Photo: Melvin Heng / Flickr
Photo: Melvin Heng / Flickr

Britain’s Banglatown

How the Bangladeshi community has come to shape local politics in Tower Hamlets.

Ashraf Hoque is an associate professor of social anthropology at University College London. He is the author of Being Young, Male and Muslim in Luton (UCL Press, 2019) and Mafia Raj: the Rule of Bosses in South Asia (Stanford University Press, 2018), and a co-aditor of the “Anthropology of Islam” book series at Edinburgh University Press.

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets has featured quite heavily in the British press of late. Particular attention has been focused on the borough's colourful and eccentric mayor, Lutfur Rahman. Rahman, a solicitor of Bangladeshi heritage, has been at the centre of a media storm following the conclusions of an independent report commissioned by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, after a BBC investigation on the alleged misappropriation of council funds to Bangladeshi and Somali organisations in the borough. Rahman has been accused of favouring ethnic and political allies in the distribution of grants, which he categorically denies. This episode is the latest in a series of controversies surrounding the independent mayor. Past controversies include association with Islamic 'extremist' organisations in the borough, courting criminal benefactors, public-funded luxury limos, weekly propaganda newspapers, voting fraud, polling station intimidation and refusing to answer questions from members of the public in council meetings on the grounds that it would be a violation of the mayor's 'human rights'.

Despite this, Rahman has won two successive elections by significant majorities and remains hugely popular in the borough, as he is known for delivering on his promises, particularly among the Bangladeshi community. He became Britain's first executive mayor (and the first Muslim) from a Black Minority Ethnic (BME) background when he was elected for his first term in 2010. Ironically, after having spent a lifetime working in the community in various capacities, this victory came only after a bitter fallout with the local Labour Party in the run-up to the 2010 council elections. At the heart of this remarkable outcome, which saw the gradual weakening of Labour in one of its traditional heartlands, was the borough's substantial Bangladeshi community and their three decades of struggle.

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets borders the City of London; directly to the east of the historic Roman centre of the city. The borough has long attracted migrants due to the famous London Docklands situated within its domain. Over the centuries, migrants would arrive at the docks from all over the world and find shelter and employment in the predominantly working-class communities around the area of Spitalfields. Successive migrant communities have settled in the area, including French Huguenots fleeing from religious persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries; the Russian Jewry escaping pogroms in the 19th and early-20th century; and Bangladeshis seeking employment opportunities from the mid-20th century onwards. Each community made Spitalfields their home and contributed to the landscape in varied forms by, for example, introducing distinct religious architecture, establishing commercial enterprises, and creating spaces for cultural expression through the sharing of food, language and the arts. In its most recent incarnation, the Bangladeshi community has claimed the area as its own, even officially renaming it 'Spitalfields and Banglatown'.

Today, a walk along Brick Lane – Banglatown's much feted thoroughfare – is a feast for the senses. The bright neon signs of Bangladeshi-owned 'Indian' restaurants line the street, serving creolised Anglo-Indian cuisine to hundreds of tourists. Overly eager and clamorous restaurant touts vie for trade on the street, pestering, cajoling and flirting with passers-by. Bangladeshi grocery stores selling freshly imported exotic fish and vegetables attract the local crowd, as do the Southasian confectionary stores and workers' cafes. A branch of Sonali Bank – Bangladesh's most popular commercial bank – is packed full of people remitting Sterling to their loved ones back home. White-bearded elderly men rush under the shadow of a great minaret in time for prayers in the grand mosque, previously a synagogue that was once a Huguenot chapel. The air is dense with the aroma of spices, sweets and paan. Street signs are written in the Bengali script. Passing conversations are not often in English. This is the 'heartland' of the British Bangladeshi community, the latest occupant of a historically diverse hub for aspiring migrants.

