Tag Archives: Minority

Two States of America

To borrow from the vast vocabulary of my favorite Democrat – shellacking – that’s what the Republican’s delivered to the Democrats. No, dethroning Trump was not a victory, it was merely a natural phenomenon like a volcano that ran out of lava. But folks, please don’t rest on your temporary laurels, for we know there is plenty of red livid magma, seventy-two million to be precise, that is still boiling within and can spurt again. In this brief respite, the need of the hour is a cooling President, and looks like what we have picked is the best bet from the pack we were dealt.

We, the marginal majority, have to wake up to the stark fact that nearly half of our countrymen really want the guy to continue to do/not do whatever the blighter was doing/not doing for the past four years. I know, I know, the normal human reaction is – What the hell?

To stay away from profanity let’s resort to Shakespeare to express the same sentiment.

O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down.

Although Mark Antony laments in a different context, we can relate to the feeling of being let down en masse. How could they, Why are they, Can’t they see, similar-sounding questions keep reverberating at our dining tables. This tug-of-war has been going on for too long and the strands in our social fiber are tearing apart and hurting both sides. Need a full stop.

Honestly, I must confess there are some valid points that the Red party is fueled by and the Blue side is too pacific about. What our Master Conman did is make the right sounds like a Pied Piper and the meek and easily swayed crowd followed.

The man is gone but the void is still out there, unfulfilled – call it the elephant in the room. Terms like “We are better than this, E Pluribus Unum, Soul of the nation and other lofty tenets will not fly at this advanced stage of our malady. This is crunch time, we need to address it head-on and pay heed to our brethren. It’s like the Parable of the Lost Sheep but this time it’s a whole darn flock.

There is a story that emerged after the Holy Mosque in Mecca was occupied for a fortnight by Muslim fundamentalists in 1979, an incident that killed hundreds. It goes like this: to the total shock of the government officials, King Khalid invited to his palace the leaders behind the attack and he had only one question for them: What the heck do you want? Apparently, the Wahabi leaders complained the Saudis were losing their original values by embracing western culture and their own traditional way of life was becoming endangered. The King partially agreed and that’s how he started to implement stricter Shariah laws, so it goes.

Biden could do a diet version of King Khalid’s chess move by inviting to the White House all the so-called good people on the other side too and listen to them. Maybe bring Michael Moore as a mediator as some of his school buddies are White Militia and friendly with him. Must rope in AOC, Taliba, Omar, and their ilk, for them to hear firsthand the fears and demands of those on the other side of the fence. Being heard is half the remedy.

Speakers Common by Axel Mauruszat (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Down the road, we should consider what the British have – Speakers Corner. Every Sunday morning at the north-eastern edge of Hyde Park in London men and women from different persuasions show up with their soapboxes. Anyone can speak at any decibel, discharge their bile, vent their anger and grievances in reckless abandon. The English abuse Indians, the Indians scream about Pakis and vice versa, the Irish thrash the English, the Africans go after all of Europe, the Arabs shower epithets at the Israelis, and on and on goes the fireworks of unbridled cursing. By early afternoon they all then return to their humble abodes, spent and serene.

When I first experienced this phenomenon, fearfully worried violence would erupt any moment, I asked a British Bobby, who was carrying no firearms, why they even allow this. He answered wryly – had it since 1872, this is British democracy, my son. If we could import that from England and practice it in our parks we won’t need them rallies people rush to for release.

I think Albert Camus was the one who said the root cause of all evil is ignorance. There is an even worse strain, being misinformed. It’s amazing that over the years with technological advances we can say it will rain tomorrow at 10:00 AM and surely there will be a downpour. Also amazing is that over several centuries mankind’s basic qualities remain unchanged: lust for power, jealousy, desire for revenge, territorial ambitions, and then there is this tendency to blindly latch on like a leech to what we inherently like to hear. Why some watch FOX only or follow a certain Tweeter only: Muslims are bad for the safety of our country, Mexicans are all thugs, China should be punished and put out of business, Lock her up, Gays should be thrown out of the armed forces, tell your governors to open the economy and get your jobs back. This is like Manna from heaven for the multitudes as these are the exact simplistic solutions they talk in their living rooms. This is the biggest challenge with democracy – the majority of the electorate is naive and so can be led astray, like that colorfully dressed chap with a tweeting pipe from the Middle Ages.

It must be noted in passing that in Australia there is a grassroots movement to curtail the dominance of Rupert Murdoch’s media monopoly – in some cities 100% of the newspapers are owned by the feller. Citizens are demanding they don’t want to be brainwashed like the Americans. Let’s try a metaphor here. Say we neglected our normally beautiful lawn for too long and now it has become infected with all kinds of weeds, some as dangerous as poison ivy. But thankfully we have Roundup that can kill them all and bring back the lush green grass back – green moola. 

We all know it’s high time the country invested in revamping our infrastructure, but even more, screaming urgent at this juncture is the multitude of jobs that must be quickly regained. We need to get carpet-bombed with all forms of low-tech work opportunities – road construction, bridges, Wind Mills, Solar, or whatever, so that none of us have idle time for the misinforming devils to use our minds as their workshop. Even the most gullible ones at the extreme virulent end of the right-wing arc, when they are earning say 40K or 50K, will be stone deaf to any dog whistles. So, like the topless Cuba Gooding Jr. says in that Cruise movie: El Presidente, show me the money, the moni, the monii………..

To borrow my favorite Republican’s expression, “fervently we pray and fondly we hope” that Joe will deliver in good time.


Jayant Kamicheril was born in East Africa and did his schooling in Kumarakom, Kerala. For the past 22 years, he has been working in technical sales for the food industry and lives in Reading, PA. 

