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South Asians for Abolition: Beyond Gilded Cages

In Part One of a discussion on South Asian diasporic organizing in the movement for abolition, Mon M. shares three areas of critical work, storytelling, and action to undertake in solidarity with Black and Dalit liberation struggles.

At the July 2019 hearing for the ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) on the use of public land for new jails in New York City, a member of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) provided testimony. The ULURP process was being used to decide whether the land would suffice for the new jails, not to receive public opinions on whether those jails should be built—that decision had already been made by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The woman speaking was young and Nepali. She had a translator with her. The hearing would decide if certain pieces of land were alright to host new cages. As she spoke, she cried. As someone who had been abused at home, she had been rendered houseless because of a lack of Nepali language services to help her find support. She sounded angry and desperate—why were we at this hearing talking about building new jails when there weren’t even enough translators for women living on the street?

Two years ago, in the fall of 2018, I received an email from Critical Resistance with a call to action to “defeat jail construction.” At the time, it felt obvious: Why would anyone stand by and let the city invest more than 8 billion dollars in four new jails when the city’s housing crisis stared us in the face every day? Why would a city that had allowed the deaths of Kalief Browder, Eric Garner, Eleanor Bumpus, Kyam Livingston, Akai Gurley, and so many more, be given free range to lock up generations of New Yorkers? 

Before the public gauntlet was thrown, I was angered by the glossy jail brochures passed out by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice at community meetings about the borough-based jail plan.  Jails could be “a good neighbor,” the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice promised, citing concerns about parking, traffic, and property values as central to “architecture and design that minimizes street level impact.” 

One year later, despite what seemed to me an obvious improbability, the New York City Council voted to build four new jails. At the time, and since then, they’ve sold this plan as the only way to close Rikers, synonymizing jail expansion with the closure of Rikers, New York City’s notorious penal colony. They’ve continued to promote this as the only solution, despite days worth of testimony, letters, public protest, reporting, and alternatives arguing that Rikers can be closed without building new jails, if only the city would choose to do so. Incarceration is always a policy failure,  because it is the consequence of an anti-Black, murderous, extractive political economy. Reforms like new jails are no more than gilded cages.

During those same months of 2018, I was enthusiastically participating in the South Asian Diaspora Artist Collective (SADAC), a group founded to hold space for South Asians to share art, ideas, and engage in critical discussions around our different positionalities. The group, while carrying good intentions, was slowly beginning to implode as community members were confronted by their abusers at the collectives’ events and as different levels of interpersonal harm continued to hurt members of the collective. Incidents included events with a poet who recited poetry that had anti-Black element; misgendering of trans members; and anger over Indo-centric, Hindi-centric discussions within the meeting spaces. SADAC had no formal structure nor any accountability mechanisms. A lack of political education structures and community accountability structures (conflict mediation, transformative justice) meant there was no shared political analysis, which threatened the groups’ existence. In some cases, there were members who even felt that the group could be apolitical.

These two simultaneous experiences moved me politically. At the nexus of both were intermingled experiences of allyship, violence, inter-community conflict, and the repeated impact of how carceral norms enabled casteism, transphobia, and anti-Blackness instead of stopping them. Although these two political experiences differed in scale, both demonstrated to me what occurs when our social and cultural worlds and our economic systems are invested in punishment rather than in harm reduction, social welfare, or community transformation.

Equally powerfully, through these dual experiences, I gained more insight into my specific positionality as an Indian, middle class, caste privileged (Savarna) person in organizing spaces, in New York City and otherwise. I joined workshops with Dalit-led organization Equality Labs to learn about caste supremacy in India and how it seeps into South Asian networks within the U.S. I was regularly meeting and speaking with organizers from across the city, including people fighting against Amazon’s proposed HQ2 in favor of public housing, who problematized the role of activists, nonprofits, artists, and institutions. I learned from nail worker organizing and the struggles against prison reformism. I found new points of identification for an abolitionist queer feminist identity that wasn’t designed through exposure to local, national, and global people’s movements. 

Against the devastation of social welfare, we’ve seen demands for land back, free healthcare, rent cancellation without eviction, and the abolition of police. As the most recent uprisings for Black lives and against the devastation of social welfare have taken off, so has the keenness of non-Black communities to evince their solidarity with Black liberation struggles. Since 2014, hashtags and movements like #SouthAsiansForBlackLives and #YellowPerilforBlackPower have built social media followings of hundreds of thousands of people looking for guidance on how to be better accomplices. 