With around 450,000 people claiming Bangladeshi ancestry, Britain boasts one of the largest Bangladeshi diasporas in the world, a vast majority of whom originate from Sylhet, a region situated in Bangladesh's northeast which borders the Indian state of Assam. This hilly region is famous for its tea estates, saint cults, and distinct dialect, as well as, somewhat peculiarly, a migratory pedigree that spans the past hundred years. Over the decades, the remittances sent back by Sylhetis settled in the UK has in turn facilitated an economic boom in the region. Western-style shopping malls, American fast food franchises, and luxury apartment blocks now dominate Sylhet's skyline. In the city's rural hinterland, the homes of migrants and their relatives are grand and ostentatious, often complete with terracotta roofs and neoclassical pillars. In addition, more and more of the second wave of migrants to Britain – most of whom were born in Bangladesh and spent a significant proportion of their formative years in the country – have returned to enter politics. The relative prestige and fame of this endeavour is a factor; so too is the spectre of preserving established or potential commercial interests. Some also cite the desire to 'give back' to a society crippled by poverty.

This 'Londoni' class have completely transformed the landscape of the region, not just in terms of its physical appearance, but also in regard to redefining local aspirations. So much so, that many Sylhetis generally want to move to Britain – a country perceived to be an El Dorado of endless riches and opportunity. The property, power and all-round swagger of visiting Londonis has succeeded in cementing the perception that 'if you want to become rich and powerful, go to London'.

Overall then, the Bangladeshi diaspora in Britain appears to be a post-colonial success story – at least in terms of how it is perceived in Bangladesh. In Britain, however, the picture is altogether murkier. The community has made great inroads in terms of relative wealth and education (Bangladeshi children are on average performing better than their 'white' counterparts) when compared to some other migrant groups. However, a significant proportion of the community is still plagued by poverty and health problems, particularly those living in inner-city areas such as Tower Hamlets. Despite these issues, which are typical of an emergent diaspora, over the past half-century, Bangladeshis have managed to settle roots, create a community, and establish themselves as a social, economic and political force in both Britain and their region of origin. But not without a fight.

The pioneers
Sylhetis first came to Tower Hamlets during the colonial period as seafarers. The East India Trading Company and, later, the British Merchant Navy and various commercial shipping lines had heavily recruited workers from the Sylhet region to service the engine rooms of their vast fleet of maritime vessels based in Calcutta. These young men, known as lascars, had managed to dominate labour on board the ships due to a combination of factors. Firstly, the riparian landscape of Sylhet district made them seem a natural choice for recruitments. Secondly, colonial ethnic and religious stereotyping played a role. In the early days, Company officials claimed that Southasians were 'more suited' to the extremely hot conditions of the engine room than European sailors who were 'used to cooler climates'. The Company particularly favoured Sylhetis as, being predominantly Muslim, their carnivorous diets were viewed as an advantage at sea over their Hindu counterparts, as meat stocks were less perishable. Finally, and arguably most crucially, certain pioneer lascars had managed to rise through the ranks to become dockside foremen or serangs, charged with the responsibility of recruiting labour. These entrepreneurial men favoured their own kinsmen and fellow villagers to meet the demand for workers. In the process, they also profited by charging a commission for their services. In this way, young men from a remote part of the empire were enabled to make their way around the world on a journey that held the promise of fortune and adventure. Upon periodic returns to their villages, their stories of distant and exotic lands would excite and mystify friends and family, nowhere more so than London – the imperial capital.