She Amid COVID

Violence against women is not a spatially or temporally bounded. It persists all around the Globe. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. This Declaration defines, violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’. 

According to the World Health Organization, violence against women is a major public health problem that has seized the woman’s basic human rights internationally. Particularly vulnerable are the women in forced social subordinate status and less education because they are more prone to experience intimate partner violence.

In the year 2017, it was estimated that 137 women across the world were killed by a member of their own family every day. More than a third were killed by their current or former intimate partner.

These ‘Covidnary Times’ are extremely challenging and Neo Normal. The COVID era has made the existing ‘vulnerable’ section more prone to abuse, both physical, sexual, or mental. It remains a poisonous truth of our society, that women, even in the 21st century, still do not get the same status as men. The degraded state of women is visible, not only in our society as a whole but is also prevalent in a more severe form within the households and this makes women highly vulnerable in the Covid-19 Tsunami

Women continue to exist as a neglected bunch and their plight is often swept under the rugs.

Any Pandemic like Covid-19 is bound to have a draconian impact on the lives of women particularly those belonging to marginalized communities.

This is primarily due to two major reason: firstly, the women in India within a given household remain neglected which means even if they become symptomatic of the deadly Coronavirus disease there is a high probability of them being ignored especially in orthodox families that possess pre-existing patriarchy overdose; Secondly, because of the widespread educational deficiency which persists more in women than men, globally. 

Note that only 45.9 percent of women in India use their mobile phones themselves 

If one goes about analyzing the state of women in contemporary India, it becomes clear that women in India have been and still continue to be marginalized. And it is not only the women as a homogeneous group which is being discriminated over centuries but the women in many sub-groups of women which exists as the ‘marginals among the marginalized’ –  Dalits, tribal, HIV infected, sex workers, LGBTQ, and women belonging to a minority group.

Going by the official data, the National Family Health Survey in 2016 revealed some deplorable Statistics which we cannot afford to ignore. It stated that 28.8 percent of women faced violence domestically by their respective spouses, 3.3 percent of women faced violence even during pregnancy. 

The story however is no different for the women in America. In the United States, a man beats a woman every twelve seconds and women with lower income tend to face six times more violence compared to women with higher income. A woman belonging to Indian-American & African-American subgroup is more threatened with domestic violence. A major cause of female injury-related death during pregnancy in the United States is due to intimate partner violence. And a woman with any type of disability is 40 percent more at the risk of severe intimate partner violence.

Again one should keep in mind that these figures could be misrepresentative due under-reporting or no reporting at all. Women in India remain reluctant to report any kind of violence, primarily due to the terror they face within their given households.

Domestic torture of women is also confirmed by the National Commission Of Women, asserting a steep surge in domestic violence complaints during the COVID-19 lockdown phase. Physical abuse and exploitation of women have severe repercussions on mental health. Various studies suggest that the prevalence of depression is more among women than men in India.

In such times, it is highly unlikely that the required attention and care is being provided to women.

The discrimination, exploitation, and the disadvantages faced by a woman starts even before she takes birth and is being exacerbated by COVID. We must start thinking about our women.

If you or someone you know needs help, reach out to: Narika, Maitri, Kiran Inc, Sakhi, Guria India, ActionAid India.


Sujeet Singh is Political Science Assistant Professor, Delhi University (India). 

Priyanka Singh is an Economics Assistant Professor, Delhi University (India).

Juneteenth: Examining Our Own Bias

This Juneteenth, I reflect on the state of our nation. I’m heartened to see many South Asians protesting in solidarity with the Black community, but saddened that some in our community remain indifferent. I worry about deep-rooted biases that remain unaddressed within our community. 

Even as we speak out, we must also look inward. We need to change the ways we think and speak and act in the privacy of our homes and families. 

Growing up in India, I was, unfortunately, no stranger to racist biases. Some of my aunts believed fair skin was more beautiful. Villains in books I read were usually portrayed with darker skin (some written by and for Indians). A South Indian friend who moved to Bombay was teased and called “Kaalu” (black) at school. We might try to pass off these examples as “small things” but they aren’t. At the very least, this sort of insidious prejudice damages our self-confidence and instills self-hatred. Worse, even subtle bias against dark skin can build a wall between South Asians and other communities of color.  

Unfortunately, I noticed that immigrants continued to harbor insidious (and overt) prejudices.  I’ve rarely seen art by Black artists adorning the walls of South Asian American homes or books by Black authors on shelves. We rarely question the history our children are taught. We buy into the model minority myth; few of us question where it came from. Some of us deny the cruelty our own communities suffered as a result of colonial oppression. And when we experience racism, we often try to explain it away or excuse it or pretend it didn’t happen, as though we fear that admitting it might lead to our expulsion from America. 

When I came to Southern Virginia, I saw a noose hung in a yard; I was pulled over by a policeman whose hand went to his gun holster when I reached for the identification he demanded; I was told, by a well-meaning neighbor, how pleased she was that I, a “colored girl”, hadn’t created any trouble in their neighborhood.

Whenever I speak to young people, I work up the courage to mention these incidents, because to pretend they never happened would, I believe, do a greater disservice to their generation than any discomfort that I – or they – may feel if I share these difficult memories. I also acknowledge the privilege I have despite all that I’ve experienced because my skin isn’t Black (which is why I live to tell the tale about my frightening encounter with the police).

In addition to speaking honestly to our children, raising our voices on social media, and supporting organizations that seek change, there are a few other simple steps we can all easily take. We can actively seek to support black-owned businesses.

We can read books by authors like Dunbar-Ortiz and Kozol that speak about aspects of history or our nation today that are too-often overlooked. We can take pride in well-researched and documented achievements by South-Asians and people of color and distinguish these from unproven or exaggerated claims.

