Pushkar Singh Lail : My Political Activism and Inspiration.
Pushkar Singh Lail was born 20 November 1935, Moela Wahid Pur village, District Hoshiapur, Punjab, India. His mother was Amar Kaur, nee Sahota and his father was Ujagar Singh Lail. Pushkar was the second youngest of nine children, four of whom died in infancy.
Pushkar attended the village school up to around the age of 10. At the time children were taught to read and write in Urdu with basic maths. It was forbidden to speak Punjabi whilst at school. Though he was naturally left handed the teachers made all children write with their right hands. In those days girls did not attend school; only a lucky few boys were sent. From amongst his siblings, Pushkar was the only one who was sent to school. His elder brother, Ragbir (born 1928) was the bread winner of the family, working the family’s farm land. (Their father, Ujagar Singh, was frequently away from home and in prison, due to his involvement in the Satyagreh – Quit India Movement.) Due to the widespread poverty in rural areas, with villagers kept illiterate, children were needed to work in the fields to ensure there was sufficient food to eat. All schools charged a fee, which was also an obstacle for families to send their children. The few Government High Schools which existed were in towns, therefore out of reach for the village people.
Many children finished their education at the age of 10, but Pushkar was sent on to High School in Garh Shankar. He started in April 1947. The school summer holidays began in June but by August that year everything was in disarray due to the upheaval of partition, so school did not recommence until late Autumn. Pushkar saw many of his good friends leave for Pakistan and new refugees arrived in his district from West Punjab. Pushkar’s best friends were two brothers – Nazir and Rafik Ahmad Shah. Their departure and the whole experience of Partition was very upsetting for Pushkar, as it was for everyone.
Initially, after Indian independence, because Pushkar’s father had been a freedom fighter and because the family were poor, Pushkar’s school fees were halved. However, by the beginning of 1951 (9th class, out of 10) the fee was increased to the full amount. This was due in part to the head teacher’s disapproval of Ujagar Singh’s membership of the Communist Party of India. At the time the ruling Congress party regarded the CPI as a threat and many of its members were imprisoned ‘In defence of India’. Ujagar Singh went to prison from 1949-51.
In order for Pushkar to finish his education, the deputy head teacher of a private Kalsa (Sikh) school, Iqbal Singh, who was also a member of the CPI, offered him a place. The school was not as good as the High School in Garshankar. It was two miles further to travel, making it a 10 mile round trip, on a very rough track. Pushkar had no shoes, and poor clothes, but he made this journey on foot. The teachers were very sympathetic to the poor children. They told them not to worry about their lack of shoes and poor clothes, but they encouraged them to keep what they had clean. They were told to wash their clothes themselves at the weekends and not to ask their hard working mothers to clean them. He completed his last two years at school and finished in ‘second-division’. (One boy got first class, two achieved second division, a few more got third class but most failed because the school was not very well equipped to teach all that was needed to pass.) Pushkar was the third highest achieving student in his year and surprised his teachers by doing so well, considering the long distance he had to travel and the lack of electric lights in the evening to study etc.
Following matriculation, Ujagar Singh paid for Pushkar to go to the newly built, but badly managed private Kalsa College in Mahalpur. The British had built very few state schools and colleges, so educational establishments were set up privately. The curriculum was maths, science and english. He attended for two years, but prior to his last exam at the end of the second year in 1955, Ujagar Singh took him to help clear the new land he had been awarded as a freedom fighter and political sufferer.
The start of working life
After independence, four villages had been set-up for freedom fighters and their families. This land, five miles along the Sirsa Road from Hisar, Haryana, was in an area that had been left deserted since 1857. British forces had cleared these villages, presumably because they had been involved strategically in the uprising. After one hundred years it had become completely overgrown.
Pushkar’s family’s was 12.5 acres in what had been Dhandoor village. The area was the recipient of a new canal, originating from the newly constructed Bhakhra Dam, built to irrigate the area (and for hydro-electric power generation) . There was no drinking water, no facilities so living conditions that first year were very difficult.
Pushkar and his Dad built a straw-roofed shelter to stay in. They had one buffalo and two oxen so milk was the main source of vitamins. Pushkar had to learn to make chappati and dhal, having never had to cook for himself prior to that.
They had to get drinking water from dirty ponds, which animals also drank from (and went to the toilet in). They had no proper filtration system, but used fatkrisystem – where the water is put in a clay pot and the dirt left to settle at the bottom. When the canal water ran clean, they would drink that and have a bath there, but it didn’t run all the time.
The land was dry scrub (bhir)– thorny bushes, with wildlife of deer, lizards and with lots of burrows of rats and many snakes, mostly cobra. Pushkar used to tell his dad, if the cobras don’t get me the cholera will. The cobras would only attack if they felt threatened. The day involved Pushkar starting work at dawn clearing bushes and roots, and then his Dad would plough it. There were no rocks because one hundred years previously it had been farmed, and as it had been left fallow for so long it was very fertile. The district was very hot and dry and prone to sand and dust storms.
