Faced with institutional racism in council housing and violence on the streets, hundreds of Bengali families in 1970s East London decided to squat, taking over entire streets and estates.

Faced with institutional racism in council housing and the existential threat of the National Front, hundreds of Bengali migrant families decided to squat, taking over entire streets and estates in 1970s London. Through oral history interviews and archival research, Dr Shabna Begum explores this little-known episode of East End history. She sits down with Tribune to discuss her new book, From Sylhet to Spitalfields, which covers the radical history of the Bengali squatters movement and its lessons for today.

Taj Ali

How did your personal background and upbringing as a British Bangladeshi in the East End shape this book?

Shabna Begum

It was my route into the book. The book came about as a result of my doctoral PhD research. I was never interested in an academic career or writing a thesis that would live in an academic library. My motivation came from it being a part of my personal history. It’s my family’s history, it’s my parents’ migration story. There’s a lot of elite gatekeeping within this sphere, and I found it impossible as an ordinary layperson to do the research and get institutional access. The PhD became the route to conducting the research and the opportunity to collect the oral histories, get archival access and then go on to write the book. But it was very much a personal project related to my parents.

Taj Ali

What was your experience around racism and housing growing up? 

Shabna Begum

My parents accidentally squatted, is how I describe it in the book. They weren’t part of the deliberate active squatters’ movement. They ended up squatting. I was born in 1976 in a squatted house. And I don’t have any memory of that because I was a baby. But I know my parents then spent many years struggling to find somewhere to live. We slept on floors. They had three kids by this stage, and we shared rooms.  

We eventually got a council house, so we moved out of Tower Hamlets to an estate in South East London where we were the only Asian family. It was a very white working-class estate. My memories of growing up and my memories of our flat are very mixed because, on the one hand, I had lots of siblings as part of a large family, and I had very fond memories of my childhood and my family home at the time. But also, we were the only Asian family on the estate. We were often subjected to racism, whether that was name-calling or just being frozen out of the community on the estate. 

I grew up knowing that I was different and that I was regarded as inferior. We lived in a very crowded, small flat that wasn’t appropriate for our family, and my parents weren’t literate in English. My big sister did a lot of the writing of application forms. I was very aware of both my race and identity from a young age and that housing was an issue that was very much a part of my quality of life. I was aware that we lived in overcrowded accommodation. Housing and its implications for our family life and the stress it caused for my parents was very much part of my childhood. 

Taj Ali

When we look back at the activism of South Asians during this period, particularly when we talk about squatting, it’s seen as quite radical. Where do you trace the origins of this housing activism in East London? Was it part of a broader political movement at the time?

Shabna Begum

There were a number of circumstances that allowed that squatter community to develop. First of all, in that post-war period, we had governments and local authorities that thought they would redevelop and spend lots of money knocking down old housing and building new housing. So they emptied out lots of properties and decanted people from those homes before finding out their budgets couldn’t cover the necessary development work. This meant there were lots of empty properties in and around East London and a housing shortage as well.

By the sixties and seventies, you had a much wider squatter community developing for many different reasons, both out of necessity and because people wanted to experiment and challenge the conventions of housing and property ownership. Some squatted because they wanted to challenge those norms and experiment with different ways of living outside of the heteronormative 2.4 children family. 

Lots of Bengali migrants arrived in that period, and they encountered a housing crisis and a housing system that was institutionally racist. The application process and the way you qualified for housing built-in systemic racism. The system gave individual housing managers and officers lots of power, enabling discrimination against the Bengali community. As a result, lots of people were living in horrendous accommodation and sharing in really disgraceful conditions. 

There were pockets of white squatter communities who had gone in and taken empty properties, and that provided inspiration and confidence for people who were suffering. In this case, the Bengali migrants were very much housing deprived, so they went in and did that. It was a radical act. It was fairly widespread, but it was also a radical act, especially as a migrant, because when your status is always precarious, you know that you are subject to state violence in a way that you wouldn’t be if you were part of the wider white community. My parents were really cautious about it. There were people who were frightened and scared by it. But it was a necessity for many people as it was the only way to survive.

Taj Ali

During this period, there was a significant number of racist murders, particularly in East London. The National Front were a major force. What role did racism play in shaping these movements? 

Shabna Begum

There was the broader systemic, institutional kind of racism that was baked into the system that very much inflicted that housing deprivation. And then on the ground is the National Front’s brutal, physical violence. The people I interviewed described the violence as routine. It was so much a part of their everyday life that they almost talk about it in a way that reflects a kind of trauma where they disassociate themselves from it almost as a strategy of survival.