We can add books by diverse authors (African-American, South-Asian, indigenous, Latinx etc.) to our children’s shelves. We can educate ourselves about anti-racism. We can listen to music and comedy and watch current films and TV  created by and for people of color.

We can examine and eradicate racist expressions from the language we use. And we must celebrate joy and beauty in communities of color, too – because it is by embracing other people of color today that we move toward a more equitable tomorrow.

It’s hard enough to alter our own behavior and admit and accept our mistakes; it’s harder still to counter racist assertions when they’re made by family or friends. Especially when these members of the community are older than us. We uphold the notion that elders are to be respected. It’s an important, fundamental and undeniably compassionate aspect of our culture, which should be maintained. That doesn’t mean we ignore racist rhetoric; it means we devote time to cultivating individual ways to persuasively and persistently call attention to racism when we encounter it. A commitment to creating permanent and fundamental change sometimes involves engaging in uncomfortable conversations with those we love. Speaking up may be perceived as disrespectful, but remaining silent is worse – it is not only disrespectful to humanity but also a form of violence that aids the oppressor. 

If we ignore injustice, we set an example of cowardice to our youth and we endanger their futures by allowing oppression against people of color to continue. We also dishonor the thirty-five million South Asians who lost their lives because of white colonial oppression and forget how many of us – or our parents or grandparents – were driven here in part because of the floundering economy left behind in their countries of origin after years of white rule. Participation in protests is a wonderful beginning; we must continue by creating lasting cultural change.

Padma Venkatraman at a protest.

Black Lives Matter to our South Asian Community for two reasons. The first and far more important reason, which has been explored already in India Currents, is that we owe the Black community our gratitude because if it weren’t for the battles they fought, we wouldn’t be in this country today. The second and more self-centered reason to speak up and stand up is the one expressed in this article: we owe it to ourselves, our elders, and our children. 

Happy Juneteenth!

Dr. Padma Venkatraman is the author of The Bridge Home (a 2019 Global Read Aloud selection and winner of the Walters, Golden Kite, Crystal Kite, and South Asia Book awards), A Time to Dance, Island’s End (winner of the Paterson Prize) and Climbing the Stairs (a Julia Ward Howe young readers award winner).

Reckless Facebook Comments to Facing Trial

Megha Majumdar’s novel, A Burning, released on June 2 is a highly anticipated debut by an Indian American writer this year. Majumdar grew up in Kolkata, India, and then attended Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University where she pursued graduate studies in sociology. She is currently an editor with the online magazine Catapult.

I approached Majumdar’s novel with a bit of trepidation. Advance praise from acclaimed authors like Amitav Ghosh and Tommy Orange made me feel that perhaps my expectations had been primed to an unreasonable high which the experience of reading the book would not be able to fulfill.

However, this novel actually captured me from its opening pages and kept me in its spell till the end. Its appeal stems from its taut narrative structure resembling the plot of detective fiction or courtroom drama, albeit without the typical resolution of such popular genres. This novel’s purpose is not so much to uncover who committed a heinous act of terrorism but to expose the ways in which the Indian state has failed its most marginalized communities.

The novel unfolds through the point of view of its three major characters: Jivan a young Muslim woman who finds herself accused of terrorism on the basis of a thoughtless comment she writes on Facebook; Lovely, a member of the transgender Hijra community who takes English lessons from Jivan and aspires to become a film star; and PT Sir, a physical education teacher who was once a mentor for Jivan but who, in his quest for political power, quickly abandons any moral compunctions.

The two female characters’ narratives are offered in first person while PT Sir’s sections of the novel are rendered in the third person. This parallels the greater intimacy that readers are invited to forge with the two female characters.

In the very first chapter, we are informed through Jivan’s voice that a train has been torched at a station near her house. She sees the burning train but just rushes home to safety. In the shanty home that she occupies with her parents, she follows a Facebook thread on the train burning incident and writes the reckless comment accusing the police and the government of inaction towards the victims and equating them with terrorists. Her comment goes viral and soon she is accused of being friends with a well-known terrorist recruiter. She is arrested and becomes an inmate of a women’s prison. 

In the sections which follow in her voice, we hear of her family’s history of eviction from lands considered to be rich in minerals, the brutalization of her father by the police, the tenuous efforts to start a new life in Kolabagan driven by her searing ambition to step into the middle-class and rescue her parents from destitution. 

Like Jivan, Lovely, too, is struggling to enter middle-class, overcoming the obstacles of poverty and the ostracism she faces as a member of the transgender/intersex Hijra community.

While we have seen representations of Hijras in Indian fiction, Anjum in Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness being a notable example, Majumdar offers a fully developed and complex emotional life of Lovely. She faces constant humiliation but never loses faith in her ability as an actress. Yet, traditional expectations of patriarchal society prompt her to push away Azad, the love of her life, and drive him to a traditional marriage that will give him children, even though he had resisted the idea before.

PT Sir is already a member of the middle class, unlike the two other protagonists. But he aspires for more power and more of a sense of importance beyond the humble borders of a teacher’s life. His ambitions lead him to seek refuge in the culture of political sycophancy, paying obeisance to the nationalist party leader, carrying out petty acts of subterfuge, and gradually dispensing with the last vestiges of moral conscience.  

In depicting contemporary India under a neoliberal regime that on the one hand ushers in a consumerist urban culture, Majumdar is fearless in exposing its underbelly with its total disregard for the lives of the poor and the destitute, and the myriad ways in which the nation betrays them. To this, she adds an astute understanding of the role of social media platforms in exacerbating the dangers of disenfranchised citizens.