Some days the water would come in the canal, allowing for the laborious job of irrigating the fields, and other days not. After monsoon they planted millet and chari – animal fodder. (Millet, which local people liked to eat, was quite expensive). Natural vegetables grew by themselves, vines like tinda,kerela, badd, futand watermelon.
After the first Autumn, the harvest was so abundant they were able to sell enough to afford a second buffalo. By the end of 1955 Pushkar’s older brother, Raghbir Singh, came to visit. When he noticed how fertile the land was, the massive crops and newly built canal, he decided to move there with his family.
With Raghbir Singh’s arrival, Ujagar Singh said Pushkar could return to college. He went to the Government College in Hisar, living at the farm and cycling to college every day. He applied for a Government job before he had completed his studies (he had been taking maths, chemistry, history, English and physics). As part of the job application process, he did a written test in the new Government buildings in Chandigarh, where he met some of his old schoolfriends from Garshankar.
The job application was successful and he started work in the Hisar district as a civil servant. The responsibilities involved combatting caste prejudice in rural, backward areas of Haryana, for example, challenging the prohibition of ‘Untouchables’ from drawing water from certain wells.
Ujagar Singh stood for the local elections and became head of the four villages. He set up a local government school, which has now become a High School with a sixth form. (Dhandoor Government School).
He also established a drinking water pond (not for animals), for people to access when the canal was not running.
The original freedom fighters built their houses on the farm land they had been given, because there was no focus around which to build a village, eg no water well. After a few years, the government built some village houses, but the original farmers stayed in their original homes. Nowadays it is a proper, thriving village with a doctors’ surgery and vets.
Pushkar Singh’s paternal grandfather, Mangal Singh, born approximately 1885, had in his twenties gone to work in western Canada as a labourer, building the railways. He was one of six brothers, which meant that on inheritance the land was shrinking. He lived with his brothers as an extended family. By going to Canada to work he was able to send money back to help the whole family. He was also able to afford to send his elder son, Ujagar Singh, to boarding school – the Matric High School, Bujwarha, near Hoshiarpur, until he was 18. This was the only Matric school in the whole district of Hoshiapur. This school was set up by Hoshiar Khan (Hoshiarpur district is named after him. Hoshiar means clever). The British did nothing to provide education in rural areas.
In Canada, Mangal Singh, along with his fellow workers, faced massive racism and discrimination. The living and work conditions were very poor and they were involved in heavy labour. He was a very religious Sikh and regularly attended Sikh temples in Canada. There, he and his compatriots were exposed to the political teachings of Lala Hardyal, a Punjabi academic at Berkeley University. He produced a publication called ‘The Voice of Revolt’ – Ghadar Gunj, San Francisco (the office still exists). Illiterate men like Mangal Singh, would discuss in the Gurdwaras the racism and terrible working conditions they were experiencing in Canada. At that time, Indians could be taunted that they didn’t even have a Flag of their own.
This combined with the political messages they were exposed to via Ghadar Gunj. Ghadar Gunj and Lala Hardyal told them that rather than living like slaves in Canada, they should return to India and join the independence struggle, So Mangal Singh returned to Punjab in 1913 after spending six or seven years working on the railways in Canada.
Two other men from Moela Wahid Pur (village) also went to Canada to work on the railways, Pandit Salig Ram and Jathedar Partap Singh (Jathedar means leader.) They were politicised alongside Mangal Singh. Partap Singh returned to Punjab in 1912. He later went on to lead the Gurdwara Sudhar Movement (Freedom of Sikh Temples Movement), in the 1920s. Traditionally the heads of the temples (Mahant) were appointed and they would appoint a subordinate to take over after them. Mahants managed the temples and also the money and land that worshippers donated. The Sikh Akali party challenged this and said the Gurdwaras belonged to the community and not to the Mahants, therefore it should be the community who chose the new leaders. The Akali party asked the British to pass a law to let this happen, but they refused. As a result fighting broke out between Sikhs and the British officers.
At around the age of 18, Ujagar Singh also became part of the Gurdwara Sudhar Movement. At that point Ujagar Singh was not part of Gandhi’s non-violent movement and he was involved in physical fights against the British soldiers. A lot of this was focused around the second most important Sikh temple, and Ujagar Singh joined in a 24-day occupation of the Anandpur Gurdwara. They chucked out the Mahant and his followers. The police/army were not successful in expelling the agitators. In the end the British conceded to the requests of the Akali party and the appointment of Mahants was changed. However, Ujagar Singh was imprisoned in 1922 because of the violence he had participated in. This was the start of Ujagar Singh’s political activism.
Later Ujagar Singh became involved in Guru ka Bagh (God/Guru’s garden), focused on the Gurdwara in Lahore. This resulted in his second period of imprisonment. After that he joined the agitation of Jai Ton da Morcha (a princely state near Patiala). A religious argument then escalated into a political argument against the British. This resulted in Ujagar Singh’s third imprisonment. By that time he was recognised by the British as a violent agitator (one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter).
