A South Asian American Agenda?

Periodically, we’ve discussed whether there is any real solidarity amongst the different South Asian communities in North America. What do wealthy 2nd gen suburban doctors, for instance, really have in common politically with recent immigrants working as shopkeepers and taxi drivers in ethnic enclaves in the inner city? It’s a difficult question to answer, though that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to answer it.

A recent blog post by Dr. Anonymous at Pass the Roti drew my attention to an attempt to find a common agenda by a number of South Asian American Groups, including South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). The groups have come together to form the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations to release a position paper, which attempts to assemble a political agenda that will find broad support amongst various constituencies who can all be described as “South Asian American.” The groups that have endorsed the document are pretty diverse — including a number of South Asian women’s groups, gay rights groups like Trikone, and progressive youth groups like SAYA and DRUM. Interestingly, one finds three Sikh advocacy groups endorsing the agenda (SALDEF, Sikh Coalition, and United Sikhs), but not, as far as I can tell, any groups that are specifically oriented to advocacy for Hindus, Muslims, Jains, or Desi Christians. I’m curious about where that seeming imbalance comes from.

The full agenda (PDF) has nine categories, which Dr. Anonymous was kind enough to transcribe from PDF to HTML for us. I think most of us might agree with the first header (below) as a high priority in an election year, though I’ve been writing for Sepia Mutiny long enough to know that it’s almost never true that everyone agrees with anything:

Civic and Political Participation: Ensure full and equal participation for all in the civic and political process
• Promote naturalization and voting among South Asians
• Preserve voting rights of South Asians by eliminating voter intimidation and suppression
• Ensure limited English proficient citizens’ access to the right to vote
• Ensure that votes by all eligible voters count
• Eliminate xenophobic comments against South Asians and other communities of color in political discourse
• Increase political participation and civic engagement of South Asian community members

The only point here that seems questionable to me might be “Eliminate xenophobic comments against South Asians… in political discourse.” I’m not sure how that could ever be made to happen, so why put it on an agenda?

Some of the other headers might be more controversial/debatable for the readers of this blog, who, as we’ve seen, span the ideological spectrum — left, right, and center. For instance, the “economic justice” category might have some readers disagreeing:

Economic Justice: Promote economic justice and financial security for South Asians
• Support the right to collect a decent living wage with benefits
• Ensure work environments are free from exploitation and provide protections for labor trafficking survivors
• Support the rights of workers who seek to organize regardless of occupation or immigration status
• Provide protections for those affected by workplace discrimination
• Cease immigration enforcement at the workplace
• Ensure access to financial education and vocational training opportunities for immigrant and limited English proficient workers
• Ensure enforcement of tenants’ rights and fair housing policies
• Support affordable housing for immigrants
• Ensure access to fair and affordable credit for immigrants

I personally strongly support the points related to housing and tenants’ rights (many recent immigrants I’ve known live in quite poor conditions, and sometimes they are unaware that landlords have certain legal obligations to their tenants.). I’m less clear on the question of “immigration enforcement at the workplace,” because I think USCIS raids at factory, hotel, and restaurant could be defended along the lines of “well, it’s the law.”

I also personally strongly support the subheader on Gender Equity:

Gender Equity: Advance gender equity within the South Asian community
• Support programs aimed to address and prevent gender-based violence within the South Asian community
• Support programs that provide linguistically accessible and culturally appropriate services for South Asian domestic violence survivors
• Support policies that protect and empower immigrant domestic violence survivors
• Support immigration policies that protect and empower dependent visa holders
• Strengthen policies aimed to prevent all forms of trafficking and provide meaningful resources to survivors
• Develop policies aimed at curbing transnational abandonment of spouses
• Increase culturally and linguistically appropriate health services for South Asian women
• Promote programs and policies that foster the economic empowerment of South Asian women

And finally, one more SAALT NCSO agenda item I feel strongly about is reform of the immigration system:

