Silicon Valley’s South Asian community has two strikingly different faces. There is the increasingly familiar image of a rising, highly educated, affluent and politically connected group. Last September, for example, President Bill Clinton raised $1.4 million for the Democratic National Committee at two Indian American fundraisers on one evening here.
Two days later, however, over 300 Indian and Pakistani cab drivers practically shut down South San Jose with a procession protesting the mugging death of driver Daljit Singh. The significant number of South Asian blue-collar workers—there are about 600 cabbies in the Valley—and their activism seem to have attracted little public attention.
The drivers converged at 9 a.m. in caravan to accompany the body of their fallen brother to a crematorium in Fremont, 25 miles away. The drivers purposely picked that time to cripple the cab-dependent San Jose Airport and make their statement stronger.
“We wanted to raise political awareness about how dangerous our job is, and the lack of police protection,” said Saranpal Baines, a driver and an organizer of the street action.
The drivers put together the procession in only two days. Ron Lind, organizing director for United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 428 (UFCW), said, “It is surprising to see how strongly the rich sense of social justice from India is manifesting itself here in Silicon Valley’s working class.”
Baines is aware of the more prominent side of the South Asian profile (“Indians are contributing lots with all the engineers and doctors”) but thinks his work is also worthwhile: “I am successful at bringing my people to the union. That is my big contribution.”
In 1998 Indian cab drivers joined with Ethiopian and Somalian cabbies that had faced years of police harassment and unfair company rules, and started to look for a union that would represent them.
“We wanted a union that had good relations with city council since most of our issues deal with the police and regulations,” says Baines. After sitting down with various unions they chose UFCW local 428.
Within a year over 150 South Asian cabbies had joined the union and created a “Taxi Task Force” of city officials, drivers, and company representatives to address industry issues. Dalijt Singh’s death brought even more drivers into the union and heightened the demand for better police protection.
The cabbies are not the only South Asian activists here. Young desis organized a community fair last August for low-wage high-tech assemblers, cabbies, and other blue-collar South Asians and their families. The event was sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and the Service Employees International Union Local 715.
“We saw a big hole—even Asian low-income service centers never thought about the South Asian population,” says organizer Ravij Bajaj. “Everyone just thinks if you’re Indian you’re a dot-com millionaire. We looked at how other immigrant communities of color began organizing and we came up with the fair as our first step.”
The fair featured free health examinations, immigration and citizenship information, as well as legal guidance in South Asian languages. Narinder Singh, who drives for Yellow Cab, offered instruction on stress reduction through meditation in Punjabi. Bajaj says that the groundbreaking aspect of the event was bringing people together to talk. “We wanted to do more than just provide a service, we wanted to pose questions. What are our issues at work? What role do unions play in our community? What does community power mean for us? The fact that we held it at a union hall was very symbolic.”
South Asian-Americans have targeted abuses within their own community as well.
A row of sari-clad South Asian women recently stood in front of Pasand’s, a popular Indian restaurant in Sunnyvale, with signs reading, “No Justice, No Peace,” a slogan borrowed from the civil rights movement. Pasand’s owner, L. B. Reddy, who owns restaurants and apartment complexes all over the Bay Area, is being tried for smuggling underage Indian immigrant women into the country, and abusing them.
The action was controversial; it pitted activists against conservatives. “Some people felt that publicly criticizing Reddy was an act of disloyalty to our community,” says Nithya Ramanathan of Alliance of South Asians Taking Action. “I just kept thinking, if we don’t take a stand for Indian folks, who will?”
The Pasand protest, the fair, and the taxi driver action received little attention from either mainstream or South Asian media. The San Jose Mercury News covered Daljit Singh’s murder extensively, but did not send a reporter to the cab procession. Hina Shah, an attorney at the Asian Law Caucus and an organizer, says, “While it is exciting to see all the coverage of Indian Americans becoming part of the political establishment, it is also important to acknowledge that Indian Americans are organizing on the grassroots level.”
Raj Jayadev is the Silicon Valley/Digital Divide editor for YO! Youth Outlook, a monthly newspaper by and about Bay Area youth published by Pacific News Service.