ON THE FRONTLINE: Claiming the Space: spokespersons of political histories and legacies

ON THE FRONTLINE: Claiming the Space: spokespersons of political histories and legacies

Jasbir Panesar and Nirmal Puwar

Places are lodged into how we remember. Southall Resists 40 offers us a powerful plethora of place-based memories of resistance against racial and state-based violence. Space is central to the very process of claiming histories and places. Contestations are writ large within these dynamics. Across the UK, in the post-war era, it was common practice for neo-Nazi groups to make claims on areas where citizens from the colonies had settled by marching through them and holding meetings there as deliberate acts of violent provocation. The planned events and memorial walks for Southall Resists 40 are an attempt to embody narratives of resistance against the racism of neo-Nazi groups and the police. They commemorate events through site-specific journeys.

Southall Resists 40 has illuminated the tensions and conflicts which shapes how we mark these moments, including who (in terms of organisations and individuals) claims a right of entitlement to the public platforms being mobilised. ‘Community’ representation is a highly contested process, fraught with friction and antagonism. The manifestation of this discord has simultaneously presented us with an opportunity to highlight the dynamics entailed in who has the right to claim the past as well as who readily takes up the mantle of becoming public spokespersons. It is common place for women to be the symbolic bearers of nations and struggles without being granted actual recognition of their agency of resistance. In anti-racist mobilisations in Southall women of all ages and religions played an active part. Images of South Asian women, especially elder women, in archival photographs are frequently seen. At the same time, the anti-racist resistance stories are not likely to be told in the public realm by them. South Asian elder women are not the publicly recognised story tellers of political histories and struggles of anti-racist resistance.

This absence does not of course mean that they don’t speak of the stories amongst themselves and in the intimate zones of families and friends or, in smaller public zones, such as community centres and groups for elders. There they do narrate political pasts and futures. Extending Gayatri Spivak’s (1988) notion of Can the Subaltern Speak?  these women elders speak but they are not heard in the loudness of public platforms. It is not their voices or ways of telling political histories that are elevated to what is audible in the public realm of political resistance.

We call for archival and oral history research with these women so that they too sit in the spatial orbit of resistance stories available to the public. As Sukhdev Sandhu once remarked our parents are becoming archives. Nevertheless, there are other archival sources, often sitting in unusual sites of storage, in offices, homes and even garages, where we may find their  seeming ephemera of political stories. We need to work together to make these private archives public, especially when the official public archives are likely to catalogue a dearth of these voices. Hence, we turn to a fragment from the film Aaj Kaal, which was produced in 1990 by South Asian elder women who went to the Milap Day Centre, within an educational project led by Avtar Brah and Jasbir Panesar, with the community film educator Vipin Kumar.

Whilst the film was screened and launched in 1990 as a celebratory event in Southall, held in the Dominion Centre, and a report was produced, Brah and Panesar, both of whom had longstanding researcher-activist links with Southall,  did not publicise the film or publish academic work from it. In part, this was because the project was seen as an outreach adult education activity by Birkbeck College, University of London and complete in itself (see Puwar, 2012). Yet the film is an archival source, part of a cultural and political heritage, that shows elder South Asian women as active makers, tellers and narrators of political histories. We don’t only want to make their faces visual and present for the sake of intersectional diversity. Rather, we want all of us to register how they have been tellers and doers too.

In Aaj Kaal we hear the violent, visceral and embodied histories of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1948 that they carried with themselves transnationally. As well as the racism and resistance they met in Southall.  It is not only the facts they narrate which are important. Of utmost significance is their ways of telling, the affectations in their words, and how they orchestrate their bodily gestures in the artful nature of the dialogues. We are not asking for the addition of the faces of the so called subaltern or the marginal as tokens of diversity. We don’t need silent portraitures to be bill boarded everywhere, as is becoming common practice in city regeneration projects. We do, however, need to recognise and make space available for South Asian women elders as spokespersons for political histories of resistance in Southall.

