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‘To Move Forward, We Must Look Back’: Learning from South Asian community organising in Britain

In February 2022, The Rights Collective hosted our first big in-person event in four years around the theme of South Asian organising from past to present. We wanted to share knowledge, connect with our histories and share joyful space with our guests and community after meeting online for so long.

We were lucky enough to collaborate with The Halley - a creative, co-working hub in East London with facilities for musicians and content creators - who kindly donated their gallery space to us for this event. Thank you to everyone at The Halley for your hospitality!

Below is a small recap and snapshots of the event. A huge thank you to Lara and Loic for the beautiful photos!

We screened the documentary Here Today, Here Tomorrow, one of the earliest programmes exploring the British Asian community (mainly Pakistanis) in Birmingham, made by Zia Mohyeddin and Jan Kaplan in the 70s, and we displayed archival resources from Shalimar Books and Tandana, from radical book fairs to political campaigns.

We also had zines and merch for sale from WEIRDO zine and Khidr Collective, as well as the sixth issue of our zine, Brown Bodies, released in 2021.

We hosted an awesome panel discussion, joined by four brilliant organisers and activists - Saqib Deshmukh, Neelam Keshwala, Mya Mehmi and Kavita Bhanot - who shared their experiences in creating and disrupting space, political activism and campaigning, as well as lessons learned from the movements so far and ways to move forward with intention and purpose.

Some highlights from the panel discussion:

● Saqib brought our awareness to the disproportionate imprisonment of South Asian men in the UK, something that doesn’t get enough political or social commentary to inspire mobilisation or concern, which he put down to not fitting into current discourse trends. He also discussed the gendered roles played in political movements - attributing the longevity and sustenance of these movements to the effort of women.

● Neelam reflected on her experience with Don’t Sleep On Us, and the difficulties she faces while trying to hold space for joy, resistance and solidarity building simultaneously. Neelam also spoke about Saheli Sessions, the weekly meetup group she hosts for elderly South Asian women, founded in lockdown 2020 to combat the isolation of the pandemic. These sessions allow older members of our communities to mingle, laugh, learn and make friends in an intergenerational space, and do important work of preserving and passing on oral histories.

● Mya shared how important it is to carve and nurture intentional, joyful and expressive spaces for queer and trans Black and brown people in the wider sphere of political organising. She also interrogated respectability politics, encouraging us to be unashamed of expressing ourselves authentically through dress, appearance and through our bodies.

● Kavita brought our focus back to the history of South Asian political movements, encouraging us to use a critical lens, confronting the ways in which we can be casteist, racist, and religiously divisive even within our own “community” organising efforts. She urged us to question who is being erased or excluded in a given situation or space, and how to employ and act in accordance to values of inclusion and equity in our organising work.

You can find all of our panellists’ full bios at the end of this post.

We closed the night with a DJ set from the amazing Samia, who got us all dancing, singing and mingling until the end of the night.

You can find Samia’s full bio at the end of this post.

We want to extend our gratitude and thanks to everyone who showed up and made the night so special; we are still feeling your warmth, love and support! Thank you to everyone who helped in the lead up to the event and on the day too, setting and cleaning up and generally making sure the night went smoothly, we appreciate you!

To everyone who couldn’t make it, not to worry, we will be back soon with more events, workshops and meet ups, online and in person. Follow us on instagram @rightscollective and twitter @therightscoll to keep up to date with our announcements and activity.

Finally, for any collaboration queries, please email, and we will get back to you about availability, capacity and ways we can support!

Guest Bios -

Saqib Deshmukh (he/him)

Saqib Deshmukh was born in South London in 1967. He has worked all over the country as a youth worker/manager and is now back in London working in Hackney. He has been writing since 1984 and published a collection of his poetry TIMEBOMB in 1992 and has been published in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies as well as some dodgy publications that he would rather not talk about. He’s also been a music promoter, a DJ, an Arts trainer/Tutor, and managed bands, as well as setting up theatre companies and a production company to do stupid creative things. He has worked as a writer in schools, community centres and for local aunties. He is currently working on a play called ‘RUKHSATI’. For more than twelve years he has been a campaigner around deaths in custody after the death of a Pakistani man literally on his doorstep in 2008 in High Wycombe and has worked with the family to set up the Justice4Paps campaign. He fears that this has been labelled as a domestic extremist and that the police are ‘after him’. The local police continue to refuse to confirm or refute this allegation. In his spare time, he likes to eat and sleep. For his personal blog, click here.

Neelam Keshwala (she/her)

Neelam Keshwala is a community architect and change consultant who loves bringing people together. She founded the community DON'T SLEEP ON US in 2018, to seek to create a new way of networking with other people from minoritised ethnicities in the UK. She works full time with culture change and DEI agency Utopia and runs a weekly gathering for south asian women aged over 65 called Saheli Sessions.

Mya Mehmi, Artist & Curator (she/they)

Mya Mehmi is a Trans Punjabi artist, DJ and curator. Since leaving her home in Leicester at the age of the 17 she has made a name for herself in London through her music, which has been frequently featured by the likes of Radio 1, 1xtra, Asian Network and Gay Times, as well as with her work within Pxssy Palace - a night centering and prioritising Queer Womxn and Non-Binary and Trans, Black and People of Colour, where she works as the head booker and artist liaison. Mya is also a new resident on community radio station foundation fm, you can listen back to her previous shows here and here.

Kavita Bhanot (she/her)

Kavita Bhanot is ECR Leverhulme Fellow at Leicester University. She wrote the landmark essay 'Decolonise not Diversify' in 2015. She has edited three short-story collections, including Too Asian, not Asian Enough and Book of Birmingham, and co-founded the Literature Must Fall collective and festival, with whom she organises reading groups and events. She is an editor with Media Diversified, for whom she curates essays under Literature Must Fall. Her translation of short stories by Anjali Kajal won a 2021 Pen Translates award and will be published by Comma Press in 2022. She won third prize in the SI Leeds Literary Prize in 2018 for her first novel. For the last ten years she has been a reader and mentor with The Literary Consultancy.

Samia (she/her)

SAMIA is a DJ, Broadcaster on Reprezent FM and a freelance Animation Producer from London. Her sound is rooted in club music genres such as dancehall, dembow, afropop and r&b. SAMIA is part of the core team behind Daytimers and has featured in publications such as Crack Magazine and Vogue India. She often takes inspiration from her Bangladeshi heritage and the Asian Underground, having performed a headline set at Rich Mix’s Bangladesh 50 event last year. She’s also played at venues such as The Roundhouse, ICA and Now Gallery. She’s also racked up an impressive club catalogue in London - having played The Cause, FOLD, Tola and Colour Factory.


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