Paddy Ashdown's concern about racist attacks in Yeovil highlighted a problem seething beneath the surface of Middle England. Peter Popham visits a West Country battleground
Luthfur Rahman wanted out. The son of Bengali parents, 23 years old, born and raised in London's East End, he wanted to break free of the criminality of his surroundings in Upton Park to have a crack at running his own business, and to make a new life.

After leaving school, he and two friends worked hard and saved money. When they had enough, they cast around for a part of the country where Indian restaurants were in short supply.

They hit upon Yeovil (population 40,000) in the southern part of Somerset, an area where ethnic groups are practically non-existent - half of one per cent, almost the lowest rate in the country. Last year, Luthfur and his friends took the plunge. They bought a property, moved down, and on 13 October opened the Viceroy Tandoori.

It is a cosy place: Impressionist prints in gold frames are set in small baize-lined alcoves, and pleated beige-coloured cotton covers the walls and ceiling. It is like eating dinner inside a hat box.

The friends' move seemed a great idea. But the Viceroy's honeymoon was brief. Within weeks, a crowd of toughs had begun to prey on the place, going round after the pubs closed, ordering food then throwing it around, smashing toilets, spitting racial abuse. Yeovil was beginning to make Upton Park look friendly.

Six weeks after the opening, the same people came back and smashed the windows. This was to happen half a dozen more times. In between, the drunken assaults continued. Staff were kicked, punched and threatened with murder if they gave evidence in court. The restaurant was urinated on, eggs were thrown, graffiti was sprayed on the outside walls saying "Pakis go home, Pakis smell".

On 8 October this year, the usual people turned up with a house-for-sale sign, with which they tried to break the windows once again. They attacked staff in the kitchen, and within minutes 10 friends arrived as reinforcements.

Luthfur, a painfully slight, boyish figure, realised his restaurant was under siege. He and his colleagues barricaded themselves inside. The violence continued for half an hour, by which point the mob outside had grown to about 50. Five police cars arrived, a number of arrests were made and charges were brought.

The next day, a kebab restaurant a few doors up was fire-bombed.

These are shocking events to occur in a small, uneventful West Country market town in 1995. But you would probably not be reading about them if something much more attention-grabbing had not happened last week. Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats and the town's MP, alerted to its racist violence, went for a late-night walkabout and ended up fighting off a knifeman. With Mr Ashdown's commando reflexes and his alleged assailant's Manson-like stare splashed over newspapers, Yeovil finds itself squirming under most unwelcome attention.

Surrounded though it is by pretty countryside and chocolate-box villages, Yeovil is short on charm. Home to Westland Helicopters and much light industry, it is a casebook study of how, post-Second World War, to ruin a perfectly nice little place. Ring road, pedestrian precinct, ugly new shops, out-of-town stores - Yeovil has the lot. And unlike, say, Taunton or Dorchester, it has little save its rusticity to compensate. Middle Street, the town's main shopping street, at the bottom of which the Viceroy and the town's nine other ethnic restaurants are grouped, is festooned with To Let signs.

But lack of charm does not account for the rampant terror visited weekly on the Viceroy and its near-neighbours. Racial incidents in a town without racial minorities sound ridiculous, unthinkable. But according to the Rev Mark Ellis, vicar of St Michael's parish church, the unthinkable is exactly what is happening.

"People assume racial harassment is a problem only of inner-city areas where there are ghettos and clearly-defined racial neighbourhoods," he says. "But racism is endemic throughout the country.

"Yeovil is a town with so much going for it - good community, good facilities, good educational opportunities, high employment, no bad housing, yet we still have a few people who bully ethnic minorities. And in a small community, it is more difficult for these families to protect themselves because they are so obviously on their own.

"Most people in the community don't see the problem. They don't know it is going on."

Conversations on the streets of the town confirm Mr Ellis's view that apathy is widespread. "It's all been blown up in the press since Paddy was attacked," a housewife said. "There are a few bad apples but all this stuff in the media will make it worse."

A young tattooed man out shopping with his wife and baby echoed this view: "There are some ignorant bastards in the town, and most of them hang around at the bottom of Middle Street. It's not a race problem. We haven't got a race problem here."

