Bengali youths lead a demonstration of some 7,000 people against racist murders and attacks in the area, Brick Lane, 1978 © Syd Shelton
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Remembering Altab Ali: The racist murder that galvanised Whitechapel’s Bengali community

One of modern Whitechapel’s defining moments is the murder of a young man called Altab Ali who was stabbed in a racially motivated attack on Adler Street, next to what was then St. Mary’s Park, on 4 May 1978.

Ali was a 24-year-old textile worker who had moved to London from Bangladesh in 1969. On the day of his death, he was walking home from his workplace on Brick Lane and passed through St Mary’s Park.

At 7.40 pm, Ali was stopped and attacked by three teenagers, Roy Arnold age 17, Carl Ludlow age 17 and an unnamed boy, age 16. Fatally wounded he was declared dead by the time he arrived at nearby Royal London Hospital. 

A police poster appealing for witnesses of the racist murder of Altab Ali in 1978.
Police appeal for witnesses @ Tower Hamlets Council

Ali’s murderers did not know him – the attack was racially motivated. When asked by a police officer why they had done it, the 16-year-old said ‘No reason at all’. At his trial, Ali’s three killers admitted to stabbing him just because he was ‘Paki.’

On his way home, Ali had been carrying bags of shopping. He told a friend he was going to go home and do some cooking, and was planning to go out later in the evening to vote. In an article in The Conversation, Arman Ali, a close relative, described Ali as ‘kind-hearted, respectful and polite.’ The park he was walking through now bears his name. 

Racial tensions in the East End and the rise of the National Front

The Anti-Racist Committtee of Asians in East London marching down Whitechapel Road in 1976, bearing the banner 'Adolf Powell is a Murderer.
Anti-racist demonstrations in 1976 @ Paul Trevor.

In 1970s Whitechapel, racist attacks such as these were unfortunately common. ‘Paki-bashing’ was a daily occurrence, in schools, on the streets, and in businesses. If you looked brown, it was commonplace to get spat at, beaten up, and verbally abused on the streets. 

For too long, the issue was not adequately addressed by local authorities, leading many to feel completely helpless. A few years ago, the BBC spoke to some British-Bangladeshis who experienced this time in the area’s history first-hand.

The regular acts of racist violence and discrimination caused constant tension in the community. The result was a traumatising and often deadly state of fear for Whitechapel’s Bangladeshi community. 

Whitechapel has had an established Bengali community since the 50s, following the encouragement of migration from Commonwealth countries after the Second World War. In the 70s, the Bangladeshi Declaration of Independence from what was then Pakistan meant many Bangladeshis became refugees. Many chose to join the existing Bangladeshi community in the East End. Simultaneously, far-right discontented Britains were targeting their discontent at an easy target: immigrants. 

At the time, the National Front, a far-right fascist party, was gaining support across the country with its racist populist agenda. On the day Ali was murdered, the National Front gained 10 per cent of the vote in Tower Hamlets. These were the same elections Ali had been planning to vote in after he made his dinner.

The murder of Altab Ali was a turning point for anti-racist campaigning in the area. Although campaigning was already underway in the years preceding Ali’s murder, this event would spark an unprecedented backlash against the racism that had tarnished the last decade.

1978: The Turning Point

A crowd of Bengali people following the hearse with Altab Ali's coffin as they march towards Downing Street.
Altab Ali’s funeral procession @ Paul Trevor.

Ten days after his killing, 7,000 protestors marched behind the coffin of Altab Ali towards Downing Street. The event was organised by several British-Bangladeshi youth groups, such as the Bangladeshi Youth Movement. Through these bodies, young British-Bangladeshis could effectively organise anti-racist action.

Groups like this focused on protecting the British-Bangladeshi community, as well as increased Bengali representation in British politics. Their members – largely second-generation Bangladeshi immigrants – were demanding to be equal citizens who could live without fear in the country they were born.

After a number of sit-down protests by these groups, the National Front was driven out of their offices near Brick Lane within the year. Action such as this would continue throughout the 80s and 90s.

In 1982, the first Bengali politicians were elected to Tower Hamlets council. They were the independent candidate Nurul Haque and Labour’s Ashik Ali. Nearly thirty years later, in 2010, Rushanara Ali would be elected as the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, making her the first person of Bangladeshi origin to be elected to the House of Commons.

The area has also undergone several changes in the past three decades to celebrate the multiculturalism that has come with the changing community. A standout event was the completion of the East London Mosque in 1985, giving Whitechapel’s Muslim population a place where they can commune.

Later, in 1997, the southern portion of Brick Lane (famously home to many Bangladeshi-owned restaurants) was officially renamed “Banglatown” by the Council. A year later, St. Mary’s Park would also be renamed as Altab Ali park, a tribute to the man whose murder sparked a whirlwind of change in Whitechapel.

Altab Ali Park facing Whitechapel Road, East London

Last year, the Tower Hamlets Council unveiled the Altab Ali House in Wapping to ensure his name will live on.

Following this, the council has recently announced their intention to propose four more council building name changes across the borough after local community heroes of the past.

The new proposed building names and locations include Tassaduq Ahmed in Mile End, Shahab Uddin Ahmad Belal in Stepney Green, Sufia Kamal in Bethnal Green and Syed Ashraful Islam in Spitalfields and Banglatown.

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