Out Of the Melting Pot

MUMBAI -- Indian-Americans are a prime target of opportunity for conservatives seeking political headway among people of color. The author Dinesh D'Souza, funded by conservative foundations, attacks campus liberals and affirmative action, becoming an Indian-American version of Ward Connerly, the conservative African-American who wishes to legislate color-blindness. In Louisiana this year, a 29-year-old, born-again Christian Republican, Bobby Jindal, was almost elected the first Indian-American governor of any state.

But at the World Social Forum this week, young, progressive Indian-Americans have surfaced everywhere, all with stories to tell. The forum experience may be seen as a turning point in building their confidence to challenge the conservative leadership of their communities, according to one of them, Rinku Sen, 37.

Sen, a Brown University graduate, directed the Oakland-based Center for Third World Organizing before becoming the publisher of ColorLines magazine. She came to the U.S. with her parents in 1972, part of the wave of Indian professionals encouraged by 1965 immigration reforms.

"We grew up in white suburbia," she recalls, "with no desis [Indian nationals] to relate to." She was encouraged by her professors to study literary criticism, but chose to do something about social justice instead. She became involved in student movements, then was trained by longtime organizers at the Midwest Academy. Last year she published her first book, Stir It Up (Jossey-Bass).

Sen's consciousness initially was radicalized by African-Americans and feminists more than other south Asians. As the Indian immigrant community became larger and more diverse, an identifiable constituency began to search for definition, including where they fit on the color spectrum. While there were only 387,000 Indians in the U.S. in 1980, estimates today are as high as two million -- still only six-tenths of one percent of the American population, but 16 percent of Asian Americans.

D'Souza's arguments extolling upward mobility would be favorably received by this first generation of Indian professionals, with nearly twice the median incomes and college degrees of other Americans. But the growing Indian community still experienced the color line, political isolation and, especially after September 11, hate crimes and hostility towards immigrants. They began to address their political invisibility, having only three elected official at state legislative levels when their population ratio should result in 45.

For Sen, the World Social Forum has been a marker on her journey. "It's a perfect mix of my identities. It's about my political work. About spending time with my family and not feeling the divisions of identity. I pass as all Indian, it's important to have that in one's life. Otherwise we are constantly negotiating the fragments inside us."

Sen believes that the more her community has this experience of integration, "it builds the community confidence so that progressive south Asians might take on the conservatives" now trying to dominate and speak for the whole community.

And Rinku Sen is not alone. There are other Indian Americans, most in their mid-20s, attending the forum:

  • Sarita Gupta, who spent last week sleeping on the ground and listening to the stories of Adivasis (indigenous) and Dalits (untouchables) brutally displaced for the construction of the Narmada Dam. Gupta is a former president of the United States Student Association (USSA), and an organizer with the Jobs with Justice campaign;

  • Anuradha Mittal is a researcher and director of Oakland-based Food First, which provides policy support to small farmer movements across the globe;

  • New York-based Monami Maulik is with the Desis Rising Up Movement (DRUM), which works on INS immigrant detention issues;

  • Saket Soni, who grew up in India, is an immigrant rights organizer in Chicago;

  • Mallika Dutt, formerly with the Ford Foundation, is trying to promote a human rights culture through the group Breakthrough in New York;

  • Anannya Bhattacharjee is involved with South Asian working class and feminist communities in New York, and worked all year on preparations for the WSF;

  • Swaroopa Iyengar, from Bangladore, came to the San Francisco Bay Area four years ago and works on living wage campaigns. She recently traveled on the immigrant workers' coast-to-coast Freedom Ride.

These days there are fewer "ABCDs" (American-born Confused Desis") than ever before. The new generation marched among 100,000 in their Indian homeland at the World Social Forum, before returning to their lives and struggles in America. They may come to apply the radical traditions of their Indian heritage in a unique form of progressive assimilation into American political culture.

Tom Hayden is a progressive activist, author and former California elected official. He is covering the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India for AlterNet.

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