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The story of how the country’s first Asian Youth Movement began in Gravesend

“In this country, in 15 or 20 years time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

These were the words a senior politician used when addressing the nation on April 20, 1968.

The Indian Youth Federation lead to other AYM’s like this one in Bradford
The Indian Youth Federation lead to other AYM’s like this one in Bradford

In a speech filled with violent and graphic language, conservative Enoch Powell condemned immigration in a way never seen before.

His address in Birmingham was reported in the media daily, thousands of London dockers marched in his support and the National Front (NF) launched a staunch campaign that echoed Powell’s call for British supremacy.

“The whole world seemed to suddenly change and our future was threatened,” said Balwidner Rana, who was born in Punjab, India.

The then teen had moved over to Britain in 1963 and settled with his family in Gravesend.

Like many immigrants, they had been promised a better life if they came to help rebuild a post-war Britain, amid a labour shortage.

At the time of what became known as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, Balwinder was studying at North West Kent College in Dartford.

He said: “I was sitting in the common room and a white student came and threw some tabloid in front of me, grinning.

Young Balwinder Rana
Young Balwinder Rana

“The headline said ‘send them back says Enoch’ and that really sent chills down my spine.”

As racism against South Asians, known as ‘P*** bashing’, increased drastically, a terrifying fear spread among the community.

Will the fascists come to power? Could they be expelled like the Asians in Africa?

As Balwinder witnessed attacks in Gravesend, he and his friends decided the time had come to do something.

With his fellow students Rajinder Atwal and Mohan Bhatti, and factory workers, Tari Atwal, Harjinder Bhullar and Chain Singh, the Asian youths formed a group.

This would later become the first organisation, in a historic triumph for Asian rights in Britain, called ‘Asian Youth Movements’.

Together, the group visited Sikh temples in Gravesend and Strood to drum up support but the real turning point came when they witnessed discourse within their own community.

At the annual Indian Independence celebrations in The Woodville, some Indian shopkeepers were selling tickets for extortionate prices.

The IYF’s own Independence Day celebrations were a success
The IYF’s own Independence Day celebrations were a success

Fed up of the traders taking advantage, Balwinder and some other young people stood outside of the venue in defiance of the inflated costs.

He said: “Just across the road from the Woodville there was this church hall [Emmanuel Baptist] and I sent someone to go and get it opened.

“We all piled into the hall - about fifty of us and I laid out our plan.”

They officially set up a group that was named the Indian Youth Federation (IYF) with an 11-member committee and Balwinder was elected president.

Down the street was the Kent & Essex pub, which like many at the time would either ignore or tell Indians ‘We don’t serve you people’.

Balwinder said: “I thought that there was no better time than now to go in and demand to be served.”

Much to the shock of the customers inside, the newly formed organisation marched in.

“I said to the staff ‘fifty pints of lager please’ and they were all running around like headless chickens to serve us.

“When I looked at the young men’s faces I could see it was the first time they had sensed power.”

Over the next decade this first Asian Youth Movement triggered second-generation South Asian immigrants across the country to band together and campaign against the racism they were experiencing.

Within a month of the foundation’s formation, they held their own free Independence Day celebrations in the same hall. It was a huge success with thousands of people attending and hundreds of pounds raised.

The group used the funds to cover the expenses of the event and invested the remaining money into supporting the community.

Invitations were sent out to councillors, the mayor, head teachers and bank managers.

They went on to set up an advice centre to help their peers, created a Punjabi magazine, formed the folk dance Bhangra group, Jugnu and more.

“The idea was to let them know that now we are united and they cannot push us around,” said Balwinder.

The Indian Youth Federation marched in various counter-protests against the NF
The Indian Youth Federation marched in various counter-protests against the NF

“People used to feel so powerless in those days.

“They suffered racism daily in the workplace from their colleagues and managers, and there was a lot of racism because people couldn’t get their mortgages and couldn’t send their children to schools.

“Now, for the first time since they had been in this country, they felt that by coming together and uniting, they could make a change.”

Then, in 1974 one of the worst stock market crashes since the Great Depression happened.

“There were a lot of people suffering, just like now, because there was a big cost of living crisis.

“There was mass unemployment, a lot of people lost their jobs and the government had made a lot of public spending cuts.

“The National Front was exploiting that so in Gravesend the feeling had changed and the media blamed us – they were turning the people against us,” said Balwinder.

“The whole world seemed to suddenly change and our future was threatened..."

Racism across the country increased once again as the National Front marched in various cities and towns nearly every week.

The Indian Youth Foundation began joining in the counter-protests, travelling across the country in coaches and cars together.

And then in 1976, an 18-year-old Sikh was killed.

Gurdip Singh Chaggar was brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack in Southall.

In response, the former National Front chairman and leader of the newly founded National party, John Kingsley Read, said: ‘One down, one million to go’.

Two months later the National Front arrived in Gravesend.

When they began selling papers in the high street, a shocked Balwinder began knocking on IYF member doors and they went to surround them.

The front page of the Evening Post reporting on the NF and IYF confrontations in Gravesend
The front page of the Evening Post reporting on the NF and IYF confrontations in Gravesend

“We told them to stop coming to our town and go home but the police came and started basically supporting them – they said ‘they have every right’,” said Balwinder.

