What was Life Like for South Asians in 70s Britain?

The 70s saw many South Asians migrating to the UK seeking a new life. But, what was it really like for those who made this historic journey?

What was UK Life Like in the 70s for South Asians?

His speech called for the limiting of immigration

Whilst South Asians have been in Britain since the 18th Century, we know that the biggest mass migration to Britain was in the post-war period.

This was right after the war ended when the government needed to rebuild.

They called on members of the Commonwealth to come over to the UK. This included South Asians but involved people from all over the former empire.

After this first mass migration, there was a smaller but considerable wave in the 60s.

Beyond this in the 70s, we see that British Asian communities become much more established.

But the 70s was by no means an easy time for South Asians in Britain. It was very much a time of racial tensions, struggle and strife.

Although it wasn’t solely a period of struggle, we see how there’s a formation of British South Asian hubs in the UK.

Especially in terms of cultural mingling between immigrants and their “home” cultures with that of British culture at the time.

We see how though British Asians come about as a monolithic idea, British Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis and Nepalis make their own cultural appearances.

DESIblitz looks into the various angles to see what life was like in the 70s for South Asians in Britain.

Culture Shock

What was UK Life Like in the 70s for South Asians

British Asian representation started to become important in media. The 70s were the decade of recognising multiculturalism.

The idea that people of all backgrounds could and should be celebrated as British started to become accepted. The need for diversity in media content, for instance, was one area which saw improvement.

This form of integration in the UK differed from that of the US, which proposes Americans all come together via a melting pot. In theory, cultural distinctions would instead be more appreciated.

Prior to the 70s, the BBC had launched English-language content in Hindi and Urdu for TV and Radio in 1965. The express goal of this was to teach English to non-speakers.

In the 70s, TV was a predominant place for British Asian representation. At the time, there were only three TV channels; BBC 1, BBC 2, and ITV.

British Asian representation started to properly appear.

However, that did not mean that every piece of representation understood the British Asian struggle. In fact, many were pretty stereotypical.

Sitcoms in particular, both at the start and the end of the decade, were chock full of jokes using racism for comedic value.

It has been said that comedy is often a good marker for where ideas on race and racism are in any given period.

The 1969 ITV sitcom Curry and Chips was a sign of this. “Darkening up” was still sort of seen positively. The man who played the darkened-up Pakistani character was Irish actor Spike Milligan.

It was a show with positive goals, to cast a light on discrimination.

But it was poor in its conception by being a white actor darkening up, instead of hiring a South Asian actor. As well as having simplistic humour.

But nowhere else is this emblematic more than the hit BBC sitcom, Mind Your Language. Mind Your Language ran from 1977-79, though plenty of reruns occurred since.

It centred on an English teacher trying to teach non-English speakers English and famously had multiple South Asian characters.

The problem with this show was that every character, apart from the teacher – was some form of stereotype. The Sikh, Indian and Pakistani characters are all pit against each other.

There was also the Urdu-speaking lady who often appeared for a sewing class. Her not understanding where she was was always the butt of a joke.

There were also other defining cultural aspects of the 70s. This included arts, music, film, literature etc.

In terms of British Asian music, the 70s found many avenues of creativity.

A major figure in British media was Freddie Mercury. He was a part of Queen, an iconic British Rock band that launched in 1970.

He and his parents were from a Parsi background in India. They had moved to Zanzibar and came to the UK after the Zanzibar revolution in 1964.

There was also the forming of Bhangra music in Birmingham. This combination of Punjabi culture and western pop and rock music led to a thriving musical subculture.

British South Asians also have a rich history in film. This was as various documentaries and newsreels involved South Asians.

One such documentary was the 1975 Indian Businessman which was the rags-to-riches story of Amrat Parmer.

Another notable piece of work was the 1972 drama called London Me Bharat (India in London). It was the first Hindi Language film in London and explores the Southall Asian community.

Education Hurdles

What was UK Life Like in the 70s for South Asians?

At the time, the schooling system had many issues.

In many households, there was an issue as Asians first came to the UK. Many kids were held back in schools because of a lack of English spoken at home.

One subsect of this issue called for the formal education of South Asian languages, treating them like other modern foreign languages, like French or German.

Gujarati, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and other languages were added by some schools into their curriculum at the time.

In 1972, an issue boiled up with a system called “Educationally Sub-Normal” (ESN) schools.

They were created for underachieving students or students with various other difficulties.

But there was a disproportionate amount of South Asian kids being referred to these ESN schools.

One statistic, combining Caribbean and South Asian kids, found that nationally they were only “2.4% of the total school population in 1972”.

Yet they made up “5.4% of the population in special schools”.

A studio debate by Tony Bastable on race relations between pupils and teachers occurred in 1977.

The background of this was that the Department of Education and Science had drawn up a report entitled “Educating our Children”. It was followed by a conference of the same name.

