Hum Kar Sakte Hain?

The names of men who have disappeared since the World Trade Center tragedies were listed starkly against a bare white wall... Farouk Ali-Haimoud... Rajiv Dabhadkar... Harinder Singh. These men are among the many that have been lost to their families and communities. Detained, deported, maybe even murdered, they are the casualties of a new war. I walked contemplatively to another side of the post-9/11 art exhibit that I had come to see. This room was dedicated to the experience of detention, and an entire cell had been replicated in one corner. I peeked cautiously into the tiny windowless space and felt overwhelmingly claustrophobic. To my surprise, I found a man, someone who had come, like me, to this art opening, sitting quietly in the metal cube. He looked up from his seat on the detention bed, with a glass of red wine in one hand and a plate of brie and crackers in the other, and smiled. Caught off guard, I staggered away and whispered with friends about the peculiarity of the scene: a man attempting to replicate the terror of detention while simultaneously belittling its cruelty and inhumanity with his bourgeois comforts.

I went home and allowed my experiences to broil and agitate for a few days. The artists and organizers had done a tremendous job of displaying the gravity of the war on terror and its skewed impact on South Asian, Muslim, and Arab communities—not just in the United States, but all over the world. There were striking, awareness-raising displays of Muslim women forced through French pseudo-secularism to remove their hijabs in public schools, of South Asian and Arab men in America whose livelihoods had been destroyed by government-fueled fears that they were terrorists, and of Palestinian villages being starved to death by Israeli closure of commercial crossings and U.S. refusal to offer aid. The images left their indelible marks in my visual memory. But something else remained unsettling and troubling—something less corporeal.

As I mingled and moved through the exhibit, I never once felt the powerful infusion of a Spirit of Resistance. Pictures and symbols of post 9/11 carnage had somehow become stale and hum-drum in real life translation. The wine and cheese man in the detention cell captured the absence of defiance in the face of such atrocities—not just in the gallery that day, but in our targeted communities at large. Iraq is the new Vietnam; Muslims are the new Communists. But no one is taking to the streets. Few are raising their fists in protest. People struggle to make connections between the global war on terror, the domestic war against immigrants, hate violence, and American foreign policy. Instead, those who of us who are most privileged to make noise—who are protected by our immigration status and our capital—walk leisurely in circles around art exhibits, sipping wine and shaking our heads at the woes of the world, knowing full well that we should be livid about something. We're mad as hell... but apathetic also.

The week prior, when I was visiting my family in the Midwest, this particular apathy became more than evident as millions of immigrants and their allies began protesting the anti-immigrant bill HR 4437 in cities across the nation. Students walked out of their classrooms, families rallied in the streets waiving Mexican flags and holding signs that read, "We are workers, not criminals!" and "Aqui estamos! Aqui nos quedamos! No nos vamos!" (We are here! We are staying here! We won't go!). Conservative reports estimated that cities like Los Angeles had seen record numbers of protestors—numbers that surpassed even the historic anti-war protests of 1960s. The photographs were incredibly inspiring, and I felt isolated from the new wave of civil rights movements that were growing around me—not just because I was briefly located outside of hotbeds of activism, but because I struggled to find a space and voice for Asians and Asian Americans in the midst of this national outcry.

Though an estimated 2 million of the 12 million undocumented workers in this country are from Asia, there have been few from our communities protesting alongside our Latino/a brothers and sisters. Those who have participated notice self-consciously that they have been late to arrive on the scene. In the numerous San Francisco protests throughout April and May, the Desi contingent with whom I marched remained limited to the familiar activists. While I understood the hesitancy of undocumented South Asian workers to participate in these rallies, I couldn't help but wonder why an art exhibit would gather such a much larger crowd than a direct action. Can South Asian immigrant elites only relate to issues of deportation, detention, and harassment in the abstract?

