Song of the Day: Crime in Music (Day Three). “Free Satpal Ram”.

Satpal Ram is a British man of South Asian descent who was charged and convicted of killing another man, Clarke Pearce, during a fight in 1986.  The case of Satpal Ram has drawn much controversy due to his alleged mistreatment in the hands of the courts and the British Prison System due to his racial background.

According to Satpal Ram’s version of events, in November 1986, he and two friends visited the Sky Blue Indian restaurant in the Lozells area of Birmingham.  Whilst there, an altercation broke out between Ram and his two friends and another group of six people who were also dining in the restaurant.  The argument started over Asian music being played on the restaurant’s radio system and quickly developed into a physical fight.  Ram said that he had stabbed one of the party of six, Clarke Pearce, with a short-bladed penknife in self-defence after Pearce had attacked him with a broken bottle.  Pearce was taken to hospital with knife wounds and later died.  As a result, Satpal Ram was arrested for murder and convicted in 1987.

Later, much debate and controversy arose in the British media when it was alleged that his barrister did not meet with him and only saw him for about forty minutes before the trial.  It was also claimed that the jury missed vital evidence because no interpreter was provided to translate for a Bengali-speaking waiter who had been a witness to the events.  It was also alleged that the judge was to have said he would interpret but that he couldn’t speak the Bengali language.

Accusations of severe mistreatment were also lodged against the prison system, with reports of Ram being beaten, starved, repeatedly strip-searched and made to spend large periods of time in solitary confinement.  This resulted in accusations of racism within the criminal justice system.  Some of the injuries inflicted on Ram by prison officers can be seen on the photo above.

Satpal Ram was finally released from Blantyre House Prison on parole in June 2002.  His initial release as recommended by the parole board in 2000 was overturned by the Home Secretary at the time, Jack Straw.  His release in 2002 resulted from a European Court of Human Rights ruling which stated that government executives such as the Home Secretary had no right to overrule a decision of a parole board.

Many music acts championed Satpal Ram’s cause, including Asian Dub Foundation.  The band were formed in 1993 via Community Music, a London-based educational organisation which focuses on collective music making.  Community Music allows people from every socioeconomic and ethnic background to come together, experiment and create music that criss-crosses styles and genres.  Asian Dub Foundation consists of bassist and tutor Aniruddha Das, aka Dr. Das; DJ and youth worker John Pandit, aka Pandit G; guitarist Steve Chandra Savale, aka Chandrasonic; rapper Deeder Zaman and DJ Sun-J.  The British act’s unique use of dub bass, electronica, punk guitar and Indian Classical music is often used to convey political messages, to encourage racial harmony and to challenge long-standing Asian stereotypes and preconceptions.

In particular, the group’s second album, Rafi’s Revenge (1998) had tremendous international impact.  Rafi’s Revenge is the group’s most successful album to date and includes such politically inspired anthems as Naxalite, about the late 1960s uprising of landless peasants in the West Bengal region of India.

The album also features the cry for racial unity Black White …

… and Operation Eagle Lie, which alleges racist policing to be commonplace, with lyrics such as “A black man on a double yellow, yea’, he’s a criminal, A racial attack, investigation minimal”.

However, the greatest impact of any of the songs on Rafi’s Revenge came from the song Free Satpal Ram, based on the plight of Satpal Ram.  Free Satpal Ram became a key part in raising awareness of Ram’s plight amongst the general public and helping to eventually free him a few years later.  As with all politically-motivated Asian Dub Foundation tracks, Free Satpal Ram uses the group’s strength of simply told rap narrative to retell the events leading up to his arrest (“Satpal Ram had been in prison for ten years now, Unjustly convicted of murder, He was attacked in a restaurant, In Birmingham by racists, Having been glassed in the face, He had no choice but to defend himself”) and the inadequacies of his trial (“The all-white jury missed vital evidence, Because no interpreter was provided, The judge said he would interpret, But couldn’t speak a word of Bengali”).

The song also references other wrongly convicted people in order to highlight the major inadequacies of the criminal justice system that sentenced Satpal Ram:  “Birmingham Six, Bridgewater Four, Crown prosecution totting up the score, Kings Cross Two, Guildford Four, Winston Silcott – Man, how many more?”

Of the incident, Satpal Ram told The Guardian in January 2000:

“I’ve never refuted that a man died as a result of my actions, but the circumstances have never been taken into consideration.  I accept that loss of life is wrong, but if I hadn’t done what I did I would be dead now”.