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This article originally appeared yesterday on Open Democracy under the headline ‘The neo-colonial plot to halt Bengalis in Tower Hamlets’. I’m reproducing it here via its Creative Commons Licence.

It is written by Ansar Ahmed Ullah, described on Open Democracy as “a community activist who has lived and worked in the East End of London since the 1980s. He has worked as a youth, social and community worker and has been an active anti-racist campaigner. He is currently involved with the Nirmul Committee, a campaign group set up to challenge the rise of religious fundamentalism.” As a disclaimer, he is also my brother-in-law.

Ansar Ahmed Ullah

Ansar Ahmed Ullah

Following and prior to the recent 12 June Tower Hamlets mayoral election results, it seems some on the liberal and white left are asserting that racism and Islamophobia were at play. But such well-wishers are in fact colluding, appeasing, empowering and encouraging the most right wing, reactionary and corrupt fundamentalist elements of the Bengali/Muslim community in Tower Hamlets. It seems that there is a group of white leftists, trade unionists & Christian faith leaders who would prefer to keep the Bengali community insular, ghettoized and away from the mainstream. They ignore the history of the Bengalis who came to Tower Hamlets as economic migrants during 1950s and 1960s to better their lives and those of their children, and overlook the history of that community’s stand against ghettoization by the GLC in the 1970s.

These self-appointed saviours talk as though the Bengali community is unable to resist racism. They forget how, following Bengali factory worker Altab Ali’s murder in 1978, it was the Bengali community that fought the racists off the streets of the East End  physically almost on a daily basis, dealt with the unannounced arrivals of the National Front and  Combat 18, and later the BNP – without the protection of 3,000 police.

altabalimetpoliceappealFor the Brick Lane Bengali community, who were under constant attack from the racists as early as 1975 – 1976, the murder of Altab Ali in 1978 was a turning point, especially of its youth. It led to their mobilising and politicisation. They began to organise youth groups, community and campaigning groups, linked up with other anti-racist movements and groups. The year 1978 saw the emergence of second-generation Bengali community activists who entered mainstream politics in the 1980s to bring about meaningful changes to their lives.

Defenders of Tower Hamlets First ignore the fact that the Bengali community elected Rushanara Ali to represent them at the House of Commons. They also ignore the large number of Labour councillors (including many Tower Hamlets First councillors who were once Labour councillors). Today Tower Hamlets Council can boast the largest number of elected Bengali councillors in any one borough with a total of 25 Bengali councillors. This didn’t happen overnight.

The community had to struggle within a political process for a long 20/30 years to reach this stage. The Bengali community in the 1980s forged alliances between the first and second generation Bengalis. The second generation’s strength was consolidated in the formation of Federation Bangladeshi Youth Organisations (FBYO) in 1980, a national umbrella body that spearheaded campaigns for better housing, health and education and stood up against institutional racism. The Federation was the first truly national campaigning organisation that made a public representation of Bengali interests and spoke for Bengalis across the borough and nationally. At the same time Bengalis also built alliances with activists outside the Bengali community, such as other ‘Asians’ from Hackney, Newham, Camden, Southall & Bradford, and those from the white majority community of the East End.

As a matter of fact Bengali political activism dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. Evidence of the early activism of Bengalis in London can be seen in the formation of organisations such as the Society for the Protection of Asian Sailors in 1857 and the Indian Seamen’s Welfare League in 1943. The Bangladesh Welfare Association was formed in the 1950s, the largest community organisation with a membership of over 40,000. It was activists of the Bangladesh Welfare Association who went on to establish the historic Brick Lane Mosque in 1976. The East London Mosque was built by a very different group of people with outside finance.

As Bengali community activism grew, many activists took prominent roles in community politics. Brick Lane became the center of Bengali activism. Today Brick Lane has become merely a global icon, a branding concept as in ‘Banglatown’ and ‘the curry capital of Europe’.

