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Racial and Caste Apartheid: Are They Similar?

“No one is free until we are all free.”

Dr. King’s words continue to be a powerful message for South Asians throughout the U.S. 

Over the past month and a half, our country has been jolted by recent acts of violence against black folks. While systemic injustice and racism have existed in this country for centuries, there is renewed political engagement with the entrenched issues of race in our country. 

For the South Asian community, it is more important than ever to be “accomplices” in the fight against white supremacy and racism. Several South Asian activist groups and nonprofits are paving the way to help our community uncover some of its entrenched prejudices. Through education and civic leadership, these groups are helping the community discover how to participate in today’s movement. 

Why does this matter to the South Asian community? 

The human dignity of black folks is something so fundamental that has been repeatedly ignored by our country. South Asians have often ignored their complicity in this reality by hiding behind the bootstrap myth or perpetrating harmful anti-black ideologies

However, our communities are more interdependent than people might initially believe. 

“Our stories are very much interconnected and to deny that it is the doing of white supremacy and colonization that tries to keep our people divided,” says Sabiha Basrai, a member of ASATA, a grassroots South Asian activist organization in San Francisco. 

South Asians and black folks have a long and shared history. Black leaders have long fought for the liberation of South Asian communities. In the 1960s, the activism on the part of the civil rights movement banned national and racial quotas on immigrants, enabling the vast majority of today’s South Asian immigrants to come to America. 

Solidarity with communities of color is more than merely a thought, it’s been exemplified throughout the course of history. 

ASATA protests

“A specific example of that kind of solidarity is demonstrated through Bayard Rustin who was a civil rights leader. He actually committed an act of civil disobedience in support of the free India movement in the forties. He locked himself to a British embassy in the United States to protest the British occupation of India,” says Basrai. 

But over time, the South Asian community has forgotten about that solidarity. In today’s moment, it’s important to hear the call to action, Basrai advises. 

What’s Caste got to do with it? 

Equality Labs 2018 Research on Casteism in U.S.

“We must examine and reflect on our own complicity with hierarchical systems, like caste, which enables so much police violence within our communities and within home regions,” says Mahn, communications director at Equality Labs. Equality Labs is an organization that fights against oppressive systems in South Asian communities through political education and collective organizing. 

Holding complexity is an important part of this conversation, Mahn says. 

“Caste isn’t just a theory. It’s a real experience of hegemony for a lot of people.” Black and South Asian experiences are both tied to hierarchies of power. 

“Racial apartheid and caste apartheid depend on both racial abolition and caste abolition. They’re corollaries, they intersect in a lot of important ways for the South Asian community, but they’re parallel. They’re not the same thing,” Mahn says. 

Caste continues to be crucial to the conversation about the South Asian diaspora. Last month, technology giant Cisco Systems was sued for discrimination against Dalit employees. The employee experienced verbal harassment and fewer workplace opportunities due to caste. These systems of harm are real and have tangible consequences in diaspora communities. 

Progressive organizations like Equality Labs are encouraging South Asians to reflect on different vectors of privilege. While South Asians may be harmed by white supremacy in some respects, the community also benefits from the model minority myth. Similarly, it’s critical for South Asians to understand how they may propagate systems of harm. 

That’s great, but what do I do now? 

Being an “accomplice” to the movement can be framed in multiple ways, says Sree Sinha, cofounder of the South Asian Sexual and Mental Health Alliance (SASMHA). 

“The incredible thing about activism is that there are so many different ways to be involved and each of them matter, each of them are important in terms of what the work is that needs to be done and the change that we need to see happen,” she says. 

Getting involved can range from a variety of different activities, from attending protests, to donating to black non-profits, to starting conversations in one’s own community – the critical piece is personal education. 

“None of us are born with bias against anyone. It is taught to us. And the beautiful thing about that is it means that it can be unlearned as well.” Sinha says. 

Sinha says action is like a ladder. We have the personal-level, targeting biases in our own minds. We have the community-level, where we help people in our communities fight against these injustices. And finally, we have the policy level. It’s important to hold political systems accountable, “whether that’s through calling into different congressional offices and police departments, and being able to use your voice in whatever ways is comfortable to you.”

