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Free Radicals

A walking tour in California celebrates South Asian American activism

By Sonia Paul | 1 July 2017

On a downtown street crossing in Berkeley, California, a group of about twenty people listened intently as Barnali Ghosh made a request: “Think of something you’re really angry about.” Recent news cast a long shadow across the sunny morning. It was 26 January, the day after US President Donald Trump announced a travel ban against citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. One by one, Ghosh’s companions spoke up.

“I’m angry at ‘reasonable Republicans.’”
“I’m angry at the ‘us versus them’ mentality.”
“I’m angry at all the anger.”

When it came time for Sriharsha Jayanti to speak, his cheeks flushed slightly. “I’m angry at myself because I’ve never taken direct action,” he said. Jayanti, a lanky 29-year-old, later told me he had felt embarrassed to make such a confession in front of people who seemed so politically active. Their supportive looks, though, had encouraged him.

Like Jayanti, most of those in the group had brown faces. They were gathered for the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour: a monthly guided tour of places around Berkeley—a city in the San Francisco Bay Area—that are linked to over a century of South Asian American activism.

Ghosh, a 43-year-old landscape architect, has been running these tours with her partner, Anirvan Chatterjee, a 39-year-old tech entrepreneur, since 2012. They narrate stories such as that of Kartar Singh Sarabha, an Indian student who came to Berkeley in 1912 and co-founded the Ghadar Party, a revolutionary group that protested British rule over the subcontinent. They also speak of a 1999 protest by South Asians outside a popular Berkeley Indian restaurant, after news broke that its owner had been trafficking young women and girls from India for over a decade. Ghosh and Chatterjee have identified around 15 such stories, and on any given tour they recount roughly six of them at specific stops over a three-kilometre walk.

Although Chatterjee grew up in the Bay Area, he knew none of the stories until he started researching for the tour. “I knew Berkeley had this lefty, activist history, but I didn’t realise it had a history of South Asians, let alone South Asian activists,” he told me over the phone in March.

The tour in January began at the Pacific Center: the third-oldest LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) counselling centre in the United States, and the oldest in the Bay Area. Outside the centre—an ivory-coloured house with tile rainbow letters spelling its name—Ghosh and Chatterjee launched into the tour’s first story, that of “Tinku” Ali Ishtiaq. After growing up in Bangladesh, Ishtiaq came to the United States to study computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and moved to Berkeley in the early 1980s to work as an engineer in Silicon Valley. One day, in 1986, Ishtiaq saw a poster outside the Pacific Center that listed a phone number and read: “Are you South Asian and gay?”

Ishtiaq dialled the number, and a fellow South Asian engineer picked up. The two of them, as well as another South Asian engineer, soon met in person. The relief and camaraderie they felt after finding one another, Ghosh said, inspired them to form Trikone, the world’s first South Asian LGBTQ organisation. “LGBT South Asians have, of course, always existed, but they weren’t really formalised under that term,” she said.

“I promise not all of our stories are about desi engineers,” Chatterjee interjected, prompting a few chuckles. “But I think it’s a lesson for these times that engineers also get to be organisers and activists.”

Jayanti, like several others at the walking tour, is an engineer. He moved to California a few days before his twelfth birthday, in 1999, from what is now Chhattisgarh. His family settled in Fremont, a Bay Area suburb that attracted plenty of Indian immigrants like himself—young people with software-engineer fathers and housewife mothers.

In part, Jayanti told me, his previous political apathy had stemmed from his wavering feelings of ownership for his adopted country. “I thought of myself only as an Indian person,” he said. “I was very aware that I was not a citizen. My voice wouldn’t carry much weight.” He paused. “I still feel that, to a certain extent.”

But during the tour, Jayanti later explained to me, his mind was running through memories of the difficulties of being a young South Asian in America: childhood embarrassment at his Telugu accent; being called a “terrorist” following the attacks of 11 September 2001, or 9/11, as well as a “job-stealer” as he furthered his studies; and of sparring with his uncle in India, a supporter of both Trump and Narendra Modi.

