Balwinder Rana was 16 when he first spoke to a white person. It was 1963, on a sunlit but freezing spring day, and he had just landed at Heathrow airport, after taking his first plane journey, on his first trip outside Punjab, India. He had arrived to join his father and his brother, who had moved to England two years earlier.
“How long are you staying here?” the white immigration officer asked. “It’s up to my father,” a sheepish Rana replied.
Fifty-eight years later, Rana has devoted most of his time since to fighting racism and fascism. He founded the first Indian Youth Federation in Gravesend, Kent, in 1969, spurring on a decade of Asian youth mobilisation in response to the rising power of the National Front. He also worked full-time for the Anti-Nazi League for two years from 1977 and was a key figure in marches protesting against racist murders, such as the Battle of Lewisham that same year and the Welling protest against the British National Party (BNP) in 1993. In 2013, he formed Sikhs Against the English Defence League (EDL) and is still a convener of his local Stand Up To Racism group.
It has been a formidable and uncompromising career. Rana is warm, quiet and softly spoken. Wearing a crumpled white shirt, his grey hair swept back, he listens attentively and calmly sets out his memories of the abuse he has experienced and witnessed.
He begins by explaining that it was the tenor of his early encounters with white people that set him on the path to campaigning against racism. A few weeks after his plane landed, he moved in with his older brother in Gravesend, staying in a bedsit that housed five people in two rooms – a “horrible place”. He would head out early each morning to look for a job at local factories and often came across signs posted in the windows saying “No blacks, no Irish” (“black” was often used as an interchangeable term for all people of colour). Once, a visit to a paper mill prompted the foreman to say: “Your people are not allowed to cross this barrier.”
“I was stunned,” Rana says. “I came here from a small village and a fairly middle-class family, so I had never experienced any racism or prejudice before. I didn’t know what it was.” He went home to tell his brother, who was indifferent. “He said not to worry and to keep looking. He was already used to it and had the responsibility of his own family to look after, so he had to just take it on his shoulders.”
Rana was less willing to be passive. When he did eventually find a job after moving to Slough, the factory foreman took to calling him “black boy”. Rana asked him to stop but the man persisted, which led to a scuffle on the factory floor and, inevitably, he was sacked. “After that, I decided to get an education – I had to get out of these factories,” he says.
As one of a handful of Asian students at his college in Gravesend, Rana witnessed the change towards overt and often violent racism in England after Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood speech. “I remember the morning after the speech, one of the white students threw a newspaper at me with the headline ‘Send Them Back’ and he sniggered,” he says. “That was when I realised that if even our fellow students were going to start turning on us, we were in real trouble.”
There followed a spate of racist attacks and a rise in prominence of the National Front, which began to organise coordinated rallies in predominantly Black and Asian areas. “The normality and scale of racism was becoming a real shock – it was no longer isolated incidents – so my fellow Asian students and I decided we had to do something,” Rana says. Along with his friends Rajinder Atwal and Mohan Bhatti, Rana contacted young Asians from nearby hockey teams or those who were involved with the local Sikh gurdwara (place of worship) to see if they were interested in starting an anti-racist youth movement. They soon had their first meeting in the community hall where Rana was elected president of the newly named Indian Youth Federation, along with an 11-person committee.
“Someone at the meeting mentioned there was a nearby pub that wouldn’t serve our people and I decided there was no better time than now to confront them,” Rana says. “So the 50 of us marched down to that pub and I demanded ‘Fifty pints of lager please’,” he says, laughing. “They started running around like headless chickens to serve us.”
There began several years of local activism, which included holding advice sessions to mitigate the prejudices that often meant people of colour found it harder to secure mortgages. The Indian Youth Federation also organised shows of strength whenever National Front supporters made a scene in the town. “We set up a phone network to make sure that everyone was informed and protected,” Rana says.
At a time of such heightened racial violence, it took an almost reckless level of fearlessness to confront racists so directly. “We had no choice but to fight back,” Rana says. “It was different for my father or my brother, since they had the responsibility of a family, and also had the mantra: ‘It’s only for five years, then we will go back,’” he says. “Regardless, I wanted us to be treated with dignity and respect at all times – plus I was young and single, so I felt I could make a stand.”
With his parents concerned for his safety but proud of his new standing in the community, Rana continued his studies and moved to London in the early 70s to work as a computer programmer. He passed on the leadership of the Indian Youth Federation to a new committee and returned to Gravesend any time there was a march. However, the intensity of racial hate in England did not abate.
In 1974, the National Front organised its largest rally to date at Red Lion Square in central London. There followed intensive clashes between the police and anti-racist protesters, and a student from Warwick University, Kevin Gately, was killed. Rana attended a march held in Gately’s memory a week later and it was there that he encountered the leftwing political sphere for the first time. “Up to that point, I had been a local activist, and this was the first time I came across the unions and socialist party,” he says. “I had never seen other white people admit that racism existed before – now they were marching alongside me and willing to fight for this cause.”
