Ishaque Ali and his nephew Faruq ed-Din were walking down Urswick Road in the early hours of Sunday morning, 25th June 1978. A white youth approached the pair and asked them for a match. And then for money. He then kicked Ishaque and was joined by two other white youths who attacked both Bengali men. By some accounts Ishaque was also strangled with bootlaces belonging to one of his assailants.
Ishaque Ali died of a heart attack in Hackney Hospital shortly after the assault. He was just 45 years old and had lived with his family in nearby Coopersale Road. Mr Ali had come to London from Bengal nine years previously and worked as a tailor. He had five young children.
Detective Chief Superintendent George Atterwil led the investigation into the killing and told The Times that “the motive here is theft and robbery” – i.e. not racism.
Others, including the bereaved family, took a different view. Ishaque’s cousin Sofar ud Din told the Hackney Gazette:
“He was attacked because of his colour. There was no money taken. It happens all the time in the East End.”
Alok Biswas of Socialist Worker knew the family:
“Faruq, who is recovering in hospital from his severe beating told me that the white youths called the two Bengalis ‘Paki bastards’ and ‘stinking blacks’. Let’s not be mealy-mouthed about this: Ishaque Ali was murdered. Had it not been for a West-Indian man who came to their assistance, Faruq would also be dead.”
Biswas also noted that the family was not aware of Ishaque having any heart problems.
I’m sure that people will come to their own conclusions about this, but given what we now know about the policing in the late 1970s and the general culture of the time, it seems unbelievable that racism played no part in the incident.
Two months previously, another Bengali – Altab Ali – was stabbed to death in a racist attack in St Mary’s Park, Whitechapel (the park was renamed Altab Ali Park in 1998). And two weeks later, the front page story in the Hackney Gazette was “State of siege for us – protest Asians” following an unprovoked attack on eight Bengalis by three car loads of youths in Bow. Alongside all this, the fascists of the National Front were antagonising the community in Brick Lane with their large paper sales there each weekend.
The police and community respoonse
Patrick Kodikara of Hackney Council For Racial Equality told the Hackney Gazette:
“We are fast losing confidence in the police’s ability to defend the ethnic minority communities. If that means black self-defence groups, so be it.”
The Gazette’s editorial suggested more black and asian police officers as an alternative solution and deplored suggestions of vigilantism. A later editorial continued this theme, rebuking the “hysterical prodding that certain hot-heads are resorting to for reasons best known to themselves”
Roy Hiscock from Hackney South and Shoreditch Labour wasn’t having any of it:
“A history of the defence of the victimised and the most vulnerable will not be ignored because some well heeled editor, safe from being stabbed, shot at or otherwise attacked makes hysterical cries of ‘gun law’.”
A letter from Hackney Muslim Council attempted to find some middle ground:
“The principle and the manner of self-defence need to be examined within and outside the ethnic groups. While rash and violent langauge will be dangerously irresponsible, to sit back and do nothing would be criminal and immoral.”
Doomed Conservative parliamentary candidate Tim Miller felt that more police on the street and harsher penalties for criminals was the answer. Instead, the community got out on the street:
On Friday 30th June, 300 people marched with black flags and black armbands from the site of Ishaque’s attack to Hackney police staton. The protest was organised by Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee. The group announced a day of action for Monday 17th of July:
On the day 70 percent of Asian shops in Hackney were closed and many children did not attend school. A number of pupils from Clapton School attended a rally at Hackney Town Hall and spoke out against the police and SUS laws alongside trade union and other community leaders. The day culminated in a three hour sitdown demonstration outside Bethnal Green police station in protest at three arrests of protestors.
The attackers and investigation
Ishaque’s attackers were described as white and between the ages of 18 and 20. They were reportedly casually dressed and between 5 foot 5 and 5 foot 7.
Three young men were eventually arrested for the attack and charged with murder: James Mitchell (17 years old, a cabinet maker from Kentish Town Road, Camden) and two sixteen year old males from Homerton.
All three were granted bail at Old Street Court on Friday 30th June 1978 (the same day as the community marched) and were required to live outside London until the hearing, which was scheduled for September 6th.
I’ve not been able to find out definitively if they were convicted but this tweet from Searchlight Archive suggests that they were, albeit one year later in September 1979:
In an article for the Altab Ali Foundation, Rajonuddin Jalal cites Ishaque Ali’s death as being a key factor in the emergence of the anti-racist organisation the Bangladesh Youth Movement (BYM):
“I was involved in the formation of the BYM, which was a crucial youth organisation organising against the then National Front (NF) from back in 1978. I was involved in setting up many cultural projects in Tower Hamlets, for example The Kabi Nazrul Centre. The youth movement played an important role, against the fascist when they became organised and active in Brick Lane area, following the murder of Altab Ali and Ishaq Ali back in 1978.
BYM was one of the leading organisations that organised the first protest march that involved about 2000 of Bengalis coming out in the streets of London, marching from Whitechapel to the House of Commons and back. And the slogan was ‘Here to stay, here to fight”.
In Hackney the National Front became increasingly active in the summer of 1978 and even opened their Nartional HQ in Hoxton in September. In December a black teenager named Michael Ferreira was fatally stabbed by an alleged National Front supporter in Stoke Newington, his injuries greatly exacerbated by the indifference of police officers who were asked to help.
Several hundred people attended Michael’s funeral procession.
Michael’s death and the general climate of violent racism led to the formation of Hackney Black People’s Defence Organisation. This set the scene for the community response to Colin Roach’s death from a gunshot wound inside Stoke Newington police station in 1983 and various police scandals unearthed by Hackney Community Defence Association throughout the 1990s.
Notes and a plea for corrections
Ishaque Ali’s death is under-reported online. Usually it appears in passing as part of an article about the murder of Altab Ali in Whitechapel.
Most online reports say Ishaque was attacked on the 26th of June 1978, whereas it’s clear from my research that it was the early hours of the 25th. Ali is also described as young throughout the internet, but was 45 years old.
I think it’s important to try and get these things right – we’re talking about someone’s Dad or husband who was killed in an unprovoked racist attack.
So, for full transparency, I should say that I’ve struggled with which names to use. I suspect this is because of transliteration issues, but I am happy to be corrected. Ishaque Ali (The Times and internet reporting) is also described as Ishakh Ali in Socialist Worker and Ashiq Ali in the Hackney Gazette.
Similarly Ishaque’s companion and nephew Faruq ed-Din is also described as his brother in law. Faruq’s name is also given as Faqruddin (Socialist Worker) and Farique Ud Din (Hackney Gazette).
Press cuttings, sources and further reading
Julie Begum – How a racist murder of Altab Ali changed the way the Bengalis saw themselves in Britain (Altab Ali Foundation PDF)
With thanks to Hackney Muslims, Hackney Archives and Splits and Fusions Archive.