Gurdip Singh Chaggar was just eighteen years old when he was brutally stabbed to death in Southall, West London on the night of Friday 4th June 1976. This unprovoked murder of a Sikh engineering student, targeted during a quiet night out with friends by a gang of white youths, had an immediate impact. Over the following weekend hundreds of local Asians took to the streets to express their anger over Chaggar’s death. The scale of this (predominantly peaceful) response highlighted the frustration of a new generation of British Asians whose formative years were being increasingly dominated by the overt racism promoted by Enoch Powell and the National Front (NF), not to mention the institutional prejudices of the police and of the state more generally. By Monday the Southall Youth Movement (SYM) had been formed out of a communal desire for direct action. The SYM would go on to be crucial, both in defending Southall’s Asian population against the threat of racism and in helping to inspire the foundation of other Asian youth organisations across the UK. Together with other anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations, the SYM was at the forefront of opposing the NF when it came to Southall in April 1979.
The events of June 1976 were undoubtedly decisive in generating grassroots resistance to the NF in Southall. Equally, however, the nature of media, governmental, and legal responses to Chaggar’s murder can be seen as important in helping the NF to maintain its prominence into the late 1970s. This was, after all, a party that spent much of the 1970s in chaos. It was dogged by its fluctuating membership and by internal divisions (especially over party leadership) as well as by the vocal opposition it faced from anti-racist and anti-fascist groups. That the NF was still in a position of any significance by the 1979 election campaign (which its April meeting in Southall was part of) was down less to its own strength than to the fact that its racist agenda had not been shut down by politicians or by the press. Encouraged by the reluctance of those in positions of power to adequately censure it, the NF increasingly focused its attention in the mid-late 1970s on tactics of street-based provocation, in which it held meetings, marches, or even just paper sales in urban areas with large minority populations in an attempt to stoke fear and unrest. In effect, then, the NF came to Southall in April 1979 precisely because its leaders believed the party could capitalise on tensions that had not been resolved in the aftermath of June 1976.
The clearest way to demonstrate this is by examining the legal fallout from Chaggar’s death. Whilst, unlike in the case of Blair Peach’s death in April 1979, the perpetrators did go to trial, the way in which the police and the judicial system handled the event can still be said to have been problematic. Two white teenagers, Jody Hill (17) and Robert Hackman (18), were found guilty of killing Chaggar in May 1977. They were jailed for four years having admitted manslaughter but pleaded not guilty to murder. Judge Neil Lawson, in delivering the verdict, made sure to emphasise his belief that there had been no racial motivation for Chaggar’s attack. This echoed the line of the local police force. The Monday after the murder Detective Chief Superintendent Jim Sewell was quoted in the Evening Standard as saying that ‘The whole affair has been carried away on a wave of mass hysteria’. He went on to describe interpretations of the attack as having ‘racial undertones’ as ‘a load of nonsense talk’.
Sewell’s remarks were, at best, misguided, and completely ignored the context in which the attack took place. Chaggar’s stabbing came soon after Enoch Powell – in his latest intervention on the issue of immigration – had suggested that racial violence on the streets of England would soon eclipse ongoing disturbances in Northern Ireland. It was also less than a month since two members of the National Party (NP) – an NF breakaway group – had become the first neo-fascists to taste electoral success in Britain by winning two council seats in Blackburn. One of the two NP victors, former NF leader John Kingsley Read, referred to Chaggar’s death at a speech in Newham on 12th June with the words ‘One down, a million to go’. Remarkably, in January 1978, Read would be found not guilty of inciting racial hatred with these remarks.
In essence, then, both the police and the judiciary not only dismissed the possibility that Chaggar’s death was a racist murder but also appeared to deny that racism was a significant problem in British society more generally. This did not tally – even remotely – with the experiences of those who founded the SYM, who had experienced racist abuse (including physical assaults) throughout their youth. Awareness of official unwillingness to take the violent threat of racism seriously was a key factor in driving the SYM’s activity early on. As co-founder Balraj Purewal put it in the documentary Young Rebels: The Story of the Southall Youth Movement, action was necessary because ‘We knew that nobody was going to listen’.
The SYM thus came to perform a vital role in protecting the Asian community, whether on the streets or in, some cases, at homes or businesses. Despite being prepared to speak the truth to the police, however, the intransigence of local authorities on the issue of racism remained a problem. The council’s decision to allow the NF to stage an election meeting at Southall Town Hall on 23rd April 1979 was yet another indicator of how essential the SYM was in fulfilling a role that the police seemed unwilling to perform. As the SYM’s Suresh Grover recalled in Young Rebels, the NF’s decision to come to Southall – especially on St George’s Day – had nothing to do with the electoral justification used in granting them use of the hall: ‘There was no member of the National Front in Southall. It was going to be outsiders coming in, deliberately trying to provoke’.
In this sense, the council had allowed the NF to formalise its pre-existing tactic of shipping in members from other areas to provide a show of strength in areas where it believed minority populations were vulnerable. 23rd April 1979 thus clearly demonstrated the failure of local authorities, and the police force in particular, to learn from the events of June 1976 (as well as from events in other parts of London, notably Lewisham in August 1977). The very fact that the SYM existed, never mind the extent of its activities in defending the Asian community in Southall, was proof that racial violence was a major problem in the area. The denial of racism as a factor in Chaggar’s murder, the ignorance of the wider political context, and the vacation of responsibility that necessitated the SYM’s foundation: all saw those in positions of power embolden the NF by failing in their duty to provide security for Southall’s Asian community. The powerful demonstration of anti-fascism and anti-racism that would be provided on 23rd April 1979 was, therefore, doubly necessary.
Ramamurthy, Anandi. Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements (London: Pluto Press, 2013).
Benjamin Bland is a historian of the cultural politics of race and nationalism in post-war Britain, currently completing his PhD in the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is also working on a journal article that explores media responses to events in Southall in June 1976 alongside other examples.
Image Credit: Institute of Race Relations