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The sordid story of an Indian businessman who brought young girls into this country to provide cheap labor and sex has come to a close. Lakireddy Bali Reddy pled guilty to four counts of immigration fraud, and faces five to seven years in jail.
The scandal has embarrassed the Indian-American community. When Reddy was arrested, more than a year ago, the traditional voices—business people, religious centers and group leaders—refused to comment.
In a way, the Reddy case proved that the old ghosts which have plagued India for centuries—the caste system, classism, and patriarchy—still haunt the community even in progressive America.
At the same time, the actions of a group of young Indian-American women speak to an even more ancient aspect of Indian culture. A group calling itself “Alliance of South Asians Taking Action” (ASATA) came together to support the women Reddy imported. In the process, they challenged caste and class differences deeply woven into India’s cultural fabric.
But if this was very new, it was also tied to a tradition of women as leaders in social struggle, a tradition that stretches back thousands of years to a time before the Aryans invaded India, before the writings of the Vedas, and before Manu’s Laws, which created the caste system.
In those times, the feminine principal was considered crucial to the creation of the Universe. Shakti, the female principle, was identified as the “energy” that manifests God’s consciousness.
As Hinduism developed, its fiercest deities were incarnations of Shakti — among them Durga, a warrior who rides a tiger, created to fight an evil king the men fighters could not destroy.
Even today in India, women spearhead the environmental movement to protect village life, organizing drives to provide unions to those working in the enormous informal economy and the dalit movement.
But while ASATA women could call on the fighting spirit of Shakti, they faced some revealing difficulties, as shown by the stark scene at Reddy’s bail hearing. One side of the courtroom had rows full of Indian-American women professionals—lawyers, engineers, directors of non-profit organizations—conversing in English about what they should do to help “the victims.”
Sitting across from them were Reddy’s employees—”the victims”—immigrant, non-English speaking, and silent.
After the hearing, the Indian-Americans holding signs tried to speak to television reporters, while in the distance, beyond the camera’s eye, the workers waited for a ride back to Reddy’s restaurants.
At first, neither Indian nor mainstream press gave ASATA much coverage. And ASATA members found their legitimacy limited by their distance from the immigrant workers.
The group realized that it could not be a voice for the workers unless it communicated with them directly. So as the case proceeded, ASATA approached immigrant working-class women in restaurants and Indian stores.
“I was real nervous at first—sure we were all Indian, but the women we were going to speak to lived in a completely different universe,” says ASATA member Nithya Ramanathan, 24, a computer engineer.
Immigrant women spoke to ASATA members of the hardships they left in their villages in Southern India and told their mainly American-born, middle class sisters of the struggles they face as young mothers in a new country.
Many workers saw the media’s portrayal of Reddy as a criminal as an attack on their right to be in America—since he brought over the “illegal immigrants.”
These exchanges transformed the American-Indian women.
“It made me understand what sort of things my parents went through when they came to America, and also the privilege that I have always had,” reflects Arthi Varma, 25.
Ramanathan says her conversations with workers led her to question comments about the Reddy case made by the older South Asian immigrant community. “They kept saying how they felt bad for the workers, but that nothing could be done about the situation.”
This attitude, she thinks, comes from looking through the lens of caste that sees one’s lot in life determined at birth. “I thought about all barriers the women I met had broken just to be here, and to survive.”
ASATA brought the workers’ stories to the public through candle-light vigils, rallies in front of Reddy’s restaurant, and strategic press releases.
Their analysis of the issues deepened by learning from the immigrant woman. Indeed, after Reddy announced his guilt, ASATA told the media, “We remain disappointed that Reddy was not prosecuted for sexual assault or held accountable for labor exploitation, and feel that the indictments on charges of illegal immigration could further anti-immigrant policy.”
Raj Jayadev is the editor of YO! Youth Outlook, a publication by and about Bay Area youth published by Pacific News service.