Immigrant Rights: Promote immigrant rights and just reforms to the immigration system
• Ensure a just and humane approach to reforming the immigration system at the federal level
• Expedite immigration application background checks related to security-related delays
• Ensure the naturalization process is accessible to all eligible immigrants
• Ensure that the immigration system promotes the reunification of families
• Support immigration policies that protect the rights of immigrant workers
• Support immigration policies that protect and empower domestic violence survivors
• Support immigration policies that protect and empower all dependent visa holders
• Cease enforcement initiatives and national security measures that disproportionately affect immigrants and promote profiling
• Ensure that immigrants are not deported from the United States for minor violations of the law
• Cease sharing information among various law enforcement agencies for immigration purposes
• Oppose policies denying public services to non-citizens or permitting state and local law enforcement to carry out federal immigration law
• Ensure compliance of detention standards and provide alternatives to immigrant detention
• Strengthen due process protections within the immigration system
• Standardize the adjudication of asylum-related forms of relief

Ever since the immigration reform bills of the mid-1990s, stories about decent immigrants screwed over by technicalities and minor infractions have been unceasing. And the immigration process as a whole currently causes misery for millions upon millions of immigrants, including those that assiduously play by the rules. (I have blogged my complaints about the indecency of today’s immigration system often; but for starters, see this post… with its 341 comments!)

What do people think about the SAALT NCSO agenda as a whole? Any nitpicks, or major disagreements? (Read the whole list at PTR or here.)

172 thoughts on “A South Asian American Agenda?

  1. Shaad’s point about not viewing ‘South Asian’ as an identity which supercedes and subsumes other identities is right on. You are South Asian, but you can also be many other things.

    How is “South Asian” anything like “European”? The EU has a court & assembly. It has requirements for membership. Europeans have an idea of society based on humanism/Enlightenment. Does “South Asia” have anything like this in common besides a love for musicals with poor production values? The only requirement for being South Asian is being too much of a push over to correct Westerners when they assign the wrong provenance to you.

    I see Chachaji of “Indians should make the first move and throw open its borders to Bangladeshis & Pakistanis” fame has chimed in to keep this discussion grounded in reality. I’ll become South Asian when Bangladesh & Pakistan adopt secular constitutions. Right now they have nothing I want in terms of ideas, goods or human capital.

  2. How is “South Asian” anything like “European”? The EU has a court & assembly. It has requirements for membership. Europeans have an idea of society based on humanism/Enlightenment. Does “South Asia” have anything like this in common besides a love for musicals with poor production values?

    Sigh. Four years since this blog started and people are content having the same argument over and over and over and over again.

  3. Re 147:

    it precludes national identity, but what about cultural-civilizational-historical? this is a fine issue of language, but i think the analogy to what happened in brownland would be if every nation but spain and germany became part of a european super-state. all of a sudden there would be euorpeans, spaniards and germans. some germans by ethnicity would also live in europe, those who resided in switzerland and austria, for example. but would spaniards and citizens of the german nation-state not be europeans after the emergence of the european super-state?

    I think at this point you have to start looking at both at the multiple meanings of labels and the emotional baggage associated with them. I, for instance, don’t see a Bangladeshi national identity precluding a “cultural-civilizational-historical” (I’m going to abbreviate it to CCH) identity, but part of the issue is the label this identity comes wrapped in. The term Indian could indeed be used to describe this CCH identity; but the Indian label is also used to describe a national identity that Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans don’t subscribe to. When other, probably just as effective labels for CCH identity are available (e.g. South Asian) which don’t conflate the admittedly rather touchy national identities, why not use them?

    In terms of the analogy you presented, the Spaniards and Germans would still be Europeans, simply not “European Super-Statists”. I think Norwegians are presently a good example of this. They are Europeans, but currently not “European Unionists” (for lack of a better term). Note also that many Latin Americans also use the label “Americans” to refer to themselves and that some even take umbrage at US citizens using the term to mean exclusively US citizens.

    to most DBDs these are not abstract questions i think. to someone like me they kind of are, and that’s one reason i don’t blow a gasket when people refer to me as “indian.” the hiving off of pakistani & bangladeshi identity from an indian one is a feature of the last 3 generations, not a historically invariant one.

    It’s certainly not a historically invariant one. And I am certainly not averse to a pan-subcontinental identity (or even an association similar to the EU in the future; SAARC is somewhat of a step in this direction). All I am saying is that given the presence of overlapping identities, it’s probably best to use labels like South Asian that cause the least amount of friction.

