Tribute to Avtar Singh Jouhl, 1937-2022

In our contribution to the Fifteenth Forum of the World Association for Political Economy (WAPE), hosted by China’s Shanghai International Studies University last December, Friends of Socialist China surveyed the history of support for the Chinese revolution in the working-class movements in the United States and Britain and noted:

“As in the United States, it was again the political representatives of oppressed peoples who came to play an outstanding role in supporting and defending the People’s Republic, be it on the part of the outstanding Trinidadian communist Claudia Jones or of such organisations as the Indian Workers’ Association, its equivalent bodies among Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Kashmiri workers, the Black Unity and Freedom Party, the Black Panther Movement and many others. Very often out of the sight and hearing of much of the predominantly white left, they collectively constituted the mass proletarian base for China friendship and solidarity in Britain, from the early 1960s onwards.”

The working-class movement lost one of the true giants of that movement with the death on October 7th of Avtar Singh Jouhl at the age of 84. Avtar came to Britain in 1958 and joined the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA GB) the same year. He came intending to study at the London School of Economics (LSE) but instead found himself working in a foundry in the West Midlands for many years. His son Jagwant was quoted by the BBC as observing: “Most people think the streets were paved with gold, but the reality was they were paved with soot from the foundries.” 

In 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.

Becoming National President of the IWA, Avtar played a very full role in the life of the community, the struggle against racism, the trade union movement, and the struggles of the working class in Britain, along with mobilising support for the revolutionary struggle in India, for anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world, and in support of the socialist countries.

Besides the IWA, Avtar played a leading role in the Association of Indian Communists in Britain (Marxist-Leninist) (AICML), which guided the work of the tens of thousands strong IWA, and was at various times a member of different parties in the British working-class movement. 

Avtar followed the Marxist-Leninist line of “uniting all those who can be united” and this was reflected in the hundreds of people who attended his funeral, which was widely reported by the BBC and others, as well as in the tributes paid by trade unions like Unite and in the press of a number of left-wing parties, including the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP).

Whilst sincere and affectionate, most of these tributes left out something that was central to Avtar’s politics. He was not simply a Marxist, but specifically an adherent of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. Under the guidance of Avtar and a number of his comrades, especially the late Jagmohan Joshi and Teja Singh Sahota, 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. When the Britain-based editors of Friends of Socialist China initiated the Hands off China! campaign in response to the attacks on China in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Avtar was one of the first people to offer his support, joining veteran communist Isabel Crook and Ghanaian diplomat Kojo Amoo Gottfried as a patron of the campaign. Avtar also gave strong support to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Cuba and other socialist countries.

A year ago, Avtar’s son Jagwant recorded a long series of interviews in which his father recalled his life of struggle. We reproduce below two interviews devoted to China as well as 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.

We will remember Avtar as a great comrade and as a kind and sincere friend and extend our condolences to his family and all his many comrades and friends.

Avtar Singh Jouhl 1937 – 2022

Paul Mackney, former general secretary of NATFHE/UCU, remembers a beloved comrade, lifelong socialist and union man who once brought Malcolm X to the West Midlands during the fight against racial segregation.

ON Tuesday morning, October 10, a large and loud gathering of UCU strike pickets, outside South and City College Birmingham, stopped their singing, chanting, blowing of whistles and vuvuzela playing to observe a minute’s silence.

It was a fitting tribute to one of their members — Avtar Singh Jouhl, a trade union studies lecturer at that college in the 1980s and 1990s — who had died three days earlier.

Jouhl was born in the Indian Panjab in 1937 and came to the Black Country in the 1950s. He soon became central to the establishment of the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) and to the unionisation, by the TGWU, of the foundry industry.

He was one of the leaders of the opposition to the colour bar in pubs and housing in the West Midlands which led to an invitation to Malcolm X to visit Marshall Street, Smethwick, in February 1965.

As IWA general secretary, Jouhl, with other IWA members, took Malcolm X to see the segregation in action at the Blue Gates pub.

This drew international attention to the situation in Smethwick, where the conservative MP had been elected on the slogan If you want a ni***r for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour,” and even the local Labour club operated a colour bar.

