Obituary – Avtar Jouhl (1937-2022)

Comrade Avtar Jouhl, a much-loved and much-respected anti-imperialist and proletarian revolutionary, passed away on the morning of 8 October 2022.

Born in the village of Jandiala, Punjab, on 2 November 1937, he came to Britain in 1958 to join his brother and father-in-law who were already working and living in Birmingham.

He had come over with the intention of pursuing higher studies at university but life took a different turn and he ended up working for three decades in the foundry industry in Smethwick.

Coming from a progressive family, some of whom had participated in the struggle for Indian independence from British colonial rule, Avtar was drawn towards Marxism and attended classes in basic Marxism.  When at school, he took part in the activities of the students’ union, agitating against rises in school fees.

Soon after coming to Britain, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and played a pivotal role in fighting against racial discrimination and for unionisation of the workforce.

Although founded in London and Coventry in the 1930s, the Indian Workers’ Association (Great Britain), as a vibrant and centralised organisation, came to occupy a vital place in the British working class movement only after the arrival of Punjabi workers in the late 1950s.  Avtar, along with Comrades Jagmohan Joshi and Teja Singh Sahota, was central to its organisation and to imparting to it a progressive, anti-imperialist outlook.  In many respects, the IWA(GB) was more progressive than many organisations calling themselves socialist.  Its programme was aimed at fighting against imperialism and racism, and at forging the unity of all workers irrespective of their colour, religion or national background.

On the anti-racist front, the leadership of the IWA conducted a fierce struggle against discriminatory practices at work places, in housing and in public places such as pubs.  Avtar was at the heart of this struggle. 

The British parliament passed the anti-immigrant Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962.  The Labour Party, then in opposition, promised to repeal this legislation on being elected to office. While it won the general election of 1964, it lost the Smethwick seat to the Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths, who won it with the slogan ‘If you want a nigger as a neighbour vote Labour’.

Following that election in Smethwick, Labour, far from repealing the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, went on to strengthen it.  Labour’s conduct in the race question, as in every other area of concern to the working class and oppressed peoples, was simply shameful.

Undaunted, Avtar and other leaders of the IWA(GB) got on with the work of mobilising workers against racism, helping in the process to build solidarity with other organisatioins and creating new powerful bodies such as the Campaign Against Racist Laws (CARL) which served to expose the inherent racism that underlay the Nationality Act of 1982.

While doing its best to build bonds of solidarity with the trade-union movement, the IWA(GB) had to struggle against race prejudice within working-class organisations.  For example, the trade unions opposed legislation against racism on the spurious excuse that such legislation would interfere with collective bargaining.

The IWA supported major industrial actions by workers all over the country, expecially those which took place at Imperial Typewriters, Grunwick and the historic miners’ strike of 1984-85, collecting funds for the strikers’ families and providing food on several occasions.  In the Midlands area, Avtar worked tirelessly in support of the miners, as did IWA branches all over the country.

On the anti-imperialist front, Avtar, along with his other comrades, supported wholeheartedly the struggles of the oppressed people for national liberation, from the Vietnamese people’s heroic fight against US imperialism, to the fight of the Irish people for the unification of Ireland and ending British rule in the 6 Counties; the struggle of the Palestinian people against murderous Zionist colonialism; the struggle of the peoples of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia for freedom against white racist minority rule; and the fight of the Angolan and Mozambican people against Portuguese colonialism.

Avtar was a fearless and ardent admirer of the Great Socialist October Revolution and the colossal achievements of the USSR under the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik), first during the period of Lenin, and subsequently for thirty whole years when Joseph Stalin was at the helm.  After the sad collapse of the Soviet Union thanks to the ravages wrought by the triumph of Khrushchevite revisionism following the death of Stalin, Avtar supported the work of the Stalin Society, which was, and remains, the defence of the earth-shattering achievements of the USSR under the leadership of Stalin over three decades of extraordinary difficulties and exceptional opportunity.

Equally, he was a firm supporter of the People’s Republic of China and of Comrade Mao Zedong, as indeed of socialist states – the DPRK, Vietnam and Cuba -as well as the progressive and socialist states of Venezuela and Nicaragua.

After three decades in the foundry industry, Avtar was appointed to the post of lecturer in trade-union studies at South City College in Birmingham, a post he was reluctant to take but only agreed to after his foundry workmates agreed to him doing so.  He taught   there for close to 20 years, joined the teachers’ union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) which later became part of UCU.

He was elected to the National Executive Committee of the Union, where his work was appreciated and admired.

Along with Joshi, Teja and other comrades, he collected money to buy premises for the establishment of the Shaheed Udham Singh Centre in Soho Road, Birmingham, to provide welfare services to the community – primarily, but not exclusively, Indian.

After the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) was formed he found it to be the organisation that best reflected his own political views and joined it, remaining a loyal member until his death.  He enthusiastically helped to raise funds for various Party projects.

Although in failing health, he maintained, right up to his death, support for all progressive causes. In 2021 he enthusiastically championed the cause of the farmers in India and was jubilant at their victory against all odds against the Modi government. 

Not only did he oppose racism as a divisive tool in the hands of the exploiting classes, he also opposed religious fundamentalism.  He played a prominent part in opposing the demand for a separate Sikh state – Khalistan – in Punjab.  Nothing was more dear to him that the unity of the working people in the struggle against exploitation, oppression and imperialist domination and war.

He leaves behind two sons, Jagwant and Paul, a daughter, Mindi, and many grandchildren.

While mourning his death, we celebrate his work and a life well lived in the cause of the emancipation of the proletariat and the oppressed people.

Farewell, much loved Comrade Avtar.  You will be much missed.

A memorial meeting for Comrade Avtar will take place between 1 and 4pm on 19 November 2022 at the Hockey Brook Bar and Restaurant, 68 Nineveh Road, Handsworth, Birmingham B21 0TE