An Activism of One's Own

It is a warm July afternoon in Domkhedi, Maharashtra, site of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)'s 2000 satyagraha called in opposition to the Narmada damming project. After morning prayers and meetings, a diverse group of satyagrahis -- local adivasis, NBA workers, and foreign activists -- set out towards the site of the Madhya Pradesh police camp in adjoining Jalisindhi. NBA leader Medha Patkar and others will commit jal samarpan (self-drowning) when the Gujarat government closes the sluice gates of the Sardar Sarovar dam and monsoon waters rise and submerge adivasi villages in the region. Then, state police will swoop down from the hills and "rescue" satyagrahis by forcibly removing and jailing them. After crossing the river, the group of around 150 people, emboldened by the infectious energy of NBA slogans and songs, arrive at the police camp. Quickly, the protestors realize that many of the officers have been drinking, including the police sergeant, whereupon several women from the Nimad region of Madhya Pradesh gherao (surround) him, pinning him to the spot. An afternoon of protest speeches and songs ensue, with the police sergeant -- violently shaking and looking rather ill -- as the unwilling center of attention and abuse. The other police officers mill about, watching the proceedings placidly and rather bemusedly.

Nine months later in April 2001, a different exchange unfolds between protestors and police who are assembled in Quebec, Canada for the Summit of the Americas. Thirty-four heads of state from every country in the Americas (except Fidel Castro's Cuba) are discussing the implementation of the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). The FTAA expands NAFTA's neo-liberal economic polices to the rest of the western hemisphere, part of an international financial architecture comprising multinational corporations and institutions such as the World Trade Organization. In response, large-scale protests organized by internationally linked social movements and activist groups have become the norm at such summits, with Québec attracting over 40,000 activists. There, despite the engaging People's Summit, attention inevitably shifts to the pitched battles between protestors and police.

The violence unfolds mainly between a small "black bloc" of anarchists and 6000 heavily armed police who fortify a 4-kilometre long fence enclosing the FTAA summit. The stated objective of protestors, as at other summits, is to shut down the proceedings, but few believe that this is possible. Thus the fence itself becomes the target, the black bloc breaching it repeatedly by climbing, pulling, and cutting it down to the raucous approval of activists in the background. The police respond with tear gas, directed first towards removing the anarchists attacking the fence, but soon unleashing their repression on thousands of protestors on the sidelines with water cannons, rubber bullets and pepper spray. By summit end, Canada's military operation is declared a model of "restraint" by politicians. The evidence suggests otherwise: 3000 canisters of tear gas used and 800 hundred rubber bullets fired, leading to 450 arrests and countless injuries.

Activating a Culture of Resistance

These brief glimpses of my experience with state-activist confrontation in India and Canada (as a researcher, alternative media writer, and participant) are part of my attempt to think through the many factors involved in realizing progressive change. Second-generation Indians in North America -- whose identity is hyphenated through Indian descent and "first world" lives -- engage in different cultures of protest that are both enabling and restrictive. It seems especially important to reflect on the points of connection and disengagement between activism in the Indian subcontinent and in the West. The most difficult element of this is respecting the existence of culturally specific spaces and strategies for enabling change while simultaneously aiding the flow of tactics and solidarity across borders.

Many accounts of activist culture artificially separate the Indian subcontinent from the West. The most frequent contrast is made between Gandhian non-violence -- in the form of blockades and fasts and marches -- as the dominant method of resistance in India, and violent direct action -- through property damage or illegal occupation -- as the most common and effective protest tactic in the West. Of course, Indian activism cannot be wholly encapsulated through reference to Gandhi. The People's War Group and the Naxalites are among the Indian groups compelled to use force to counter political marginalization, caste subjugation or land dispossession. It is often forgotten that insurgency tactics were used during the drive for Indian independence and during Indira Gandhi's autocratic rule during the 1970's Emergency period. The above instance where Indian police did not savagely beat or kill peaceful agitators is the exception rather than the norm; at many times in the NBA's struggle, as with other activist movements in India, the state has unleashed force with frightening ease. That said there are obviously different spaces available to activists depending on varying cultural values and political realities. For example, Medha Patkar's fasts and threats to drown herself because of dam related submergence are powerful weapons against the Indian government, but such activist practices elicit little sympathy in the West.

That activists can access multiple repertoires of resistance becomes clearer as tactics cross borders. Through key individuals such as Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez, Gandhian non-violence was embraced in the civil rights and labor movements in the U.S., though its essence mutated and acquired new cultural resonance. And the mobility of such strategies is surely amplified nowadays with increased global travel and international communication. For example, the NBA has received crucial support over the past 15 years from environmental groups in the U.S. and Europe, and has spawned its own international solidarity chapters through Friends of River Narmada. The Quebec Summit of the Americas similarly mobilized social movements and activists from throughout the western hemisphere.