A Punjabi, Bhai Santokh Singh, who first went to the US and then to Russia, returned to Punjab and set up the Kirti Party (Workers Party). This was socialist in outlook. Everyone who had been involved in the Gurdwara Sudar Movement in Hoshiapur district joined the Kirti Party. Ujagar Singh had come to the conclusion that the struggle was between rich and poor people. The British were worried that the Kirti party would be sympathetic to and influenced by the USSR, therefore they banned the Kirti Party. As a result, Kirti party members joined the Congress Party, forming the left-wing within Congress, aligned with Subhas Chandar Bose.
Within Congress, he became part of their non-violent independence struggle.
Throughout his life, as a very religious person, Mangal Singh would regularly visit different Gurdwaras around India. Mangal Singh was a baptised Sikh, with all the 5 Ks. (He had a big sword he always wore.) However, during the period of partition, he had gone to visit Hajoor Sahib Gurdwara, in the South (where Guru Gobind Singh was assasinated), but he never returned. Ujagar Singh went several times to try to find him or find out what had happened to him, but he was not able to discover any information. It is presumed he was caught up in some of the communal violence that persisted periodically for some time after partition.
In his early years Ujagar Singh may have been influenced by the religiosity of his father but by the time he had joined the Kirti Party in the late 1920s he had become convinced that the main problems were not due to people’s religions but between wealth inequality and the explotitation of the poor by the rich. Ujagar Singh was concerned about what kind of society India would have after Independence – one controlled by an Indian rich elite, or one where ordinary workers had an equal say and access to power.
Pushkar has been influenced by his father’s opinion, that if you are not involved you cannot bring change.
Early Experiences in Britain
Post 2nd World War, Britain’s circumstances were shattered; many British men had been killed and many British families moved abroad, mostly to the Dominions – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, for instance.
The British economy was short of workers, especially in transport and the hospitals. At the time the US presented Britain with a big bill for all the weapons etc they had provided during the war. Britain was close to bankruptcy. Labour’s 1945 election manifesto said that the UK could no longer keep India, as the Independence struggle there had become very strong. The Indian National Congress party agreed to pay a large sum of money to the British, superficially for the infrastructure the British had built; railways, parliament buildings etc. With this money the British were able to pay off a lot of their debt to the US (and apparently this was the initial funding for the setting up of the NHS).
When the British Government invited Commonwealth citizens to come and fill the employment gaps in Britain, they provided no provision for housing them well etc. The population they had been ruling under the colonial system had been provided with little schooling. This meant a lot of those Commonwealth citizens arriving in the UK had not had a fantastic education
TRADE UNION HISTORY OF PUSHKAR SINGH LAIL
Pushkar came to this country from India in 1962. He found a job with Raleigh Industries in Nottingham and joined the Metal Mechanics Union (later to be MSF).
Soon after he started work there the Union took industrial action against the employer on wages and conditions. Pushkar was active on the picket line and in encouraging other Asian workers not to break the strike.
At the same time he became involved in community matters, in the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA), which always encouraged support of the Trades Union Movement in this country.
After about 2 years, Raleigh was shedding employees, so he left to go to Nottingham City Transport as a bus conductor. That’s when he joined the Transport and General Workers’ Union – November 1964.
Since then he has been active in the union at workplace and District levels and at Regional and National levels.
Becoming a delegate to Nottingham and District Trades Council and to the Community Relations Council (now the Race Equality Council.) he served on the Executives of both these bodies.
A significant event took place in 1975 when Pushkar was sponsored by the T&GWU as part of a 6-person Trades Council delegation to Nottingham’s twin city of Minsk, then part of the USSR. He had an immigration problem getting back into Britain, when the Immigration Officer wanted proof that he was already legally settled here. He did not accept any of the evidence offered, or any explanations from the other delegates. He had been aware of other black people having harassment problems at Immigration. In his case, the Officer stamped his passport with 3 months’ permission to stay.
First Pushkar took the matter to the press, and it made the front page of the Guardian and other papers. Then he wrote, through the Union branch, to Jack Jones. He brought it to the attention of T&G sponsored MPs who raised questions in the Commons. Jack Jones also instructed the full-time T&G Officer to raise the problem with the Immigration Department at Heathrow.
At the same time, Michael English MP, who was a Trades Council delegate, took up the matter with the Ombudsman.
The Home Secretary at the time was Roy Jenkins and the Immigration Minister was Alex Lyon. They found that there was harassment etc by some Immigration Officers and that some had racist attitudes. The Minister apologised publicly and in writing.
The Ombudsman found that the Immigration Officer had not acted improperly and said that Pushkar should have known it would have been advisable to have taken his original passport to show right of entry. The local MP, William Whitlock, advised him to take out British Nationality (which he eventually did when the 1981 Act came along.)
