London's Bangladeshi community have their roots in East Bengal, the land at the top of the Bay of Bengal between Burma and India. When India was partitioned in 1947, this land became 'East Pakistan', geographically divided from 'West Pakistan' one thousand miles away.
East Pakistan's dissatisfaction with this situation, in which most political power remained in West Pakistan, led to a civil war. In December 1971, East Pakistan formally seceded from its partner to create the independent state of Bangladesh.
Lone 'Lascar' seamen from East Bengal had arrived in London during the 19th and 20th centuries and some had settled in East London. Ayub Ali from Sylhet, a region of Bangladesh, established a caf on Commercial Road in the 1920s. This became a centre for the small community. Numbers grew during the 1960s and particularly during the Bangladeshi war of independence when refugees or migrants began to arrive in greater numbers.
Job opportunities in London were limited to low-paid and unskilled jobs in small factories and the textile trade. But as the textile trade declined, so the restaurant business began to thrive. Sylhetis had traditionally been cooks on board British ships, and some opened cafs. From these, a network of Bangladeshi restaurants, shops and banks grew up in Brick Lane and the surrounding area. Today there are over 50 restaurants in this location, known as 'Banglatown'.
The 1951 census recorded fewer than 1,000 'Pakistani' people in the boroughs that now make up Tower Hamlets. By 2006 the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets numbered 65,000, the largest Bangladeshi community in Europe. An additional 80,000 Bangladeshi people lived elsewhere in greater London, particularly in Newham and Camden.
Although the community is still poor, overall it is thriving. There are several newspapers, including Jamamot, founded in the 1960s. The main languages are Bangla (or Bengali) and Sylheti (a spoken dialect). Most of Bangladeshis living in London's East End are Sunni Muslims who worship at the East London Mosque on Commercial Road. Established in 1941, it was rebuilt in 1985 and can now accommodate 2,000 people. Another important place of worship is the Jamme Masjid mosque on Brick Lane, opened in 1976 in a building built as a Huguenot chapel, which later became a synagogue.
The Bangladeshi community bore the brunt of racist activity of the 1970s. Some provocative National Front marches in Brick Lane ended in violence. In 1978, Altab Ali, a local Bangladeshi garment worker, was stabbed to death.
The violence of the 1970s encouraged young Bangladeshis to become more politically active, and the community is now prominent in local government in Tower Hamlets. In 1998, Baroness Pola Uddin of Bethnal Green became the first Bangladeshi-born Briton to enter the House of Lords and the first Muslim peer to swear her oath of allegiance in the name of her own faith.
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