  4. Re 150:

    were “hindus” self-conscious “hindus” as a religion (as opposed to just being another word for indian) before muslims declared them as such?

    Razib, I don’t know. But I think another question along these lines one could ask would be “Was there a group of people in the Indian subcontinent prior to the arrival of Muslims who identified themselves as being neither Jain nor Buddhist?”

  5. How is “South Asian” anything like “European”? The EU has a court & assembly. It has requirements for membership. Europeans have an idea of society based on humanism/Enlightenment. Does “South Asia” have anything like this in common besides a love for musicals with poor production values?

    this is a non-sequiter dude. i’m not particular invested in this argument so your huffing & puffing just amuses me (i actually agree that the ‘south asianists’ get too ‘hegemonic’ [what other word should i use?] with those of you who are hostile to the idea, i think everyone should chill, at least if they’re american-identified or ABDs). you might know (or perhaps not), that the idea of europe existed before the EU, the EC, NATO, etc. in fact, i attempted to decouple the idea of india/europe from political systems, but you specifically used a political response point, which suggests that you just want to wave around d**b arguments and get into a screaming match instead of engaging. as for what they have in common…the bangladesh national anthem has lines from a song written by a man named tagore. that’s not an argument, but a pointer to what i’m getting at (i’m sure you’ll scream back incoherently).

    All I am saying is that given the presence of overlapping identities, it’s probably best to use labels like South Asian that cause the least amount of friction.

    i agree. but i think the friction is contingent on recency of national origin. i think that cultural ties to the “old country” can be very healthy for any community. OTOH, i think a very visceral attachment to geopolitical considerations rooted in the “old country” can be problematic, especially for a new community attempting to forge a space for itself in this nation. strong distinctions between bangladesh and india are to me coincidences of geopolitics.*

    your attitude to these issues are framed by your circumstances. many DBDs have been rather forceful that no matter their american citizenship much of their heart will stay with india. that’s normal and natural. that being said, what about future generations? will they care about kashmir in the same way as they do now? i don’t know, but i think that these sorts of geopolitical entanglements complicate things.

    i myself will start a family in a few years. my children will be half-brown. i was born in bangladesh and raised in the united states. based on the values i have if they have any appellation given to them due to their brown ancestry i will probably tell them they’re bengali, not that they’re bangladeshi. bangladesh was less than 10 years old when i was born there, and i was less than 5 years old when i left. if my grandchildren think that they’re part “indian” because they’re stupid about geography as most americans are, and probably will be, i won’t object too strenuously. i just hung out with a woman who is 1/4 polish, 1/4 lithuanian, 1/4 romanian and 1/4 english who told me that she is “mostly slavic.”

    • pakistan is different because i think pakistanis are much more invested in an idea of racial and cultural superiority by and large than bangladeshis because pakistani ethnic groups stand higher in racial status than the average indian while bangladeshis do not. additionally, the fact that bangladesh has a script which is not arabic despite its muslim religion means that it is not as cut off from this hindu cultural half in india as punjabis in pakistan are from those in india.
  6. Razib: It’s not all about you. My quote is taken from Chachaji. In any case as a man of science/boy wonder you will be able to genetically engineer Bangladeshis so they can thrive hydroponically so it’s all good. Chachaji just wants India to take in more indigents without getting any land in return

  7. louciecypher, unlike chachaji and you i don’t care much about south asia. as long as there ain’t no war, their business is there business so long as it doesn’t mess with americaz business. but the geopolitical arguments seem excessively non-american in relevance for an indian american/south asian american weblog/whatever you want to call it american weblog.

  8. why can’t bangladeshis and pakistanis take ownership of the word india? just because a newly formed republic decided to name itself after a civilization in 1950? at least “india” has the hind->sind derivation and “hindustan” as a cognate. “south asia” is too deracinated, while we’re at it we can replace “europe” with “northwest asia” to be more inclusive of Britain and Iceland. South ASia is a useful geopolitical term when we want to be inclusive of Afghanistan, Burma, and the Maldives, yet for civilizational identity purposes it would be a shame to let go of “india” and its cognates.