It was not until after the end of the Second World War that any significant settlement of the Bangladeshi community occurred in Britain. The end of the war coincided with independence from Britain and, along with it, Partition of colonial India. Most of Sylhet, previously part of the state of Assam, was incorporated into the eastern wing of Pakistan. Prior to Independence, Sylhetis, like all British Indians, were Commonwealth citizens who held a right to free movement within the empire, including travel to London. After the creation of Pakistan, however, various bureaucratic procedures meant that it became increasingly difficult to get direct permission to travel. Despite this, young men working on the ships took recourse to illicitly 'jumping ship' once their vessels were docked in Tower Hamlets. They sought support from their compatriots who had settled in the area during the colonial period. These pioneer settlers owned cafes and guesthouses in and around Brick Lane. These establishments were initially created to service the needs of lascars docked there during the inter-war period, and provided visiting seamen with home cooking, a place to board and information. In the post-war era, these pioneers adapted to the demands of young men absconding from shipping companies in search of work and accommodation, providing food and board on credit, information on job opportunities, and assistance with official paperwork, just as the serangs had done back in Calcutta.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, a steady flow of Sylheti men came to Tower Hamlets in search of a better life for themselves and their families back home. Once they managed to save enough money, they would sponsor brothers, cousins and fellow male villagers to also make the journey. Originally, these men were sojourners who planned to return to their villages once they had made enough money. They chose not to bring their wives or children to Britain, as many feared this would result in a loss of culture and identity. The Immigration Acts of 1962, 1968 and 1971, however, put an end to these plans. These acts attempted to limit hitherto free migration from the colonies to Britain by introducing a sequence of border restrictions. This legislation permanently changed the course of British social history. Britain's contemporary multiculturalism is celebrated the world over. Paradoxically, the presence of its various ethnic communities – the most substantial among the Commonwealth nations – would not have been possible without the enactment of immigration legislation designed specifically to undermine ethnic pluralism. The effort at curtailing immigration backfired catastrophically.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, and faced with a depleted workforce, Britain looked to ex-colonies as a source of labour. Aspiring migrants, particularly from the Caribbean and Southasia, answered the call in droves. These migrants, overwhelmingly men, sought employment as menial workers, mostly in Britain's manufacturing and transport industries. They worked long, anti-social hours in jobs unwanted by indigenous workers. Mostly employed in shift work, many lived in cramped, overcrowded lodging houses where bed-sharing was the norm; as a day worker woke up, a night worker would take his place, all in an effort to save costs and maximise remittances until the time came to return home. The sudden presence of migrants had an effect on attitudes towards them from wider society. Debates in the media and in parliament gradually began to view this influx of workers as a social 'problem'.

By this point, Britain had been involved in two world wars and ceded much of its territory. This contributed towards perceptions that British civilisation was in decline. Without an empire, and faced with the reality of social and economic decay, it was a period of marked insecurity. The presence of swathes of foreign migrants intensified such anxieties. Politicians reacted to popular calls to deal with the migrant 'problem' and a series of immigration restrictions were put in place over a period of nine years.

Although the Acts were intended to curtail primary migration from the Commonwealth, in actuality, migrations from Southasia increased between 1962 to 1965. The 1962 Act introduced what is commonly referred to as the 'labour voucher system'. Migrants already working in Britain were allowed to apply for vouchers that allowed limited workers entry to the UK. Migrants successful in accruing them would then send the vouchers to kinsmen back home. These primary migrants, realising the need for haste, encouraged kinsmen to seize the chance to migrate to Britain in the immediate period before the legislation came into effect. Thus, instead of curbing immigration, Britain witnessed an explosion of Commonwealth migration throughout the 1960s. The final Act of 1971 did not restrict entry to spouses and children of those workers already in the UK, and many migrant men, faced with the possibility of even further immigration restrictions, opted to resettle their families in Britain. The new presence of migrant families meant the initial aspirations of the once 'returning sojourner' were permanently dispelled. In Tower Hamlets, the arrival of Sylheti families would profoundly shape the social and political landscape of the borough until the present day. One of the children accompanying his mother on the journey to London was nine-year-old Lutfur Rahman, who would later go on to become the borough's mayor. His generation would become the first Bangladeshis to be schooled and socialised in Britain, and, in the process, lay the foundations of a distinct British-Bangladeshi identity politics with its roots in community solidarity and radical mobilisation.

