I'd be happy to disband the Guardian Asians tomorrow,' says Daljeet Singh Sher, the London businessman who has launched a hand-picked force against racial attacks. 'But only if I see a reduction in racial incidents. So far, that is not the case, and the people we have helped have been really pleased.'

Mr Sher, president of the India Association, launched the anti-racist force last October. It has been operating as a pilot scheme in the east London borough of Newham which, with its near neighbours Greenwich and Tower Hamlets, has one of the country's highest race-related crime rates.

The group now comprises about 100 male and female volunteers, many of them students in their teens and early twenties, who were brought in by word of mouth and advertisements in the Asian press.

Those selected by Mr Sher are trained in self-defence techniques by an ex-army instructor, and in counselling and legal procedures.

The Guardian Asians wear uniform T-shirts, but, unlike their New York counterparts, the Guardian Angels, they do not patrol the streets at random - they help specific victims. 'We concentrate on when people say they've been receiving threats,' says Mr Sher. 'We sit with them in their homes every day, if necessary.'

At present, the group is working with three families. About four other families have been helped so far, and each is no longer troubled by racial abuse or violence.

'The scheme has been fairly low- key for two reasons,' Mr Sher says. 'First, we don't want to go in there and create a situation. And second, we want to maintain the responsible name we have. We don't want to end up on the wrong side of the law.

'The Guardian Asians are not just a group of yobbos. We don't do things stupidly. The youth in these areas want to take revenge, and you can't blame them. But it's still better to show them we can catch the perpetrators and hand them over to the police, rather than for them to take it out on innocent white victims.'

Zaheda Khan, who owns her house in Newham, is one victim of harassment. Two years ago, a fire was started in her porch; since then she has been assaulted in her car, had her windows smashed four times, and her daughter has been threatened with a knife. The family is reluctant to walk the streets for fear of the young boys who harass them.

'There's a gang of about 30 or 40 of them,' she says. 'Sometimes they hang around in the park, and we can't go out. I know if we do, they'll call us Pakis and assault us.'

The Guardian Asians say they have helped to break the sense of isolation and fear of families such as the Khans. But they have also helped victims to negotiate the bureaucratic procedures.

'Low-level' harassment - jostling, verbal abuse, rubbish left on the doorstep, stones thrown at the windows - can appear as a my-word- against-yours situation by the time police arrive. 'Families who have been through this then have to go through all the paperwork,' says a woman student whose family has endured five years of harassment. 'If I hadn't had a Guardian Asian with me this time, I would have given up.'

Within the next few weeks, the Guardian Asians are to extend their work into Tower Hamlets, and they plan to set up similar initiatives in Leicester, Bristol and Manchester.

In Tower Hamlets they intend to take their evidence-gathering work to a more ambitious level: they aim to patrol the streets in unmarked cars, and to alert the police by mobile phone, while videoing any incidents they encounter. 'The racists are going round picking out vulnerable Asians, so we'll patrol the same areas,' says Satish Rai, a former police officer. 'We don't want physical contact unless there's a life-threatening situation and we can't hold back any more.'

The move into Tower Hamlets has been prompted by an upsurge in the rate and gravity of racial crime, which local community groups believe is related to the council elections in May, where the British National Party is expected to receive strong support.

Mr Sher is anxious to distance the Guardian Asians from any notion of vigilantism, but so far his attempts to gain official support have failed. Hossein Zahir, a care worker at the Newham Monitoring Project, a council-funded programme founded 13 years ago to help to combat racism, regards the group with deep scepticism: 'They're a flash in the pan and a media stunt. I'd be interested to see if they're here in a year or two's time.'

Mr Sher is undeterred: 'Even the Government has accepted the number of racial incidents is about 140,000 a year. Something must be done.'

(Photograph omitted)