A political history
Author: Sarah Glynn

This exploration of one of the most concentrated immigrant communities in Britain combines a new narrative history, a theoretical analysis of the evolving relationship between progressive left politics and ethnic minorities, and a critique of political multiculturalism. Its central concern is the perennial question of how to propagate an effective radical politics in a multicultural society: how to promote greater equality that benefits both ethnic minorities and the wider population, and why so little has been achieved. It charts how the Bengali Muslims in London’s East End have responded to the pulls of class, ethnicity and religion; and how these have been differently reinforced by wider political movements. Drawing on extensive recorded interviews, ethnographic observation, and long sorties into the local archives, it recounts and analyses the experiences of many of those who took part in over six decades of political history that range over secular nationalism, trade unionism, black radicalism, mainstream local politics, Islamism, and the rise and fall of the Respect Coalition. Through this Bengali case study and examples from wider immigrant politics, it traces the development and adoption of the concepts of popular frontism and revolutionary stages theory and of the identity politics that these ideas made possible. It demonstrates how these theories and tactics have cut across class-based organisation and acted as an impediment to tackling cross-cultural inequality; and it argues instead for a left alternative that addresses fundamental socio-economic divisions.

Sarah Glynn

Glynn 07_Tonra 01 19/06/2014 12:54 Page 147 7 Bengalis in the council chamber The community-based activism of the late 1970s led to a pragmatic move into mainstream Labour politics.1 For many activists this was the logical next step, despite the fact that party politics had been only peripheral to the struggles described in the previous chapter, and that in some of the housing battles Tower Hamlets Labour Council had been on the opposing side.These activists generally continued to see themselves as representatives of the Bengali community, but argued that they

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End
Sarah Glynn

Glynn 01_Tonra 01 19/06/2014 12:47 Page 6 1 Sailors, students and settlers This book tells a specifically political history, but this first chapter sets the scene with a very brief general history of the Bengali East End. The East End of London The East End of London is a place associated with strong but, in some ways, contradictory images; a place of cockney kinship and immigrant ghettos, at once English and ‘alien’. It is famous for battles with organised racism, but it is also portrayed as a ‘multicultural-receptor’ and symbol of English tolerance.1 And

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End
Sarah Glynn

Glynn 03_Tonra 01 19/06/2014 12:49 Page 57 3 1 Joi Bangla! – 1971 In 1971, the battle for Bangladeshi independence galvanised the probashi (emigrant) Bengali community and left it not only with a new relationship to its homeland, but a new political awareness overall. The trigger was the election in Pakistan. Pakistanis went to the polls on 7 December 1970, but before the elections finally took place, East Pakistan was hit by a cyclone and tidal wave that left three hundred thousand dead.2 The inaction of the West Pakistan-based authorities in the face of

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End
Sarah Glynn

Glynn 02_Tonra 01 19/06/2014 12:48 Page 32 2 Desher Dak – ‘The Call of the Homeland’ The East End’s numerous Bengali newspapers and journals – and now also other media – are witness to the London Bengalis’ continued links with their ‘homeland’.1 While these provide an important source of local East End news, they have always been dominated by the politics of Bengal.2 Desher Dak (The Call of the Homeland), published monthly from 1954 to 1964, was largely the responsibility of Tasadduk Ahmed, a journalist and communist activist who plays an influential role in

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End
Sarah Glynn

going back to look more critically at the origins of those early Bengali Socialists, at their attitude towards Islam and at their uneasy relationship with class politics. Islamic socialists Like the Russian Jewish revolutionaries, the first socialists in the Indian subcontinent were responding to an oppressive imperial regime, but for most of the North Indian Muslims who took up socialist ideas this did not involve a break with their cultural or even religious past, as had been so important for the Jewish leaders. Rather, the emphasis was on reform from the inside

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End
Sarah Glynn

activity in the East End, adjacent to the area of immigrant settlement. In establishing themselves as permanent settlers, the Bengalis mobilised to campaign for better housing and against racism. To understand the form these campaigns took, it is necessary to look again at wider political developments on the progressive left, which in this period saw a major shift from class-based organisation to separate responses to different forms of oppression. Black radicalism was a formative strand of this ‘New Left’. The New Left and New Social Movements What began as a critique

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End
Sarah Glynn

Glynn 04_Tonra 01 19/06/2014 12:50 Page 79 4 British Bangladeshis Probashi Bengalis had shown massive support for their homeland as it struggled for independence, but after the war was over very few wanted to go back and live there. Some took up opportunities of influential positions with the ruling party, but generally the pulls were all in the other direction. This was the time when many of the Bengali men who were already working here began to bring over their wives and families – partly as a response to the traumas of separation and uncertainty that

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End
Abstract only
Sarah Glynn

Glynn 10_Tonra 01 19/06/2014 12:57 Page 240 10 Diverging paths I quoted in the preface the old call, ‘black and white, unite and fight’; however, the common theme that runs through this history is not unity but segregation. Segregation not just in the sense of measurable physical separation – as expressed in separate housing patterns and school rolls – or even of cultural segregation that can allow people to live parallel lives.There has also been a tendency for Bengalis to engage with wider civil society – in which many are very active – specifically through

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End
Sarah Glynn

impossible to say how many people have adopted an Islamist perspective, but that is not the point. These ideas have absorbed the energies of some of the most politically active young members of the community, allowing them to have an effect well beyond simple numerical strength. Islam and Islamism Only a small number of Bengalis of any age have abandoned their religion, but the form of worship practised by today’s Bengali ‘elders’ is mainly that of their families back home. Like the majority of British Muslims, they follow the Barelwi tradition, which preserves the

in Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End