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Public Engagement

CPE Small Grant: Bengali Resistance in the East End

In this blog Small Grant recipient Ansar Ahmed Ullah writes about his project on 1970s anti-racist activism; ‘Bengali Resistance in the East End’. 

A group of people listening to talks in front of an exhibition of anti-racist activist material from the 1970s

Attendees listened to talks and contributed their memories to the discussion

Bengali Resistance in the East End, Saturday 7th May 2022, 11am-3pm at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives 

I am a 2nd year LAHP funded CDA PhD student at the School of Geography in partnership with two local institutions, Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA) and the Bishopsgate Institute.  

For my first public engagement, I partnered with THLHLA and planned it with them. I had planned the event with their senior manager and two heritage officers, with whom I was in regular contact. 

We decided to hold the ‘Bengali Resistance in the East End’ event on a Saturday, 11am to 3pm on 7 May 2022 at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives premises in Bancroft Road, adjacent building to Queen Mary. The date was chosen to coincide with the ‘Altab Ali Day’, which falls on 4 May, to draw anti-racist activists. 

THLHLA suggested the event could be planned as a family day with activities, an exhibition (items from the Dan Jones collection, Race Today magazines, papers cuttings/reports from THLHLA collection), recordings & other speakers.  

The day’s line up started at 11.00am, with participants free to look at the display, which I had curated from THLHLA’s collection and other external sources.  

Heritage officer Sanjida Alam conducted the entire event. I spoke about the legacy of 1971: how the Bangladesh independence war influenced the anti-racist movement in East London in the late 1970s. This was a relevant topic for the local Bengali community as they celebrated Bangladesh’s 50 anniversary in 2021-2022. 

I talked about the Bengali community who had come from a rural background. They were economic migrants, not fluent in English, were in an alien land in a culturally different environment and had not come here to start a movement against racism. 

But the murder of a Bengali clothing worker Altab Ali in 1978 became a turning point for the community, our George Floyd moment, as one activist mentioned. The murder had changed the mindset of many, especially young Bengali men. 

Following my talk MayDay Rooms, Lamya Sadiq & Tiff Webster spoke about Housing Struggle and Squatting in the East End. 

Julie Begum, Chair of Swadhinata Trust, hosted a conversation in English & Bengali titled ‘Female Resistance - An inter-generational conversation’ with Shuva Motin, an activist with Progressive Youth Organisations. Shuva Motin, one of the few female activists who was involved with the Progressive Youth Organisation (PYO), talked about her flat being used by PYO activists as a stopover during their night patrolling estates where Bengalis lived. She would also serve snacks and tea to those activists. 

Bengali food and snacks made by Shuva Motin were served at the event, which went down a treat with the audience.  

In total, 50 people attended the event, mainly from Tower Hamlets but also including two groups of women from Edmonton and Hoxton. They are embarking on projects to record the stories of their community.  

I also met an SWP activist, now a Council’s Ideas Store staff, and a Sikh gentleman who had come with his daughter studying Masters. Both were active in 1978 and had attended the demos on top of Brick Lane. The event provided two valuable contacts for my research. I'm already planning my next event.



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