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'We Lost Our Youth': British Indians Who Fought Against Racist Attacks in 1970s

A new Channel 4 documentary tells the stories of south Asians in Britain who led the charge against racist murders.

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South Asians
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It all started with the racially motivated murder of a Sikh engineering student named Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall – a hub of the south Asian community in West London – in 1976.

"I was 19 years old. I remember seeing the pool of blood in the place where he was murdered," Suresh Grover, a British Indian raised in the United Kingdom, said while speaking to The Quint.

"When I asked a police officer at the scene what had happened, he said: 'It's nothing, it's just 'Indian blood'. It was obvious that he was trying to imply that Indian blood was dirty blood. And that really angered me."
Suresh Grover
A new Channel 4 documentary tells the stories of south Asians in Britain who led the charge against racist murders.

Gurdip Singh Chaggar.

(Photo Courtesy: X)

Grover, now 68, was among the many young south Asians who formed the Southall Youth Movement – a platform that sprung up in reaction to the death of 18-year-old Chaggar and the chilling words of National Front leader John Kingsley that followed: 'One down, one million to go'.

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A new Channel 4 documentary tells the stories of south Asians in Britain who led the charge against racist murders.

South Asians holding a demonstration in Southall to protest against racial attacks in 1976.

(Photo: Channel 4/Accessed by The Quint)

The National Front was a far-right political party that openly called for the repatriation of Indians and other south Asians from the UK in the 1970s and 80s. Several groups inspired by the party, such as skinheads, were responsible for attacks against British Asians across the country.

The untold stories surrounding Chaggar's murder and first-hand testimonies of people like Grover have been featured in a new documentary by Channel 4 called 'Defiance: Fighting the Far Right'. The three-part series reflects on the British Asian fightback against a wave of brutal racist attacks and murders between 1976 and 1981 – as the far-right turned a rising tide of anti-immigrant feeling into a campaign of violence and intimidation.

The Trauma of Racism

The Southall Youth Movement, even though it came into existence in 1976, was the culmination of decades of racial abuse and attacks faced by British Asians.

"We were constantly called 'Pakis' or 'Wogs' or 'Coons'," said Grover, who himself was stabbed by a skinhead in the 1970s.

"What racism does is that it diminishes you and gives you lower self-esteem – you feel like you don't belong to the country you're living in, and that's traumatic."
A new Channel 4 documentary tells the stories of south Asians in Britain who led the charge against racist murders.

Suresh Grover.

(Photo: Channel 4/Accessed by The Quint)

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He said that the murder of Chaggar left a deep impact on him – and has inspired his efforts to address racial abuse to this day.

"Because the events took place when I was so young, I feel like I lost my youth. I was forced to grow up quickly because of all the tragic happenings around me," he tells The Quint.

Grover is the director of the Monitoring Group – an anti-racist advocacy campaign which was started in 1980 as the Southall Monitoring Group. It aids families that have faced racial abuse and holds the state and police to account in case of complacency on their part in ensuring justice.

While Grover says that he wants to be a seen as one of the protagonists who fought for change instead of a victim, he adds that being a part of the documentary was "terrifying" for him.

"It's like you've been wounded, and the bandages are being taken off, and you can see the bleeding wounds right in front of you."

He is not alone.

Pritpal Sahota was 12 years old at the time of the Chaggar murder.

"His death was a shock to me. Before the incident I used to believe that my community was very safe. Somebody had murdered a young man just a few yards from my house, and that was very frightening," the 60-year-old British Indian, who was born and raised in Southall, told The Quint.

A new Channel 4 documentary tells the stories of south Asians in Britain who led the charge against racist murders.

Pritpal Sahota, aged 16.

(Photo Courtesy: Pritpal Sahota)

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She, too, was among the crowd of people overlooking the pool of blood where Chaggar's body lay – something that left an indelible impression on her.

"I remember his funeral. It took place very close to my house and the whole community mourned his death. It could've been any one of us in that casket, and that struck all our families," she said.

Despite the limitations her young age placed on her, Sahota was one of the many south Asians who took to the streets to hold demonstrations against racist attacks after the 1976 tragedy.