  9. louciecypher, unlike chachaji and you i don’t care much about south asia. as long as there ain’t no war, their business is there business so long as it doesn’t mess with americaz business. but the geopolitical arguments seem excessively non-american in relevance for an indian american/south asian american weblog/whatever you want to call it american weblog.

    I agree with razib. Why should the ABDs care about the geopolitics of the regions where their parents come from?. They are a miniscule group that tries to get more numbers and hence more clout in a single-man single vote democracy and if they decide to use any name like “South Asia” / “Under Himalsyas” / “Above Indian Ocean” it is a non issue. I think the problem comes when this group tries to influence US policies in that region. There is really no “South Asian” identity in South Asia.

  10. why can’t bangladeshis and pakistanis take ownership of the word india? just because a newly formed republic decided to name itself after a civilization in 1950? at least “india” has the hind->sind derivation and “hindustan” as a cognate. “south asia” is too deracinated, while we’re at it we can replace “europe” with “northwest asia” to be more inclusive of Britain and Iceland. South ASia is a useful geopolitical term when we want to be inclusive of Afghanistan, Burma, and the Maldives, yet for civilizational identity purposes it would be a shame to let go of “india” and its cognates.

    I think this is what Jinnah wanted. He wanted the newly formed countries to be named as “Hindustan” and “Pakistan” and opposed the name of India to be given to the other dominion. The Congress leaders were shrewd enough to dismiss the idea outright stating that it is these folks who wanted to split and they have no right to name the other entity.

  11. regarding the analogy with EU, I think India as of now fits the EU model with the constitution and stuff managing diverse states and languages.

    EU is a christian/atheist majority with a secular constitution with the single defence force (NATO), single currency promising more or less the same rights for all its citizens of diverse languages and cultures sharing core values..

    India is a Hindu majority with a secular constitution with a single defence force, single currency promising more or less the same rights for all its citizens of diverse languages and cultures sharing some core values.

    Throwing Pakistan and Bangladesh into an union with India won’t work atleast the way as it exists now. There are no shared values.

    For applying a passport in Pakistan now, if you are a Muslim you have to sign the following. http://www.pakistanconsulateny.org/PDF/form-a.pdf

    I hereby solemnly declare that - (i) I am Muslim and believe in the absolure and unqualified finality of the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him) as the last of the prophets. (ii) I do not recognize any person who claims to be a prophet in any sense of the word or of any description whatsoever after Muhammad (peace be upon him) or recognize such a claimant as prophet or a religious reformer as a Muslim. (iii) I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmed Quadiani to be an imposter nabi and also consider his followers whether belonging to the Lahori or Quadiani group to be non-muslims. Thumb impression.. Signature.

    I don’t think I’m ready to have a similar “shared value” in the case of India where I need to declare XXX caste to be outside of Hinduism while applying for my passport. :-)

  12. Re 155:

    All I am saying is that given the presence of overlapping identities, it’s probably best to use labels like South Asian that cause the least amount of friction. i agree. but i think the *friction* is contingent on recency of national origin. i think that cultural ties to the “old country” can be very healthy for any community. OTOH, i think a very visceral attachment to geopolitical considerations rooted in the “old country” can be problematic, especially for a new community attempting to forge a space for itself in this nation. strong distinctions between bangladesh and india are to me coincidences of geopolitics.* your attitude to these issues are framed by your circumstances. many DBDs have been rather forceful that no matter their american citizenship much of their heart will stay with india. that’s normal and natural. that being said, what about future generations? will they care about kashmir in the same way as they do now? i don’t know, but i think that these sorts of geopolitical entanglements complicate things. i myself will start a family in a few years. my children will be half-brown. i was born in bangladesh and raised in the united states. based on the values i have if they have any appellation given to them due to their brown ancestry i will probably tell them they’re bengali, not that they’re bangladeshi. bangladesh was less than 10 years old when i was born there, and i was less than 5 years old when i left. if my grandchildren think that they’re part “indian” because they’re stupid about geography as most americans are, and probably will be, i won’t object too strenuously. i just hung out with a woman who is 1/4 polish, 1/4 lithuanian, 1/4 romanian and 1/4 english who told me that she is “mostly slavic.”