People talked about the fact that the violence was completely random. You just never knew when you were going to be a victim. Whether you were an older man, a woman, or a child, you were always susceptible to that level of violence. People talked about the violence that was often inflicted on their homes, like the breaking of windows and having all sorts put through letterboxes. On the street as well, you were exposed to levels of random violence where you would be walking at any time of the day and would be attacked.

And so they developed strategies. Part of the squatter movement wasn’t just the securing and taking of homes for individual families. What developed was the idea that a home was not an individual property. Home was also being able to create a sense of security around your wider space and neighbourhood. In the book, I make the connection between how the home is understood in the Bengali context; that home is not just the walls of the house, it is your veranda, the space just outside your home, and that the wider village is part of your homely space. To be deprived of that in East London in such a vicious and active way prompted many of those squatters not just to squat but also to develop these vigilante patrols. They saw that there was a duty and a responsibility to maintain some sense of security for the community.

The other aspect is that the police weren’t interested in supporting the community. Often, if you were the victim of a racist attack and you called the police, then you ended up being arrested and taken in because the police determined that you had committed some offence by trying to defend yourself. In fact, this happened to my dad. The absence and the neglect and sometimes the collusion of the police in that racist violence meant that people began to organise in that much broader way to defend themselves.

And coming back to your point, this is something that we are never given — that sense of ourselves. South Asian histories are often more muted, giving the idea that we were quite passive and played the political system. We did that, but we also had this much braver and bolder history, which has been erased. And there’s a political purpose to that. It presents a narrative of our community, which is not helpful to us but definitely helpful to a hostile narrative. 

Race and Identity

Taj Ali

When I speak to members of the Asian Youth Movements and the Indian Workers Association from that era, it’s clear that their politics were informed by their experiences in the Indian subcontinent, particularly the history of British colonialism. Another big influence was the Black Power movement and the concept of political blackness. You cite the journal Race Today as a key part of this movement. What influence did they have?

Shabna Begum

You’re right to draw on that. When we talk about migrants coming into a country, we often bound the conversation around the idea that their only history is that of a migrant. But actually, the Bengali migrants brought a rich history of direct and indirect knowledge of British colonial history and its impact on the creation of Pakistan, which was East and West Pakistan, and how that then led to the Liberation War of 1971. It’s really important, and this goes back to much of the work we do at the Runnymede Trust, which is about making those links. Bengali migrants carried many of these links and talked actively about that history and how it informed their thinking and activism. The 1971 Liberation War was a rich source of inspiration for people because it was so close in time to these events. 

Many of the people I spoke to had just survived an attempted genocide by the West Pakistanis. After living and fighting through that experience to come here, they weren’t going to be treated as inferior human beings all over again. That memory was very much alive in the activism of the Bengali squatters. Political blackness was such an important concept. Race Today had this fascinating intellectual understanding of how colonialism, migration, and class are linked, but they weren’t just interested in that intellectual argument and the theorising around it. They wanted to see how it translated to action on the ground for their interests. They didn’t inspire the Bengali squatters, but they came because they heard about how a migrant group was organising and taking direct action against an institutionally racist state. The Race Today collective came and lent their support on the basis that this was a group of migrant workers who were fighting against a system. 

I don’t want to romanticise the relationship between Race Today and the Bengali squatters because there were tensions. Race Today was made up of key people, including Darcus Howe, Mala Sen and Farrukh Dhondy, who weren’t necessarily directly of the Bengali community but did lend their support. They bought the wider legal infrastructure and advice that could help support the Bengali squatters. Race Today provided a huge amount of inspiration and actual support.

Bengalis identified with political blackness. That surprised me because political blackness is no longer a fashionable concept. It’s one that is sneered at. And for me, that’s a real loss. It’s a real loss because, while I appreciate the need to have an intersectional and nuanced understanding of our different racialised experiences, the solidarity that comes from political blackness powered the achievements in the 1970s. And, without romanticising it, it was absolutely critical to the success of the Bengali squatters. 

Taj Ali

This brings us to more contemporary debates around race and identity. There’s been all sorts of criticism around the catch-all term ‘BAME’ and political blackness. But there’s also a lot of tension around how we talk about class. We’ve seen a growing South Asian middle class, and, as far as I’m concerned, we haven’t been as honest about the disparities within the South Asian community. What’s your take on that? How different is it now from what it was like in the seventies?

Shabna Begum

I miss the solidarity that comes from being able to have some way of expressing our shared experience of racism and our shared experience of how that is a class-based identity as well. We live in a political world right now where we have Black and Asian politicians from wealthy backgrounds whose class politics are entirely different to the many working-class communities that we at Runnymede are representing. That’s where the intersection between race and class is really important. Representation in terms of bodies in power is not enough.