Everyone, including Jivan, can have a cellphone and a Facebook account, these platforms make her more vulnerable to becoming a target of social media outrage and scapegoating. Her impulsive comment on Facebook exposes her to being branded as a terrorist in the court of public opinion well before her actual trial. While social media provides Lovely the opportunity to disseminate her acting video and finally command the attention of a serious producer, it covertly censors her from expressing support for her friend Jivan, as the culture of fandom is fickle and aspiring stars have to carefully calibrate their personal and political comments to retain popularity. 

Social media is depicted as a source of power and currency, all other institutions of a democratic society seem to be crumbling. The media, the police, the justice system are all shown to be mired in corruption. In an era of beef lynchings, attacks on journalists, police brutality on students in various universities, and scapegoating of individuals as anti-national, there is an uncanny correspondence between the fictional and the real events.

Currently, mass protests against police brutality on minorities in the U.S instigate a fight for global criminal justice reform and support for Black Lives; this novel and its concerns resonate with dreams of justice by oppressed people across continents.

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.


A Burning: by Megha Majumdar. Knopf, June, 2020.

Journey from Coerced Sterilization to Misinformation

The dialogue around health and healthcare systems has increased at similar rates to that of the pandemic. Fingers are pointed at the lack of ventilators, hospital beds, and testing kits. 

While it is easy to pick at the chipped paint, the flawed structural foundation becomes glaringly obvious when there is less paint to chip. Much like the horror one might feel seeing a panel of their home infested with termites, America’s structural integrity is threatened by its hegemonic narrative – its own version of termites. Exploration of government policies, in the past and present, is a necessary context for the receptiveness of diverse communities to information from government sources. 

A History of Racialized Care Breeds Distrust

Racism was not a singular one-dimensional vector but a pandemic, afflicting…communities at every level, regardless of what rung they occupied.- Ta-Nehisi Coates

History of racialized care has had an adverse effect on communities of color. Racialized care takes into account your race and subsequently, the healthcare you receive. African American, Latinx, Native American, and AAPI populations are disproportionately subjected to worse healthcare due to income, language barriers, lack of research, and implicit bias from healthcare professionals.

But above all, healthcare in the US is informed and shaped by an oppressive history. Disenfranchised communities have been given reason to be wary of a healthcare system that has been used as a conduit for injustice.

Virginia Hedrick, Executive Director of the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health and panelist at Ethnic Media Services April 17th briefing on the impact of Coronavirus on diverse communities, noted the distrust of the healthcare system by Native Americans and their unwillingness to believe in the protocols of the pandemic. And why wouldn’t they be skeptical, considering the “sterilization of Native [American] women existed up until 40 years ago”, Hedrick added.

So what were marginalized populations encountering up until 40 years ago? And perhaps even as recently as 10 years ago?

In the 1960s, President Lyndon B Johnson led the Great Society Project in an effort to eliminate poverty by increasing access to welfare and social services. The backlash came from physicians, white men, who took it upon themselves to lower the rates of people on welfare. No short of a God complex, they believed that by sterilizing women of color, they were helping society – limiting birth rates in low-income, minority families. 

Between the 1960s and 1970s, 25% of Native American Women were sterilized by the Indian Health Service; various government programs formed the Indian Health Service. IHS had found that the average Native American woman had 3.79 children to the white woman’s 1.79 children; within 10 years that number declined to 1.99 for the Native American woman. This was attributed to education and higher income but unwanted sterilization was erased from the historical narrative. In actuality, the decrease in births had to do with the use of coerced sterilization as a procedure to help a medical ailment even if it was unrelated or nonconsensual.

A map from a 1929 Swedish royal commission report.

Latin and African women were targeted starting in 1909 when states started adopting eugenics programs. 32 states rallied together to advance eugenics during which 60,000 people were sterilized. In the documentary, “No Mas Bebes”, a Mexican American woman speaks to the trauma of being sterilized while giving birth to her children. This story isn’t dissimilar to the story of sisters, Minnie Relf and Mary Alice, two mentally disabled African American women, whose mother tried to get them birth control shots and, unbeknownst to her, they were surgically sterilized. Relf vs. Weinberger, a landmark case, revealed that 150,000 poor women were coerced into sterilization under the threat of their welfare being taken away from them. 

Mental institutions and prisons became breeding grounds for such programs and even a law was passed allowing anyone committed to state institutions to be sterilized. Until as recently as 2010, there were cases of inhumane treatment in California prisons and it is reported that 150 Latina inmates had been inflicted with forced infertility

Eugenics was just the start of questionable activity by the US government. It progressed beyond sterilization when marginalized populations became lab rats for large-scale experiments. There are 40 documented studies done on incarcerated peoples and we have yet to know the number of undocumented studies; most studies hurt the recipients and yielded no results.

The US Public Health Service worked on a study with Tuskegee University to observe the natural history of untreated Syphilis for 6 months. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment ran from 1932 to 1972, lasting 40 years during which the patients were purposefully misinformed, misdiagnosed, untreated, and eventually, forgotten. 600 impoverished African American men, 399 with Syphilis and 201 without, joined with the promise of free healthcare; healthcare which was inaccessible to the black diaspora due to their race. Without informed consent, those with Syphilis were not told of their condition. Instead, they were led to believe they were being treated for “bad blood”. To make a bad situation worse, the free treatment the patients were receiving was no treatment at all. By 1947, penicillin was discovered as a cure but was not given to these patients for another 25 years. Not a single one of the patients consented to the experiment and many died without ever knowing their actual cause of death or that their death was preventable.

