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South Asian Diasporic Politics

Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States by Monisha Das Gupta;


South Asian Diasporic


Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States

by Monisha Das Gupta; Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2006; pp 336, $ 22.95.


or some years, the different waves of south Asian migration to north America have been tracked by the literature of immigration, focused largely on the story of professional Indian immigrants to the US, as one of model-minority adaptation and success. These studies, however, failed to ask the question of how economic liberalisation in the countries of south Asia determined the history and experiences of the south Asian diaspora. Regardless of whether one dates liberalisation to the 1970s or more conventionally to 1991, there is no doubt that it has affected both the trajectory and experiences of the south Asian diaspora. The (2000) article on ‘Codes of Migration’ by Ali Mir, Biju Mathew and Raza Mir1 highlighted the trajectories within the Indian and US economies producing H-1B visa-holders, or “high-tech coolies”, while Monisha Das Gupta’s Unruly Immigrants is the first full length study to ask the question of liberalisation across a range of migrant class experiences, distinguishing it from others in the field. As Das Gupta, an associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii puts it, “Migration, from a radical third world perspective, is a direct result of displacement induced by structural adjustment programmes and neoliberal policies forced on the third world”.

Das Gupta’s task as a sociologist is to understand the impact of such policies on south Asian migrants to the US for, “global migration, transnationalism, border controls, neoliberal reform, and economic deregulation are not just reified structural features operating, as sociologists would say, at the micro-level. They also leave their traces on lived experiences.” Das Gupta thus questions the desirability of citizenship as a goal of migration, and focuses on the lived margins of diasporic protest to highlight the creation of immigrant regimes of citizenship used as a means of regulating labour in first world countries like the US. The “unruly immigrants” Das Gupta writes about “fall out of the gender-blind, heteronormative, and elite definitions of citizenship” developing an “alternative language and alternate route to rights” (2007:19). As Nahar Alam, the Bangladeshi founder of “Andolan” (an NGO) explained about one south Asian domestic worker who was a US citizen but made 55 cents an hour, “If you don’t have education…It does not matter that you are a citizen or have a green card.”

Unruly Immigrants is well-written and informative. Das Gupta’s central contribution is to challenge received models of accommodation and assimilation for understanding south Asian immigration to the US by presenting a new framework for analysing the history of the US south Asian community’s attempts to organise itself. Whereas previous works on south Asian Americans tend to see a clean break between earlier (pre-1980s) forms of organising in the south Asian community, and more contemporary forms, Das Gupta sees a shift between organisations focused on making a place for themselves within the dominant paradigm of US race relations, the so-called “place-takers” and those organisations that seek to create alternate spaces for the realisation of new politics, the “space-makers”. Yet, as she observes, “space-making politics do not replace place-taking politics or political enactments of national, languagebased, and intranational regional identities. Place-taking and space-making politics operate concurrently, but in tension with each other”.

Analytic Framework

The first three chapters of the book develop the analytic framework for understanding the different uses of culture and law that place-taking and space-making organisations deploy, while the remaining three chapters contain the case studies of different types of “space-making” south Asian organisations. Chapter 1, ‘Terms of Belonging’ lays out the history of the “association of Indians in America” to change their racial designation in 1976 US congressional testimony. Chapter 2, ‘Contests over Culture’ examines the way “place-making” organisations such as the AIA mobilise conceptions of “authentic culture” that marginalise women, feminists, gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people (“queers”)2 and working class immigrants. Chapter 3, ‘Law and Oppression’, contains a lucid analysis of the state’s mobilisation of immigration law, especially as it affects south Asian queers and battered immigrant women. Chapter 4, ‘Owning Our Lives: Women’s Organisations’, looks at the debate within south Asian women’s groups between movement-based politics and service-orientation that resulted in Sakhi’s Domestic Worker Committee (DWC) splitting to become Worker’s Awaaz and then Andolan. Chapter 5, ‘Subverting Seductions: Queer Organisations’, examines the gender politics and transnational formation of two east coast organisations, the south Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) of New York and the Massachusetts Area South Asian Lambda Association (MASALA).

Chapter 6, ‘Know Your Place in History: Labour Organisations’, does an excellent job of contextualising the nontraditional labour organising strategies of Andolan, a south Asian domestic workers organisation, and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), an advocacy group that links the struggles of south Asian taxi drivers with those from the Caribbean, eastern Europe and Latin America, at a time of economic restructuring, deskilling, and widespread attacks on trade unions in the US. While 60 per cent of all taxi drivers in New York city are south Asians, a large number of the

Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007

6,00,000 domestic workers in New York city are also south Asians who work for members of their own communities and make an average of $ 200 per month, as compared to the salary of nannies who care for one child and do no housework, at $ 450 per week (2006: 226). As Das Gupta notes, both occupations are 90 per cent immigrant, gender specific with sweatshop-like conditions, and isolated workplaces in homes or cabs; but it is also the case that a number of south Asians in these occupations with MBAs, engineering or other professional degrees from their home counties have faced downward mobility, presenting a more complex relationship between the impact of neoliberalism upon south Asia, the brain drain, and the development of a largely immigrant fuelled service economy in the US.

