Walks reveal century of South Asian American history

Anirvan Chatterjee leads a group on one of the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking tours. Photo: courtesy Anirvan Chatterjee

Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh recently began leading the first ever Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking tours, two-mile walks through downtown Berkeley visiting original sites associated with more than 100 years of anti-racist, feminist, anti-imperial, LGBT, and youth organizing by Berkeleyans with roots in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Below, Chatterjee explains what led them to launch the tours.

My wife Barnali and I both moved to Berkeley in the 1990s (me from the East Bay suburbs, she from Bangalore). At the time, neither of us had a sense of local South Asian American history. I would have guessed that our community magically appeared in Berkeley in the 1970s — a mix of hardworking Cal students and University Avenue retailers, enriching Berkeley with tech startups and delicious chaat, but utterly disconnected from the local activist movements I found myself drawn to.

It’s only later that we discovered that not only does Berkeley have over a century of South Asian American history — but over a century of radical South Asian American history, parallel to and in conversation with better-known Berkeley activist histories. Through interviewing older activists, reading history books, and exploring archives online and at the Bancroft Library, we’ve begun to piece together secret local histories of immigrant organizing and resistance.

Our earliest story begins in 1908, when 16 of 17 South Asian students at UC Berkeley banded together to protest an event at Stiles Hall featuring a Christian missionary deeply critical of Hinduism. As the speech ended, Girindra Mukerji, president of the Association of Oriental Students, was the first to respond. He may have been personally offended by the speaker’s attacks on his faith, but chose to focus on the speaker’s defense of British colonialism. A half dozen more South Asian students followed him, calling for an end to British rule, until the organizers shut down the event, and, with it, what was most likely the very first South Asian American protest in the city of Berkeley. On the tour, we visit the original location, tell the whole story, and share coverage of the incident in the San Francisco Call.

The walking tour proceeds through the 20th century up to the post-9/11 period. Some of the histories we share, like the 1908 student protest, are almost unknown. Others are well-remembered, like Lakireddy Bali Reddy’s sex and labor trafficking; our tour includes the other side of that story, describing how responding to the Reddy case helped prepare South Asian American activists for the subsequent wave of backlash hate incidents following 9/11.

We would love to have fans of Berkeley, activist, and ethnic/immigrant histories join us on the walking tours on November 17, or 18, but, just as importantly, we’re actively seeking more stories.

Not long ago we gave a preview version of the walking tour to a group of 15-21 year olds at a summer leadership camp for emerging South Asian American activists. They were deeply moved and inspired, knowing that people who looked like them and spoke their languages had been working for social justice on the streets of Berkeley long before their parents ever set foot in America. As Howard Zinn, Ron Takaki, and other movement historians have shown, reclaiming and retelling our stories can have a profound impact on our sense of community and place, and the choices available to us in the future.

Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh are community-based historians, and have volunteered with over a dozen arts, social justice, and environmental justice campaigns in the local South Asian American community. Visit the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tours website for details and to register for a walk.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We encourage you to submit your own events.

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  • anonymous

    We in Berkeley are very lucky that the world, including South Asia, comes to us.