One of the tour’s main themes was violence against South Asians—an issue that was especially relevant in the wake of Trump’s electoral victory in November. “Over the 15 days after the election, there were 14 different hate incidents on the streets of Berkeley,” Chatterjee told the group. “And I just have to think to myself, this is what is happening in a blue-state, deep-blue-liberal city? What are the stories happening in the places not like this?”

In the months since I attended the tour, a rash of high-profile hate crimes against South Asians has taken place in the United States. In one widely covered incident, in the conservative state of Kansas, a white man shot two Indian men, reportedly after yelling “Get out of my country.” One of the victims, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, died of his injuries.

The tour stopped at Moe’s Books, a popular independent bookstore founded in 1959, in the heyday of the nonconformist “Beatnik” era. Ghosh and Chatterjee drew the crowd’s attention to a poster in the shop’s window: a drawing of a bespectacled woman wearing a hijab, with the words “Everyone is welcome here” emblazoned at the top.

Similar posters hung in shop windows across Berkeley. They were there thanks to members of a community group that banded together after the election to document incidents of hate and to make those targeted by racism feel safer. Four members, two of whom had personally experienced hate incidents in California during and immediately after the election, visited stores to ask shop owners to put up the posters. “There was one Hindu, one Christian, one Muslim and one Sikh,” Chatterjee, who was one of the four, said.

In his book Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans, Sangay K Mishra, an assistant professor of political science at Drew University in New Jersey, documents the experiences of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Americans in the years following 9/11. “When it comes to responding to racialised treatment, I saw people were reacting differently,” he told me over the phone. “There were ways in which Hindus, in particular, and Sikhs, in the beginning, felt the need to distinguish themselves” from Muslims, exposing and reinforcing religious and political fractures between South Asians.

Just as 9/11 was a watershed moment for South Asian America, Mishra said, Trump’s election and the subsequent hate crimes may present a new turning point. “I see that there is a lot of fear within the community and a lot of thinking within the community,” he said. “Possibly, this could be a moment in which the community might be moving along these lines … of consolidating as South Asian.”

At the tour’s final stop, Berkeley High School, the crowd listened, engrossed, as Chatterjee recited a series of hate crimes against South Asians in the Bay Area that took place soon after 9/11. “It’s hard, because I cannot tell the difference between those stories, and the stories broken out of the headlines that I was sharing earlier today,” he said.

Chatterjee took a breath and told the tour’s final story. After 9/11, he said, many immigrant parents of Pakistani Muslim and Indian Sikh students at Berkeley High School suggested their children stay home, to avoid the harassment and threats they were enduring from classmates. But instead, the students organised with other youth groups and led programmes on the histories of West Asia, US foreign policy, and Muslim and Sikh Americans. They convinced some of their classmates to wear green armbands, to designate themselves “buffers” who could accompany those who felt uncomfortable walking alone.

“And it actually made a difference,” Chatterjee said. “The rate of attacks came down, day by day.”

When the tour ended, some attendees made plans to get lunch together. After thanking the organisers and nodding a few goodbyes to others, Jayanti quietly excused himself.

When we met again over coffee a few weeks later, he remarked that he was still adjusting to being a “radical” kind of desi. He used to think the word, whether it was used to describe the extreme right or extreme left, carried negative connotations. But now, Jayanti told me, it was taking on a new meaning for him. “I try to figure out what’s right without necessarily ascribing a certain label to it,” he said. “But given what I align with and how these ‘radical liberals’ think, I feel like I’m definitely either a radical or trying to be one.”

Sonia Paul is an independent journalist, radio producer and contributing editor at MediaShift.org. She is a senior fellow with the Fund for Investigative Journalism and Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. From 2013 to 2015, she was based in Lucknow, India, as a freelance journalist. She was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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