It’s important for South Asians to mobilize against anti-blackness. 

“Where I really want people to understand that rather than being a source of fear or holding you back or paralysis that in fact, making even those small changes helps buffer us against racism. So if you’re feeling a little helpless or a little stuck pushing yourself to act on any level is a major part of what makes us heal.” 

Today’s moment is different from anything in our recent history. Sinha thinks that shows promise. 

“People are thinking about these issues for many people in a way that they never have before. And that just speaks to the power of the possibility and power of growth and change for humans.”

South Asian history is now inextricably linked to American history. The radical nature of today’s moment is important and will define the way our society functions for generations. We must choose the side of justice, for our collective liberation. 

Swathi Ramprasad is a senior at Duke University. She enjoys learning more about the world through her South Asian heritage.

US-India West Coast Summit

The US and India represent two large democracies in the world, both facing rapid, seismic shifts in economic policy and trade. A strong partnership bodes well for both countries, promoting a synergy that addresses many fields of common interest.

The first West Coast summit of the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) in Palo Alto, California was a meeting of minds to discuss how to accomplish exactly that – what needs to change or evolve to strengthen the bond was the core question that was addressed in various ways. It was chaired by none other than John Chambers, ex-CEO of networking giant Cisco and winner of India’s prestigious civilian award, the Padma Bhushan for his contribution to the India-US trade relationship.

Mukesh Aghi, President and CEO of USISPF opened the summit and welcomed John Chambers to the stage. Throughout his speech, Mr. Chambers expressed a deep admiration for India and Narendra Modi, the current Indian Prime Minister. In his own words, “India is positioned strong for the next 25 years,” and has a future as “one of the leading startup nations of the world.”

Escorted into the event with much fanfare, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice graced the crowd with a luminous keynote speech. She spoke about economic affairs, world politics, foreign trade, and a subject close to her heart- education. “At heart, I am a professor and like helping students reach their whole potential,” she said, alluding to her current teaching responsibilities at Stanford University. She thinks the possibilities for the India-US relationship are endless and can eventually contribute to world stability. According to her, democracy is messy as opposed to authoritarianism but will ultimately be more effective in bringing about desired change in the world.

Participating in the technology and investment panel were: Praveen Akkiraju, Managing Partner, SoftBank Investment Advisers; Shashin Shah, Founder and CIO, Think Investments; Nandita Bakhshi, President and CEO, Bank of the West; and Moderator: Anis Uzzaman, General Partner and CEO, Fenox Venture Capital.

Praveen Akkiraju stated that currently India has a base of talent that understands what the world wants and is able to deliver it. Nandita Bakshi, VP of Bank of the West spoke about the digitization of banks and how fintech has created an environment wherein every bank has to fight for customers.

The India Possibility in the Current International Trade Environment panel included John Kern, Senior Vice President of Supply Chain Operations, Cisco, Mike Train, President, Emerson, Dow Wilson, President and CEO, Varian Medical Systems, Richard Nash, Vice President, Head of Government Relations, PayPal, and the moderator was Kailesh Karavadra, Managing Partner, West Region Growth Markets, Ernst & Young LLP. The panel addressed current trade and regulatory concerns. “Tariffs do not build jobs. Trade does,” declared Cisco’s SVP John Kern. CEO Dow Wilson of Varian Medical Systems commented that regulatory burden is high in India and needs to be addressed. “it makes some wonder about the long term.”

Ambassador of India to the United States, Harsh V. Shingra spoke about the diverse issues that India was wrestling with in the geo-political and domestic arenas. Mr. Shingra said, “The US-India relationship is multifaceted, and we need to not let minor roadblocks distract us from our larger goals.”

Overall, the first West Coast summit by USISPF highlighted the key issues in current India-U.S. economic relations with speakers articulating key strategies to continue to build bridges and strengthen the relationship between the two countries. It now may be time to work towards the “endless possibilities” that Condeleezza Rice spoke about.

Vasudha Badri-Paul lives in the Bay area with her family and dog. She is a technology marketing professional who is passionate about good ideas and the creative arts. You can often spot her hiking in the hills or helping out at a nonprofit organization.


