Ansar Ahmed Ullah
The Bengali Anti-Racist Movement: Mobilisation, institutionalisation and legacies of 1978
During the evening of the 4 May 1978, a day of political tension amid local elections, Altab Ali, a 25-year-old Bengali leather garments worker, was brutally stabbed and murdered by three youths in a racially-motivated attack on Adler Street, close to Whitechapel Road in London’s East End. According to Ali (1994, 24) Altab Ali’s murder ‘marked a turning point in the political awakening of the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets’. It was followed on May 15th by a march of over 7,000 Bengalis who followed Ali’s coffin from Brick Lane to Downing Street to protest against the racist attacks that had become an all too common occurrence in East London. Further violent attacks on local Bengali people, including the killing of another Bengali man Ishaque Ali in neighbouring Hackney, took place in June, prompting a summer of protest and political mobilisation where local Bengali organisations formed alliances with other political factions as part of an anti-fascist and anti-racist struggle (Eade 1989, Leech 1994). The scale of the movement was unprecedented, mobilising and forging alliances with anti-racist struggles across and beyond London, and was crucial in its subsequent mainstream political recognition (Eade 1989, Tatari 2015). Yet the movement struggled to sustain itself and by the 1980s was turning both inwards and towards a slow institutionalisation of its leaders. How to explain such a rapid process of mobilisation and institutionalisation of a movement that laid the basis for Bengali activism in London.