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'You Can Shout at Us, You Can Do Whatever You Want... We Are Going to Stay Here, We Are British'

11/08/2015 17:33 BST | Updated 11/08/2016 10:59 BST

Come to Britain. This was the attractive proposition to those from the Indian subcontinent in the early 1950s. There were no restrictions then on people from the former colonies settling in Britain and becoming a citizen. Nearly all who came over were young, single men. They worked in the factories, foundries and public services like the newly-established National Health Service, to help rebuild Britain's economy following the Second World War.

They came with just a few pounds in their pocket. Newly independent India faced an extreme shortage of foreign currency. It imposed a strict financial quota - as little as three pounds - for those going to the UK. The practice went on for many years. Many new arrivals spent their precious pounds in the first week covering their board and rent.

When this three pound generation arrived, it was the era of "No blacks, No dogs, No Irish". There were places they couldn't eat, drink or rent a room.

In the early 1950s the British government estimated there were 43,000 people from the Indian subcontinent. They were still relatively small in number, and the early generation remember moments of kindness from the locals and how they were viewed as a curiosity. Kulwant Sehli came in 1954. He was the only South Asian living in an area in South East London. Children would follow him down the road, and seeing his turban, would affectionately call him the Maharajah.

Last year I heard the untold story of this pioneer generation - children of the Raj who arrived in a country unused to seeing people from the former colonies on its streets. I now pick up their story - along with their children - many of whom were born here - in the second series of Three Pounds in My Pocket, broadcast on BBC Radio 4. They tell me about their lives in the 1970s. By then, many from the first generation, had been living in Britain for over half their lives.

Kulwant Sehli remembers how "in the 50s it was a rare case for somebody to shout at you and abuse you, to call you names. It was very very rare. But in the 70s it became very apparent. It was said openly, people called you names without any fear".

By the 1970's South Asians were no longer a novelty, and the atmosphere had turned to one of hostility. Abuse, at times vicious, was for many part of everyday life. At the start of the decade there were now half a million people from the Indian subcontinent living in Britain. Family reunions had taken place - and Asians from East Africa were arriving. Immigration was a politically charged issue. Legislation had now been passed restricting immigration. While statutes were in place to protect against discrimination in housing and employment, they were largely symbolic.

Kulwant Sehli's wife, Inderjit, remembers that time. She says that when the British people saw more South Asians "they felt inundated, they thought their jobs were going to be taken away...I think that gave rise to the National Front". Mohammed Ajeeb came from Mirpur in Pakistan in 1957. By the mid-70s he was running housing projects in Bradford he says "the threat of immigration was an integral political concern...the far right seized the opportunity to exploit it further", he said they told their supporters - "it's because of these buggers you don't have anything...we just need to kick them out of the country."

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Neo-facist right wing groups like the National Front, who wanted the repatriation of non-whites were a force to be reckoned with. There were confrontations and street battles between them and anti-racist organisations around the country where large immigrant communities had settled - the East End of London, Leicester, Lewisham and Bradford. In 1976 they won nearly 20% of the share of the vote in Leicester's local elections.

But the racist killing of an 18 year-old student Gurdip Singh Chaggar in 1976 was a significant moment for South Asian communities. Chaggar been murdered on a busy Southall street, in South West London. The children of the pioneer generation had had enough. They took to the streets in their hundreds to protest. The Southall youth movement was formed to stand up for justice, equality and an end to victimisation - from racist groups and the police. Similar groups sprung up across the country: in East London, Luton, Nottingham, Leicester, Bradford, Manchester and Sheffield.

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Kulwant Sehli understood why the younger generation reacted differently to the racist abuse. "I accepted it - be quiet - we have to become deaf and dumb. But the younger generation, our own children, they thought they are born in this country, why should they be called Pakis go home?" They resented being told to go home - this is their home he says. "Things were brewing for a long time and they could not tolerate it anymore."

Shabnam Grewal was from that second generation. My mum and dad and all of them, their whole thing was about surviving and getting by ... head down. I wasn't prepared to be a second class citizen".

The youth movements were influenced by black power in America, and the politics of the left, which had inspired many of their parents. The different Asian communities worked together - unified - to forge an inclusive identity in their fight against racism. Their slogan "Come what may, we are here to stay".

In 1979 weeks before the General Election, Southall would again become a focus. The National Front provocatively attempted to hold a meeting in the Town Hall. Thousands of Asians and anti-racist supporters took to the streets in protest. The police in their hundreds - including special patrol units - used controversial methods to break up the demonstration. One protester, Blair Peach, a New Zealand teacher, was killed. In 2010 the Metropolitan police said it was likely to have been at the hands of a policeman. His death caused widespread revulsion across the South Asian community. Gurhurpal Singh who was at university at the time said "the death of Blair Peach drew a red line, we won't take this".

Singh, now a professor at a leading London university remembers how his parents' generation by the late 1970s began to question whether they had done the right thing by raising their children in Britain. "We would get telephone calls from India saying we understand there is a lot of hostility why don't you come back".

Kulwant and Inderjit Sehli discussed whether they should return to India with their two children, but finally decided against it. They had good jobs, Inderjit had a senior position in the civil service, and Kulwant was flourishing as a college lecturer. They had an idyllic home, and they worried their British born children would now find it hard to adapt to living in India.

Mohammed Ajeeb like many of the single men that came in the 50s thought he'd be in Britain for just a few years. But by the late 70s he came to the conclusion that "after two decades we recognised we are not going back". Speaking for many of his generation he says "we are hardworking people, we are here to build the British economy. You can shout at us you can do whatever you want. We are going to stay here. We are British."

Kavita Puri presents Three Pounds In My Pocket (series two) at 11:00 BST on 12, and 19 August on BBC Radio 4. You can also listen again on BBC iPlayer here