Malcolm X’s visit, now commemorated in a stained-glass window depicting him with Jouhl, was part of a rolling campaign for social justice in the 1960s.

The IWA allied with other immigrant workers’ associations, trade unions, progressive forces, socialists and anti-fascists such as Maurice Ludmer, editor of Searchlight, and BBC Radio balladeer Charles Parker.

Their persistent campaigning in groups such as Card (Campaign Against Racialist Discrimination) and Carl (Campaign Against Racialist Laws) eventually led to legislation to outlaw racial discrimination.

In 1978 Jouhl helped establish the Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Centre in Handsworth, providing advice and support to all, regardless of race, sex, sexuality and caste.

Using a similar approach in the foundry industry, the IWA was very successful in bringing an end to race discrimination in the pay scales. Jouhl became a well-respected figure across the whole of the trade union movement.

At an earlier college picket line in the 1990s, a lorry driver was deliberating whether to cross; he saw Jouhl and said: “There’s no way I’m going to cross an Avtar Jouhl picket line!”

A secretly leaked memo from the blacklisting organisation, the Economic League, warned employers that Jouhl was “a dangerous person to have around.”

Jouhl was a Marxist who opposed all organisational sectarianism and threw the full support of the IWA behind united fronts such as the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) and the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (Carf).

He also campaigned against the separatist movement to establish a Sikh state — Khalistan — in the Panjab. He organised conferences against any form of fundamentalism. He was overjoyed to see the massive movement of small farmers against the Indian government in 2021.

After almost 30 years in the foundry industry, following a successful interview, Jouhl was appointed by South Birmingham College as a trade union studies tutor at Birmingham Trade Union Studies Centre (BTUSC).

Hesitating to take up the offer, he only agreed after I (then head of BTUSC) had spoken at a mass meeting of about 200 workers in the shower area at Darcast foundry.

A vote was taken by show of hands and it was agreed overwhelmingly to let him leave to be a lecturer. I will never forget the tears on the faces of some of his workmates in leather aprons who came up to him to say goodbye and thank him for his years of service.

Soon after he arrived at BTUSC, he became involved in commissioning murals of working life and struggle, including — at the end of the canteen — one commemorating the closure of Saltley Gate in 1972, when thousands of engineers joined the miners on the picket line. He also organised conferences against “Fortress Europe.”

In the mid 1990s, Jouhl was elected to the NEC of the lecturers’ union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE). As a NATFHE delegate to the TUC he successfully moved (against a general council recommendation to remit) the motion from NATFHE to establish the TUC black workers conference, national committee and associated equality structures.

Avtar’s energy and commitment was astonishing as can be seen by reference to his archive and the remarkable historical interviews conducted by his son.

Jouhl was a great encourager. He inspired both love and respect. Sitting with him once at a wedding reception, I remember scores of people coming up to greet him. He adored his three children (Jagwant, Paul and Mindi) and grandchildren.

He knew great sorrow with the tragic loss of his wife, Manjeet, when she was only 41. In recent weeks, many people have told me how Jouhl was such a good-humoured, compassionate, gentle man who always made time to listen to people or offer support and comfort when they were facing difficulty or tragedy in their lives.

There are many special people in the socialist and trade union movement but Jouhl was exceptional — a gigantic figure in the struggle to organise the unorganised and a formidable fighter against racism and for unity of all people.

We assured Jouhl, when he was in hospital, that we will always continue the fight for justice and equality that he championed all his life.

One thought on “Tribute to Avtar Singh Jouhl, 1937-2022”

  1. I am from Vancouver,Canada and i wanted to say that i knew Malcolm X visited England in 1965 but i didn’t know about him meeting Avtar Singh Jouhl in Smethwick. Thanks for that Information.
    Malcolm also met another well known person in New York in the early 1960s. Fidel Castro was in New York for a meeting at the United Nations.Anyway the Hotel were Fidel was supposed to stay decided not to let him stay there. So Malcolm came to the rescue and got Fidel and the people with him an Hotel in Harlem. Fidel Thanked Malcolm for that and the two had a good Political Conversation.

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