Reflecting on my experiences as a South Asian (Indian) person pursuing learning and work on the horizon of abolition, there are lessons to be gleaned from this moment. Fundamentally, South Asians in the U.S. must orient towards the dismantling of police, prisons, and other systems of entrapment and punishment as part of an anti-racist politic. While not calling the police is a great start, South Asians, particularly those in positions of caste, class, and religious privilege, can be better accomplices to all marginalized communities by challenging the networks of power, money, weapons, and training between rising fascist governments in India and the U.S., as well as Israel and the U.K., that lead to the murders of Black, Dalit, and Indigenous people here and beyond.

In relation to my positionality as a Savarna Indian diasporic abolitionist living and organizing in the U.S., I see three areas of critical work, storytelling, and action for South Asian abolitionists in the U.S., particularly those from dominant caste, upwardly mobile backgrounds, to undertake in co-conspiracy with Black and Dalit liberation struggles.  

  1. The need to make transborder connections between movements, and be in solidarity with the most oppressed: victims of U.S. imperialism and global South movements from Kashmir to Hawaii to Palestine and American Samoa.  
  2.  
  3. The need for community self-determination and resources to respond to violence without relying on the state, particularly for caste-oppressed, poor, queer, migrant, disabled, and non-Indian South Asians.
  4.  
  5. The need to recognize and organize against false solutions when they are presented to us, from “representation” and diversity to casteist narratives and reformist solutions. We need solutions that address our issues at the root.

Transborder Connections

My efforts for a jail-free NYC are deeply connected to both a municipalist vision for this city and scaffolded by the learnings of anti-prison movements in South Asia and across the world.

While people outside of the US have vastly different relationships and experiences of policing, transborder solidarity and international abolitionist struggle is critical. Abolition in the US is contingent on liberation everywhere. South Asian abolitionists from all backgrounds, but especially those who are North Indian, dominant caste, cis or straight, need to recognize the interdependency of these struggles and look beyond the U.S., beyond India, where these battles against caste, religious, and racial violence are being waged. 

In the past month, the historic Farmers Protests across India against pro-corporation Farm Bills, have seen intense police violence and the rounding up of political prisoners.  In Nepal, police enacted violence against teachers out past COVID-19 curfew. In Sri Lanka, paramilitary forces and government actors have used “white van squads” to abduct activists, human rights defenders, and other minorities to the extent that it has become a verb and an ongoing embodiment of a twenty-six year civil war that supposedly ended in 2009. Journalists in Sri Lanka have written about the “corrupt and tyrannical” nature of the state-enabled police structure and called for demilitarization as well as an end to the profiling of Muslim and Tamil people. In Pakistan, the first Afro-Sheedi parliamentarian Tanzeela Qambrani pushed for a resolution in Pakistani Parliament condemning the murder of George Floyd and expressed the oppression people of African descent face around the world. Pakistan itself has its own legacy of custodial deaths (a term used to describe the death of those in police custody) and “thana” culture, used to describe corruption and abuse endemic to the Pakistani law enforcement system.

Rather than imposing our understandings of the prison industrial complex on those in other places, the first critical aspect of a South Asian diasporic approach to abolition can begin with solidarity towards communities undertaking their own uprisings against casteist, extractive, and anti-Black systems.  Rather than exercising our carceral imaginations, our communities can engage in a politics of refusal and of militant solidarity by refusing to work with police at their houses of faith; refusing the distilling of the South Asian immigrant experiences as to one predicated on H1B visas; refusing the inclusion of our work in carceral technologies

Most recently, thousands of people in India, led by Dalit women, protested the brutal gang rape and forced cremation of a young woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh India. Police conducted the forced cremation and refused to provide information, protecting the dominant caste abusers of the case. Dalit communities have widely decried the impunity of Indian police as purveyors of caste apartheid. The Southall Black Sisters, who organized in the UK to demand freedom for Zoora, a Pakistani survivor of patriarchal violence, offer a model for what transformative global solidarity has looked like. Or more recently, Ceyenne Doroshow, a Black trans activist worked with Guyanese trans activist Twinkle Paul to provide COVID-19 rent assistance for trans sex workers in Guyana and Suriname.  