In Aaj Kaal, one of the elders recalls a story of anti-fascist resistance and police violence in Southall. She states:

From Manor House, where I used to go often, I found out that there was going to be a meeting the next day of skinheads in a pub on the Broadway. I had quite a bit of contact with social workers. They told us to tell whoever we knew that they should not send their children to school on that day. Around 8pm in the evening we came with Minu to do some shopping on the Broadway. We saw about 20-25 policemen standing there. Our Asian boys also knew there was going to be a meeting. They did not want the meeting to happen. One boy stayed in the pub where they were going to hold the meeting. When the skinheads started to enter the pub, the landlord of the pub told him to leave as the skinheads would cause trouble for him. He came out, when they had all gone in and they closed the doors. He walked around the pub and saw that a window was open. He threw a petrol bomb inside. Then they opened the doors and all came outside. A few of our Asian boys were outside, but they were less in number. When the tensions between them grew, the police stopped Asians coming into the area. We saw that the police were hitting them a lot and we only had a few boys there. They were not beating the skinheads. When people on the outside found out that they were not letting others come in and help them they then crossed the canal to get in to help.

This narration re-maps sequences of events, sites and places of resistance, providing a visual and auditory fragment for plotting walking histories of resistance. We would hear the legacies of resistance in their multiplicity if voices like hers could be accepted as narrations of political history. These voices need to be enabled to enter the sound tracks of how we hear and register political stories. Otherwise, this is a political cultural heritage we are at risk of overlooking and losing altogether in the future. The claiming of space and public platforms in the telling of histories is also a process of claiming those histories.

South Asian elder women who lived in Southall in the post-war period were by no means a homogenous group. Though many worked in working class jobs, there were differences in education, caste and religion. Hierarchies fed into the making of political associations and mobilisations. Some of the founding members of Southall Black Sisters, which started in 1978 as an unfunded voluntary organisation under the initial name of Young Women’s Group, are also, like Avtar Brah for instance, becoming elders. Southall Resists 40 has galvanised the founding members to start sharing their legacies amongst themselves as well as inter-generationally. They have now begun the process of holding public talks and writing their histories of political mobilisation.

This has included a performative and subversive re-enactment of Ramlila from the epic Ramayana, which they first performed on 19th October 1979 in Southall as an event largely aimed at raising consciousness amongst South Asian women. A contribution from the ticket sales was put towards the legal costs of community members arrested during the demonstration against the Neo-Nazi National Front meeting in the town hall on 23rd April 1979. Intermittently the performance made humorous references to socio-economic conditions of life in the UK, as well as to the recent mobilisation of racism and anti-racism in Southall. This political satire was creatively channelled against the patriarchal structuring of marriage and the wifely role in Ramlila, as well as against the many faces of racism. The king of demons Ravana was characterised by a mask with ten heads comprised either from an aspect of racism or a pictorial representation of neo-Nazi leaders or racist politicians (Richman, 1999). In a final crescendo the mask was burned.

The occasion of Southall Resists 40 has opened up the importance of plotting the landscape of political mobilisation by extending the terms of heritage so that claims on political histories are distributed more widely, beyond the normal suspects. This requires vigilance to easily reproduced masculine fraternities and elite political oligarchies. Memory work is always dramatised through the tensions and deliberations of political members and organisations. The process of remembering has been fired up by Southall Resists 40, in all its contestations. After all remembrance is a political process in itself that is never outside the politics of the past, the present or the future.

In the spirit of multiplying the voices that narrate political histories may you watch and share Aaj Kaal

Should you recognise any of the people who feature in the film please email: j.k.panesar@uel.ac.uk or N.Puwar@gold.ac.uk or a.brah@bbk.ac.uk

Puwar, Nirmal (2012) ‘Mediations on the Making of Aaj Kaal‘, Feminist Review, Issue 100, pp. 124-141.
Richman, Paula (1999) ‘A Diaspora Ramayana in Southall’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 33-57.
Sandhu, Sukhdev and Usman Saeed (2005) I’ll Get My Coat, London: Bookworks.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1988) ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg (eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 271-313.


Jasbir Panesar worked as a volunteer for Southall Rights and was on its management committee and that of Southall Monitoring Group. She co-ordinated and facilitated women’s groups and is one of the founding members of Ebony Housing Association. She worked on a project run by Avtar Brah which initiated educational projects for unemployed Asian adults in Southall. This included the oral history video Aaj Kaal and media workshops in the local area. Later she moved to the University of East London and provided educational guidance to local communities there. Nirmal Puwar is Reader in the Sociology Department of Goldsmith’s College, University of London. She authored Space Invaders: race, gender and bodies out of place (2004) and has co-edited 17 collections, including: Post-colonial Bourdieu; Orientalism and Fashion; Intimacy in Research; Live Methods and, South Asian Women in the Diaspora. She was Co-Director of the Methods Lab for over ten years and takes a critical historical approach to ‘public engagement’. Recently she has turned her attention to dementia and music, as well as the erosion of civic care amidst austerity.