Madhubani Magic

It was an exuberant Kannada Koota gathering. The auditorium was packed with members of the S.F Bay Area chapter of the Kannada association. My aunt and I were part of the audience, cheering along as various singers and dancers entertained us. A drama/skit was announced shortly after intermission. Satiated with samosas and hot chai served in the lobby outside, I expected the typical performance by amateur actors. But one stood out. Not just for the obvious fact that she was the only ‘non-Indian’ woman in the cast, but because of her stage presence, her diction, her command over the Kannada language. I then learned that she had acted in a couple of Kannada movies, besides doing theater. My curiosity piqued, I asked my aunt about her and found that they went back a long way – as faculty wives at IIT Kanpur of the 60s and 70s.

 Karen Vasudev – I was told – has essayed many other roles in her rather interesting life; faculty wife, mother, grandmother, Madhubani artist, avid crochet artist, needlepoint enthusiast, and a Manager in the hi-tech arena. These are just a few labels she has collected along the way.  Having met her a few times since, I frankly admit to being inspired, awed and just plain gobsmacked at the various ways she has given vent to her creative energies! She is an artist in the truest sense of the term. And if you wax eloquent at her various accomplishments – she will quite simply tell you, that she is only doing what she loves to do! To Create.

Early Beginnings: 

Growing up in the 1940s and ’50s – the daughter of a Jewish mother who was a skilled dressmaker, Karen remembers she was always engaged in drawing, painting or doing some type of art. Her mother’s practical and frugal approach to life was colored by growing up during the Depression era. And the ‘waste not, want not‘ attitude was something she extended to everything she explored. “You have to complete whatever you take up, before moving on to the next thing” – Karen can still hear her mother’s voice in her head! This approach to life in general, instilled a discipline that helped her lead her life.

But over the years she realized that her mind loved to create in different directions all at once. So she might be painting something, but she will also want to explore the same pattern through crochet, or needlepoint. Her conditioning and the voice in her head, made things difficult initially! She was plagued with guilt when she thought of the many projects that was always ‘in progress’, or put away with the intention of getting to them at a later time. She laughingly points to her “Work in progress corner”, and concedes that over time, she has managed to be at peace about this facet of her creative personality.

Marriage and Discovering India:

Karen was a freshman at the University of Washington at Seattle, when she met a Chemical Engineering student from Bangalore, India – who was working towards his Phd – Arakere Vasudev. Their chemistry must have been right, because she married him at the age of 19! They have been married for over 50 years now, and he has always been supportive of her artistic endeavors.

And so began her 13 year love affair with India. Her time in Kanpur saw her learning Hindi and Kannada languages, cooking Indian food, exploring Batik, painting pottery and teaching herself to play the guitar. All this, while she went on to have her three sons.

During her time living in Mumbai (Bombay), she taught herself embroidery, crochet, pen & ink painting.  As with most things, Karen is mostly self-taught – watching others, asking questions, listening and exploring on her own; rather than receive formal training which she finds to be limiting. “Creativity is not just about being an artist. It is a state of mind, and a way of looking at things visually; in listening, and in how you problem solve and analyze a process”, she says. True learning happens when you take what you see,  and place it in the context of where you are when you perceive it. “One should take in and experience everything just as IT IS, and not what IS NOT. Only then can you begin to question and understand something without judgement.”

The history, customs, religion, language, climate, location – of a place – shapes the experience. Karen believes that by respecting and understanding things in this framework, we can also learn about ourselves and our cultural heritage. She states that judgements and comparisons hinder the process of learning and expression.

It was during this period in the 1970s in Mumbai, that she first found a book on Madhubani art. Her passion for this art form unfurled inside her and left its rich imprint on her creativity.

Madhubani or Mithila painting:

This art form originated in the Mithila region of India and Nepal. The artists, predominantly womenfolk, apply the paint with fingers, twigs, brushes, nib-pens, and matchsticks, using natural dyes and pigments. The designs are often ritual in nature, and there are five different styles within the art form – signifying different societal castes. People traditionally decorated freshly plastered mud walls and floors of huts. But cloth, handmade paper and canvas are also used today. Design motifs are taken from nature, as well as the depiction of daily life, poojas and weddings etc. Stylized human, and animal forms are rendered with exquisite artistry, juxtaposing organic shapes with eye-catching geometrical patterns. The practice of filling in empty spaces in the background with lines and marks is a particular feature of this art form.