    No real disagreement here. My children will be half-brown too. They’ll know about their half-Bengali (half-Bangladeshi), quarter-Dutch, quarter-American heritage, but can define their self-identities themselves. They can certainly decide for themselves where their priorities lie. Frankly, as long as they subscribe to say, generic Enlightenment values, I’ll be quite happy.

    * pakistan is different because i think pakistanis are much more invested in an idea of racial and cultural superiority by and large than bangladeshis because pakistani ethnic groups stand higher in racial status than the average indian while bangladeshis do not. additionally, the fact that bangladesh has a script which is not arabic despite its muslim religion means that it is not as cut off from this hindu cultural half in india as punjabis in pakistan are from those in india.

    Agreed again. I think, from my er, atheistic perspective, Bangladeshis have actually been rather fortunate in this department. A cultural identity based primarily on the language prevents a Pakistani-esque fundamentalist Muslim religious identity from becoming predominant. The latter would require a Bangladeshi Muslim to sever himself from say Tagore and Rabindra Sangeet, Sharatchandra, and even much of Nazrul’s poetry, and that is something I don’t believe most Bangladeshis are willing to do.

  13. Re 158:

    why can’t bangladeshis and pakistanis take ownership of the word india? just because a newly formed republic decided to name itself after a civilization in 1950?

    Yes, at least, (I think) in the case of Bangladeshis. Sorry, rar, but I thought I had already touched on this upthread. People who have recently “realized” (as in actualized, not just thought of it) a national identity, realized it by eschewing another national identity, are unlikely to be comfortable with a label (India) that could be confused with a third national identity. Yes, it’s not particularly rational, given that what we are talking about is using the label for the cultural-civilizational-historical identity, not the national identity, but that’s human emotional baggage for you.

  14. Re 161:

    PS, good dig on the Pakistani passport. Seems to be targetted particularly against Qaidanis and Ahmadis. Neither the Bangladeshi nor the Indian passport application forms have any fields/queries regarding religion.

    I don’t think I’m ready to have a similar “shared value” in the case of India where I need to declare XXX caste to be outside of Hinduism while applying for my passport. :-)

    That’s opening another can of worms, isn’t it, PS? A Bangladeshi could just as easily be justified in saying that she wasn’t ready to have a similar “shared value” with another nation where, despite a professed secular constitution, what appears to be state-sanctioned (or at least state-government-looking-the-other-way-ish) religious riots and massacres can occur. For what it’s worth, she might also point out that despite individual cases of religious discrimination, neither the EU nor Bangladesh have experienced such religion-based riots/massacres :-)

    Let’s not be naive. We can all play this game of one-upmanship; there are more than enough religious wackos in each of these “South Asian” nations that we can all point at and titter. And no one is trying to force these nations into a confederation or loose association immediately (that’s something that I, and presumably Chachaji, believe will happen organically in the future). I just happen to think that there still enough similarities and commonalities (apparently we all like visiting and kvetching in this blog, for instance) between desis (ABDs, DBDs, Americans, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans) that a label like “South Asian” is not entirely irrelevant.

  15. That’s opening another can of worms, isn’t it, PS? A Bangladeshi could just as easily be justified in saying that she wasn’t ready to have a similar “shared value” with another nation where, despite a professed secular constitution, what appears to be state-sanctioned (or at least state-government-looking-the-other-way-ish) religious riots and massacres can occur. For what it’s worth, she might also point out that despite individual cases of religious discrimination, neither the EU nor Bangladesh have experienced such religion-based riots/massacres :-)

    Sure, it is not my idea that “South Asia” should form a EU like arrangement. If you are talking about Bangladesh not having riots, I don’t know enough to comment on the period now.. I for sure know there was ethnic cleansing after 1947 and in the 50s. There was a Dalit supporter of Jinnah from Bengal, Jogindernath Mandal who was the first law minister of Pakistan. Read his resignation letter here. I don’t know if India cleansed and drove out the Muslims now or at least made it clear that Muslims would be second class citizens and the state/official religion would be Hinduism, 50 years from now any Indian can claim proudly see we don’t have any riots. :-)