"We held peaceful protests along the lines of non-cooperation preached by Mahatma Gandhi. All south Asians – whether they were from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh – we all stood together and made our town safe. We didn't tolerate the injustice and that's something I'm very proud of," Sahota says.
A new Channel 4 documentary tells the stories of south Asians in Britain who led the charge against racist murders.

Pritpal Sahota, aged 60.

(Photo: Channel 4/Accessed by The Quint)

However, she adds that recalling stories of violence and hatred from the past was one of the hardest things she has ever had to do.

"You get on with life and you put those painful memories somewhere. But this documentary made me revisit those years again – I was surprised by how difficult that was."
Pritpal Sahota

A Cathartic Experience

Rajesh Thind, the director of one of the three episodes of 'Defiance', says that making the documentary was a "cathartic" experience for him.

"I saw my parents and many like them fight these battles with grace and dignity. To tell their stories is incredibly moving for me – I feel like it's for them," he tells The Quint.

A new Channel 4 documentary tells the stories of south Asians in Britain who led the charge against racist murders.

Rajesh Thind.

(Photo Courtesy: Rajesh Thind)

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Thind says that since he witnessed the protests from a child's point of view, they made an impressionable impact on him while he was growing up.

"I was six or seven years old. I saw elders in our community stand up for what was right. Of course I wasn't allowed out at the time, but I was really impressed with their courage. I think that's why all these years I've wanted to tell these stories."
A new Channel 4 documentary tells the stories of south Asians in Britain who led the charge against racist murders.

Rajesh Thind (child in the middle) with his family in West London in 1978. 

(Photo Courtesy: Rajesh Thind)

Keeping in mind the dangerous times they lived in, Thind recalled that south Asians used to take several precautions to protect themselves and their families from racist attacks.

"My father would drive around with hockey sticks in the back of his car. There was a sense that you always had to be prepared," he says.

A new Channel 4 documentary tells the stories of south Asians in Britain who led the charge against racist murders.

Rajesh Thind's father Gurbachan Singh Thind (1938-2019).

(Photo Courtesy: Rajesh Thind)

"There was occasions when family friends of ours were attacked. My mother's friends were verbally assaulted, spat on, and had things thrown at them. We had to screw our letterboxes tight so that people did not put petrol in them. Some families were so afraid that they used to bring their mattresses to the ground floor and keep buckets of water by their front door in case somebody tried to burn their house down."
Rajesh Thind

However, a lot of the time the attacks were more subtle. Thind says that the father of one of his closest friends in primary school – a white Briton – would beat his son if he saw him interacting with brown people.

"My friend's father was a voter of the National Front and a terrible racist. His son and I would walk back from school together. But when we could get to the end of his street, I would let him go ahead so that his father wouldn't see us together. If he did, he would take it out on the poor boy."

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Thind says that he faced several rejections when he first tried to get this documentary made: "I was told by production companies that there isn't an audience for such stories out there."

However, he realised that if these stories were not told now, people would never come to know of the heroism portrayed by thousands of south Asians across the UK.

"I was aware that the activists involved in the protests were getting older and won't be around forever. And I decided that I had to get their stories out there, no matter what."

Echoes From the Past

Meanwhile, activists who took part in the protests said that while there has been a drastic improvement in the safety of Asians in the UK, there are echoes from the past that reverberate even today.

"There are parallels between the UK of those days and the UK of today," Pritpal Sahota tells The Quint.

"For the first time in history we have a brown prime minister – but tragically he is the one calling for immigrants to be put on boats and sent to Rwanda. And he is an immigrant himself."
Pritpal Sahota

Similarly, Rajesh Thind says that the documentary has been released at a pertinent time.

"I think that's why the series is having such an impact – because there are lessons from that period that are applicable even today," he says.

Defiance: Fighting the Far Right has been helmed by the BAFTA-winning Rogan Productions, Riz Ahmed's Left Handed Films, and GroupM Motion Entertainment.

Apart from the Chaggar murder, the documentary highlights tragic incidents like the murder of Altab Ali – a Bangladeshi textile worker – in 1978, the killing of anti-racist teacher Blair Peach by the police in 1979, and the murder of an entire British Asian family in Walthamstow.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Britain   Racism   United Kingdom 

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