In Trade Union branch work Pushkar proposed affiliation to the local Anti-Apartheid Movement. A bus-load took part in an AA National Demo in London in the early 1970s.
He was a founder member of the Nottingham Anti-Nazi League. They staged a massive demonstration in High Pavement, Nottingham, when the National Front opened its East Midlands Headquarters there. A big movement built up, with churches, students, unions, the general public and several nationally known speakers. The campaign drove the NF out and Pushkar was elected through the Trades Council to attend an Anti-Nazi League national conference.
In the 1970s women were employed on the City Transport crews only as conductors. The 1975 Sex Discrimination Act meant that women should have been able to become drivers. ‘Traditional’ male drivers did not like the idea. Pushkar argued in the workplace and in the Branch in favour of women drivers. The T&G branch called a mass meeting (in the Co-op Rainbow Rooms, now Broadway Cinema) to change the policy locally.
He was a Shop Steward in the Branch for 10 years in the 1970s and 80s. An issue which he took up had been on the agenda for about 6 years, but management had not pursued it. This was the provision of free bus passes for the employees. When Labour took control of the City Council with Frank Higgins Chair of the Transport Committee and John Pennington Vice-Chair, it was agreed.
The issue of Deviation Bonus was another struggle, which involved local industrial action.
A massive change occured when Once Man Operation was introduced (OMO). He was opposed to this as it meant a loss of jobs and arguably a lesser service provision for the public. The OMO drivers were paid 25% above the 2-person rate, but when those drivers were put on other duties for overtime or cover, their rate was dropped. Pushkar argued successfully for the higher rate to be applied at all times.
Another change, which he actively proposed, was holiday amalgamation. This made it possible for those workers wishing to visit families in distant parts of the world to have a decent break to make the expense and long journey worthwhile.
Pushkar always played an active role on the matter of equal opportunities in recruitment and promotion of workers on the City Transport.
He proposed that the Branch affiliate to Nottingham and District Community Relations Council and he held a position on that Executive for a number of years.
In Equal Opportunities workhe represented the Branch in the CRC and helped develop a Trades Union Consultative Group, along with other affiliated unions. This group set up an agenda with the City Council on Equal Opportunities and organised representatives for different interest groups – Women, Disabled, Black and Gay and Lesbian people. He was a member of the negotiating panel which drafted the Equal Opportunity policy. The City Council was asked to adopt this and to employ a Monitoring Unit to research and monitor the various departments.
He attended the TUC’s first Black Workers meeting in London (at the time when Norman Willis was General Secretary.) This was before the TUC developed a Race Relations Committee.
On behalf of the T&G, he was delegate to:
TUC National Conference in Brighton
Labour Party Central Region Conferences in Skegness (3 times)
TUC Race Relations Conference in Blackpool
Amnesty International Conference in Salford
T&G National Race Advisory Committee
Whenever the TUC called National Demonstrations on a range of issues, he attended. Often the T&G branch organised coachloads of supporters to protest about government policies, for example on Trade Union Rights, cuts in Public Services, changes to Immigration and Nationality, Anti-Apartheid. He always expressed solidarity with other workers – Miners, Teachers and International causes – Chile and Vietnam, to name but a few of the major struggles that have occurred during his lifetime.
The Branch is affiliated to Nottingham East Constituency Labour Party and Pushkar was Black Officer in that General Committee.
He was the delegate from the T&G District to the Regional T&G Race Advisory Committee, which became a full constitutional committee before he left it. The T&G (now Unite) Race Committee is still going and as a constitutional committee has voting rights. Spending a short time as a National member on this committee, this was the last position he held for the Union.
A white law graduate, Jim Butler, who worked on the buses and knew Pushar’s views, had originally encouraged him to join the Union Branch Committee. Pushkar was hesitant at first, thinking he might not get many votes because he was Indian, but this law graduate helped him get a good number of votes.
Political Education in the UK
In the UK some of Pushkar’s political education, particularly in the areas of equal opportunities and anti-racism, occurred through formal training courses. During the 1970s and ’80s the Community Relations Council hosted a number of events. In the ’80s the T&G’s educational program and the Nottingham Trade Union Consultative Group on Equal Opportunities (Chair Peter Burgess, Vice-Chair Lee Harrison) also ran some. These courses helped Pushkar learn how to argue and promote equal opportunities effectively amongst employers and public services.
This training complemented Pushkar’s observations and experiences of racism and discrimination in his own working and daily life. and reinforced the need for these to be countered.
Nottingham City Council
National equal opportunities legislation was introduced in the mid-70s. However, by the 1980s it was clear this was not being properly implemented within Nottingham City Council. Black employees only existed in significant numbers in the buses or in menial jobs. Many Council departments had all white staff and all the senior officers were white (mostly men).