Racialized disparities in health factors in the omission of and lack of care given to minorities. Asian Americans were less likely to be asked about their lifestyle, mental health, and doctors did not understand their background and values. The same study, additionally mentioned that Asian Americans felt their doctors did not listen, spend as much time, or involve them in decisions about their care. Significantly, not much is documented about Asian American health until the 2000s. 

Lack of Access Presently

Genoveva Islas, Founder of Cultiva La Salud and panelist for EMS, is confronting the plight faced by the farmworkers in Fresno. Fresno has 1% of the farmland, provides 25% of the food we’re eating in California, yet the farmworkers don’t have personal protective equipment, health insurance, savings, or retirement funds. A majority of these farmworkers are left out of the CARES Act and their housing and food security are in question. “We need a just and fair immigration system”, Islas advocates, putting the spotlight not on the lack of healthcare, but on our immigration policies that leave immigrants and undocumented people at a disadvantage. She wants to ensure that the pandemic is not a time when those who are already being exploited are driven to the fringes of society without access to basic human rights. 

Distrust is the Seedling and Misinformation is the Byproduct

COVID19 has brought with it an onslaught of news, statistics, and warnings, both fake and real. Minority groups are struggling with effectively parsing and using this information given their inconsistent histories with the US government and healthcare systems. 

Virginia Hedrick reminds us that in Native American populations, the myth is that the Coronavirus “was here in December and that now, there is herd immunity.” Many within Native communities believe that homeopathic remedies have the ability to heal and protect someone from COVID19. 

Another reporter at the EMS video briefing expressed that African American populations are taking social distancing and Coronavirus information lightly. 

One only has to look as far as their WhatsApp groups to find confusing and misleading information and anti-Asian propaganda.

A doctor on the frontline at the University of California, San Francisco, and EMS panelist, Dr. Tung Nguyen, acts a buffer to inaccurate information:

People within your network may be struggling, sifting through information and misinformation (real and fake news) about COVID19. The onus is on our communities to understand that American history is rife with instances of disinformation and misinformation. Discerning what information is relevant requires collective work.

And right now, more than ever, action must be taken against an infodemic that is percolating through the pandemic. 

Srishti Prabha is the current Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


Featured image is a poster for a 1971 rally against forced sterilization in San Francisco, CA designed by Rachael Romero. (Library of Congress)

Chinese-Indians Recall Life in Internment Camp in “Deoliwallahs”

How do you write a book about loss—a loss that’s so propulsive as to ravage the notion of home, country and identity? What do you put in it, and what do you leave out? What message will this work deliver and how does it answer the questions of the moment?

In “The Deoliwallahs—The True story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment,” co-authors Dilip D’Souza and Joy Ma unpack these questions while chronicling the disturbing and fragmentary experiences of Camp Deoli survivors—people of Chinese-Indian heritage who were interned in a desert prison camp in Deoli, Rajasthan after relations between India and China deteriorated. 

The book is brilliantly braided together with analyses, personal stories and commentaries, with journalist D’Souza providing the political backdrop and events leading up to the Chinese-Indian incarceration, and Bay Area writer Ma—who was born in the camp—delivering the human stories.

The term “deoliwallah” then becomes a reflexive term enveloping remembrance, endurance and an indictment against the prevailing perspectives of the time. 

It began with a dispute over the border between the two countries, as it inevitably does. D’Souza’s research revealed that in 1958, a Chinese map appropriated 1,00,000 square kilometers (38,000 square miles) that India thought of as its own. China claimed that India had “gradually extend[ed] its control over territory in the east.” The Indian view, on the contrary, was that “the border has been in existence and observed for 3,000 years,” with several treaties and conferences affirming its existence. 

This finger-pointing rapidly escalated to border skirmishes. Then the tenor of the dispute changed on October 12, 1962, when India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the press that he had given instructions to “free the country,” and the press reported this as “Nehru’s famous call to ‘throw out the Chinese.’” 

Jawaharlal Nehru being led to the Banquet Hall by Mao Tse-tung.

Chairman Mao Zedong framed his response to this rhetoric with “a massive, pre-planned Chinese attack” against India on October 20, 1962. “Within two days, an entire Chinese division, having crossed the border and torn the Indian defense to shreds,” continued to advance aggressively, wrote D’Souza. Indian soldiers, ill-prepared for the weather and poorly equipped with weapons, lost handily to the Chinese. In a month and a day, the war was won by China, and China made the decision to withdraw its troops to “their original pre-war positions,” leaving India to “lick its wounds.”

This bruising defeat, however, needed some reprisal and India found it in the passing of the Foreigners Law Act and the Foreigner’s (Restricted Areas) Order in India, which targeted people of Chinese ethnicity in India. D’Souza wrote that “taken together, these acts formed the legal fig leaf for the Deoli incarceration.”

“When you have war situations, odd things happen, perverse things happen,” remarked D’Souza, explaining the ways that we tend to simplify the rationale behind sweeping actions taken when countries are in conflict, drawing a comparison to the US detention of people of Japanese origin in 1942, an event that occurred twenty years before Deoli, at an even bigger scale.

And as we have seen in America and Germany, memories of detention and confinement doggedly pursue survivors serving as signposts of trauma and loss.

Joy Ma excavated personal accounts of this trauma and its aftermath, tracing the journeys of Chinese-Indians who were rounded up and detained “by peeling away the layers of repressed memories,” and tracking the legacy of injustice. 

An inflection point in this terrain of recollections occurred when Ma interviewed Yeeva Cheng, the daughter of Michael Cheng, who was a teenager when he was incarcerated in Deoli. With eloquence and insight Cheng described how she absorbed the emotional ordeals of her father. One particular incident stood out in her mind. Cheng’s high school class was reading a book about a group of girls going to a foster home. For the school assignment, the students were asked to come up with five things they would pack if they had to leave suddenly. When Cheng told her father about the assignment, she said that she might want to pack a book. Her father laughed and said, “We didn’t even have a knife to cut our meat or to cook our food.”

