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South Asian activists of North America unite!

Beena Sarwar - Pakistan

MONTREAL, Sept 11: When 24,000 taxi drivers in New York brought the city to a halt during a strike last year just after India and Pakistan's nuclear tests, their ethnic composition was the focus of much attention: 16,000 of them were of South Asian origin and stood solidly united despite the tension between their home countries.

''This kind of solidarity is possible when people realise they have more to gain than lose by uniting,'' says Biju Mathew, a coordinator for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA).

''Many journalists from the Pakistani press, the Indian press, kept focusing on taxi drivers from their countries, and there were many attempts to drive a wedge between the strikers, but they didn't sway from their united front.''

Mathew, an organiser of that strike, was one of the speakers at a recent conference in Montreal, the largest city of Canada's French-dominated Quebec province. Some 200 activists attended, most of them young people of South Asian descent.

The two-day North American Conference on Peace and Human Rights in India and Pakistan was organised by the South Asia Research and Resource Center (Ceras) under the Alternatives umberella organisation, with the aim of forming a platform for secularism, peace and democracy in South Asia and to build a common front for the progressive forces among the diaspora.

The 'Montreal Declaration' reaffirming these values at the end of this process also announced the formation of the International South Asia Forum (INSAF), which affirms the need for a peaceful and secular South Asia and will work towards this end.

The idea of INSAF was initiated by Ceras president Daya Varma, a Pharamacology professor at McGill University, who has been a resident of Canada for over thirty years. "We are handing over the baton to the new generation," he said. "As South Asians living elsewhere in the world, we have a responsibility not only to our countries of origin, but also to the world to work for peace and influence events."

''The conservatism in our societies back home is reflected in the South Asian communities here,'' said the New York-based Mathew in his talk on the role of non-resident South Asians in defense of secularism, human rights and peace in their home countries.

''Here it can be even more extreme, as a response to racism, guilt at being away, and particularly unhinged identities. The structure of nostalgia then feeds into the right, which offers packaged forms of tradition for young professionals to consume.''

Kiran Patel, a young sociologist from London agreed. ''For many young second generation Asians, the mental conflict and confusion they may experience in order to find an identity, has led to the adoption of a religious identity. They have little else to pledge allegiance to...

''The ideas propagated by the religious parties make them feel that part of being a 'real' Hindu is to instrinsically hate the 'other' religion, Islam. And vice versa,'' she added. ''This way of thinking conveniently fits into the anti-Muslim hysteria within Britain and the USA. Such so-called nationalisms promote racism, capitalism and patriarchy, and women are relegated to being the symbols of values, tradition and culture.''

Participants agreed that a wider view needs to be taken of South Asians both at home and in the diaspora. ''Colonisation of the mind ensures that the oppressed do not look at the oppressors for the reasons for their subordination. The 'superiority' of the oppressor is internalised,'' said Patel.

South Asians living in North America, as Mathew noted, have access to each other, which is difficult in their home countries. ''We should use this access to create bridges here and contribute to the democratic process at home,'' he suggested.

Such involvement can make a difference as the Forum of Indian Leftists (FOIL) proved last year when it lobbied successfully to stop the phone company AT&T, from allowing subscribers to divert one percent of their monthly bills to the right-wing Indian party Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) which had registered itself in the USA as a non-profit cultural organisation.

''Last year, the VHP in USA was taxed on 620,000 dollars of declared income,'' explains Mathew. ''As much as fifty per cent of the BJP's donations came from NRIs - non-resident Indians - in dollars and pound sterling. As a bare minimum, we need to examine how the money is raised, and to get the multinational companies to be more discerning when they promote charities.

''The FOIL campaign to get AT&T to stop sending money to VHP started out initially by looking at the budgets of right-wing parties. From there it led to the question of young people and how they get involved in these parties, which leads to the next level of funding and involvement through identity politics.''

Ceras coordinator Feroz Mehdi said that the conference was an attempt to draw young people into the fight for progressive values. ''It was a historic meeting,'' he added, pointing to the convergence of progressive individuals and organizations from all over North America.

''There were activists from both sides of the Line of Control, Indian pandits and Pakistani Kashmiris, Indian and Pakistani expatriats and migrants, even people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, all of whom agree on the need for peace in South Asia,'' he said.

He hoped that the activists, who came from various communities, schools and colleges from all over North America, as well as some from the U.K., would take up the thoughts and ideas discussed at the meeting.

''We hope the process will continue,'' said Mehdi. As follow-up, rotational meetings in other towns and cities are planned in an attempt to mobilise the South Asian diaspora. The next such meeting is expected to be held in December, in either Boston or Vancouver.
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