What did the Indian workers do for us?

Harpal Brar gives a short history of the significant contribution made by the IWA (GB) to the British working-class movement, and points the way forward.

This speech was given by Comrade Harpal Brar to the Indian Workers Association (GB) on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Greenwich & Bexleyheath branch in southeast London. Watch the video on Proletarian TV

First of all, allow me to thank you for inviting me to speak at this meeting, and, on behalf of my party, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), I am grateful to you, that you have given us the honour of exchanging our ideas and views with you. Secondly, I’d like to take the opportunity of congratulating you on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of your branch, the Greenwich and Bexleyheath branch of the IWA.

Unfortunately, our history is not very well known – the reason being that we don’t write that history. There are a lot of people who don’t write their history, and therefore people forget that they’ve done anything. But the Indian workers, second to the Irish immigrants, have played the most important role in the development of politics in this country.

And we are very proud that we’ve played that role. I am personally very proud that, in our part of that movement, we played that role. The reason that we were able to play that role is that our programme was correct. You know, with a correct programme you can fail, but with a wrong programme you can never succeed.

Anti-imperialism and antiracism

The programme of the IWA, basically, had three points which are very important.

We were in this country because imperialism had so exhausted our countries, so impoverished our countries, that we couldn’t find a living back home. The majority of workers came here not because they received a warm welcome; not because they liked the climate of this country more than they liked the climate in India; not because they found the food here better than the food they found in India; they came because poverty forced them out.

And therefore we, from the very beginning, have understood – and it’s a part of our programme if you read the constitution of the IWA – we have always been anti-imperialist.

There is no struggle against imperialism going on in the world that we have not supported – be it the struggle in South Africa, be it the struggle in Zimbabwe (as the information that you distributed mentioned), be it the struggle of the Palestinian people against the zionist occupation of their country, be it the struggle of the people of Libya, the struggle of the people in Syria or the people of Ukraine, or wherever it might be.

We have been at the forefront of people who took this message to the British people: that you cannot continue to be free if you will continue to oppress other people. No nation can be free if it oppresses other people. This was our message.

Secondly, when we came to this country, we faced racial discrimination. First we were driven out of the country where we were – by poverty, by colonisation, by imperialist exploitation and looting – and then when we came here, there was racial discrimination.

So we had to organise to fight against racism. This was something we did exceptionally well, and we mobilised local workers to support us in this struggle. It’s not a struggle that only Indian workers, or black workers generally speaking could have been successful in; it is a struggle that can only be successful with the wider involvement of the working-class movement.

The question of racial discrimination is not something that just affects those discriminated against; it also affects those who discriminate. Because a working class that allows itself to become a victim of perpetrating racialism itself becomes very weak.

Racism divides the working class, and a working class which is divided cannot fight against its exploiters.

We took this message, and I think comrades who have been working with us would understand that we took it very successfully. There were demonstrations that the IWA called – before the antiwar demonstrations over the question of Iraq, we probably, since the 1860s, had the largest demonstrations.

We had demonstrations of over 150,000 people … I remember, in Welling, personally chairing a demonstration of 100,000 people, not a long while ago. [In 1993, following a string of racist murders in the borough, including those of Rohit Duggal and Stephen Lawrence.]

Black and white, unite and fight

And the IWA could achieve that because it was a vibrant organisation, which was involved, in a living and organic way, not only with the Indian community, not only with the black community, but also with our friends who were not black; those who understood that the fight against racism is extremely important to their own position as workers.

Thirdly we are, in this country, not just black, and black workers … we are workers, which means we share common interests with all the workers in this country.

All the workers who are exploited by capital are our friends and comrades, and we have together participated in the trade union movement, against austerity, against wage cuts, against encroachments of private capital on the NHS and all other areas.

Capital abhors a vacuum, just as nature abhors a vacuum. Wherever it can smell a profit, it creeps in, and everywhere, even in the well-loved institutions of this country like the NHS, wherever capital finds an opportunity, privatisation takes place.

It starts with small things: cleaning services, canteen services etc … slowly, various services are parcelled off, and all of the profits are skimmed by privateers who do the easy jobs, while the difficult jobs are left to the staff in the National Health Service to conduct.