Generating Solidarity and Difference

I find the vogue for the uniformly global (as in "international civil society") as frustrating as the turn towards the local or "grassroots." This is in part because South Asians of my generation, including activists, have identities and histories inevitably bound up in diverse fragments of culture and place. As such, it is not always easy to reconcile one's place in struggles that occur in the "homeland" or wherever we have ended up. Our tendency as activists is to become animated by every case of injustice that we confront, whether nearby or far away. Yet many South Asian activists I know who are locally engaged and also choose to participate in international struggles end up pouring energy into struggles occurring on the Indian subcontinent, not Latin America or the Middle East. Whether we admit it or not, this move seems "natural" to some of us, whether out of a clear sense of duty and belonging or a more diffuse sense of attachment.

Although the borders between activist cultures are porous, with some mobilization and communication techniques easily transferable, other aspects remain bounded to particular places or languages or people. The cleavages in South Asian activism seem to be largely influenced by the manipulation of financial and organizational resources and differences in ideology. Still, in my experience, such factors are not as important as the power of personal experience, of one's location in and confrontation with an injustice either "here" or "there."

For example, I know many first-generation South Asian arrivals to North America who immerse their time and resources into initiatives that either focus on diasporic causes (building a seniors' community centre, fundraising for the mandir) or are well-meaning but depoliticized attempts to deal with social problems back home (disaster-relief, rural education and development). Many of these people are interested in other issues in their adopted countries, but fail to get involved because of a lack of familiarity or perceived irrelevance to one's own life or interest.

Conversely, many North American second-generation Indians like myself are interested in activism that doesn't necessarily relate to South Asia. Struggles focusing on international development, environmental conservation and free trade resonate with our own education and experience of what constitutes "the political" and where activist energies should be directed. As already mentioned, many of us tend to gravitate towards struggles on the Indian subcontinent, but the focus is generally more cosmopolitan and global. After all, while we may feel a pull towards dealing with issues "back home," this link is as tenuous for some as it is strong for others. Isn't each progressive struggle equally worthy, every injustice deserving of attention, regardless of location?

To give one example, issues such as the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India, and the threat to ethnic and religious minorities through BJP-RSS fascism are viewed with concern. Not surprisingly though, most South Asians fighting this struggle in North America tend to be first generation immigrants. These activists have had some direct experience in the events defining communal strife, giving them an urgent stake in its resolution. Ironically, second generation South Asians grow up in the most apolitical of contexts. That is, Indians such as myself are brought up with the virtues of hard work, respect, and dedication, trained to hold respectable jobs in science, medicine and business, and thus view something like the rise of religious fascism in India as a parochial concern irrelevant to our lives. While inculcated in the politics of personal achievement, some of our parents hold racist stereotypes of Muslims and other minorities and fund religious and cultural foundations in North America with links to the BJP or RSS.


These are some of the issues confronting South Asian activists as we try to bring about change "back home" and in the West. We must constantly learn about what a particular environment allows or restricts, but also encourage struggles to network freely, acquiring new meaning and resonance. I have watched in puzzlement on numerous occasions as western activists evoke the Narmada and Chipko struggles in India to illuminate their own activism, even when there seems to be tenuous relevance to the issue at hand. Conversely, I have tried numerous times to explain to Indians of my father's generation the particular urgency of aboriginal self-determination in Canada, only to be confronted with looks of indifference or ignorance.

While not everyone will be on our side, for those who are, I take hope in the power of lived experience as a necessary precursor for progressive change. There are many South Asians who daily traverse the different cultural and political terrain of the Indian subcontinent and the West. While some have the privilege of avoiding injustice, I have often found moments of social transition and dislocation conducive in developing the capacity to empathize and find affinity with targets of injustice. Groups such as the U.S.-based Association for India's Development (AID) reach out to diasporic South Asian communities, develop a whole cadre of young transnational activists, and realize projects in India without compromising their progressive politics.

Such cross-border political engagement is crucial because a globally networked world does not automatically translate into progressive change; the simple fact that one can contact other activists around the world and read about their exploits on the Internet is not the primary condition for justice to occur. Second generation South Asians in North America possess powerful agency in building alliances, mobilizing resources, and translating strategies across borders. In their ability to make both familiar and alien struggles their own lie the seeds for progressive change.


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