West side story Asian style
Author : Rifat Malik
Publication : Evening Standard (London)
Date : May 22, 1997
If you go looking for trouble any weekend in Slough's busy
shopping centre, you will find it, sooner rather than later.
Saturday afternoons regularly feature rival Asian gangs exuding
collective bravura and menace. The wrong word, an inadvertent
glance and tempers flare. Vigilant security guards disperse the
gangs of 10 or more, as bewildered and Tightened shoppers retreat
A spiral of violence between Muslim and Sikh gangs has been
building in recent years. Last month it culminated in a 70-strong
armed Sikh gang, reportedly from Southall, rampaging through
Slough's predominantly Muslim area of Chalvey leaving damaged homes
and cars and a frightened community in their wake. A hundred extra
police officers were speedily dispatched to forestall reprisals in
Southall but the immediate response came in Slough, where enraged
Muslim teenagers turned on Sikhs.
Seventeen-year-old Sikh business student Sanjeev Singh was almost
killed. He recalls: "I was riding through the park with my cousin
when a gang of them pushed me off my bike. About 10 of them had me
on the floor, and while my cousin escaped to get help, some of them
started hitting me with bricks. had an empty Lucozade bottle which
he smashed on my head, and another of them stabbed me in the back.
"I think it lasted for five solid minutes and they must have left
me for dead." Sanjeev spent a week in intensive care.
As fears increased among the minority Sikhs in Slough and the
minority Muslims in Southall, an emergency meeting was convened of
youth and community workers from across west London.
Sukhjit Dhaliwal, general secretary of the Slough Sikh Defence
Union, says attacks on Sikhs - easily distinguished by their
turbans - are increasing. "A couple of years ago a Sikh boy was
killed, and last year another committed suicide because of Muslim
bullying," he says.
On the Muslim side, Saber Hussein Choudhury, who chairs Slough's
Pakistan Welfare Association and lives and works in the heart of
Chalvey, says: "The situation is very volatile. The madness of
idle youth on both sides has meant both communities are afraid."
Two rival gangs are said to be responsible for the violence - the
Sikh dominated Shere Punjabs (Lions of Punjab) and the Muslim
Before the recent attacks in Slough, they had clashed outside
colleges and during religious festivals in Southall, which has
London's largest youth population and Europe's highest
concentration of Asians.
Unfortunately, this year the Muslim festival of Eid fell on the
same day as the Sikh festival of Visakhi and, despite heavy
policing in Southall, there were almost 90 arrests for carrying
offensive weapons and public disorder.
The troubles have been bad for business. In a Pakistani-owned
Southall restaurant, Akmal says: "People come from everywhere,
flying their Muslim and Sikh flags and making trouble. Business is
dead because police are stopping everyone, and sometimes they are
too rough-handed and start pushing people around. Definitely
something big is going to happen, there is too much tension."
Such tensions deeply disturb the Southall-born playwright Harwant
Bains. His critically acclaimed 1993 film Wild West was an
affectionate and anarchic comedy about gung-ho Asian teenagers in
Southall who dreamed of becoming country and western singers.
He says today's climate is beyond caricature. "My film gave a
heightened sense of what went on then," says Harwant, who left
Southall six years ago. "Yes, there were gangs like the Holy
Smokes and the Tooti-Nungs, but nothing like what's going on today.
There was no real threat from your own people.
"I really thought these differences had become secondary. As I
grew up we all fought against racism. Now these post-pubescent
kids, wearing bandanas like something out of the LA riots, are
making us the object of derision in a society in which we're still
not that welcome."
Some first-generation Asians, known for their hard work and
peaceful image, think the solution lies in "zero tolerance,' of the
Others point to the problems caused by unemployment. In Chalvey
the rate is 10.5 per cent - more than twice the rate for Slough as
a whole. In the borough of Ealing, where Southall is located,
almost 40 per cent of the youth are unemployed.
Many observers say that some teenagers are also experiencing an
identity crisis and community leaders are failing them.
Sukhjit Dhaliwal says: "These kids claim to fight for religions
they don't know anything about, and don't even go to mosques or
temples. They are struggling to form an identity, and leaders
should ten them about their rich cultures, not religious
The age-old gang concern of territory is often as significant as
religion. One 15-year-old youth, Ahmed from Chalvey, explains:
"Muslims run Slough, it's our territory. Why are Sikhs coming from
outside to Muslim areas like Slough and Hounslow? They are making
trouble, so we are defending ourselves."
Sex also plays a part. The gangs are hostile to the growing number
of mixed marriages among Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. Sikhs in
particular complain of leaflets and fliers that urge Muslim males
to convert Sikh and Hindu girls to Islam.
At the same time Muslim males are accused of treating non-Muslim
girls as fair game. Geeta, a 17-year-old Hindu, says: 'Muslim boys
won't go out with Muslim girls because they say they're sisters.
But they think we are just slags so they can go out with us."
The Asian in-fighting has punctured the myth of social homogeneity
and it is clear now that the much-publicised success of Asian
entrepreneurs hag obscured the problems of a confused underclass of
Harwant Bains warns: "The Asian community needs to examine and
define itself and find out how it fits into Britain into the
country where younger generations are born. Otherwise we will just
continue sleep-walking into trouble."