Supporters of deposed mayor Lufur Rahman and his allies talk about Islamophobia but intentionally or conveniently ignore Islamism, working with Islamists who include those responsible for war crimes and other violence in Bangladesh. Thus these white activists and men of peace are colluding with the most extreme reactionary elements, inspired by fascism and far-right ideology, rehabilitating them and giving them legitimacy.

One such war criminal, who was recently found guilty by a Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal, got a clean slate by a Christian activist with utter disregard for Bangladesh’s judiciary. He called him a man of integrity! A man found guilty of the killings of Bengali intellectuals by aiding the Pakistani military in setting up killing squads. Another Christian faith leader even posed the question ‘What is Islamism?'(!) Far from challenging or distancing themselves from the fundamentalists they are colluding in the name of ‘engaging with neighbours’, for a quick gain of access to large ethnic audiences.

To highlight this point let’s revisit the general election that took place in 2005, when the local Islamists switched sides from the Labour Party and aligned themselves with George Galloway’s Respect Party which came out of the Stop the War coalition, a front organisation of the SWP. The SWP/Stop the War Coalition built up relationships with Islamists during the anti-Afghanistan/Iraq war demonstrations. Galloway used the religious sentiments of the local Bengali Muslim community in the East End of London for his own personal political gain. In his quest to challenge New Labour at the general election, he went into an un-holy alliance with the SWP and local fundamentalists, who went against their fellow Bengali Muslim candidates.

_78799875_shocks_2005_oona-king_george-gallowayDuring the election campaign the sitting MP for Bow & Bethnal Green at the time, Oona King, felt the justified anger of the electorate because of her support for the war in Iraq. Talking to a journalist she said there were other, less legitimate reasons for her unpopularity, too. “When you graft racial stereotypes and bigotry and religious stereotypes on top of everything else…We have a huge amount of Islamophobia in this country, and possibly as a response to that we have a huge amount of anti-Semitism.” Bizarre rumours kept surfacing during the campaign that she wanted to ban halal meat. “And this was on top of the usual, exaggerated Jewish conspiracy theories. A similar thing happened in 2001, when there were rumours spread that I was funded by Mossad…”

The white liberal left leadership has refrained from condemning the Islamists. These whites are themselves showing a colonial mentality and playing a dangerous game of divide and rule by fostering divisions within the community by supporting one section against the other. The community can do without these self-appointed spokespersons for the Bengali community. The 81,000 Tower Hamlets Bengalis can and have looked after themselves without the patronising intervention of white advocates.

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Below is a letter that Labour’s John Biggs has sent to a few local papers in which he criticises Ken Livingstone’s support for Lutfur Rahman.

John lost of course by some 3,000 second round votes in May to Lutfur. He remains a London Assembly member for the City & East constituency.

He is also likely to be called and cross-examined as a witness for the Tower Hamlets election petitioners in the forthcoming court hearing.

That hearing, by the way, is likely to start at the end of January. It could well last between two and three months, which would mean any mayoral election re-run taking place after May’s general election.

It’s not at all certain, of course, who would contest such a re-run. Were Lutfur to lose the hearing he might be barred from office. It could be, however, that the judge rules the actual count unlawful, but that it was not Lutfur’s fault. In that case, Lutfur might be free to stand again.

Would John Biggs want to contest a re-run anyway? Would the party locally or regionally want him to?

Would Lutfur want to stand again?

He seems to be trying to raise/improve his national profile at the moment as a darling of the Left. He’s changed his Twitter photograph to show a more workmanlike down-to-earth image: tie loosened, shirt sleeves rolled up.

lutfur rahman, twitter

And the people who write his Tweets for him are concentrating far more on national, as opposed to local, political and social issues.

I’ve written on here a few times about the internal battle within his Tower Hamlets First party over who might stand against Rushanara Ali in Bethnal Green and Bow next May.