For Das Gupta, “space-making” politics are the ones that deliberately make a transition from national authenticity politics of India or Pakistan day parades, to a transnational and coalitional notion of “south Asian” politics (despite the fact that most of the organisations she writes about tend to be dominated by Indian immigrants or second generation Indian Americans). It is unclear from Das Gupta’s definition whether the US based Sikh coalition or the Indian Muslim Council would be considered examples of space-making politics although both engage in secular, coalition and solidarity politics, in addition to what might be considered national, identitybased politics. Still, Das Gupta utilises suggestive and original material to make her case for a transnational, south Asian diasporic politics, as in chapter 5 where one of the founder members of the New York organisation SALGA reflects:

“The formation of gay groups in India was catalysed by the Trikone newsletter in San Jose. And then those two together catalysed the formation of SALGA” (p 160). Or again in chapter 6, Das Gupta shows how south Asian domestics do not limit themselves to US law to claim rights, but avail themselves of a transnational legal regime that includes the 1990 UN migrants’ convention (which came into effect in 2002). In the same chapter, Das Gupta also persuasively explains how the NYTWA with a predominantly (Indian and Pakistani) Punjabi membership base had to do extensive outreach to the Bangladeshi drivers, who because of the nature of the 1971 war, were wary of Pakistanis and meetings conducted in Urdu; yet like many other south Asian taxi workers, also drew upon histories of anticolonial and nationalist struggle as a means of affirming their struggle for rights in the US context. In chapter 4, however, one wishes Das Gupta had been able to explore the links between women’s organisations in south Asia and their counterparts in the US south Asian diaspora. In the case of south Asian women’s groups in the US, these linkages to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been informal, though intense, as activists have travelled back and forth to share information on organising strategies, counseling methods, and changes in domestic violence laws within south Asian nation states and the US.

Valuable Material

Though largely a synthetic piece of work, Unruly Immigrants also contains valuable ethnographic material based on Das Gupta’s own experiences as a member of the South Asian Women’s Association of Boston (SAWA) between 1992 and 1996. The study also utilises interviews with founders and members of the above-mentioned south Asian associations between 1997 and 2002. Leaving aside the recent and emerging studies of south Asian youth organisation in the US, however, Das Gupta’s book enters a field that is increasingly welldocumented: a special issue of Amerasia Journal, edited by Vijay Prashad called, ‘Satyagraha in America: The Political Culture of South Asian Americans’ (2000) was one of the first to look at progressive organising by south Asians in the US.Manavi co-founder Shamita Das Dasgupta has edited two books on domestic violence and south Asian women’s organisations in the US; while Sakhi co-founder Ananya Bhattacharjee is the author of articles documenting the formation of Worker’s Awaaz/Andolan, and Linta Varghese has also published her analysis of Worker’s Awaaz, based on her work with the organisation. Among several recent books on south Asian organisations in the US, such as Margaret Abraham’s study of Sakhi, Sharmila Rudrappa’s of Apna Ghar and Biju Mathew’s on the NY Taxi Worker Allaince,3 Das Gupta’s is the only one to use case studies of women’s, queer, and workers’ organisations to explore the linkages between them, and to tie together diasporic south Asian queer, feminist, and labour politics in an original way. So to learn that SALGA member Debi Roy-Chaudhuri helped found the Lease Driver’s Coalition of the Committee Against Asian American Violence (CAAAV), which under Bairavi Desai’s leadership was re-organised as the NYTWA, is to fundamentally transform our understanding of south Asian labour politics in the US.

If Unruly Immigrants suffers from a fault, it is that this book, like most of the studies it draws upon, is entirely focused upon east coast organisations, and as the bulk of its research was conducted before 9/11 is unable to address the ways in which “special registration” and anti-terrorism laws have impacted the organisational strategies of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghani communities in the US even as Indian Muslims and Sikhs face deeper forms of harassment and discrimination, leaving the Hindu Indian immigrant community largely unaffected. Southern California organisations like the south Asia Network in Artesia have been remarkable in addressing the issues around special registration, while in northern California, Narika, Maitrei and other south Asian women’s organisations have had to deal with the transnational issues around domestic and restaurant labour and trafficking. So one hopes for further synthetic analysis and documentation on the many south Asian immigrant, women’s and queer organisations on the west coast, and in the southern US.




1 Ali Mir, Biju Mathew and Raza Mir, ‘Codesof Migration: The Contours of the GlobalSoftware Labour Market’, Cultural Dynamics, 12(1):5-33, March 2000.

2 The term “queer” can be used interchangeablywith gays,lesbians,bisexual and transgenderedpeople (GLBT) but Das Gupta’s usage alsointends to “capture the range of non-normativedesires, pleasures and identities that exceedthe homo/hetero binary and that cannot alwaysbe collapsed into ‘LBGT’” (2006:261).

3 See Shamita Das Dasgupta (ed), A Patchwork Shawl:Chronicles of South Asian Women in America, Rutgers University Press, NJ, 1998;Shamita Das Dasgupta (ed) (2007), AnanyaBhattacharjee (1997a), ‘The Public/PrivateMirage: Mapping Homes and UndomesticatingDomestic Violence Work in the South Asian Immigrant Community’ in M J Alexander andChandra Mohanty (eds), Feminist Genealogies,Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, Routledge, NY; Ananya Bhattacharjee, ‘ASlippery Path: Organising Resistance toViolence against Women’ in Dragon Ladies:Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire, S Shah (ed), South End Press, Boston, 1997b;Linta Varghese, ‘Constructing a WorkerIdentity: Class, Experience, and Organising inWorkers’ Awaaz’, Cultural Dynamics, 2006,

18: 189-211; Margaret Abraham, Speakingthe Unspeakable: Marital Violence amongSouth Asian Immigrants in the United States, Rutgers University Press, NJ, 2000; SharmilaRudrappa, Ethnic Routes to BecomingAmerican: Indian Immigrants and the Culturesof Citizenship, Rutgers University Press, NJ,2004; Biju Mathew, Taxi! Cabs and Capitalismin New York City, New Press, New York, 2005.

Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007

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