Pushkar initially asked the Community Relations Council to act on this, but they suggested he use his presence in the trade union movement to push for change. The CRC asked Pushkar to use ‘Union muscle’ to challenge local politicians about the failure to implement equal opportunity policies in Nottingham City Council, which he did. As a member of Nottingham & District Trades Union Council, he proposed they put pressure on the City Council to address their lack of black employees. The Trades Council set up the Nottingham and District Consultative Group on Equal Opportunites, with Pushkar as one of the founding members. This included feminists, disability campaigners and Gay rights activists. This had no paid employees and was chaired by Peter Whipp from the T&G the secretary was Trudy De Haney from NUPE. Roger Tanner (from a teaching Union) was also on the Consultative Group. The policy paper they drew up instructed the City Council to ensure equal opportunities law was correctly applied in recruitment, staff promotion and the delivery of the Council’s services. To ensure this was carried out correctly, a three- person monitoring group with a researcher, principle and deputy principle level officers was required.
Pushkar was part of the negotiating panel on behalf of the consultative group with the Council.
The Consultative group also recommended that in order to argue the case more effectively the Council needed to be shown that there was support at a local community level. Therefore Pushkar along with others set up the Afro-Carribbean and Asian Forum. This lobbied the City Council to take on the recommendations of the Consultative Group, which they did in full.
How did this change things?
When the Labour Party lost the local elections in the late 1980s and the Tories took control, the Tories claimed there was no discrimination and they got rid of the equal opportunities policy including the monitoring group. It took the return of a Labour run Council for it to be re-implemented.
One day Betty Higgins, former leader of the Council, phoned Pushkar to say a Tory Coucillor had died in Byron ward, Rise Park area, and if Labour could win this seat at the by-election they would be able to re-take control of the Council. She asked Pushkar to helped mobilise the high number of South Asian voters in the ward, in order to win it, which they did. Nottingham City Council was then a hung Council, with former Communist and then Green councillor John Peck holding the casting vote. Pushkar was very close to John Peck having previously been in Nottingham Communist Party during the 1960s and 70s.
Overall it created the changes desired: black people were recruited to departments where they had not been before. Women and other under-represented groups were promoted. Within Nottingham City Transport, black inspectors were appointed, whereas previously there had only been white.
Pushkar’s involvement was to get this policy adopted by the Council, and it was then down to the Council and its officers to ensure it was fully implemented. For Pushkar, doing this activism in his spare time, while he worked double shifts as a bus driver and had a family, it was up to others to take up the baton and complete the work of implementation.
It takes continued pressure for equal opportunities to be sustained and for discrimination to be tackled.
After retirement from the busesPushkar was awarded the Transport and General Workers’ Union Gold Medal‘in appreciation of his loyal and devoted service to the Union’, presented in April 2002 by the General Secretary, Bill Morris (now Baron Morris of Handsworth).
INDIAN WORKER’S ASSOCIATION
Pushkar became involved in the IWA in Nottingham in 1963. He became involved by assisting other people with filling in forms, because he could write English. He also helped people to write letters to their relatives in India and help send money at the post office. He would also read the replies to people. (They could not read or write in any language).
On noticing Pushkar was helping people in this way Comrade Chenchil Singh and Comrade Rattan Singh Sandhu asked him to join the IWA.
The IWA was dominated by political thinkers of the left with connections to the Communist Party of India (CPI) and in the UK many were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Pushkar had not been a member of the CPI but he joined the CPGB around the same time as joining the IWA.
The IWA mirrored events in the CPI, so when the CPI split following India’s war with China, there were similar splits in the IWA. Following the CPI split, Comrade Herkishan Singh Surjit came from India to address IWA members in Birmingham and explained why there had been the split. This was the first of three or four visits made by Herkishan to the IWA(UK). At this event he said China were the real Communists and Russia was not. Herkishan Singh Surjit also argued that that the CPI wanted to bring about socialism/communism via democracy, whereas the CPI(M) was ready to use arms (though they never did take up arms; they fielded candidates in elections). Herkishan Singh Surjit then went on to see the head of the International Communist Movement GB to ask that the CPI(Marxist) be the Communist group that is recognised by them. This was turned down, as the head of the International Communist Movement GB said that CPI was the main organisation and that CPI(M) had chosen to split away.
Initially after India gained independence from Britain, the Indians and Chinese had had a close alliance, with the slogan ‘Hindi Chinese bhai bhai’ (brothers). The leaders of the countries had got on well. Later a dispute over the India China border got out of hand, and rather than being resolved diplomatically, there was fighting. Regarding India’s war with China, some people in the CPI had argued that as the Chinese are Communists we should not be fighting them, we should be allowing them in to bring socialism/communism. This new group became the CPIM (Communist Party of India Marxist). Initially they argued that communism in India should be brought about through armed struggle and not democracy. However, over time they began to field candidates in elections so the CPI(M) split again, and the CPI(ML) was formed – Communist Party of India Marxist Leninist. They were strong in Naxalbari in Bengal where they took up arms. They then had further splits till they folded. However others in the CPI said that India is its own country and that the border dispute should be resolved through negotiaton (they did not support the actions of the Nehru Government in fighting the Chinese), whereas CPI(M) came out openly to support China. CPI(M) members supporting China were arrested at this point by the Indian Government.