It’s perhaps interesting to note that every Deoli survivor interviewed by Ma remembered what he or she carried to the camp, even six decades later.

Ying Sheng Wong recalled how a group of soldiers knocked on his house in Shillong on 20 November in 1962, when he was 16 years old, and told the family to take “only a few belongings.”

Andy Hsieh, also a teenager, was pulled out of his boarding school in Shillong, and “packed everything they thought they needed for a journey with no certain duration,” including his football shoes.

When Stephen Wan’s family was picked up, they were told to take “a few clothes,” with them. 

Effa and Jack Ma, Joy Ma’s parents, were allowed to carry Rs. 500 and one bag of personal belongings per person as well as some New Year cookies.

Keiw Pow Chen, on the other hand, remembers how the guards “rushed them out of their home in such a hurry that they ‘didn’t carry anything.’”

Many others, too, were not given time to pack, and some were still in their nightclothes when they were picked up, ill prepared for what was to come.

The meager belongings of the detainees were testimony to how confused, surprised and hopeful most of them were, tending to believe that the situation was temporary at best, since many of them had been born in India and for generations had considered India as their nation and home. They were of Chinese origin but nationally and culturally Indian. That’s why the internment became an unfathomable betrayal to many.

When I sat down with the authors, I probed the question of who has the right to tell this story. D’Souza said that when they decided that the book required talking to the survivors, it was clear that Ma, who was born in Deoli, had a personal connection to the narrative. She had that right. So, while D’Souza worked on the political details leading up to the Chinese-Indian detention, even traveling to Deoli to record his observations, Ma approached community members. People from the camp remembered her as “that little girl,” the baby in the camp, Ma said, so it was easier for her to ask the tough, often painful questions of others from the camp. 

In addition to Joy Ma, there were four others born in the camp. Ma said that their stories are not included in the book, as also the stories of several others who were not yet ready to share what they have spent a lifetime trying to forget. It’s taken a long time for Deoli survivors to be willing to tell their stories, Ma disclosed. As a result, the events surrounding the detention assumed an “epic, iconic status in their minds,” she said. When Ma first started conducting interviews, she described an outpouring of “despair and hopelessness” from having kept the stories to themselves for such a long time. 

At a packed book reading at the India Community Center recently, the authors asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d heard of the internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, and a mere handful had their hands up. In “The Deoliwallahs,” D’Souza describes how astonished he himself was in March 2012 when he was first told about ordinary people, “totally innocent people,” being sent to a prison camp in India. 

Why is the Chinese-Indian incarceration not well known, I asked Ma and D’Souza? Fear of retaliation against family members in India has kept the story under wraps for years, the authors explained, leading to a conspiracy of secrecy around the event. 

Both Ma and D’Souza hope that this book will lead to better awareness of the Chinese-Indian internment, and like the United States, the Indian government will come to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and begin the dialog necessary to evolving into a more compassionate and responsible nation. 

Jaya Padmanabhan is a journalist, essayist, and fiction writer. She writes an immigration column for the San Francisco Examiner and her columns and articles can be found in Forbes, Next AvenueThe Bold Italic/MediumElemental and India Currents


THE DEOLIWALLAHS—The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza. MacMillan, 2020. Amazon: 198 pages. Hard Copy: $12.41. EBook: $9.99 License to image in the article can be found here.

Mira Solves the Case on Desi Representation

Mira, Royal Detective production team has placed an emphasis on authenticity by hiring South Asians artists, designers, and cultural consultants. Some notable people recruited are Shagorika Ghosh as the series’ cultural consultant, Nakul Dev Mahajan (“So You Think You Can Dance”) as the Bollywood dancer and choreographer, and Deepak Ramapriyan (“Basmati Blues”) as the music producer. This will be the first animated show reflecting South Asians on Disney and attention to detail is necessary. Through this show, the next generation of desi children will get a chance to embrace their roots and culture.

As royal detectiveMira (Leela Ladnier) travels throughout the kingdom helping royals and commoners alike. Along with her friend Prince Neel (Kamran Lucas), a talented inventor, creative cousin Priya (Roshni Edwards), and comical mongoose sidekicks Mikku (Kal Penn) and Chikku (Utkarsh Ambudkar), she will stop at nothing to solve a case, taking young viewers on adventures and encourage deductive reasoning. Other characters to appear in the show include Queen Shanti (Freida Pinto), Pinky (Hannah Simone), Auntie Pushpa (Jameela Jamil), Mira‘s cousin Meena (Aparna Nancherla) and Mira’s father Sahil (Aasif Mandvi). Rooted in India’s vibrant heritage, each episode will weave authentic music, dance and customs into two 11-minutes stories.

Check out the India Currents exclusive behind the scenes video to see research being done for Mira, Royal Detective.

The all-star South Asian cast reiterates the sentiment – it is novel and refreshing to see representation in such a wholesome way. Here is a sneak peek into the cast and show, Mira, Royal Detective, airing tomorrow, March 20th on Disney Junior!

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Srishti Prabha is the current Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for women and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

The Problem isn’t Simply Apu

News that actor Hank Azaria will no longer voice the character of Apu on The Simpsons has been received as something of a shocker. Typically, online reactions have run the gamut from blaming cancel culture to reception of the announcement by Azaria on Slashfilm as a sea-change brought on by wokeness. No doubt, Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu (2017) had much to do with intensified scrutiny of the controversial character. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an Indian immigrant who holds a PhD and manages the Kwik-E-Mart, a convenience store, first appeared on the long-running animated show in 1990, soon after The Simpsons’ debut on American television the previous year. All along, he has been voiced by Azaria, a white actor, who affected a fake accent. After Azaria’s revelation on January 17, the character’s future on the program is unclear.