The work of Madhubani artists like,  Sita Devi, Jagadamba Devi, Chandrabhushan (to name a few) – have received, national and international recognition over the years. The Govt. of India has awarded many artists the Padma Shri award, and brought their work into the mainstream of art consciousness.

Artistic Influences:

With her love of patterns, designs and color, Karen is drawn to stylized art forms, rather than the traditional ‘realistic’ depictions. Her work has been, and is still being influenced by many things. She is always open to exploring and learning about new art forms – understanding the context and meanings behind every style. This gives her a ‘peek’ into that particular creative process, which in turn aides her own creativity.

Madhubani art, showcases a simplistic ‘feel’ in terms of subject matter – juxtaposed with complex, detailed pattern and bold colors. This counterbalance both intrigued and amazed Karen’s artistic sensibilities. She loves to explore this art form and further enhances it by adding her own personal twists by incorporating elements of the other techniques she has learned, like Zentangle, for example.

Her life in India was a revelation of many different art forms – Rangoli, Mandalas, Henna designs, Kalamkari and Madhubani – are just a few of the many. She learned chikankari embroidery, mirror work and batik as well.

Personal Growth through Art:

Exploring various styles and techniques and including them into her own art, helps Karen keep things interesting and fresh. She finds the act of trying new techniques both challenging and relaxing at the same time. Most importantly, it is great fun!  Since she prefers self learning and experimenting to formal learning, she finds that it adds to the process of self discovery. It can be a time consuming process and comes with its own challenges. This in turn teaches her patience and helps reduce stress.

Karen has a physical reaction to everything she creates. She “feels” the patterns transmit their energy up through her fingers, moving up her arms, to her brain and heart – moving down again towards her fingers. Her ability to totally immerse herself in her work, with immense focus comes naturally to her. She does not see a separation between the analytical and the creative sides of herself. They coexist, and grow as one, giving and taking from each other.

This method of creative exploration has helped her bring a different approach to her career in high tech – as well as in her personal life.

Hi Tech Career : 

Upon returning from India in 1978, Karen entered the hi tech field when computers were starting to be a part of the work environment. She relates an experience where she took up the challenge of designing a form on a word processor, tinkering with it, and painstakingly managing to create a viable standardized user friendly form. The challenge in solving such problems required a creativity that went hand in hand with the analytical component. Karen points out that Art is at its core, a highly analytical endeavor. Artists are constantly analyzing space, patterns, designs, color, balance etc.

Karen Vasudev taught Project Management for Information Technology,  during her long tenure at Cisco systems. She could not have foreseen her role as an IT manager, while she was exploring art forms in Mumbai. But she came to realize that the analytical approach she took with her art, was not very different from what was required in hi tech. It was simply a matter of application.

Message to Women: 

I asked Karen to address the main element of ‘The Changing Woman’ series – the idea that women have to shape-shift and evolve their personal identity constantly to fit the many roles they assume through their lives.

She surprised me by saying she did not think women need to ‘reinvent’ themselves. “A woman is many people at the same time”, she said. They just need to expand the essence of who they are, by pursuing different things as life takes them down its many paths – some chosen, others dictated/ expected. They can do this by constantly learning and applying their intuitive knowledge to different situations.

She firmly believes that we are not defined by what role we play at home or at our jobs. Our career choices are simply things we undertake based on the situational demands and needs at certain times. But no matter how busy the work front gets, Karen believes it is very important to spend time daily on something that is just for yourself.

Pursuing something for enjoyment is relaxing. The end goal is to have fun and broaden personal perspectives – not to turn it into a career or gain material success necessarily.

“Creativity is at the core of our beings. All that we need do – is unlock it.”

Karen Vasudev – the consummate artist and teacher – exhorts us to try something new!  She is the invited artist at the India Community Center, Milpitas.

Art & Wine Night – ICC, Milpitas – April 5th, 2018.


Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. She has held art shows in London, Bangalore and locally here in California.