The splitting of the Communist Party in India had an impact on the IWA in the UK. Herkishan convinced many UK comrades to follow the CPI(M), which resulted in some UK IWA branches splitting, though in Nottingham they stayed united. And when there were common causes, for example opposing racist immigration laws, they acted together as a united force.
NB No-one in the UK was a proper member of the CPI, CPI(M) or CPI(ML) because they were outside of India, but members had different sympathies for the different versions.
In the early 1970s Pushkar became General Secretary of the IWA branch in Nottingham. Meetings would occur in reaction to local and national events, for example when Nottingham and District Community Relations Council (later Nottingham and District Racial Equality Council) was set up, the Nottingham IWA branch met to discuss whether to affiliate.
Within the Nottingham branch of IWA, when Pushkar was secretary, they never took the differences between CPI and CPI(M) onto their agenda. All the focus was on issues within the UK: racism, immigration laws and sometimes Anti-Apartheid. They also covered issues of the UK’s trade union movement because at that time Pushkar was an observer at the Nottingham Trades Council. The Nottingham IWA branch would support Nottingham Trades Council events, such as May Day marches.
When Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency Laws, the IWA took a public stance on Indian politics by calling a public meeting at the Rainbow Rooms (Co-op meeting rooms, now the Broadway Cinema) on Broad Street to oppose the suspension of democracy in India.
Pushkar stayed as General Secretary to the IWA until the early 1980s. He was removed from the role due to a dispute with the IWA UK National General Secretary, Gurnam Singh Sanghera. Sanghera wanted Pushkar to more obviously align the Nottingham Branch with India’s CPI(M), whereas Pushkar had deliberately not taken sides following the CPI(M)’s split from the CPI. His focus and that of the Nottingham branch was on issues and struggles in Nottingham and within the UK. The executive of the Nottingham branch supported Pushkar but did not get to vote on whether to remove him from the role as Secretary. It was the executive members of the central committee, under the supervision of Gurnam Singh Sanghera who voted to remove him.
All the minutes and correspondence from the period Pushkar was General Secretary in Nottingham were passed to the person who took over the post.
The Indian Community Centre
In the early days, in his capacity as General Secretary of the IWA Nottingham, Pushkar would hire rooms at the International Community Centre to help members of Nottingham’s Indian community to complete forms on welfare, immigration etc.
It was in his role as the IWA Secretary that he initiated the setting up of Nottingham’s Indian Community Centre. He launched an application to Nottingham City Council on 18th August 1975. At the time the City Secretary (Chief Executive) was Michael Tebbit.
The IWA was affiliated to Nottingham and District Community Relations Council (CRC). Senior Community Relations officer Terrence McCann came to see Pushkar to say that some funding was available from the Home Office Urban Aid Grant (Phase 14), to set up Community Centres. Three applications were launched, one by Pushkar on behalf of the IWA for an Indian Community Centre, another by members of the Afro-Carribbean community for a centre for them and another by the Pakistani community. The City Council was controlled by Labour and all these three applications were recommended and sent to the Home Office for funding. The City Council had to provide 25 per cent of the amount.
All three started looking for suitable buidlings. However, in the May 1976 local elections the Tories won control in Nottingham and they first cancelled all the funds for Pakistan Friends League (Mohammed Aslam was a leading figure, and well known community activist and Labour member in Nottingham), so they had to buy the building they had chosen, on Woodborough Road, via their own fundraising. The Afro-Carribbean Community lost their funding because they were known to be Labour supporters and then the Tory Councillors were after the IWA group, because they had been told that the IWA was full of Communists. At that time David Purdey (who had replaced Terrence McCann as Senior Community Relations officer) told Pushkar to bring some Indian Tories to the negotiations with the Tory run Council to help secure the funding. Pushkar took some along and they helped present the case that the centre would be a Community Centre and not a political centre. It would be used for weddings, cultural events and advice. The original application had been for £62,000 to purchase and refurbish a building and for five years’ running cost. Jack Green, the Tory leader of the Council agreed only to provide funds for the purchase of the building and not the running costs. The condition was that it needed to be bought in the same financial year.
In 1976 they bought a dilapidated Baptist Chapel on Rawson Street, Basford, Nottingham. The Baptist church did not want to sell the building to a religious organisation; they only wanted to sell it for the purpose of it being a community centre. There were a lot of arguments within Nottingham’s Indian community about control of the centre. The City Secretary responded to these disputes by stating that only one application, made by the IWA Nottingham, with Pushkar’s home address on it, had been received, for an Indian Community Centre, under funding from Home Office Urban Aid. This response from the City Secretary stopped further disputes over who was in control of the centre.
Once it was set up, people from an Indian background in Nottingham could become members of the Indian Communty Centre Association, while anyone could become an associate member. The Centre was run by a Management Committee, elected by the members of the Centre.