Mr Ellis, Mr Ashdown and other community leaders have launched what they call a Partnership Against Racial Harassment (Parh) to combat the problem. "Since we formed Parh," Mr Ellis says, "we have had a tremendous amount of support and messages of goodwill. People are beginning to wake up to the fact that this is going on. It is our problem, a community problem, and we have to solve it. We mustn't let individuals think they are on their own."

It is arguable that one reason for Yeovil's problem is its extreme whiteness. Anthea Fisher, a worker with the Somerset Racial Equality Network, says Somerset has not had a history of ethnic minorities coming into the county. Those who do arrive "are being treated in a prejudiced way through lack of knowledge".

"There is an element that has been causing harassment for some time and the people subjected to it have been too scared to come forward," she says. "They lack confidence, because they don't think anybody would listen.

"The incidents that have come to light have been bad. There is constant verbal abuse, which must be very wearing. Yeovil isn't a bad place, but a group of individuals who are not representative of the town are causing great distress to people who are trying to get on and run a business. A lot of people in the town feel upset about this. The partnership will be a positive step in drawing together people who want to see the situation change."

Several victims of violence believe that the authorities have been slow and ineffectual in dealing with the problem. Supt Ted Allen denies this. He says that his officers are experienced in dealing with racist incidents, which have been rising in recent months, and which are drink-related.

"This is not organised racism, but pure yobbism," he says. "The restaurants and takeaways have suffered some horrendous situations. Because of that, we have been running special operations at weekends to put more uniforms on the streets, and we have been looking at other ways of overcoming the problems. We want to try to prevent this happening and catch those responsible."

Mr Ashdown is quietly critical of some police attitudes. "We had a meeting of community leaders to discuss incidents of racial harassment, and a representative of the police suggested that when there was trouble at one restaurant, staff from the other ethnic restaurants should club together with them in self-defence. I said absolutely not - it's our problem as a community. It's our job to protect them, not their job to protect themselves."

It is not, Mr Ashdown insists, a problem peculiar to Yeovil. "Late-night vandalism has unfortunately become the norm in town centres across the country. But I am concerned because it's happening here in an extreme fashion. My clear view, backed by all that I've learned, is that this is not political in the sense that the BNP is behind it. And I don't want it to come to that. It's an extension of the vandalism. Those who have had a skinful of beer or cider think that in addition to breaking plate- glass windows, it would be a useful extension to do a bit of 'Paki-bashing' as well.

"It's part of the brutalisation of our society. People turn against the vulnerable. Afterward, they may justify it as hatred of blacks, but that's all it is.

"The group responsible are a small number of recidivists, perhaps 10 to 12 in their mid-thirties: not young, not unemployed. I know their names, though I'm not going to tell you. I'm determined to put a stop to it, so Yeovil can be ahead of the rest of the country, not behind it."

Mr Ashdown's custom of throwing himself into the heart of the fray, whether the war zone is Bosnia or Middle Street, may have given Yeovil a prominence it doesn't deserve. This year, thugs in Taunton have put three young Bangladeshis in hospital; in Frome, a Pakistani family has been forced to abandon their business. There have been a total of 19 serious racist incidents around the county so far this year.

But Mr Ashdown's unusually direct approach to his responsibilities means some help may be at hand for Yeovil's tiny community of ethnic restaurateurs. As he was lucky to discover, plain-clothes police are operating in the town centre late at night. Mr Ashdown is pushing for the installation of closed-circuit television in Middle Street. There is talk of setting up a radio network linked to the police station so that help can be summoned without delay.

These measures are too late for Luthfur Rahman, whose main hope now is to escape Yeovil unscathed. "This restaurant is the seed from which we hoped much would grow," he says, "but the seed has been flattened at the first attempt. Now the restaurant is in the red, but with all the adverse publicity it's impossible to sell it. The time we've been here has been no better than a prison sentence."

Yeovil is caught in a strange dilemma: do nothing and the violence of a few criminals could force the ethnic restaurateurs to flee the town, a shameful conclusion; protect them properly and it may burden itself with the paraphernalia of a far larger, grimmer sort of conurbation. Closed- circuit television in the centre of Yeovil will be the final blow that the late-20th century has to inflict on this formerly innocent town.