It focused on four key areas:

  • The School Curriculum [for pupils aged] 5-16
  • The Assessment of Standards
  • The Education and Training of Teachers
  • School and Working Life

The problem with this conference, as highlighted in the 1977 studio debate, was that there was no focus on race relations.

It was said that kids from minority backgrounds were underperforming, especially West Indian and South Asian children.

Yet no official focus on this was present. It took this media scrutiny for things to change.

Social Factors

What was UK Life Like in the 70s for South Asians?

Socially speaking, most South Asians came from working-class backgrounds. This was especially notable as South Asian Americans tended to be both better off and better educated.

When South Asians came to Britain, they came to work in the manufacturing industries. But, those started to decline around the 70s and 80s.

So, there is a shift of British Asians working in the service industries instead.

There were British Asian youth movements of a wide variety. These movements were formulated by very young Asians. It could be people who were 15, or as old as in their late 20s.

These youth movements formed in response to racism in their areas.

They at first formulated in northern cities, such as Bradford, Sheffield, and Manchester. And later, they formulated in Coventry, Leicester, Birmingham and London.

They often came about after specific incidents, such as the Southall Youth Movement that was established in 1976.

This was due to the racially motivated murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar.

The Race Relations Act (1976) was also passed. This law was built on previous race relations acts to make indirect discrimination illegal.

It also placed emphasis on the local and central government in need to have a role in preventing institutional racism.

Racism & Discrimination

What was UK Life Like in the 70s for South Asians?

The major elephant in the room on this topic is the racism and discrimination that South Asians faced in the 70s. It was a period of overt racism.

The tone of this decade had arguably been set by the events of the 60s. Most well-known at this time was the racist “Rivers of Blood” speech delivered in Erdington, Birmingham, in 1968.

This speech, delivered by Tory MP Enoch Powell, was an anti-immigration speech.

At the time Powell was the MP for Wolverhampton South West and the Shadow Secretary of State of Defence.

His speech called for the limiting of immigration and made reference to several racist tropes about immigrants.

It was also around the time when that infamous unofficial “Vote Tory if you don’t want a coloured as your neighbour” poster was distributed.

This is an understatement, but the 70s was a fierce time for civil rights.

Racism and discrimination seeped into employment, affecting emotions and mindsets, as well as the formation of communities.

Employment was a major place where the discrimination occurred.

In a much stronger union environment, one instance of the South Asian community can be seen in 1976.

This is with the walkout at Grunwick photo–processing laboratories at Brent, North London.

The Gujarati women who eventually fought for the right to unionise, were initially just trying to improve their work environments.

Their concerns were about “poor conditions, compulsory over–time and a heavy–handed management”.

When the issue blew up, there was mass secondary picketing occurred that actually would be illegal under modern trade union laws.

This was with the support of “trade unions, anti-racist organisations and feminist groups.”

Likewise, emotions at the time were very heightened at the time. Many politicians exploited white working-class fears and anxieties on issues and tied them to immigration.

What was UK Life Like in the 70s for South Asians?

Even when it was clear immigration was not directly related to the issue. Such as the issues of housing which boiled over in Smethwick, Birmingham, in the early 70s.

There was a shortage of housing, and instead of building more housing, some encouraged the idea of reserving houses for white residents.

There were also the negative effects of racism on people’s emotional states.

In some ways, we saw different mindsets affect British Asians.

Many were actively fighting against discrimination in favour of multiculturalism. This could be either in non-violent or violent forms.

One such fight occurred in 1978, with Bengali residents in the East End, London. The far-right National Front had engaged in attacks on Brick Lane.

These Bengali residents, who were just going about their daily lives, were disappointed by the police response.

There were many who found that it was inadequate, as found in this 1978 report by Thames TV.

So these Bengalis organised and protested their treatment, with the Metropolitan police facing scrutiny.

However, in comparison to their South Asian American counterparts, many British Asians felt less able to be integrated.

In fact, there are many areas today where this self-segregation occurs still. One such area in Birmingham became the subject of a Channel 4 programme The Great School Swap.

This programme sought to swap two girls, one from a predominantly Asian area, and the other from a predominantly white area. It would show just how different an experience these children could have.

In terms of communities, there is the book Black Britain: A Photographic History by Post-Colonial academic Paul Gilroy.

This remarkable book showcases how there was a deep solidarity between civil rights movements.

Through archived photographs and rigourous research, it displays the interlocking of solidarity between different peoples.

The 70s were a tumultuous time for South Asians, filled with overt racism and discrimination as well as the various issues of the time.

There were many cultural developments as British Asian presence on and off the screen increased.

Overall it is difficult to say that the 70s were a great time for British Asians, but it would be remiss if the positives were discounted.

A great deal of solidarity between various minority groups was clear at the time, which was unprecedented.

There was also a lot of political involvement with British South Asians that resulted in the wider diversity we see today.

Murthaza is a Media and Communications graduate and aspiring journalist. His include politics, photography and reading. His life motto is "Stay curious and seek knowledge wherever it leads."

Images courtesy of Instagram.

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