And we have therefore always believed that we are part of the working-class movement here, and we should participate in all the struggles of the working class.

You will not find a single example of a big trade union struggle – be it at the Hillingdon hospital, be it of the print workers in north London, be it of the print workers in Fleet Street – where the Indian workers had acted as scabs. Thanks to our guidance, they were always in the forefront of supporting the workers in struggle.

Our role during the miners’ strike of 1984/5 is an example to be followed by everybody. We held meetings everywhere; we collected money. We mobilised the religious places, saying: you know, there is a tradition in our community where religious places provide free food, and they agreed and provided free food to the miners on plenty of occasions.

Something that could not be taught to the miners by books and lectures was taught to them by practice. Mining communities were quite insular. If you didn’t come from the same mining village, you were regarded as a foreigner, even if you were a miner only five miles away.

But when they found black workers, Indian workers marching with them against pit closures, they became our friends, and they realised, for the first time, that it’s not the colour of skin, it’s not the language of people, it’s not the religion that they belong to, it’s not their national origin that brings them together – it’s the common economic interest of being workers and being together exploited by capital.

Isolation v integration: where do we belong?

We’ve done these jobs very well, but I’m coming to the next point, which you might find slightly controversial – but it is true; it has got to be said. While we have done all these things very well, there comes a time for transfer to a new and higher stage.

There was a time, in the nineteenth century, when the most important industry in Britain was the textile industry. Britain earned its living – apart from looting the whole world, of course – by selling textiles.

Britain doesn’t do this any more. We cannot on the basis of the slogans of ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago continue to organise our political and social life.

We live in this country. When I was young, there was nobody who didn’t feel that, after four or five years living in this country, they’d go back and buy a plot of land and live happily in India. We’re no different from other immigrants. Every Italian who went to America in the nineteenth century also thought he’d earn some money in America, then go back to some Italian village and settle.

Did the Italians go back? Ninety-nine point nine percent did not. Have the Indians gone back? There are some who go back, but by the time they do, they find their house and land has been occupied by their brothers and cousins anyway, so there’s really nowhere to go.

You may consider yourself Indian, but they don’t consider you Indian, so you live in a twilight world, suspended between heaven and earth – you don’t know whether you’re Indian or English.

But let me tell you this: whatever the people of the first generation of immigrants think, their children and grandchildren – we are into the third generation of immigrants here – whatever the colour of their skin, they are English and they are here to stay.

They will sink or swim with the rest of the British working class; they don’t have a separate existence. They form friendships; some of them have married across racial lines, and if they haven’t, their children will do. They are no different from anybody else – that’s what has happened to every other immigrant.

The whole idea that you will be able to live as a secluded community in Woolwich, and have the same culture that you had in a village in the Jalandhar district [Punjab] is pie in the sky; it doesn’t happen. You must be part of the working-class struggle of this country, and you must be in the forefront of all the struggles of progress of humanity.

I always say to people: we’re not the only ones. There are Turks, in their communities, where they consider that they belong to Turkey, and the result is that after the second generation, they have all fallen out of progressive politics. They watch Turkish television; they live in Turkish areas and speak to each other in Turkish; they go to a local Turkish kebab house – the only thing is that they live in Haringey [north London]!

But the result of this is that they are completely cut off from life in this country. Sometimes, I think that people who are right-wing – who join the Tory party, join the Labour party and join the Liberal party – are ahead of us in thinking – at least they participate in that movement in this country!

And I say to my communist friends: if you don’t want to join our party, for god’s sake go and join the Tories, at least – at least you’ll show you live in this country … what’s the point of carrying on otherwise?

There is revolutionary work to be done here

I cannot be a revolutionary in Punjab while living here, which means I simply cut myself out – I don’t do any revolutionary activity here; but in Punjab, I don’t even live! Revolutionary activity is not conducted in celestial spheres, it’s conducted on earth, on terra firma, over here – and that means you must participate in the movement where you live.

There are a lot of things going on, and our community is actually beginning to disengage from them. Comrades have mentioned the chaos that is happening at Calais – there’s a big hysteria. David Cameron has said our country is being “swarmed” by immigrants and asylum seekers.

