For a man who’s been through about as much abuse as anyone could take in their lifetime, Gurpal Virdi is remarkably optimistic.
The 63-year-old doesn’t bear a grudge, yet he says he suffered the most appalling racial abuse both as a child growing up in a white-dominated London and as a police officer.
To top it all, when it was all over and he decided to quit the police and stand as a local councillor, he says the Met levelled completely unproven accusations of sexual abuse against him which derailed his political career.
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His father came to the UK in 1961 in a bid to find a better life for his family in the UK, as India at the time was mired in the chaos of the partition the British had imposed.
Despite having a degree, and being a qualified police officer, he says he couldn’t get a professional job because effectively Indians were barred, so he was forced to work in Southall’s rubber factory.
But he worked hard, saved money, and was able to buy a house for his wife and three children to follow him to England.
Gurpal was just eight years old when he suddenly found himself in a London torn apart by racism.
“It was very nice and warm in India and here it was very very cold. We were used to big houses in India and suddenly we were living in tiny terraced houses. It was quite a shock,” he says.
“There were very few Asians at the time. Just a couple of families in our road.”
It was the policy of the time to bus school children from ethnic minorities out to schools in white-dominated boroughs to help them “integrate” – but in reality this led to hideous bullying and abuse.
Gurpal was bussed all the way from Southall to a school in Greenford.
“It was very very wrong what they did because we were isolated,” he says.
“I was a Sikh with long hair. My hair got pulled out every single day for three or four years. There would be blood running down my face and I would be in a lot of pain.
“I would get punched and beaten up. People would say things like ‘go and have a bath you brown s**t.'”
Even after all these years Gurpal still sounds emotional talking about this.
“My dad didn’t want to know as he had stresses of his own, but mum always had to patch up my cuts and bruises. The community elders tended to keep their heads down,” he says.
“The thing was the teachers didn’t listen if you said you were getting bullied.
“If you reported being bullied, you would still get the cane.”
Luckily Gurpal’s uncle was one of those who spoke out against the “bussing” school system and challenged the school authorities.
There were protests and the Indian Workers’ Association got involved and forced the Government into a change of policy.
“The policy changed and I went to Featherstone School in Southall…but I still got bullied,” says Gurpal.
“It really, really got to me and I wanted to take action to do something about it.”
In the end, Gurpal and his friends spent time exercising and building up their muscles so they could fight back, then the bullies started to lay off them.
He also learned to give as good as he got verbally. It was in the end the only way to survive.
“The police were very very nasty to us. They never investigated anything if we were being attacked. They never did anything. That’s what made up my mind to join the police to try to bring about change,” says Gurpal.
As a teenager, Gurpal was caught up in the fights with the skinheads – a subculture that originated in London – who repeatedly tried to attack Southall and the Asian resistance to them.
He remembers the night in 1979 a New Zealand activist called Blair Peach was killed in a demonstration after the National Front took over Southall town hall. Later, Gurpal says, it turned out that he had been beaten by a police constable.
It was this horrific moment that drew the Asian community closer together and sparked a response that drove the skinheads out of town for good.
Gurpal was 100 per cent set on joining the police – a decision that meant he was shunned by his community.
“My parents objected. All but a few close friends disappeared and relatives wouldn’t come to our house,” he says bitterly.
“I was trying to say to them: ‘If you want to make a change, you have to do it from the inside.'”
In the end, Gurpal signed on as a special constable in 1979 so his dad wouldn’t know, then he became a fully-fledged police officer two years later.
Yet, his problems were just beginning.
“The police teachers would pick on me constantly in class, so after three or four weeks I would just volunteer to speak so they would have to say I needed to hold back,” laughs Gurpal.
“Some of the officers would make it clear you weren’t welcome, but if you complained you were out, so it was a case of trying to get through your two-year probation.”
He was first posted to Battersea, but it was when he was posted to Ealing that he says things went very wrong. Here he claims he was faced with officers who remembered policing the Asians in the streets of Southall.
“Hated. I was hated by quite a few officers,” he says. “Rather than acknowledging my commitment to making London a better place, I got attacked.”
Gurpal says a systematic campaign of hate mail began against Black and Asian officers, and that he was blamed for it.
Batches of hate mail were sent to police officers, support staff and even canteen workers.
Gurpal says he was one of 13 Black and Asian officers who received a printed image of a Black man accompanied by the message: “Not wanted. Keep the police force white, so leave now or else.”
The Met decided to investigate, but Gurpal called for an external inquiry as he feared they would just cover it up. He says he was suspended from the force as a result.
An employment tribunal later of course found he had nothing to do with the hate mail.
The commanders involved came to an out of court settlement, and Gurpal received an official apology from Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis Sir John Stevens.
“I was reinstated but I still carried on being targeted and I still got race hate mail,” he says.
He went back to work, and continued fighting for justice, but says he was still targeted about every two years and promotions were often blocked.
A key piece of his work was fighting for the police reports into the death of Blair Peach to be released.
These duly confirmed that Peach had been murdered by a police squad member, but Gurpal says there were more than a few other race-related murders that should have been investigated and never were.
Later he gave evidence at the inquiry into the murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, which helped convince the judges that the police was “institutionally racist”.
Eventually, though, he couldn’t stand being targeted anymore and left the police in 2012.
But once again his problems were just beginning.
He decided to stand as a local councillor and was being touted as a possible local MP. It was then the Met dug up allegations of sexual abuse from 25 years earlier.
They claimed he had assaulted a juvenile with a truncheon in the back of a police van.
“I’m being stitched up again,” he told his wife when he returned home from questioning.
“They were quite worried about what would happen if I became an MP,” he said.
Needless to say, the charges were completely unproven and the case was thrown out within an hour.
Summing up the judge said there had been a “conspiracy” to convict Gurpal.
But his political career was basically ruined.
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The Labour Party deselected him but he still successfully stood and won a seat on Hounslow Council as an independent.
“I’m quite lucky, I have a great family and a wife and kids who stick by me and support me,” he says.
“[But] my wife and I are both on medication because of all of the stress.
“I wouldn’t change what I did. I would still join the police service. The promotion system changed because of my employment tribunal. The recommendations from the Stephen Lawrence inquiry had an impact and community relations have changed.”
These days Gurpal is teaching law to students at the University of East London in a bid to help youngsters equip themselves with the skills to bring about a fairer society.
And he offers help to local people, and even police officers, who are caught up in racial issues.
“I always keep my phone on in case somebody needs help,” he says.
He admits things have got better in terms of race relations but he says there’s been a slippage since 2010 as funding has become more limited.
And he says there’s still a long way to go in bringing ethnic minorities into the police.
“How many officers from ethnic minority backgrounds have completed 30 years’ service in the police,” he asks. “That’s the figure you need to look at. I was only the 12th or 13th to do so.”
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police (MPS) would not comment on Mr Virdi’s case but told said that the service “has made significant strides in ensuring that we have a more diverse and inclusive workforce”.
The spokesperson said that following recommendations made by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2016, the Met has created “dedicated teams of specialists to respond to internal complaints of discrimination”, adding: “The MPS is also investing in improvements to the way it records internal discrimination complaints so that it is better able to identify victimisation.”
Gurpal’s book ‘Behind the Blue Line: My Fight Against Racism and Discrimination in the Police’ is widely available from booksellers.
Have you got an interesting memory or story about your life in London? Please email [email protected]