed to negotiate tenancies within a defined and agreeable area, and Bengali families were either given tenancies in the places they had occupied, or new accommodation.
This was by no means a happily ever after story; the Bengali community in Tower Hamlets continues to experience over-crowding and poorer housing outcomes than their white counterparts and Covid-19 has exposed how those inequalities can contribute to fatalities. However, the virtual erasure of this history of housing activism from popular memory and accounts of 1970s East London, are a denial of how marginalised communities have articulated and claimed the right to decent housing.
As bell hooks’ quote states at the beginning, we must struggle to remember not for the sake of nostalgia, but because the act of remembering "serves to illuminate and transform the present."
Header image by Raju Vaidyanathan