Does Mr Cameron want to give a reply; does his defence minister Mr Fallon want to give a reply to the question: “You have bombed Libya into the middle ages. You have killed the leader of that country; you have murdered him. You have murdered hundreds, thousands of people in that country. You have disintegrated that society. What are the people there to do?”

Libya was a country that, when Colonel Gadaffi came to power, had a per capita income of 50 dollars a year. When he was killed, the per capita income in Libya was thirteen thousand dollars – the highest in Africa. The imperialists couldn’t tolerate Libya’s independence; they have destroyed it.

They are now in the course of destroying Syria, as they have destroyed Iraq. Iraq had a standard of living that was equivalent to that of Spain, Portugal and Italy, but they have destroyed that country.

They’ve killed two million people and they’ve made another four or five million internally and externally displaced. They’ve wrecked that country, and that’s what they’re trying to do in Ukraine as well.

As people who’ve always fought against imperialism, we must raise our voice against these things. Everywhere there are demonstrations against them, and you must heed the call of our comrades and join them. It’s no point saying: “I have to open my shop, I have to work overtime,” – you know, that’s not the whole of life. Human beings cannot just live by saying: “I’ve got to do overtime.”

We’ve got to fully participate in making a better society. If there are immigrants in this country, it is because imperialism forced them to be so. Our party is one of the few parties that says there should be no ban on travelling to this country to earn a living.

Immigrants are not coming to loot this country, and we think the law of the market will take care of it – people will only come if there are jobs. People don’t come to starve, and people do not come here because they want to live off the dole.

When Lord Clive went to India, did he go on a visa from the Mughal government to go and earn a living? The imperialists’ history is that they went and took over countries and looted them.

America is based on a successful gigantic experiment in genocide, and now the Americans, of all people, are saying that immigrants shouldn’t go to the US!

There’s an idiot standing for the nominations for the Republican party – some rich man called Donald Trump, who hasn’t got a single brain cell in his head – and what does he say? “Mexicans are rapists and criminals,” and he wants to build a wire on the Mexican/American border, and he has said: “I will make the Mexicans pay.”

How is he going to make the Mexicans pay? Mexicans have better ideas about how to answer Donald Trump – ie, not to vote for him. Mexicans are a very important electoral force there.

Similar things are happening in relation to housing. Immigrants are blamed for housing problems, but we are not the reason for the lack of housing; Britain under capitalism has always had a housing shortage.

Read Engels’ book The Condition of the Working Class in England, and see what the condition of the working class was. Read about the condition of the working class in the twenties and thirties, when there were hardly any black people here. It is capitalism that takes away housing and secure employment.

It is not that other people are taking jobs; it is that the capitalist crisis is making it impossible for people to have jobs, to have houses and a better health system than already exists in this country.

Instead of blaming our fellow workers, we have a duty to explain that it is capitalism that is the problem.

There’s a lot of excitement because elections are being held for the leadership of the Labour party. I’m not a Labour party member – never have been, and never will be. This is my political view; I have put it forward for over fifty years. The Labour party, from its inception, has been an imperialist party, is an imperialist party, and, whoever the leader – if Karl Marx himself were the leader – it would still be an imperialist party. That is our position. The Labour party cannot be changed to favour the working class.

The Labour party’s record – and this is really what the new elections are about: the question is whether Labour should be Tony Blair’s ‘New’ Labour or if it should be ‘Old’ Labour.

But we have experience of Labour before Tony Blair. Labour started the Korean war. Labour started the cold war, with the establishment of Nato against the Soviet Union. Labour bombed India. Labour bombed China. Labour suppressed every national-liberation movement, and Labour broke strikes in this country.

Personally, if I were a Labour party member, Corbyn stands head and shoulders above others – not because he’s a socialist, but because the others are so dead they’re not saying anything at all. But the basic thing is, instead of pinning your hopes on what the Labour party would do, if it elected better leaders, I invite you, friends, to join our party, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist).

We are small; we are not making boasts that we are the movers and shakers of the working-class movement. But we never will be big, unless people see the sense and join us.