“We were saying that they were shouting racist slogans, that it was against the Race Relations Act and that they couldn’t shout such obscenities but the police wouldn’t let us go near them.”

For the next six weeks, the NF returned to Gravesend every Saturday, bringing more of them each time.

Each weekend the group and the IYF would confront each other and fight, which would often lead to the police getting involved.

“On the sixth Saturday, we were in the pub and having our meeting when someone came running in saying ‘the [gurdwara] president has been attacked outside Woolworths’,” said Balwinder.

The elderly man, Mohan Singh, had been walking with a couple of friends when a few individuals from the NF had pushed him through the window of Woolworths.

“He was lying there on broken glass, injured and bleeding – first, I called the ambulance and they came and took him away.

The confrontations lasted six weekends
The confrontations lasted six weekends

“Then, I said ‘Call everyone’,” Balwinder recalled.

Nearly 700 members of the IYF gathered and confronted the 70 National Front supporters. The police arrived and Balwinder claims they “started attacking us and were trying to protect them.”

The National Front fled towards the park and people from both groups were arrested.

For a reason unknown, the police investigated one of the fascist’s cars, which had been parked by The Woodville.

Inside it, they found a loaded gun.

“It looked like they had planned an open fire or something,” said Balwinder.

The following Monday a far-right organisation, the British Movement released a statement regarding the incident.

Balwinder said: “They were like true Nazis – even the other fascist groups used to be scared of them.”

The British Movement said that the NF were like women and that they ran away from the Indians.

They threatened: “We will come to Gravesend next Saturday and we will teach the Asians a lesson.”

The threat was reported in the local media and the IYF called a meeting at the gurdwara for that Wednesday.

On Tuesday, evening the Kent Police Commander called Baldwinder asking to talk one-on-one, but he declined and instead invited him to the meeting.

Balwinder recalled: “He [the officer] said ‘I really want to apologise on behalf of the Kent Police, I’m sorry we didn’t support your community and help you – give us one more chance – we will deal with the British Movement’.

“I said ‘This is our town, we live here. There is no way we will hide in our homes.”

The gurdwara in Clarence Place. Picture: Jagdev Singh Virdee
The gurdwara in Clarence Place. Picture: Jagdev Singh Virdee

The police and IYF came to a compromise and a plan for the day was set in motion.

They decided that all the Asian youths would be stationed at pubs across the town, and would come out if they were needed.

There were also small groups patrolling the streets and two cars at every entrance into Gravesend.

Using nearby telephone boxes they were to call the gurdwara every half hour, or immediately if it seemed the British Movement had arrived.

“At about 1.30pm, a couple of our members came running to the Sikh temple saying ‘They’re here! They’re here!’”

Balwinder and a few senior members of the group drove down to see for themselves.

“There were half a dozen local young skinheads who had come to greet their heroes.

The Indian Youth Federation
The Indian Youth Federation

“They were giving us Nazi salutes and shouting at us,” said Balwinder.

The IYF complied with the police’s request to not bother with the ‘kids’.

And the British Movement never arrived.

The moment was a triumph for the community, and members celebrated with a parade to mark their victory.

Balwinder said: “In the following days there was a happier mood in the whole community. In their workplaces, white colleagues showed more than the usual respect.

“In schools, white classmates were impressed that the community had stood up for themselves and beaten the fascists.

“People had smelt victory.”

Sadly, many of the original members of the Indian Youth Federation have now either moved away or passed away.

Balwinder joined the Anti-Nazi League in 1977 and later founded Sikhs Against the EDL. Picture: Paul Trevor
Balwinder joined the Anti-Nazi League in 1977 and later founded Sikhs Against the EDL. Picture: Paul Trevor

Balwinder now lives in Southall, where he remains an activist, fighting for equality and socialism.

But that moment will forever be pivotal for the Sikh community in Gravesend.

Fifty years on since the group's formation, have things changed?

Gravesend now has the largest gurdwara in Europe and the Sikh community is thriving, with established families and businesses.

And while Balwinder thinks things have got better, there will always be a fear those groups will rise again.

He explained: “In many ways, there has been a big change – there’s not as much general prejudice.

“Whenever my family would cook curry, they would close all the doors and afterwards, we would spray so much air freshener so the neighbours couldn’t smell it, otherwise, they would complain.

Balwinder Rana is still an active socialist and anti-racism campaigner
Balwinder Rana is still an active socialist and anti-racism campaigner

“Now the curry industry is one of the biggest in the country and everybody loves them.”

However, Balwinder says there is a cycle of racism that rises and drops which is correlated to economic crises, as seen in the recessions in 1974, 1990, 2008, and recently.

“When the people feel that they can’t feed their families and they have to live off food banks, they turn against their neighbours because someone incites them.

“There’s always a politician like Farage or Tommy Robinson,” he said.

As our current cost of living crisis deepens, he believes those levels of fascism will grow again.

“Look what happened in Spain, the fascists nearly won. In Italy, they’re in government. In France, Le Pen only lost by a small number of votes.”

He believes that the same thing could happen to this country unless things change.

Balwinder said: “No matter how well established we are in this country, how many businesses we have, how many jobs we have – if the situation gets worse, nothing will matter.

“It will never go away until things change. There is always a danger – we always have to be watchful and always be united.”

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