It was an experience of solidarity that would be desperately needed in the years to come. In 1976, an 18-year-old student, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, was murdered in a racist attack in Southall. In the wake of the killing, the fascist and former chairman of the National Front John Kingsley Read reportedly said: “One down, a million to go.”
The ensuing outrage led to the founding of the Southall Asian Youth Movement, an anti-racist group with the same remit as Rana’s Gravesend contingent, as well as other Asian Youth Movements across the country in Birmingham and Sheffield. These groups oversaw an unprecedented mobilisation of young south Asians in organising political opposition to racism throughout the 1970s and 80s.
Violence escalated. In 1976, the president of the Sikh temple in Gravesend was pushed through a plate glass window on the high street and was rushed to hospital by Rana and his comrades. The following year, a counterprotest against the National Front in south London turned into a violent police clash, known as The Battle of Lewisham. The collective trauma of these events marked a turning point for Rana. “Lewisham felt different. A lot of the local Black youth and white workers came to join us and we totally stopped the National Front from marching,” he says. “That’s when I thought: this is my calling. I should go into activism full time.”
Rana began working for the Anti-Nazi League in 1977, travelling to university towns to organise counterprotests the week before the National Front or Read’s hard-right splinter group, the National party, were due to arrive. It was dangerous work. “The riskiest parts were when we were travelling to protests on the coach and we’d stop at the motorway cafes,” he says. “You might pull into the car park and see there were already coachloads of skinheads there and then you’d be in trouble.”
In 1979, Rana was just streets away when the teacher Blair Peach was killed during an Anti-Nazi League march in Southall. A report compiled by the Metropolitan police commander John Cass, only released in 2010, concluded that Peach was “almost certainly” killed by one of six riot police officers who were members of the Special Patrol Group. Fourteen witnesses also saw Peach being struck by an officer, but nobody has ever been charged with his death. “I was horrified. The police had their truncheons out and were hitting everyone in the vicinity – even if they weren’t protesters,” Rana says.
It was a tragedy that called for a different response. “They kill, you march, and then they kill again – so when does it stop?” Rana says. “When there was another death in Hackney in the same year, I convinced the protesters to take a different tactic and instead block two of the main arteries passing through London: Whitechapel Road and Commercial Street. It was the first time the police ever listened to us. The youth movements started to get much more organised after that.”
It is a controversial tactic that made headlines again recently with the road-blocking actions of the climate group Insulate Britain. It also brought Rana to the attention of the Labour party, and he was approached about standing as one of the first Asian councillors in England. Yet Rana wasn’t convinced by Labour’s anti-racist stance and, instead, stepped back from his full-time role to become a west London organiser for the Anti-Nazi League from 1979.
He also resumed work as a computer programmer, as by now he had a family. “Thankfully, I managed to keep the two sides of my life separate, although I miss not having spent enough time with my children when they were young because I was always out campaigning,” he says. His son is now 39, his daughter 36.
Rana’s commitment to protesting against racial injustice never waned. He helped to organise the march around Brick Lane, east London, after the killing of Altab Ali in 1978; he is famously pictured being held back by the police during the anti-BNP protests in 1993; he set up strike support groups for the Hillingdon hospital workers in 1996 and the Gate Gourmet workers in 2006; in 2011, he formed Sikhs Against the EDL.
“First it was the National Front, then the BNP, then it was the EDL,” he says. “They tried to be clever by saying they were only against the Muslims and it made my blood boil to see Sikhs start to join their ranks.” Rana responded by setting up a petition to have the leader of the Sikh EDL faction, Guramit Singh, excommunicated unless he resigned, which he did a week later.
“In some ways we’ve gone backwards in the Asian community because, in the 70s, we were all perceived as Black; Black was a political colour,” Rana says. “We were united against the common cause of racism, but now we are fragmented and I worry that Asians are only protesting for things that directly affect them, when solidarity is key.” As such, Rana praises the efforts of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, which activated youth movements across the globe largely through social media, as well as the direct action of Extinction Rebellion.
“[The home secretary] Priti Patel is trying her hardest to make sure we cannot protest, but the only solution is to stand up and protest,” he says. “We are facing a three-part crisis of the climate, Covid and an economic recession, which means that we’ll continue to face inequality. These are the perfect conditions for the resurgence of racism and fascism, so I think things are going to get worse before they get better. We have no choice but to come together because either we fight back or we perish, and there is no substitute for taking to the streets.”
As such, Rana is off to see some old friends and activists after our meeting, to discuss next steps. “I’ll never stop,” he says. “We cannot simply rely on politicians, we have to believe in people and in our power to help ourselves – together.”