There was a wide range of people paying tribute to Avtar Singh Jouhl who died on October 7th at the age of 84. Avtar Singh Jouhl was a tireless leader of the Indian Workers’ Association, as general secretary (1961-64; 1979-2015) and national organiser (1964-79), briefly working in 1967 in London to work for the IWA newspaper, ‘Lalkar’ (Challenge). Described by The Times as published in Brussels, 1500 copies “printed in Punjabi, it has been flown to London at no small expense and sold to Indian immigrants in Britain as part of an effort to convert them to Maoist revolution.” [i]
Avtar had been active in the organisation since coming to Britain in 1958, a leading workplace militant and antiracist activist in the West Midlands from the late 1950s until the 1990s. He was a respected and listen too activist: as he said,
“We learned to take up the issues that related to the workers, rather than just talking to them from a Marxist viewpoint. If you organise in that manner, the workers will trust you and respect you.”[ii]
In 1958, Avtar Jouhl was instrumental in setting up the Birmingham branch of the IWA. The Association’s initial role was to support local workers, helping them to write letters and supporting any claims of unfair dismissal. One of the IWA’s main campaigns during the 1960s was against immigration legislation, in particular the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Bill.
The Birmingham Mail reported the death of Avtar Singh Jouhl has triggered an outpouring of tributes from activists and campaigners.
It is testimony to the work and the style it was done that a tribute carried in the Morning Star, written by Avtar’s friend Paul Mackney, the former General Secretary of NATFHE/UCU, the trade union for teachers in further and higher education, noted that Avtar opposed all organisational sectarianism and threw the full support of the IWA behind united fronts such as the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF), Campaign Against Racist Laws (CARL) and the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) . [iii]
That Avtar’s life was marked across the political spectrum from the mainstream BBC, favourably featured in Radio 4’s “Last Word”, to various small leftist groups, uniting Trotskyists and supporters of Xi’s China, meant The Socialist Worker carried an obituary, stating “Avtar was a principled fighter all his life. The struggles he led made a difference to black, Asian and white workers.” But not mentioning his adherence to Maoism. Often in interviews the focus was on his lifetime of activism rather than his Marxist philosophy as evident when reflecting on a life of struggle in the IWA and the trade unions in 2019. Republished on ‘The Communists’ website, a self-attributed description from the CPGB(ML), an interview carried in the SWP’s International Socialism journal in October 2019. The article, “Lifelong class fighter against racism”, rightly describes Avtar as “part of a generation of black and Asian militants whose struggles against racism and for workers’ rights have transformed the working class and the trade union movement in Britain.”[iv]
A life-long Marxist, Avtar was awarded the Order of the British Empire (civil division) in 2000 for ‘services to Community Relations and to Trade Unionism’. This does raise issues for others when a life time of activism, politically campaigning and welfare work within the community has seemingly eschewed a revolutionary party-building orientation.
The Guardian obituary was headline, “Anti-racism campaigner and trade unionist who successfully challenged segregation in 1960s Britain”.Like other tributes recalled thatin 1965, Avtar invited Malcom X to Smethwick, near Birmingham, to see the type and extent of racism and the ‘colour bar’ then prevalent in the area, just weeks before the African-American revolutionary leader was assassinated.
His work campaigning to end the racial segregation in drinking establishments in Smethwick, West Midlands drew the attention of Malcolm X who visited the town, on 12 February 1965, and was taken to a segregated pub, the Blue Gates, with Jouhl and Indian activists to witness where non-white customers were forced to drink in separate rooms.
There are many colourful examples of local actions and campaigns in Birmingham that illustrate that Avtar played a very full role in the life of the community. The IWA took up welfare and political issues affecting Indians living in Britain, including fighting all forms of discrimination. They also took positions on some social issues. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s the IWA held a campaign against the marriage dowry. They were active on a local and national level – swelling demonstrations in the struggle against racism, work among the industrial unorganised leading them into the trade union movement, and the struggles of the working class in Britain. Not surprisingly there was a focus on the revolutionary struggle in India, but also mobilising support for anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world, and in support of the socialist countries.
Feb 1978: IWA (GB) leaders Jagmohan Joshi (bottom left), Teja Singh (second from bottom right) and Avatar Johal (bottom right) meet members of the Communist Party of China at Mao’s birth place in Shaoshan, China. The image is indicative of the IWA (GB)’s Maoist tilt, which informed their stance on the Naxalbari insurgency as well as their anti-racism work in Britain. [i]
Besides the IWA, and the trade union movement, Avtar played a leading role in the Association of Indian Communists in Britain (Marxist-Leninist) (AICML), which guided the work IWA. Part of a triumvirate leadership with Jagmohan Joshi and Teja Singh Sahota, who was elected as Vice President of the national IWA in 1959 and served as its President from 1967-1991, the IWA and the AIC were staunch supporters of the Chinese revolution and friends of China, maintaining close comradely connections with the country, particularly through the 1960s and 1970s.
There was a danger of exaggerated expectations on the political Left of the Association of Indian Communists because of its association with the IWA, whose large membership did not necessarily exceed the objectives “to further India’s attempt to achieve independence, to promote social and cultural activities and to foster greater understanding between Indian and British people.”
There was also the added factor that curtailed the contribution of such national minority organisations like the AIC. Nationality based formations reflected the issues and divisions of evident in Indian politics and the fractious nature of the IWA is seen in the catalogue of organisational splits and creation of alternative (but similarly named) rivals.[ii]
A Unity Conference on June 9th 1990 at Smethwick, Birmingham, with the merger conference taking place 16-17 February 1991 saw Avtar Jouhl became General Secretary of the merged Indian Workers Association (GB) and Prem Singh, General Secretary of the other Indian Workers Association, became the President.
There was a retained friendship and support for China in the post-Mao era, becoming a patron of the “Hands off China! Campaign” launched in 2008 by the CPGB-ML, who claimed Avtar as a member. Maybe that commitment to anti-revisionist politics morphed into the generic Marxism-Leninism that encompasses the mishmash of revisionist fragments and those who see socialism in action in China and North Korea?
After almost 30 years in the foundry industry, in 1987 Avtar was appointed by South Birmingham College as a trade union studies tutor at Birmingham Trade Union Studies Centre. He remained an active trade unionist. In the early-1990s, Avtar was elected to the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the lecturers’ union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe) 1992-97.
When asked in an interview in 2019, “Looking back on your life as an activist, what are you most proud of? “Avtar replied,
I am content that I have served the working class by advancing socialist policies, building trade union organisation, antiracist and anti-imperialist campaigns, as well as leading struggles for equal rights and participating in welfare work.”
For all this he will be remembered.
E N D N O T E S
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[iii] It was reproduced on the Counterfire website Avtar Singh Jouhl (1937 – 2022): Beloved comrade – obituary – Counterfire.