When I saw the names of the disappeared at the art exhibit a week after the initial protests, I imagined how many more people would disappear if this bill passed. Since September 11th, more than 13,000 Arab and South Asians have already been ordered to deportation proceedings. Versions of HR4437 that expand immigrant detention—making it mandatory and indefinite—would mean that the government would have the sole power to decide upon the timing and circumstances of release, without judicial oversight. And those who would be detained wouldn't just be "caught" by federal agents—but by local law enforcement as well, who, under this legislation, could enforce federal immigration laws. Currently, 1500 people—largely South Asians, Muslims, and Arabs—are being detained indefinitely. This means they are imprisoned under conditions unknown to us for a non-specified period of time, many without charges. In thinking about these men, I remembered that we are all in danger of having the same thing happen to us, whether we are undocumented, here on a visa, violating our visas, naturalized, or born citizens. Under this bill, students on F1 visas who drop below a full course load are criminals, as are workers on H1 visas who are laid off and unable to find work within a short period of time. Despite the deleterious reality of this country's domestic and foreign policies on all of us—regardless of our class status—many Desis remain unmoved and uninterested. Nevertheless, as a community, regardless of our immigration and class status, we continue to be perceived as non-belongers and understood as racialized minorities who are privileged to be here.

But how much privilege is actually involved? How much of migration to this country is volitional? Beyond being a land for all, America is a land whose economic and social policies force Free Trade Agreements on countries in the Majority World. It is a land of immigrants because it removes the possibility of economic survival in other places and forces migration. The media has emphasized that those who protest the bill are part of a "pro-immigrant" domestic movement—focusing on imagery of Latinos waiving American flags. There is, I think, a close connection between the lack of larger immigrant involvement, and the ways in which this movement is being sold to the public as addressing purely a domestic problem. The rhetoric in Congress and covering the pages of mainstream newspapers that strategically paints America as a "land of immigrants" detracts attention from the horrors and sentiments that underlie both the war against immigrants and the war on terror. This messaging further isolates us, the targeted communities, in our struggles and social protests. Not only are we, as South Asians, not represented in any significant way in these anti-HR4437 protests, but the absence of many other communities is felt in anti-war, anti-imperial campaigns. The distinct connections between our struggles and causes are muddled by media messaging and isolated reactions. The overwhelming nature of all that we face breeds frustration that results in apathy. And then we let other people fight our fights while we maintain our indignation in safe, private spaces.

A few days after the art exhibit opening was the April 10th National Day of Mobilization against HR4437. The South Asian and Asian communities had had time to think about our role in this massive protest and some of us actively participated in our local demonstrations. After letting my class out early the morning of the mobilization and encouraging my students, many of whom are Asian Americans and who were not even aware of the existence of this draconian bill much less the protests, to attend the demonstrations, I walked over to historic Sproul at the University of California at Berkeley wondering what kind of resistance I was about to become a part of.

The numbers were limited (unlike elsewhere in the nation). There were about four hundred protestors on the steps of Sproul Hall. But these few were making the noise of thousands. And an amazing thing was happening: the message was being broadened. Students for Justice in Palestine and the organizers of the anti-HR4437 rally had coordinated efforts and "Si, Se Puede!" and "Rain or Shine, Free Palestine!" were being chanted simultaneously as protestors withstood the cold and drizzle to be heard. Speakers talked alternatively about the plight of immigrants in this country and the plight of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories. Among the list of demands students had for the Chancellor were to give campus workers a living wage and to divest from Israel. Tears of relief came to my eyes as I saw the connections being made between the tactics of global imperialism and domestic criminalization of immigrants.

Perhaps most moving for me were the 3–4 young South Asian men and women who were handing out Free Palestine and Anti-HR4437 fliers. It was monumental, I thought, for my generation of South Asians in America to invoke our anti-colonial histories and form alliances and connections between people who suffer the same plight all over the globe. As post-colonial subjects, these few were helping to fulfill our collective duty to stand up and protest the criminalization of immigrants, the colonization of Palestine, and the red-baiting of our communities at home and abroad. Heartening though this messaging was, I still bemoaned the lack of angry bodies at the rally.

In the midst of speeches and chants and the spirit of protest, one young Sikh student, the first at the gates of University Hall, challenging Chancellor Birgeneau to heed the demands of University staff and students, turned to me and asked "Where all the Desis at?" I stared vacantly at him while chanting, "Si, se puede!" (yes, we can!) and wanted cynically to retort that we were so busy imagining oppression that we had forgotten to put down our wine and cheese and embody Resistance. But instead I just shrugged my shoulders and allowed his question to resonate within me. Where are all the Desis? What will we make of our vital role in this expanding movement? Though I could confidently yell "Si, Se Puede!" alongside the Latino community that day, the only rallying call that comes to mind when I imagine waking up my own community emerges in the form of a skeptical question, "Hum Kar Sakte Hain?"


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