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Thursday, May 30, 2024

From Tragedy to Triumph: Southall’s journey from racism’s grip to Nagar Kirtan

In the bustling heart of Southall on a fateful June day in 1976, a sombre atmosphere enveloped the Victory pub, where a police cordon delineated a grim scene. Amidst the hushed murmurs of passersby, the pool of blood behind the tape marked the tragic end of Gurdip Singh Chaggar, an 18-year-old Sikh, victim to a vicious racist attack in the vibrant hub of London’s South Asian community. At the time, Suresh Grover, then 22 and Director of the Southall Monitoring Group, stumbled upon the scene, his shock mounting as he confronted the callous indifference of a police officer who dismissed the loss with chilling nonchalance: “just an Asian.” This callousness was further underscored by a bone-chilling threat from former National Front chairman John Kingsley Read: “One down, one million to go.”

It’s therefore, hard to fathom that just 45 years ago, the streets of Southall evoked fear among British Asians. Enduring the brunt of racist slurs, Sikhs adorned in turbans were unjustly labelled ‘pakis,’ forced to navigate a hostile environment with resilience and fortitude. Following the tragic murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar, the birth of the Southall Youth Movement signalled a resolute stand for justice, orchestrating peaceful protests in solidarity with Chaggar and his grieving family.

Yet, Southall’s plight was not isolated; it echoed a broader societal struggle, vividly captured in the revelatory Channel 4 documentary series, Defiance. Here, we are confronted with the harrowing account of another South Asian in the series, who recounts the indignity of being interrogated by a teacher as a child. “Did you have curry? I can smell it” The teacher tells her. Such instances pierce the heart, underscoring the anguish endured by those subjected to racism and violence firsthand. Despite curry now adorning the tables of countless British households, symbolising a cherished aspect of our culinary heritage, the journey towards acceptance and understanding remains fraught with adversity for those who have borne the scars of discrimination.

Crowds gather for Nagar Kirtan in Southall Image: SGSSS – Narvir Singh web

Fast forward to present day and the scenes in Southall has somewhat changed. Sunday 7 April saw the bustling streets of Southall bear witness to a vibrant scene as thousands of Sikhs and non-Sikhs congregated together to mark the occasion of the annual Nagar Kirtan, a joyous celebration marking Vaisakhi, one of the most significant festivals in the Sikh calendar. The concept of a Nagar Kirtan is to bring the message of God to the doorstep of the community by singing religious hymns.

Visitors to the Nagar Kirtan included famous Director Gurinder Chadha capturing the moment, reflecting on the transformation from the turbulent Southall of 1979 to the harmonious present-day procession.

The inaugural Nagar Kirtan procession first took place in the UK, 22 January in 1967. Embarking from Havelock Road Gurdwara, into King Street, The Green, Beaconsfield Road, Woodlands Road, The Broadway, South Road, The Green, King Street and back to the Havelock Road Gurdwara drawing an estimated crowd of 7,000 individuals.

Harmeet Singh Gill General secretary, Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall spoke to Asian Standard on the significance of the weekend’s Nagar Kitan and the significance of the Southall riots over 45 years ago. He said: “This week, Southall was awash in a sea of orange as tens of thousands of Sikhs gathered to honour Vaisakhi with the Nagar Kirtan, commemorating the birth of the Khalsa. This celebration is a profound reminder of the enduring virtues of courage and righteousness within the Sikh community.

Streets packed out, as community members come together to mark Nagar Kirtan in Southall Image: SGSSS – Narvir Singh web

“As the nation watched the first episode of ‘Defiance,’ depicting the tragic events that unfolded on these very streets 45 years ago, where Gurdip Chaggar fell victim to a heinous, racially motivated crime, these virtues resonate with even greater significance.

“Today, as Southall stands united in vibrant celebration, it’s a testament to the community’s resilience and commitment to justice, reflecting the unyielding spirit of the Khalsa even in the face of adversity.”

While presently thousands celebrated the joyous occasion of the Sikh festival, Channel 4’s documentary – Defiance is still a painful and stark reminder of Southall’s journey which has been marred by darker chapters, particularly the tragic events of 23 April 1979, when Blair Peach, a special needs teacher, fell victim to violence during a demonstration against a National Front gathering. His death prompted a chilling admonition from the Metropolitan Police’s then-commissioner, Sir David McNee. In response, figures like Balraj Purewal, co-founder of the Southall Youth Movement, took measures for self-defence, while the Movement itself courageously confronted fascist elements, notably clashing with skinhead bands at the Hambrough Tavern.

Balwinder Rana who was the chief steward during the protests in 1979 told Asian Standard: “We are living in a different world now and it was a fantastic and joyous Nagar Kirtan last weekend. But that was only made possible because the community together with our anti-Nazi League friends stood up to the fascists.

“We owe it to my friend Blair Peach, a white guy, who made the supreme sacrifice, to Calarence Baker, a black guy who nearly died, to the 342 youths who were arrested and charged and to all those who were there on that fateful day.”

Balraj Purewal from Southall Youth Movement reflecting on the last few decades added: “At school Diwali, Eid and Vaisakhi and other Asian festivals and our languages were not recognised. We were not allowed to and could not speak our language and punished if we spoke Panjabi. I had the school record. I was given 50,000 lines (I must not speak Panjabi in class) by various teachers as punishment for speaking my own language with my friends in class.

“Our struggles created the spaces from which emerged the confidence and strength within our communities and for festivals like Vaisakhi Diwali and Eid to be celebrated openly

“We still remain marginalised. We are still referred to as ‘ethnic minorities’, ‘diverse’ people of colour, immigrants et al despite that fact that in Ealing we are the majority community.

“Only areas with large Asian populations and schools with Asian children make arrangements for Vaisakhi Diwali and Eid to be taken as holidays.

“What we generally have is Sikhs celebrating Vaisakhi, Muslims celebrating Eid and Hindus celebrating Diwali.

“We will begin to be part of British society when all schools, including those in rural England, recognise and close on our holidays. When white England truly embraces and joins with us.”

While there have been challenges and there is still much to do for fairness and equality, Southall has still managed to evolve into a beacon of unity for diverse Asian communities, providing a space for collective celebration and faith expression, devoid of fear.

With events like the annual Nagar Kirtan, drawing hundreds of thousands from diverse backgrounds, stands as a testament to this evolution. It symbolises the enduring legacy of those who courageously resisted far-right violence, including the Southall Youth Movement and Southall Monitoring, inspiring future generations to combat racism in all its forms.

Today, Nagar Kirtan in Southall stands as one of Europe’s largest festivals, symbolising the triumph over past adversity. The joyous atmosphere, marked by communal prayers, free food stalls, and a palpable sense of freedom, underscores the town’s transformation into a bastion of love and joy.

While the scars of past struggles linger, the annual Nagar Kirtan serves as a poignant reminder of Southall’s resilience and the enduring fight against racism. As the Sikh community takes to the streets nationwide in solidarity, it reflects the remarkable evolution from adversity to celebration, embodying the spirit of unity and progress.

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