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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Abha Shah

Defiance on Channel 4 review: shocking but necessary viewing about how British Asians stood up to the far right

If you told an Asian migrant in 1980 that a British-born Indian would one day occupy the UK’s top job, they would think you were stark raving bonkers. Because at the time Rishi Sunak was born, Asian immigrants were fighting for their right to exist elsewhere in the country. 

Their battle against the far right is the focus of Channel 4’s new three-part documentary Defiance, produced by actor, musician and activist Riz Ahmed. Spanning five years from 1976 to 1981, and including key moments such as the Southall riots and the Battle for Brick Lane to the trial of the Bradford 12, the hour-long episodes are shocking and uncomfortable but necessary viewing.

As someone who grew up down the road from Southall in Wembley, a heavily Gujarati area, just five years after the documentary’s chronology ends, I’d heard whispers of some of these stories, but not the details. Defiance runs through the timeline at a breathless pace – finishing every episode took me by surprise – on a seismic chapter of modern London’s history.

It starts with a picture of the UK in the late Seventies, and it ain’t pretty – especially for those with brown skin. The slur ‘Paki’ was kicked about casually, on the street, in police stations and classrooms, on TV and in the press, feeding the vortex of suspicion towards immigrants.

Then, as now, a general election loomed; Thatcher’s incendiary words on immigration and use of expressions like “floods” and “swamped” were echoed by newspapers and radiated out to the masses.

Looking at some headlines today, you wonder if, 48 years down the road, anything has really changed at all.

We hear the Asian experience from residents of Southall and Brick Lane, some just kids at the time, activists, and police officers, both white and Asian, springing to life with archive footage and headlines. Their trauma is still so fresh it makes me wince.

Balraj Purewal, a founder of the Southall Youth Movement, explains how their arrival shifted the pecking order of the playground. United by language and faith, Black and white kids sided against immigrant children who became the new outcasts, the new targets.

Balraj, who takes part in the documentary (Channel 4)

At around the time India-raised Freddie Mercury was ruling the charts with Queen, Southall’s streets ran red with the blood of teenager Gurdip Singh Chaggar, stabbed to death by white youths in the summer of 1978. His murder, and others that followed in Brick Lane, Walthamstow and other places with dense Asian populations became the ignition for change. 

The documentary shows how young people spearheaded the rebellion, not just against racists, but against their elders too, who wanted them to just lay down and take it, no matter how hard the next punch, how outrageous the injustice.

Who was at the heart of these years of pain, fear and unrest? Fascists in the form of the National Front were, as now, dependably abhorrent, sure, but the biggest culprit? The police.

At every turn, it’s their mishandling that aggravates and accelerates things to utter bedlam. Each testimony reveals fresh acts of police brutality and indifference towards immigrants, from dragging old women across glass, taunting protestors with National Front salutes, and failing to investigate crimes against ethnic minorities properly.

Among all the voices, there’s one that gets under the skin. Former senior officer Don Gibson’s comments about one specific case involving a house fire (in which his prime suspect was one of the victims, an Asian man) aren’t easy viewing, but they are a canny inclusion by Defiance’s director, if only to show that old attitudes die hard – or don't die at all.

What Defiance doesn't cover is why so many came to the UK in the first place – but you’d need another hour for that, at least. Where to start? There’s the 1947 Partition of India, designed to keep the new nations of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh poor; who wouldn’t want a better life outside its borders?

Consider too the scores of Indian migrants who were expelled overnight from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania as they won independence from the Empire. They held British passports; why not start new lives in the British “dreamland”?

Then there’s the government which recruited cheap foreign labour to power the UK’s failing industries and health service, all amid waves of recession that left millions of Brits jobless.

Sound familiar? Something to remember as the election pushes immigration, which has reached dramatic highs, to the top of the news agenda once more.

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