Hari Kondabolu at the Museum Theatre in Chennai

In Kondabolu’s documentary, he and other (mostly male) South Asian American actors speak about the grief Apu has caused them. Some mention the racial taunts they received when they were younger, Apu being the inspiration for those jibes. The actors also explain how the popularity of The Simpsons and its resident brown store-clerk may have affected their careers as many of the roles they were offered were of a stereotypical nature and required an accent. Given the dearth of South Asian representation on US television and in cinema while they were growing up, these actors note the comparative hypervisibility of Apu who left a lasting impression with his sing-song accent which was not even provided by someone of the same racial origins as the character. Further, the actors muse, in standing in for South Asians in America, the character also skewed how that ethnic community has been perceived by mainstream society.  

But for Kondabolu the problem isn’t simply Apu. It’s that Apu just doesn’t do enough. He could be a business tycoon. Lauding the show, Kondabolu says of The Simpsons that its Apu problem could be sorted not by killing off the character, which would be “very lazy writing for such a brilliant show … [G]ive him some upward mobility. If you’re saying satire is built in reality, there’s a lot of South Asians who run convenience stores … However, they often end up owning the place … They become like little moguls.” In other words, Kondabolu believes that the Apu controversy can be taken care of by portraying the character as not working class and as a successful model minority.

It is true that most representations of South Asian clerks in American media have been lacking. Where are the stories of South Asian laborers who are undocumented in the United States? Are there TV shows about convenience store clerks who deal with armed robberies? What of these clerks’ family lives or of South Asian women who are also employed in such professions? While makers of televised and cinematic entertainment have relegated the South Asian clerk to a spectacle of buffoonery that may often employ aspects of brown-faced minstrelsy, those critical of such depictions have taken the view that they do not illustrate the South Asian American community as being respectably well placed economically. Kondabolu’s documentary would be very different if it took stock of the actuality of the lives of South Asian clerks rather than only obsess about the kind of media representation that makes the South Asian American community not look like moguls.

Apu has been on television for as long as I have lived in the United States. I sometimes thought about how that character might be who customers had in mind when they interacted with my dad and his colleagues at the 7-11 he worked at. And while where that store was located was relatively safe, I worried about my father returning home on his bicycle after he’d completed the graveyard shift. On the days when he didn’t have much to say, I knew that things at the store hadn’t gone well. Sometimes he’d reveal that he’d had words with a customer or that it had been an exhausting night. I was glad when he quit his job.

Azaria may no longer voice Apu and that stereotypical character’s presence on The Simpsons may well cease, but US media still has a long way to go in giving voice to those that make up its working class. 

R. Benedito Ferrão is an Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at The College of William and Mary as well as a Fulbright-Nehru Fellow


This article was originally published here.

Image licence here.

Article 370: A Way Forward for India and Pakistan

My memories go back to the year 1991 when I wrote an article in India Currents about the history of Kashmir and the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits starting in January 1990, stirring controversy and raising criticism by some local Kashmiri Muslims, thus leading to a long healthy debate. At the end of this civil debate most of us ended up as friends, as we are today. Friends with some basic disagreements.

We knew all along that all the issues in the Kashmir Valley will be resolved if Article 370, which provides special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir is abolished. Now, discrimination based on demography has been eradicated. Kashmir has been integrated with India.

Kashmiri Hindus, better known as Kashmiri Pandits, are historically reported to be the original inhabitants of Kashmir Valley. Their roots in Kashmir can be traced to that time when civilization began in the valley. Their history spreading over 5,000 years could be testified through several historical works, including the legendary ‘Nilamat Purana’.

Kashmir’s first imperial history began in 250 BC when Asoka reigned over the land. Nearly 1000 years later, Lalitaditya reigned (725-761) after conquering most of north India, Central Asia, and Tibet. The advent of Islam in Kashmir around 14th century brought a paradigm shift in socio-political and religious system.

Islam entered Kashmir nearly 700 years after its birth when Kashmir came into contact with the Muslim invaders. Islam had been spreading throughout the rest of India for 300 years.

 Force was used to convert the inhabitants of the valley. The population of Hindus in the valley continued to decrease and they became minorities in their own land where they were once in the majority. But somehow Kashmiri Pandits managed to preserve their religion, culture as well as traditions. Kashmiri Hindus have migrated several times from the valley due to this very Islamic fundamentalism. 

Kashmir’s history, after the arrival of Islam, sets the backdrop for the current conflict, which has been waging ever since India won its independence from Britain in 1947 and Pakistan became an independent Muslim state.

There have been seven exoduses of Pandits to this date. Unfortunately, the seventh one happened in 1989-90 in the age of democracy, liberalism, secularism and universal brotherhood.

Most of the Pandits were forced to flee from the valley owing to terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists. Pandits left the valley because there was an attack on their culture, traditions, and religion. Above all, Kashmiri Pandits left the valley because there was an attack on their existence. Thousands of them were killed in the valley during the gloomy  nineties and many lost their lives in exile due to post-exodus trauma. The trauma continues, especially among the elderly who will be in pain until they can return to their home. 

There are some sane voices among the  majority community of Kashmir who are truly secular and not “pseudo-secular”, who don’t support such Nizam-e-Mustafa movement but their numbers are very few. And their voices are curbed.