The radical second generation
The 1970s and 1980s saw the settlement of hundreds of Bangladeshi families in Tower Hamlets. The burgeoning numbers led to the need to find suitable housing, as the old lodging houses proved inadequate for large nuclear families. Being a new migrant community, many families could not afford to buy houses outright. Instead, they applied for social housing in an already impoverished and overcrowded borough. Families were initially offered homes in parts of the borough that were predominantly white. However, racism towards migrants reached a peak during this period.

Bangladeshi families who moved to outlying parts of the borough experienced various forms of hostility, including graffiti on their properties, verbal harassment in the streets and even physical abuse by organised mobs. Many families, feeling isolated and victimised, gave up their council homes and returned to the Spitalfields area of the borough, mainly occupied by Ashkenazi Jews as well as Bangladeshis at the time. They took up residence in various squats set up by the Squatters' Union, which had its headquarters in the area. From there, the community would instigate a sustained campaign for housing rights and what they perceived to be institutional racism and apathy on the part of the council. The struggle for housing and against racism, coupled with cataclysmic events back home, would become the motivating factor in the politicisation of the community. Spitalfields would act as the focal point of
these struggles.

In 1971, Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan. The human cost of this achievement is estimated by the government of Bangladesh to be over three million lives (independent estimates vary), many of whom were Hindus, women and children. The independence movement – led by the Awami League –was premised on the social, economic and political marginalisation of East Pakistan by the country's Punjabi elite. After the Awami League won a landslide victory in the 1970 elections, its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was denied the mandate to lead the country by political and military opponents. This was viewed as a major challenge in East Pakistan and various failed attempts to find reconciliation led to the outbreak of war in March 1971. This nine-month guerrilla war, fought by an undertrained, predominantly peasant population, ultimately secured victory with the assistance of Indian intervention in December 1971. The Bangladeshi diaspora in Britain, and particularly those based in Tower Hamlets, played a crucial role during this campaign. A number of British Bangladeshis returned to the country and enlisted as guerrilla fighters. Those that remained, petitioned politicians, organised rallies, housed exiles and raised funds for the war effort. Importantly, the political ideology of the resistance was positioned against what they saw as the communal and militaristic identity of the state of Pakistan. The desire for secularism, socialism and parliamentary democracy formed the bedrock of support among UK Bangladeshis for the liberation movement. The eventual victory, against seemingly impossible odds, succeeded in implanting a sense of optimism, vision and defiance, not only among citizens of the new country, but also in the diaspora.

Inspired by the events of 1971 and a leftist politics, the second-generation immigrants launched a number of grassroots youth movements in Tower Hamlets between 1976 and 1980 with the aim of fighting popular and institutional racism. These independent youth movements eventually came under the nationwide umbrella group, the Federation of Bangladeshi Youth Organisations (FBYO). Along with addressing long-standing housing issues, they united to tackle the spate of violent racist attacks seen to be orchestrated by the far-right National Front. The watershed moment came in 1978 when a young textile worker, Altab Ali, was stabbed to death near Brick Lane in a racist attack. The FBYO responded from organising a march from Brick Lane to Downing Street behind Altab Ali's coffin.

The protest was attended by 8000 Bangladeshis from all over the country. A few months later, after the Bangladeshi community had finally secured assurances by the Greater London Council (GLC) to re-house families squatting in the Spitalfields area, more than 150 white youths rampaged through the area, causing damage to commercial properties and vehicles. A week after the incident, youth movements teamed up with the Anti-Nazi League to organise a united anti-racist march. This was the first of a series of multi-racial demonstrations against the National Front in the late 1970s. Alongside organising public protests, youth groups also set up vigilante patrols in Bangladeshi areas, where they would take it upon themselves to physically defend their streets. Over the course of the decade, the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets had evolved from a politically passive group – marginalised by social services and victimised by the far-right – to a collective galvanised by the mores of radical politics, where recourse to violence and street protest seemed to be a pragmatic option. This uncompromising and assertive generation, schooled and socialised in Britain, was soon to attract the attention of mainstream political parties, in particular, the Labour Party.

