aturdays in San Francisco are notorious hotbeds of dissidence where frustrated, over-caffeinated, restless activists have been known to hatch many a harebrained scheme that has gone on to become a thorn in the Empire's side. It was in this rich tradition this September that a pot of simmering South Asian anger boiled over into an impulse to answer a question that Biju Mathew asked in this magazine's sister publication, SAMAR, last year. 'Where Have The South Asians Gone?' was a sort of attempt to rally the troops as it were, turning a jaundiced eye towards the absence of South Asians within the context of an anti-imperialist opposition to the United States' foreign adventures.
It was this oft repeated question, usually presented as the lack of progressive, and particularly anti-imperialist and anti-war South Asian organizing, that drove a hastily penned, much delayed, call to action emailed out to a multitude of bay area South Asian listservs and activists.1
The initial call to action was authored in a vacuum of answers and attempted to be honest in its admission of confusion and incoherence. There were few things that we knew for certain, and few of those went far beyond a frustration with the status quo, the inability to refrain from engagement and a determination to find the wedge that would open up a larger space within our conservative navel-gazing communities.
In particular, the call expressed (i) an outrage against the unjust, racist, and arrogant wars the United States is waging in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations, (ii) a responsibility to organize against an empire subjecting the world to a unilateral campaign of terror, (iii) a perceived link between the actions of this empire and the wave of instability wreaking havoc across the Global South, and (iv) an interest in working with other South Asians to organize against this war within our communities here in the United States.
This initial call was a desperate attempt to pull together a thousand conversations about the issues inherent in organizing South Asian communities within the US, about the much admitted and oft-commented on conservatism of the most recent wave of South Asian head workers, about the separate but linked fascisms engulfing the nations of our past and the difficulties of talking through that and emerging into spaces where it was possible to have real conversations about alliance and solidarity against a common enemy, this most recent incarnation of the white colonialism we had fought so long ago. More than anything, it was the conviction of a few dedicated and inspired comrades who refused to be waylaid by the pessimism and negativity and the eternal dialectical conversations to which - as desis and leftists- we are doubly prone.
Even as some of us wondered aloud whether the anti-war movement was even worth engagement given its obvious flaws; the opportunism of ANSWER and UFPJ, lack of real results and constant infighting, others waxed pessimistic regarding the fundamental neo-liberal underpinnings of the South Asian American community and the class subservience of this bourgeois skilled-worker class to the capitalist empire. Thankfully, there were those (you know who you are comrades) who refused to let these pitfalls incapacitate us at the outset.
And so it was that in September of 2005, fourteen discontent, disgruntled, vexed, but enthusiastic South Asians met in the mission district in San Francisco to imagine what space their community could reasonably occupy in the current anti-war movement in the United States - ironically, just hours prior to and across the street from a panel entitled Self Determination in South Asia.
A seemingly tall order, that, but perhaps self determination for the South Asian Diaspora, at least, can begin here.
What is DESIst?
We are a coalition of south Asians who are united against the war and U.S. imperialism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Philippines, Haiti, Palestine and other nations. We believe that being anti-war and anti-imperialism is not a choice but an imperative. We hope to organize a campaign against U.S. imperialism and in doing so mobilize our communities, raise awareness, and develop sustaining alliances with other progressive groups. The Alliance of South Asians Taking Action (ASATA), and Friends of South Asia (FOSA) are part of this coalition as are others of us as individuals.
Many comrades who answered the call have been previously active with the anti-war movement, organizing within and working with different organizations, both in the broader movement as well as the South Asian community in particular, and are fatigued, jaded or unenthusiastic about serial organization building replete as it is with all the issues that accompany such an endeavour. Most of us -- having been previously involved with building organizations and familiar with the amount of energy and politicking that often is absorbed by the organization itself -- expressed a desire to be involved more in real on-the-ground work, than in organizational issues. We reached ready consensus around a temporally defined campaign undertaken for a definite short to medium-term period at which point we would re-evaluate whether DESIst was meeting our objectives, had definitive and tangible value to the community, and was something that we wished to continue in similar or different organizational fashion.
What is Next?