Pushkar stopped being on the Management Committee in the early 1990s after serving 8 years. He left due to pressures on his time, as he had become more involved in the T&GW Race Committee. Following his retirement Pushkar became part of the ‘Union Group’, which is a grouping within the membership of the Centre. The Union Group’s ethos is to bring together all parts of the Indian community with a secular policy, anti-racist and anti-sectarian, not providing a platform for extremism. In 2001 the Union Group won control of the management committee. Pushkar is currently the treasurer of the Union Group.
A significant service was provided by the Community Centre to facilitate applications for Indian Visas. For some years the Indian High Commission sent staff to sessions held at the Centre and backed up by volunteers, so that anyone requiring a Visa could have it dealt with on the spot. People came from as far away as Leeds and Liverpool. When the High Commission outsourced their system, Nottingham Centre volunteers, primarily Dial Basi, continued to offer a service, including form-filling and taking passports and payments to the Birmingham High Commission office for bulk processing.
Welfare Rights advice continued and after retirement Pushkar did a course for this, his services being superceded by the deployment of a worker from County Hall. Pushkar had been encouraged to develop the skills by Jagdip Lehal, a lawyer, with whom he had worked closely in the Community Relations/Race Equality Council. Pushkar went on to be a volunteer for a few years with Victim Support.
In 2007 the Indian Community Centre relocated to bigger and better premises at 99 Hucknall Road. This move was helped with funding from Nottingham City and County Councils; Greater Nottingham Partnership; the former East Midlands Development Agency – involving European Union money through the Regional Development Agency; New Deal; proceeds from sale of the old building and many private donations large and small, including the Puri Foundation.
The new facilities are very well used by a wide range of groups both Indian and non-Indian, for instance Kurdish, Turkish, Iranian special occasions; Corporate and Public bodies such as Council departments, Police, Health Services, for training days. Generally, bookings include: weddings (it is registered for civil ceremonies), private celebratory parties, Indian festivals, Over-50s club, exercise classes, children’s dance, sports clubs – cricket and hockey, day care for the elderly, Dosti luncheon club, conferences and room bookings, exhibition space for artists.
It is very well organised and is one of the best Indian Community Centres in the UK. The Over-50s club, spearheaded by Santokh Dhaliwal and Surinder Rai, organises a wide range of activities for its members, including meals out, day trips, weekends away and holidays abroad as well as cultural events. Yoga classes take place twice a week. The Luncheon Club is much appreciated by the general public.
THE THATCHER YEARS
This period was characterised by anti-Trade Union laws; stricter Immigration laws and rules; privatisation of key industries: telecoms, transport, water, energy; and the feeding of racist attitudes, for instance with Thatcher’s speech using words like ‘swamped’ and ‘aliens’ referring to immigration.
Under her immigration law reforms it became much harder to bring spouses to the UK from other countries.
The cumulative effect of these policies had a massive effect on the black and Asian population, with increases in racist attacks and disharmony. Unemployment rose, giving a racist backlash – in numbers of workers affected, and the blaming of immigrants for the situation.
North Sea oil and gas revenue was squandered to disguise the economic situation. Incapacity Benefit was used to massage and disguise the true unemployment figures – a policy that has had significance in later years when welfare budgets have been reined in and the truly sick are being deemed fit to work.
Trade Unions were ham-strung very early in the Thatcher years, so that the attacks on workers and the general working class had reduced effective opposition. The previously nationalised industries which had been well unionised and which had provided secure jobs and pensions, were cut back and fragmented by privatisation.
The cumulative effect of her policies was a big increase in unemployment and job insecurity and the scape-goating of immigrants and native Black and Ethnic Minority people as being the cause.
In light of Thatcher’s policies, Pushkar used the trade union platforms and committees he was on to try to hold Tory politicians to account and fight back in the ways open to them.
The Scarman Report of 1981 (in response to race riots in several British cities) included an instruction that police forces needed to have closer links to Black and Asian community groups. This resulted in Pushkar being invited to several meetings with Nottinghamshire Police Force in his capacity as being involved in a range of community institutions.
Casework tackling incidents of racial discrimination
Pushkar handled many, many cases in his capacity withins the Indian Workers Association and as a T&GWU shop steward. He is including 3 examples here. The first was his own case when he returned from the trade union delegation trip to the USSR.
The second was in 1977 for a woman who worked at Player’s Tobacco factory, Radford, Nottingham. Her husband, a member of the IWA, worked with Pushkar. She had been to India on an extended holiday. Her return flight was delayed by one day and when she returned home, the following morning she received a P45 in the post.
Pushkar went to see the secretary of Players’ Tobacco Union, who took him to see the company’s industrial relations officer. The secretary and officer had a private conversation and came back to inform Pushkar that they had already put in an appeal to the company management. Pushkar knew that they both knew that legally a staff member has to be absent without leave for 3 days before the company can start to take any action. In her case, she had received the letter after only missing one day.