In the 1982 borough elections, a Bangladeshi candidate, Nurul Huque, was elected as ward councillor on an independent ticket. The community managed to utilise its established networks to successfully push through its candidate in an unprecedented political coup. Prior to this, the Labour Party had not shown sufficient interest in seeking nominations from the community. This victory not only demonstrated the extent of dissatisfaction and antipathy harboured towards mainstream political parties, but also the power of the community to select its chosen candidates to represent its specific interests. However, even more significant was the vernacular manner of political engagement. Labour had not put forward any candidates in the Spitalfields ward, much to the annoyance of the Bangladeshi community who lived there. In response, the community created the People's Democratic Alliance (PDA), which sought candidates from the various community groups, utilising Bangladeshi village and clan networks.

Stirred by this new political reality, certain Labour councillors actively encouraged second-generation candidates from various youth movements to join Labour in preparation for the 1986 council elections. Labour politicians were keen to retain their influence within a working-class community that, in theory at least, was naturally inclined towards the leftwing principles of the party. Youth leaders and activists who had created a substantial following during the battle for housing and against the National Front were targeted. They failed to consider, however, the prevalence and influence of patron-client dynamics embedded within the community which had proved to be effective for the lascars in the early settlement period, in the struggle for independence, the successful lobbying for council housing, the fight against fascism, and the election of an independent ward councillor. Labour councillors had underestimated the role of village networks, the place of lineage groups, and the politics of pragmatism that had defined Bangladeshi political participation in Britain up until that point.

In a council by-election in 1985, Labour put forward its first Bangladeshi candidate for ward councillor in Spitalfields. The 25-year-old Helal Uddin Abbas, an outspoken youth campaigner on housing issues, was elected Labour's first Bangladeshi councillor. Abbas defeated the previous independent councillor, Nurul Huque, by 80 votes. At the next council election in 1986, the newly-formed alliance between leftist elements of the Tower Hamlets Labour Group and the Bangladeshi community brought about the election of five Bangladeshi councillors. Within the next fifteen years, the Bangladeshi community had a substantial grip on local politics. The dominance of this alliance with Labour was most strikingly demonstrated when Helal Abbas was elected Leader of the Council in 2001. In the four council elections between 1986 and 2002, Bangladeshi councillors maintained a proportionate increase in representation, particularly in wards with a significant Bangladeshi population. In the 1994 elections, all seven candidates in the Spitalfields ward were of Bangladeshi origin. This formative period of Bangladeshi politics in Tower Hamlets is what paved the way for the emergence of one of Britain's most recognisable and controversial politicians, Mayor Lutfur Rahman, and a style of 'doing politics' that currently challenges the existing political establishment. For many in this community, the mayor is the epitome of these struggles. For a community that has always gravitated towards pragmatism, Lutfur Rahman – like so many of his political predecessors – appears to 'get things done'.

Over four decades, Sylhetis in Tower Hamlets have gone from a marginalised immigrant group – small in number, impoverished and underrepresented – to a community that has successfully pushed its chosen candidates to the summit of local power. Their experience with institutional racism in the housing sector, with violent racist attacks from far-right groups, and the rejection of the local Labour Party effectively mobilised a community galvanised by the memory of a brutal independence struggle, against a similarly oppressive and discriminatory state of Pakistan. In a period of identity politics, the second generation took strength from its cultural heritage and put up an organised resistance. Their efforts and, more significantly, their potential, were finally recognised by the Labour Party. The community leaders however continued to maintain primary allegiances to the community – engaging the clan, village and partisan networks that were so instrumental in the journey to Britain and eventual settlement. Indeed, in a country where the ideological divide between political parties is narrowing by the minute, the Bangladeshi diaspora in Tower Hamlets have long been demonstrating 'another way'.

~Ashraf Hoque is a social anthropologist based at University College London. His research interests include the study of migration and diaspora and political anthropology.

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