Speculation has previously centred on Abjol Miah (who still encourages people to “vote Respect” on Twitter), Rabina Khan and possibly Ohid Ahmed.

But I wonder whether Lutfur himself might be interested?

[He has wanted to become an MP for many years. It was during his campaign to become Labour’s PPC for the seat in 2007, when Rushanara eventually triumphed, that he fell out with his “friend” Helal Abbas. Here’s a letter he wrote to my former paper, the East London Advertiser in March 2007.]

Lutfur Letter March 2007

Were Lutfur to stand next May, it would mean campaigning during the period of the Election Court…when his expensively assembled legal team could be making headlines for him.

Curious and curioser…

Anyway, here’s Jogn Biggs’s letter:

I have great respect for the achievements of Ken Livingstone, and was proud to have worked alongside him for eight years at City Hall. His vision for London is, in my view, unmatched.

The Olympics, massive transport investment, and a focus on policing which helped to restore public confidence, would not have happened without him.

His focus on the plight of those on low incomes, and on helping people to get the skills they need for employment and to help themselves, was a vital part of his work too.

While not everything he did was right, a lot was and his successor, Boris Johnson, has coasted on his achievements, unwisely reversing some while, as with the Olympics, Crossrail and police numbers, brazenly trying to claim credit for others (even while, in some cases, undermining them).

Ken’s genuine passion for our City made him, in my view, a great and visionary London Mayor.

And I pay great respect also to his work while at the GLC. In particular he will be remembered for his work on equalities, challenging discrimination and disadvantage faced by many simply because of their race, gender, sexuality, physical ability or the disadvantage or poverty of their background.

At the time he was attacked as dangerously left wing and ‘politically correct’. Nowadays those views are generally seen as part of proper mainstream thinking – not about a free lunch, but about a greater fairness.

Again, not everything he did was right but his legacy is solid.  

However, he is absolutely wrong in his recent comments about Tower Hamlets politics.

Politics is about passions, strong opinions and different priorities. However, his representation of Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman as a victim of a stitch up is just plain wrong.

I and others am proud to have played a part in helping East Enders from different backgrounds and cultures to have access to power.

But we are in a different age now – people who are in power have a duty to act properly, and high standards apply to everyone.

The local Mayor, who has, I am sure, many positive qualities, has seriously failed the East End and Ken does nobody a service, in any community, by pretending it is someone else’s fault.

While Ken Livingstone and a small minority of those who claim to be on the Left, believe Lutfur Rahman is a victim, in my view, and that of many, many others, it is the people of Tower Hamlets, including in the Bengali community, who are the victims of his misuse of power in the Town Hall.  

I am proud to have worked with Ken but disappointed that he is unwilling to see this. He is at risk of the classic error of the Left, of fighting internal battles and living in the past.

We need to move on from this.

John Biggs AM (and 2014 Tower Hamlets Labour Mayor Candidate)

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Rabina kahn, tower hamletsCllr Rabina Khan, Lutfur Rahman’s cabinet member for housing, was the latest to draw the short straw for media appearances yesterday.

Lutfur himself only agrees to Panorama interviews these days.

His deputy, Oli Rahman, is considered, er, a little too bold for these occasions, so it was left to Rabina, who has previously worked for the BBC, to defend the council after the PwC report yesterday.

She has ambitions to become the Tower Hamlets First MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.

She gave the interview to BBC London News last night while standing in the foyer of the town hall in Mulberry Place. One person who witnessed it said she was being coached on what to say (during the interview itself) by the council’s head of communications, Takki Sulaiman.

I’m told he was waving at her like a disoriented semaphore operator. “No evidence of fraud,” was what he apparently mouthed at her repeatedly.

I think he may have put her off. Something did. It was a bit of a car crash. She should have been more natural.

The interview is about seven minutes in here.

(The clip is only available until 6.30pm tonight, so someone may want to put it on YouTube and send me link to save it for posterity.)

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