In order to appeal to an Industrial Tribunal the employee needs to do this within 3 months. However, the secretary of Players Tobacco Union waited till after this 3 month period to then ring Pushkar to say ‘Sorry Mr Lail, we didn’t succeed in getting her re-employed.’ Pushkar asked him to send the decision in writing. Pushkar realised that the union secretary and employer were working together, so he asked the woman if he could take it to the Tribunal, because what had been done was discriminatory. She was very brave, and though she had a new job at Boots, agreed that Pushkar could take the case to the Citizens Advice Bureau who in turn took the case to Tribunal. There, it was agreed that the union secretary in conjunction with management deliberately did not make the decision within the 3 months required. She won her case and was awarded £1400 (which was a lot at the time). The solicitor said he could seek for her to be re-employed at Players, but she said she felt she would not be treated well there and she preferred to stay at Boots.
The third example involved Mr Janak Singh Sanghera. He wore a turban and wanted to get a job in Nottingham City Transport. He applied for a job but was unsuccessful. At the time the uniform for Nottingham City Transport, like most local most UK local authority transport companies, had to comply with a national law which did not permit beards and turbans. Uniform requirements were very strict, with drivers needing to be clean shaven, wear uniform, hat, a tie in winter etc. This was fully enforced by the company.
The national law had been changed so legally, as a beard and turban wearer, Sanghera should have been allowed to be employed, but the management of Nottingham City Transport would not allow it.
Pushkar was a shop steward at the time. He went to the driving school to find out how well Sanghera had scored in his driving assessment. The driving instructor informed him that Sanghera would make a very good driver. Pushkar asked the personnel team to show him the file from Sanghera’s interview but they refused. This contravened an agreement the Union had with the management; as a Shop Steward Pushkar should have been allowed to see the file. So Pushkar took it up with Harry Ball, the secretary of the T&GW Union in Nottingham City Transport and said he wanted to take this up with the General Manager of City Transport. Harry Ball called the General Manager for a meeting. At that time, due to his experience with Nottingham and District Community Relations Council, Pushkar knew he could involve the Commission for Racial Equality in this dispute and he informed the General Manager of this.
Initially the General Manager asked what the CRE was and when it was explained to him he said he would take legal advice himself. Harry Ball explained to the General Manager that Pushkar was involved in lots of committees related to employment rights and that the Personnel department should have shown him the file. The General Manager called in the head and assistant of personnel (whose hands were trembling in fear) . The General Manager eventually turned to Pushkar and told him to leave it to him. He would write to Sanghera offering him a job.
Sanghera went on to be one of the best drivers for Nottingham City Transport and was also very active in the company’s social and athletic societies.
LIST OF COMMITTEES AND GROUPS PUSHKAR SERVED ON
Transport and General Workers’ Union (now Unite) 592 Branch Committee.
Nottingham City Buses, Parliament Street Depot, T&G Shop Steward for above for 10 years from mid-1970s to mid-80s.
Delegate from that Branch to Nottingham and District Trades Council
On Executive of above for some time
T&GWU District Committee (Nottingham and Nottinghamshire)
T&GWU Regional Committee (East and West Midlands)
Race Advisory Committee set up at National level. This became a Constitutional Committee of the Union
Indian Workers’ Association – Secretary for 10 years
Executive Committee IWA Nottingham before becoming Secretary
Community Relations Council, Nottingham and District – Delegate from IWA and later Delegate from T&GWU branch
Executive of CRC
CRC’s Employment Committee
Trade Union Consultative Committee – combination of Trades Council and CRC, setting up an Equal Opportunities and Monitoring Group with the City Council (on negotiation panel ).
Afro-Caribean/Asian Forum – set up to use community pressure on City Council to follow through on Equal Opps
Founder of Indian Community Centre, serving a number of years on the Management Committee
Volunteer with Victim Support
Pushkar was also a candidate for the Labour Party in the Nottingham City Council elections in 1991, in the Robin Hood Ward, but was unsuccessful.
There have been many changes in Britain since the arrival in the late 1950s, and through the 1960s, in significant numbers, of mainly Commonwealth citizens. Legislation outlawing various aspects of discrimination has made a difference in how people from minority groups are treated, and to legal rights and expectations. Shifts in attitudes however, are subjective and open to perception and hidden factors.
Younger generations – the children and grandchildren of those early pioneers – are in very different circumstances. The culture and customs left behind in the countries of heritage have themselves changed greatly in the intervening decades. Neither old nor young could “go back” to the previous lifestyles described in Pushkar’s history.
It is essential for each generation to adjust to the ways of life in Britain, accepting integration rather than self-segregation and isolation, in order to get rid of racism and discrimination. Inter-generational influences need to promote encouragement of the young take an active and healthy interest in the many issues of the day, so that they feel inspired and confident to take part in politics and decision-making at all levels.
Pushkar Singh Lail