The initial impetus for DESIst's coming together was to mobilize a South Asian body to participate in the Global Day of Resistance on September 24 th . Indeed, even in our first meeting it was immediately obvious that this was not the crux of what DESIst was to be about. In some ways we occupied that space because it needed to be occupied, because there is a critical absence of a South Asian voice in the anti-war movement and a need that was felt by us - albeit some more deeply than others - that this bulkhead was necessary if certainly less than sufficient to establish. Beyond September 24th, the real work of DESIst - that of real and active outreach and engagement within the South Asian American community - is just now beginning.
However, even as we try to answer the seemingly basic question of "why organizing in the South Asian community is important", it is apparent that there is no consensus on what that means. Is DESIst (a) a group of south Asians that want to organize against the war and other forms of imperialism amongst all communities, or (b) are specifically interested in mobilizing primarily South Asian communities that have not yet organized against the war? This is an open question for us to continue to discuss.
For now an active imperative seems to be the building of bridges with activists and organizers in other people of color communities. We hope to draw on the experiences of other minority immigrant communities that have rich and varied histories of success organizing their sisters and brothers against the capitalist imperialist imperatives within the US . DESIst is calling on comrades from Bayan and the Palestine and Arab communities who have seen success maintaining strong and disciplined politics while gaining ground in their communities and being successful in engaging a variety of people.
Honing our Politics
The questions posed by Iraq today are difficult questions. Do we support the Iraqi resistance, and if so how and against whom? What of the innocent blood still running on the streets of Baghdad? How do we address Palestine and the burgeoning alliances between the nations of South Asia and Israel? What is our stance on the military, the troops and the economic draft? How do we make explicit the connections between the United States' Iraq misadventures and the wars on the poor and dispossessed within our own communities both here and in South Asia? These are questions DESIst needs to answer for itself before it can really offer a face to its inevitable critics and detractors. But the asking of these questions is already a step beyond what any of us individually could have accomplished and in that way the experiment can already be seen as a step forward.
Sharpening our Goals
Beyond talking to ourselves and running around the streets of San Francisco there are the more pertinent questions of our goals and the path to their realization in an actively engaged and politically conscious South Asian Left. Here too, there are only questions at present; what precisely do we want to achieve, who is the constituency, what are the active venues for our increasing visibility, on what demographic should we be focusing if at all, and is there any real reason for our existence if we are not going to actively engage in political actions that go beyond the academic.
Watch this space for answers.
DESIst has now had three meetings and is rapidly heading towards a fourth in December. If you are against the rabid imperialism being practiced by the United States and its allies, incensed by the fascist voices that claim to speak for us and interested in helping build this coalition and developing its anti-imperialist vision and campaign, and specifically in taking urgent action please email DESIST[at]southasianprogressive[dot]org.
1 Any discussion of this sort would be disingenuous without at least attempting to make explicit the difference between an absence or lack of visibility of South Asians and South Asian Americans from the broader social activism scene vs. specific anti-war work in a truly South Asian mobilization sense. Although great work is being done by organizations that have long predated DESIst such as AID, ADP, ASATA, FOSA, CAC, SACA, PBN etc these each have their particular organizational and functional limitations that prevent them, for one reason or another, from being the vehicle or the impetus for the building of a radical anti-imperialist South Asian anti-war movement. In some cases these organizations exist under charters that are more 'developmental' in focus or charitable in nature, resulting in politics centered around the zealous protection of some sort of non-profit or 501c(3) status. In other cases the particular organization has a more regional, religious, linguistic, or ethnic thrust which is bluntly and unabashedly exclusionary - again less than conducive to the discussions and analysis that would necessarily be needed to transcend these boundaries in building a broad participatory movement that can truly be labeled South Asian. This is in no way meant to disparage or belittle the real work being done to push the boundaries within these organizations by committed comrades who have decided to tackle the hard work of engaging these issues from the inside rather than criticizing from without. The point here is more that regardless of how much effort is expended in ensuring that an anti-imperialist philosophy consciously permeates these organizations, they ultimately have different purposes and need to function in manners expedient to the reasons for their existence. What is imperative here though is that DESIst could not have come together without the years or decades of groundwork done by organizations and comrades in the Bay Area to create a context in which DESIst can exist. Lastly, it would be unfair and dishonest to leave readers with in impression that the Bay Area has never previously seen South Asian organizations come together for similar political purposes. South Asians for Collective Action in particular is a group that has seen many years and many rallies beneath a yellowing banner that still hails proudly at every antiwar march.