Race Matters

How the War of Independence Forged a Culture of Resistance among British Bangladeshis

March 26th 2021 marks 50 years since the start of Bangladesh’s independence struggle, which rapidly turned into a genocide in which around 3 million people were killed. This war is rarely spoken of today and remains unacknowledged and forgotten by the international community. Dr Halima Begum, CEO of the Runnymede Trust, was born in rural Sylhet and raised in London’s East End, she tells us what today signifies for her and her family.

When I think of our beloved Bangladesh, I am transported back to the happiest, most carefree days of my very early childhood. I recall the green fields of Sylhet and playing barefoot under a beating sun, while aunties sat in the shaded courtyard making a communal mach tarkari in a handi that, back then at least, seemed larger than a swimming pool.

Today, every time I walk past a Bangladeshi greengrocer’s in the East End and catch the scent of what passes for a fresh mango in London’s polluted air, I am transported back to my bedroom in the Sylhet countryside, and the mango tree that would rain fruit onto the tin roof above my head in stormy weather. Oh, those mangoes.

Oh, my shonar Bangladesh. How our souls were shaped by your struggles and suffering. How our spirit was forged by the fight for your freedom; your refusal to be bowed no matter what adversity we might face.

I was born in the years after the Liberation War. Dad was already in London when Pakistan launched Operation Searchlight and the genocide began. Mum was pregnant with my older brother Kamal.

When Mum wrote to Dad about the conflict, the massacre of the liberal elite that expanded into the little-reported slaughter of the rural masses, Dad and his friends did the only thing they could. They hopped a charter flight back to Bangladesh via Rangoon. They came home to their villages to offer their lives in defence of their land and their loved ones.  

My parents still don’t talk too much about those days. Like many sons and daughters, I’m not entirely clear what atrocities they may have witnessed. But their entire generation was clearly marked by the war, and it profoundly changed them. In Dad, it lit a fire in his soul; a determination to fight for social progress and challenge injustice wherever he found it – a stubborn trait of character he may feasibly have passed down to his children.

After the war, Dad still had obligations in the UK. Like so many Sylheti men he was a migrant textile worker. He headed back to London intending to stay long enough to earn the money to buy a home for the family in Bangladesh and ensure our financial wellbeing, planning to return to Sylhet to play his own full role in building our new nation.

But Dad and his comrades had been politicised by the Liberation War, in a way that perhaps bears similarity to the experiences of African-American GIs returning from Vietnam. In the UK, Ted Heath’s 1970 Conservative Party manifesto had been overt about putting an end to “large-scale permanent immigration”, and the Immigration Act 1971 introduced both the concept of Right of Abode and broader restrictions on Commonwealth citizens intending to settle and work in the country. Arriving back in London in 1975, he and his friends found themselves in a city where racism was on the rise.

Where Bangladeshi migrants were once thought to be passive, only prepared to deal with threats to their wellbeing by keeping their heads down out of a sense of gratitude to be in Britain, Dad and his comrades found it increasingly difficult to stand idly by as the National Front gained traction and became more extreme.

The defining moment in the politicisation of that generation of British Bangladeshis was of course found at the confluence of the early post-war years and the murder of fellow East End textile worker Altab Ali.

Altab’s death in Whitechapel on May 4th 1978 – in what was then St Mary’s Park and is now forever known as Altab Ali Park – galvanised the British-Bangladeshi community into proving ourselves as committed to the struggle against discrimination and racism in the UK as the struggle for Independence back in our nascent nation.   

Meanwhile, I was born back in Sylhet, and suffered from an illness that threatened to leave me completely blind. Mum brought my siblings and I to England, not just to reunite with Dad but to seek the medical attention that might at least partially save my eyesight.  

Homeless and living in dire conditions on a garment factory salary without access to social housing, we became part of the Bangladeshi Squatter Movement based mainly on Brick Lane. And as more Bengali men brought their families over, the more the racism increased.

I have written elsewhere about the National Front newspaper stand located outside the front door of our Brick Lane squat. And the fact that to get to school we had to run the gauntlet of physical blows and racist invective from the neo-Nazis who manned the store. (I say “manned” in the most pointed and gender specific sense.)

Looking back all those years, it is clear to me that every single time my siblings and I walked out of our own front door it represented an Act of Resistance by four tiny Bangladeshi children in the face of state-tolerated, racially-based hatred. But my parents, no matter how fearful of the skinheads and the assaults to which they regularly subjected us, always told us to hold our heads high.  

Of course, the National Front was only the most visible form of racism to which we were subjected. As the five-year-old child of a Commonwealth migrant worker I had the legal right to UK residency and access to public services. Despite those facts, St Barts Hospital repeatedly rejected me as a patient, refusing to accept I was eligible for medical treatment. With each passing day that such prejudice and discrimination persisted, the risk grew that I would indeed lose my eyesight completely.

In a final act of desperation, my father along with the guardians of the Jamme Masjid Brick Lane Mosque and the Tower Hamlets Bangladeshi community – still relatively small in those days – decided that the only way to save me from complete blindness and to secure the medical treatment I so desperately needed was to start a campaign lobbying the NHS and the powers that be.

To my best understanding, Dad’s name is found as a co-signatory on the original lease to the Brick Lane Mosque – a place of worship that was and remains one of the anchors of their lives. In the days long before the internet or online petitions existed, a collective of friendly Imams and adherents to the Faith, young activists like Ala Uddin and Zilu Daza and good, decent people from the Tower Hamlets community helped mobilise public support and shamed the London Hospital into reviewing my case.

Suffice to say, I was soon being seen by the appropriate surgeons at Moorfields . And although it was too late to save one of my eyes, I remain forever grateful to the Brick Lane Mosque and to our local Bangladeshi community. It is thanks to the resolve and the solidarity forged in adversity by that generation who went through the Liberation War that, to this day, I still have some limited eyesight.

Indeed, if I am myself possessed of any spirit of resistance and a determination to fight for civil rights, for racial and social equality in Britain today, it is only because I stand on the shoulders of my parents and of the men and women of their generation, and those that came after including Altab Ali who fought so hard for so much – not least our freedom.

Finally, as a daughter and a sister, I must pause for a moment to remember my beloved brother Kay. For me, Independence and the struggle for freedom carry not only great joy but some deep sadness. Kay was born just two weeks after the Liberation War was won. He lost his life in London in 1997. Like his country, he would be celebrating his 50th birthday this year. When I look at our motherland from afar, I think of my brother and everything he stood for – for peace and love; family and friends; dignity and equality.

I have no doubt Kay is looking down from the stars now, his heart rejoicing at the progress his family and friends, his people and country have made in so few years – and looking forward to the future with such great hope for us all.

Bangladesh zindabad! Joi Bangla!

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence, Halima, along with many other high profile British Bengalis, is partaking in the ‘Kee Khobor’ project – which translates to ‘what’s up’. Kee Khobor is a crowdsourcing platform which celebrates the diversity of the British Bengali community and their heritage through storytelling. It launches with an online event on 26th March 2021, and will continue as a year-long project. A copy of this blog also features as a blog post for Kee Khobor.


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