No culture can survive if it is uprooted from its place of origin. There is an eternal link between people and their land. The cultural heritage of Kashmir is an integral part of the vast Indian Hindu cultural fund as a whole. Since 1947 the land has become part of the Indian Union.

Religious minority groups flourish in India. It has the world’s second largest Muslim population (approximately 176 million or 14.4 percent of India’s population), and the world’s largest Sikh (1.9 percent) and Jain populations (0.4 percent). There are also substantial numbers of Christians (2.3 percent) and Buddhists (0.8 percent). Smaller communities of Jews and Zoroastrians have been living in India for over a millennia. India was founded on secular principles and as a home for multiple religious communities. On the other hand, Pakistan was and continues to be an exclusionary state intended only for Muslims, where the state has legalized and institutionalized discrimination against minorities. As a result, in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, minorities face much greater difficulties than minorities in India. 

It is important to note that the state of Jammu and Kashmir had a Muslim population of 65% and a Hindu population of 30%. So, the Muslim population is not overwhelmingly high. It is in the Kashmir Valley that the Muslim population is 97%. Often, the people following the Kashmir problem are ignorant of these demographics. Wars have broken out between India and Pakistan three times since 1947. An alarming component of this conflict is not only the suffering of Kashmiris, who have been forced to endure the outbreaks and Pakistan’s attempts at stirring up ancient rivalries between Muslims and Hindus, but the fact that in 1990 and 2001-2002, the two countries threatened to use nuclear weapons over it.

By making the new areas of Jammu and Kashmir a Union Territory, the constituent Assembly has been revoked.

Jammu and Kashmir were given special status under Article 370 of the constitution of India which gave it, its own constitution, and without the concurrence of the State Government, the laws passed by parliament would not have been applicable. The Constitution order of 1954 contained the articles and other provisions applicable to only Jammu and Kashmir State. It constituted a founding legal document, whereas article 35A protected the exclusive laws which are related to the prohibition of buying property by outsiders and women, losing their property rights if they married non-Kashmiris.

In short, Article 370 restricted the Indian Parliament’s legislative power over Jammu and Kashmir to defense, foreign affairs, and communications, allowing residents of Jammu and Kashmir to live under a separate set of laws and preventing them from enjoying the same rights as other Indian citizens. Similarly, Article 35A defined who were permanent residents of the state and determined who could buy property in the state and enjoy other special rights and privileges.

President of India’s order # 2019, C.O. 272 dated August 5, 2019, entails scrapping previous order # 1954 and adds the following to article # 367:

  1. Sadar-i-riyasat will now be Governor
  2. Constituent Assembly will now be referred to as Legislative Assembly of the State.

Article 356 of the Indian Constitution is now applicable in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, by which President’s rule surpasses the Governor’s rule, which can be imposed in these areas.

The Bifurcation of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, giving Jammu and Kashmir the status of Union Territory and giving Ladakh the status of a Union Territory as well, has been welcome internationally.

Article 370 removal has made many positive changes for the areas of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh including no special powers exercised by Jammu and Kashmir, no dual citizenship, no separate constitution, reservations for minorities and  backward classes, no discrimination against the women of the Kashmir when they marry someone from outside of the state. All citizens of these areas will be considered equal, all provisions of the Indian constitution are now applicable in these areas and with Union territory status, the security is now the Center’s responsibility. By making the areas of Jammu & Kashmir and the area of Ladakh, two separate union territories the special status has been revoked.

These are  historic and momentous efforts that will enable the free flow and applicability of Indian constitution and all its laws into the region of Jammu and  Kashmir without any special considerations.

Not only has the Kashmir problem been solved but it also vindicates Kashmiris of all faiths (some of whom lost their lives due to turbulence and some, like Kashmiri Pandits, who had lost their roots ). Now is the time for healing as all Kashmiris come together as Indian nationals and work toward making Kashmir the valley of saints once again.

As a Union Territory, it will also improve the security situation with respect to cross border terrorism and bring peace, harmony and stability in Jammu-Kashmir.

Kashmiri Muslims must understand that all manners of cultural markers over 2500 years of Kashmiri history (right from 500 BCE onwards) display unequivocally a Kashmir that was intensively integrated with the rest of India. In the face of this historical reality of Kashmir, Article 370 as an exclusionary means artificially separating Kashmir from the rest of the country was an anomaly that has now been removed.

It will be  recognized that the dynasty rulers in Kashmir have bungled up the state through corrupt practices.  The poor segment of society wants stability, security and employment, especially when unemployment rates are as high as 30 percent among the urban population.

The emphasis must be to promote Pluralism in the State so that all communities can live together as they did before Pakistani trained militants forced Kashmiri Pandits to leave. Intra-Kashmiri dialogue, exchanging programs of students, writers, artists to offer their strengths in all the regions will definitely help in reconnecting and reintegrating hearts and minds of the people. The opening up of the local economy to outside actors will be akin to India’s liberalization moment of 1991 when it opened up its economy and integrated with the outside world. As the legal impediments to the free movement of people and access to assets like land have been removed, the economic focus of the state can now be broadened beyond tourism and agriculture. Industrialization can slowly expand its prominence in the local economy. Thus, the elimination of the special status and more centrality of governance should beget higher availability of economic opportunities and wider avenues of growth for the people of  Kashmir. 

Regarding the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits, my suggestion is that the matter be left for Kashmiri organizations in India to decide, based on their interaction with local Kashmiris and the Government of India. Our worldwide umbrella organization, All India Kashmiri Samaj (AIKS) works with all other organizations in India. 

California based Jeevan Zutshi, is the Chairman of Kashmir Task Force, founding member of the California Chapter of Kashmiri Overseas Association and founding member and former Executive Director of Indo-American Kashmir Forum.