Today’s generation of Indian-American civil rights activists are at the forefront of the movement to preserve the freedoms promised in the American Constitution, Ela Dutt writes
A younger generation of Indian-Americans is taking on key roles in pushing the civil rights agenda upholding the nation’s exalted tradition of liberty for all. They are founders, leaders and activists in several mainstream civil rights organizations.
The pinnacle of such civil rights achievements by Indian-Americans is the just-announced appointment of Vanita Gupta as president and CEO of the largest such organization in the country – The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR), on March 23. She had been the head the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department in the Obama administration.
The American Civil Liberties Union boasts an Indian-American on its national board and several state-level affiliate representatives and staffers; the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force was founded by an Indian-American in the late 1980s; the Innocence Project that tries to prevent wrongful convictions has talented policy-makers; as does the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Even the iconic global human rights organization, Amnesty International based in London, is headed by an Indian, Salil Shetty.
They are part of the expansion and visibility of Indian-American community into newer fields of endeavor, from doctors, engineers, and scientists, to arts, culture, and more critically, into law.
Bhairavi Desai, founder and executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), said of her choice to go the civil rights route rather than traditional Indian-American vocations, “I’m a better street fighter than a scientist. Because without social activism that builds a just world, doctors won’t have patients that can access them.”
Gupta first turned the spotlight on the advocacy and civil rights work of Indian-Americans when as a fledgling law graduate, she led the challenge to wrongful convictions that had put nearly 10 percent of the African-Americans of Tulia, Texas, behind bars on trumped up drug charges. She not only secured their freedom, but in 2006 won more than $6 million in compensation for the victims fighting for them as assistant counsel to the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
On President Donald Trump’s shortlist to succeed Gupta is Harmeet Dhillon, a California attorney and civil rights advocate, who is the first Committee Chairwoman from California in the national GOP.
Those who have been in the civil rights trenches are, meanwhile, concerned about the future of gains made in areas like LGBTQ individuals’ rights; women’s reproductive rights, religious rights, and the rights of immigrants.
Gupta said when she was at the DOJ, she saw an uptick in hate crimes including those directed at the Indian-American and South Asian community in 2016. (See interview with News India Times)
Hate crimes against Indian-Americans took place way before Trump came into office. Those in recent memory in fact go back to the 1980s with the infamous Dot-Busters of New Jersey. The post-9/11 backlash’s first victim was Balbir Singh Sodhi, killed on Sept. 15 in Mesa, Arizona. In 2012 a white supremacist carried out a massacre at the Wisconsin Gurdwara. This year Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an IT engineer, in Olathe, Kansas, was killed in cold-blood, and Deep Rai, a Sikh man in Washington state, was shot in early March.
During her tenure at DOJ, Gupta is credited with advancing constitutional policing and criminal justice reform; prosecuting hate crimes and human trafficking; promoting disability rights; protecting the rights of LGBTQ individuals; ensuring voting rights for all; and combating discrimination in education, housing, employment, lending, and religious exercise.
“Her appointment is a proud moment for all Indian-Americans,” said Puneet Ahluwalia, who served on President Trump’s Asian Pacific Islanders Advisory Committee, and is a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. “She had the support of conservatives too when she went through her confirmation (at DOJ), and she will be a good advocate for a lot of ethnic minorities including Sikhs,” he added. The same goes for Dhillon, if she gets to head the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Ahluwalia believes. “Harmeet has put herself out there.
She’s achieved a lot, is an excellent role-model for women, strongly believes in Republican values, and wants greater participation of minorities.”
“Vanita’s appointment is exciting in a number of ways – not just because she is from the community and the daughter of Indian-American parents, but because she’s been on the frontlines on most import civil rights issues,” said Gautam Raghavan, former White House liaison to the Pentagon on LGBTQ issues, who left to head The Gill Foundation, which focuses on concerns of LGBTQ people.
Raghavan recently left the Gill Foundation to give some of his time to the Indian American Impact Project, an organization founded recently, to help deepen the involvement of the younger generation in the political process.
These activists drew their inspiration from close-knit families, grandparents, encouraging parents, and their own desire to make change.
Gupta’s childhood memory of a household legend about the scary “Go home Pakis” taunts shouted at her grandmother and family at a McDonald’s in Britain, and the professors and other activists who inspired her to go into law and civil rights.
Philadelphia-born Amol Sinha, a State Policy Advocate at the Innocence Project, wanted to “articulate the inarticulable,” and saw that law was a “tool for empowerment,” and he could be a change-maker. He grew up in Lawrenceville, N.J. between affluent Princeton and poverty-stricken Trenton, witnessing the extreme socio-economic and racial disparities. He observed the interaction between those in authority, whether it was a football coach, a teacher or police, and those with no power. “It felt unjust from time to time that somebody was not getting the same opportunities,” he told News India Times. “Also, I felt personally that my family and friends who had just as much right or claim to be present were treated differently because of our identity.”
During the George W. Bush administration, Raghavan said he felt his rights as a gay person were being threatened when marriage equality was being made into a wedge issue, he told News India Times. “For me, the personal became the political, and I knew then that I had to get involved because my rights were at stake.”
Bhairavi Desai, founder of New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), told News India Times her civil rights advocacy was “inspired by my parents as much as people’s movements like Indian independence, that proved people have the power.”
Some of the Indian-Americans with Important Roles in Mainstream Civil Rights and Advocacy Organizations:
Bhairavi Desai, founder and executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance
Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (RoCU)
Seema Agnani, director of Policy and Civic Engagement at the national Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (CAPACD) and founder of Chhaya Community Development Corporation
Shahid Buttar, director of grassroots advocacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation
Arvind Ganesan, director of Business and Human Rights Division, and Shantha Rau Barriga, director of Disability Rights at Human Rights Watch
Urvashi Vaid, founder of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1989. Now heads Vaid Group LLC, which works to address structural inequalities based on gender and sexual orientation.
Madan Goyal, National Board of Directors (Texas), Anil Mujumdar (Alabama) and Charu Verma (Massachusetts) are in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Nisha Agarwal, currently New York City Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs, co-founded the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD). Oona Chatterjee, director of organizing and capacity building at CPD, and Anita Jain, deputy director of communications, also at CPD.
Mallika Dutt, founder of Breakthrough, a human rights organization working to end violence against women and girls worldwide.