    http://bengalvoice.com/uproot_appendix1.htm Jogendra Nath Mandal’s Resignation Letter to Liaquat Ali Khan FULL TEXT OF THE LETTER OF RESIGNATION DATED 8TH OCTOBER 1950 OF JOGENDRA NATH MANDAL, MINISTER FOR LAW AND LABOUR, GOVERNMENT OF PAKISTAN, ADDRESSED TO LIAQUAT ALI KHAN, PRIME MINISTER OF PAKISTAN
    Let’s not be naive. We can all play this game of one-upmanship; there are more than enough religious wackos in each of these “South Asian” nations that we can all point at and titter. And no one is trying to force these nations into a confederation or loose association immediately (that’s something that I, and presumably Chachaji, believe will happen organically in the future). I just happen to think that there still enough similarities and commonalities (apparently we all like visiting and kvetching in this blog, for instance) between desis (ABDs, DBDs, Americans, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans) that a label like “South Asian” is not entirely irrelevant.

    I’m not naive and this is not a game of one-upmanship. Clearly India and Pakistan (that comprised of Bangladesh) have decided to split and go different paths and the different histories over the last 60 years show that they are really not that compatible. Trying to join them in a political union would be a disaster. I don’t mind people enjoying Bollywood movies or Punjabi singers / Bengali literature on either sides of the border. But it is better to stop with that. :-)

    For ABDs it is a different story. If they find it worthy they can join with any group they want to boost their numbers.

  16. Remember the problems EU member nations have with Turkey joining the Union?? That is the real analogy.

  17. were “hindus” self-conscious “hindus” as a religion (as opposed to just being another word for indian) before muslims declared them as such?
    Razib, I don’t know. But I think another question along these lines one could ask would be “Was there a group of people in the Indian subcontinent prior to the arrival of Muslims who identified themselves as being neither Jain nor Buddhist?”

    In ancient India people generally identified themselves by their clan/caste. Buddha himself was often referred to by his clan name “Gautam” and he had no objection to caste as such and in fact was proud of his caste (he was only against caste atrocities). In fact up until the 19th century when the Brits did their census, the question regarding religion was unintelligible to most hindus. Many of them just put down their caste in place of religion.

  18. 167 · Divya said

    In ancient India people generally identified themselves by their clan/caste. Buddha himself was often referred to by his clan name “Gautam” and he had no objection to caste as such and in fact was proud of his caste (he was only against caste atrocities).

    Brahminical deceit and ignorance. Firstly, Buddha’s objection to the caste system is very well known; you are lying through your teeth here. Secondly, his clan was Sakya, not Gautam. Read and weep:

    http://www.buddhanet.net/bud_lt21.htm

    “Caste, which was a matter of vital importance to the brahmins of India, was one of utter indifference to the Buddha, who strongly condemned the debasing caste system”

    ” On one occasion a caste-ridden brahmin insulted the Buddha saying. “Stop, thou shaveling! Stop, thou outcast!” The Master, without any feeling of indignation, gently replied:

    “Birth makes not a man an outcast, Birth makes not a man a brahmin; Action makes a man an outcast, Action makes a man a brahmin.”

    (Sutta-nipâta, 142)

    He then delivered a whole sermon, the Vasala Sutta, explaining to the brahmin in detail the characteristics of one who is really an outcast (vasala).”

  19. There is really no “South Asian” identity in South Asia.

    Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in South Asia anymore. As we are in America, on a blog run by mostly (all?) Americans, the fact that in South Asia, there is no ‘South Asian’ identity is not that relevant.

  20. Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in South Asia anymore. As we are in America, on a blog run by mostly (all?) Americans, the fact that in South Asia, there is no ‘South Asian’ identity is not that relevant.

    That’s right.. this is what I said later.

    For ABDs it is a different story. If they find it worthy they can join with any group they want to boost their numbers.
  21. For ABDs it is a different story. If they find it worthy they can join with any group they want to boost their numbers.

    Who is the ‘any group’?

  22. I meant kids(ABDs) of Indian born parents can associate with other kids(ABDs) of Pakistani/Bangladeshi/Nepali/Srilankan descent and can form their own presure groups in US and name it “South Asian / Under Himalayan / Above Indian Ocean” etc.. etc..