'Voiceless community': Ex-Tower Hamlets leader speaks of childhood experience squatting with thousands of other Bengalis in 1970s
- Credit: Archant
"Every time we went out we got beaten up."
Bow resident Helal Abbas, now 61, was one of hundreds of British Bengalis who squatted in Tower Hamlets during the 1970s.
He has spoken to this newspaper about his memories of childhood in the borough, the discrimination he faced and the struggles he overcame to become leader of Tower Hamlets Council in 2001.
“I was living with my family, my older brother and my parents in one bedroom. It was a three-bedroom flat with 14 or 15 other people," he said. "Every time we went out we got beaten up.
“Every time we went to school, I came back with a black eye. In schools, you used to get beaten up on a daily basis with no action from the teachers, no action from the police and no action from the local authority.
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"We did not have a voice, it was a voiceless community.”
In 1972, 12-year-old Helal arrived to live in the East End with his mother and brother, joining his father who was working for the British East India Company.
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Shortly after arriving, like hundreds of Bengali families who struggled to find adequate accommodation, the family moved into a squat in Nelson Street.
“People were living close to each other because of safety. It wasn’t just because of poor and racist housing, it was also that the community was under racist attacks from the likes of the National Front at the time.
“There was much more protection than if you were living in isolated areas with white neighbours.
“We were treated as second class."
After working as a youth worker for many years, Helal later joined the Labour Party and was elected as one of the party’s first Bangladeshi councillors, before becoming leader of Tower Hamlets Council in 2001.
“As I was growing up I was becoming much more aware of the institutional impact, of the gross unfairness with which our community was treated.
“That only changed when we decided to represent ourselves and become our own spokespeople out of frustration and neglect of duties by people who were in authority.”
While the exact number of Bengali families who squatted during the 1970s is undocumented, Queen Mary University of London researcher Shabna Begum said the figure could be in the thousands.
Areas such as Brick Lane and Fieldgate Mansions, located behind East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road, were major hubs for Bengali squatters in the late 1960s to early 1970s.
Shabna said: “It was a big thing in 1970s London. Squatting wasn’t illegal and there were lots of different communities who were squatting as well.
"Bengalis were kind of inspired by the white squatters that were already in Tower Hamlets.
“The mainstream image of the Bengali community in Tower Hamlets is that they’re quite passive, politically quite conservative - with a small ‘c’ - so that kind of radical idea that Bengali people were squatting in the 1970s seemed really strange to me.
“The very modest accounts that do exist of Bengali squatters have tended to say they were housing deprived, they had nowhere else to go, and so really there’s no political element to their squatting, they were just desperate.
“My argument is it’s absolutely the opposite.
"This was a community which was facing both state and street racism and in that situation to say "we are going to break in and we are going to occupy this place and we are going to stay here" - for me that’s highly political and really important.”
In 1976, the Bengali Housing Action Group was formed with the support of Race Collective Today to support families facing housing difficulties.
Younger male squatters mobilised to patrol neighbourhoods prone to racist attacks from far-right political extremists, while women guarded the squats from eviction.
Tower Hamlets is currently home to the highest concentrated population of Bangladeshi people in the UK.
“For the Bengali community, there is a real sense that actually this is not just an accidental home, where we just ended up by a virtuous random fact. It was part of colonial history," Shabna said.