Fear and loathing in Southall

The streets of a west London suburb were a 'Mecca' for British Asians, where communities co-existed peacefully. Now conflict between young Muslims and Sikhs is threatening to wreck relations. Yasmin Alibhai- Brown investigates

"We hate the Muslims. Southall is a shit place. It needs some action."

The young Sikh sits in the back of a broken-down car. He won't give his name and keeps his face in darkness, invisible. After being involved in a massive fight in Southall, west London, in April, he has a cut hand from throwing a broken bottle without due care. Fallout from a local war. A gang war, of sorts.

Invisible or not, our young Sikh's presence is felt. Along Southall's main streets at 8pm a phalanx of 44 policemen and women patrols two abreast, the first outward sign that something might be wrong. The second is the unnatural quiet. Usually Southall bustles.

At the end of the Broadway the ever-popular bar-b-que van man whistles to break the silence. Except for a couple of spots such as the Indian pub, Glassy Junction, adorned with murals of fat Punjabi dancers,the place is dead. Two Asian women are rushing home. They say there's recently been talk of fighting between young Muslim and Sikh men and of rapes - "It is too scary these days to stay out late, especially for our girls." No one can substantiate the rapes (shame would anyway ensure the victim never reported the crime). As for the fighting, even the police are underplaying it.

Which may be a first: communal conflict in Southall is invariably exaggerated. Take a recent edition of the Evening Standard, which spoke of threatened street warfare, using terms such as "militants" and "thousands of youths". Local Superintendent Mike Smythe warned of "a major battle".

It never materialised. Now Inspector Drew Davidson, borough liaison officer, is keeping it all low-key: "There was a bit of bother, a few bottles thrown on the Broadway. But nothing more. The press reports were a gross distortion."

So what is that big police patrol for, if there is no fighting between Muslim and Sikh men? Why are people rushing home, worried about rape and wondering what's coming next? "We are trying to reassure the community with high-visibility policing," Davidson says. "Most people are law-abiding but for a few yobs bent on creating mayhem. We want to keep this a secure, nice place. The police are seen as the honest brokers in these disputes."

Perhaps, but trouble has none the less been flaring in Southall since March this year. That's when some Muslim youths unexpectedly started making loud nationalistic noises, sticking up Pakistani flags and Islamic messages in the Broadway and South Road and, provocatively, in certain Sikh restaurants. The reaction was predictable - Sikh youthsfelt Southall, traditionally dominated by their community, was under attack. Previously there has been serious fighting, even shootings, stemming from the Indian/Sikh conflict over an independent Sikh state, Khalistan. Not long ago a Punjabi newspaper editor was murdered. But these incidents have mostly sprung from Sikh political faction fights. Southall's different communities generally get on.

Lala, a university student who hangs out in the smoky pool room at the Three Tuns pub, has witnessed clashes: "The trouble flares up suddenly. Until now we never thought about what religion we were. Between us as friends we still don't. But then the Sikhs got angry because of the Muslims and during Baisakhi [a Sikh harvest festival] in April, they started provoking the Muslims and giving them a real beating. They were singing bhangra songs and kicking this guy on the ground. Then in May, Eid [a main Muslim festival] brought out more fights. It's these kids from Hounslow."

Hafeez, Lala's friend, chips in. "It's time to leave. Of course it's those blokes from Hounslow who are bringing trouble. But it's a poison and it's here now. And you feel responsible, especially if you're a Muslim."

A group of young Muslims had, according to Hafeez, entered a local Sikh cafe, acting disruptively. They had stuck up posters that declared "Long live Pakistan" and "Islam for ever".

Mr Khan, a former butcher and a lifelong resident of Southall, can't understand: "Maybe I am becoming old, but Southall doesn't feel like before. This place was like a Mecca for all Asians in the UK. They came here from everywhere to see what a life we had made, to buy food, to enjoy. No trouble, only when the National Front came. And then we threw them out. Now these youngsters, they have no culture. They are destroying everything, fighting, putting us to shame."

Mr Khan's comments are remarkable inasmuch as Southall's communities, Muslim and Sikh, are usually obsessively discreet. Ignorant, racist media coverage of issues in the areahas made them suspicious. Now, even reticent leaders will talk. Well, after a few hours. Here's one Muslim leader denouncing "the crazy, rowdy behaviour of young Muslims who are spoiling life for everyone. They must be dealt with."

But how? As Hafeez says: "People are so scared. They stay in. Their lives have lost peace of mind." It may never happen, but the perception that things will get worse before they get better is having an effect.

The present unease is felt more acutely because this has been such a robust, confident place - a hard-won triumph. This is the area which has survived the death of Blair Peach and others in the fight against racism. For years terror (and poverty) kept people in their homes, until little by little the community created the Southall that became the Mecca Mr Khan describes.

His white neighbour Hilda still thinks Southall is "a pretty marvellous place. When they first moved in, we were worried. But now, we get on. If I need my lightbulbs replaced, shopping done, I'll ask them. It's not like those other places with muggers and all that."

Maybe not muggers, but Southall is prey to equally common social problems. Suresh Grover, an activist who runs the Southall Monitoring Group, set up to protect victims of racial violence, says that the reasons for present conflicts may not have much to do with religion: "Male unemployment here is getting worse. This has always been a working-class area with strong left-wing sympathies, but the political traditions that were brought in by the original immigrants, that helped create a community, mean nothing to the younger generation."

Grover says many of these youngsters are apolitical, cynical, disenchanted. They have nothing to do. Local authority cuts have led to the closure of centres vital to the life of Southall youth. He nods: "There have always been gangs in Southall like anywhere else. But this widespread dissatisfaction goes deeper. The talents of these people cannot be harnessed, the cultural explosion we had here with bhangra in the Eighties, all that creativity is now to be seen in places like Birmingham ... but not here.Young people have no influence, prestige, facilities."

Then there is the recession. This has hit family businesses hard. So there are far fewer opportunities for children to find gainful employment - the one reason why discrimination once affected Asians less seriously than Afro-Caribbeans. Avtar Lit, who runs Sunrise, the thriving independent Asian radio station based in Southall, believes this makes the quarrelsome atmosphere worse:

"People are dissatisfied so they look for scapegoats. At Sunrise I am always accused of favouring this religious group or that. People detest the debates we broadcast on these issues. Successful professionals are moving out too, and that deprives the community of new and younger leadership."

For the young man in the beat-up car, who has never had a job (though he does have two GCSEs), no one, but no one, is getting it right. He can't look to the future and doesn't much like the present. "They're all shits - these leaders and shopkeepers. They don't know nothing about us. I was in a gang before and they were all scared of us.

"And we don't like these girls here acting like they are white, so we threaten them. Like they are our sisters. Once we locked one up in the back of a van. Did you see Bhaji on the Beach? We hate things like that. Now we hate the Muslims ..."

Surely you have some ambitions, something? "Yeah. I want to be like that Joe Bloggs guy. Make money. Buy my mum a big house."

Anywhere in particular? "Here. Southall. She won't go nowhere else."

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