We know overt racism is still a thing. Look at the stats on hate crimes. As a society, we have seen much more hate. And that hate is enabled by rhetoric from above. There are structural and systemic forms of racism that still operate, whether it’s housing, education, labour markets, health care, all of those things. The housing conditions experienced by the Bangladeshi community are ongoing. They had an impact on the disproportionate rates of mortality for people during the Covid-19 pandemic. Three generations were unable to practise the social distancing that the government was banging on about because they were living in overcrowded housing.

Legacy

Taj Ali

Going back to the book, what do you think the younger generation of South Asians can learn from the Bengali squatters movement in the seventies? What did you find most profound about researching that period and movement?

Shabna Begum

For me, it is that sense of hope. I don’t like the word pride because it’s often used in that nationalistic way. I quote Bell Hooks because our histories are often hidden from us, and there’s a point to that kind of erasure. Knowing about the radicalism and the fight that our parents and grandparents put up against that system nourishes the sense of activism and opposition we have now. 

I think back to what must have felt like an impossible situation. When you are migrants to a country and don’t speak the language, you are effectively powerless, both economically and politically. To put up that fight as the community did at the time, and to do that through collective action and to challenge the state, shows a kind of bravery and boldness that is missing from our politics now. And it’s not just missing, it’s been squashed out. The systems have tried to squash out all opportunities for direct action. We’ve got laws that stripped away our right to protest. 

This movement certainly nourished me and gave me a sense of responsibility. These people who came before us fought for what they considered their right. They have passed the baton onto us. We have to be ambitious in what we do as well. 

Taj Ali

Reflecting on your research and the people you spoke to, was there anything that stood out or surprised you?

Shabna Begum

Something I’ve yet to mention is the gender angle. Often, when we talk about organising and the Asian Youth Movements, the female voice is not there. If you think about it, squatting is about making a home. A home usually had a husband and wife and some children. Squatting involves people taking that home and occupying it; for most families, the women were the guardians of the squat. They were the ones who had to deal with the police, the local council and their neighbours, who were actively hostile to them. Lots of women talked about their role in defending the squat.

When I say this, it’s not just me projecting onto them and making their act political. Lots of the women themselves identified it as being political. They talked about defending the squad and taking care of the home in that sense. Homemaking is a political act. Again, we often don’t recognise that power and intelligence in people because they haven’t been able to speak about those experiences. And just because it hasn’t been spoken about doesn’t mean it’s not there. I enjoyed listening more to the women who were part of this. It gave me an understanding of how much more restricted those women were. They were really brave and bold. Since then, we’ve become less brave and bold, especially our cultural norms, which have become more conservative. 

Taj Ali

How successful was the Bengali Housing Action Group? What impact did they have?

Shabna Begum

It’s a mixed story because the Bengali Housing Action Group were the group that resulted from Race Today coming together and organising themselves. They were having conversations with the GLC (Greater London Council), one of the main housing providers at the time, and Tower Hamlets Council. The Bengali Housing Action Group petitioned and campaigned, and they eventually secured a housing amnesty, which meant that squatters could register and keep their property or were moved elsewhere. In the short-term sense, they won the right to the houses and homes they needed. But in signing up and accepting the terms of the state, there was also a cost. Individuals won their homes but then became co-opted into a system. It meant accepting that they were now tenants. That is fine, but it led to the development of housing associations, which resulted in the fracturing of our housing system and led to where we are today and the shortage of social housing.

We now have a system of private housing and social housing, which is mixed between housing associations and the local council. And that doesn’t work in our interest. That doesn’t work in the interests of the working-class community or people who rely on social housing. So there was a short-term gain. The Race Today collective and some key leaders felt we shouldn’t sign up and take the amnesty. They thought that we should campaign for much bigger and broader aims. But for a community under siege, where you needed housing, there’s always tension between meeting your short-term aims and staying committed to your broader political objectives.

Taj Ali

This tension between being radical and dealing with the practicalities in the here and now is a running theme in many movements today.

Shabna Begum

It’s the problem of the system. It’s the problem with all the work I do in my professional life as well. It’s about people having urgent needs. People have needs in the here and now, and you can’t ignore them. You can’t ignore the here-and-now needs because if people are hungry, they need food. If people have nowhere to live, they need some stability. So it’s about meeting those short-term needs but at the same time challenging a broader system that is inherently exploitative. By winning those short-term victories or immediate needs, you don’t resolve the broader systemic problems. It would be a real luxury for me to sit and say that those people shouldn’t have accepted the amnesty and that they should have fought for the bigger fight about what housing is, what the home is and what the migrant experience looks like. But you can’t do that. 

And that speaks to something about the brutal nature of our politics. The level of need is so great that people have to operate hand-to-mouth, which is a barrier to achieving our bigger objectives. So we do need to meet the here-and-now and resolve people’s urgent needs, but we must also hold our vision for a better society at the same time.

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