Indian Americans in the U.S. have a responsibility to recognize the insidious collaboration between Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both of whom have made Islamophobic policies the cornerstone of their policies. Modi, overseeing the construction of some of the largest detention centers in Indian history and the widely condemned genocidal Citizenship Amendment Bill, has also ushered in a new era of Indian violence in Kashmir. Through the work of organizations like the Dalit Solidarity Network, dominant caste Indian Hindus can recognize the networks of caste privilege that allowed their families to migrate to the U.S. Instead of reifying toxic and anti-Black “model minority” archetypes, we can understand these tropes to be what they truly are: a means of obscuring historic and ongoing systemic violence.

Community Self-Determination

On an even more intimate level, this transborder understanding forms the basis of true transformative justice frameworks within South Asian spaces. To organize and create alongside Dalit, Tamil, Pakistani, disabled, poor, queer people, I must be in solidarity with them. A South Asian American transborder struggle for abolition will seek and celebrate anti-imperialist, pro-indigenous, and pro-Black, solidarities. Rather than idolizing figures like Gandhi, who was actively anti-Black and casteist, we can unlearn Brahmanical supremacy and do community education to uplift leaders like Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Savitribai Phule. We can challenge the occupation of Palestine and Kashmir in the same breath, knowing that India and Israel increasingly share an autocratic playbook. 

South Asians, particularly Bangladeshi, Indo-Caribbean, Nepali, and Dalit women have spent decades protesting and addressing intimate partner violence. They have also created robust intergenerational struggles to fight for domestic worker rights and anti-war movements against the War on Terror and Muslim surveillance in our communities. But we’re held back by a malignant combination of Savarna and carceral feminisms that fail to make inter-caste and intra-racial analyses around survivorship and abuse. 

Like many Indians, I grew up in a home with intimate partner violence and abuse. This was one of the first instances in which I could observe the impacts of patriarchal violence and the need to develop transformative justice skills to address those impacts. Moreover, in that environment, I recognized how disability, caste, and class all worked together to prevent people from finding ways to leave harmful situations, particularly without tools, and with the isolation enforced by punitive systems that don’t address the root causes of violence. Sharmin and I discuss this further in the second part of this series, focusing on how anti-violence solutions for South Asian women have relied on policing structures. Safety and freedom for South Asian women shouldn’t come with compliance towards murderous systems of police violence and mass criminalization. 

Patriarchal violence is only one example of community harms that require resourcing and skill development for non-carceral solutions to address them, as well as experimentation and education in ways we have yet to try. Bangladeshi and Pakistani Americans and first-generation immigrants are in the poorest percentile of South Asians, driven to the U.S. by economic displacement and climate disasters. In places like New York City and San Francisco, Indian Americans are a key group behind massive gentrification and houselessness, while other South Asian communities face the impacts of these things—a testament to the wide economic and social gap within this arbitrary regional group classification. 

From support for substance abuse to reproductive justice to mental health, free housing, to freedom from occupation and freedom of movement, South Asians must demand self-determination for their communities and for all communities oppressed in the U.S. and its empire. Not just for our own communities and loved ones, but for people incarcerated in detention centers, jails, and psychiatric institutions across the U.S, and with an analysis focused on degrowth, aka the sustainability of our planet and its natural systems. 

Along with interpersonal violence and community harm, we also deal with the structural violence of capitalism and the erasure of our complicated intra-community dynamics by reductive categories like “South Asian” and “Desi.” When referring to skills and community self-determination as part of a South Asian abolitionist practice, I also refer to the need for community awareness about structural power and the willingness to respond to it. A recent example of this was modeled by the community mobilization against Indian dominant caste film director Deepa Mehta, known for internationally acclaimed films like Fire. Her most recent film, produced by Ava Duvernay’s company ARRAY, is based on the book Funny Boy about a queer man in Sri Lanka. Led by Sinthujan Varatharajah, a Tamil activist, people have mobilized against Mehta’s deeply problematic history of working with genocidal regime in Sri Lanka and how, in her work, she reduces the severity of the Tamil genocide. Tamil activists modeled a demand for accountability as well as the powerful work of self-determination.

I think back to what took place while I organized with SADAC—what kind of difference would it have made for us to prioritize relationships, political education, and community accountability? We were a loose formation and we never relied on police, but having the skills to respond to harm would have helped us keep more people safer for longer when they shared space with us. For South Asians in the U.S. to organize towards, and embody, abolitionist movements for Black, Dalit, and Indigenous liberation, our communities must prefigure and develop the tools we need to keep each other safe without systems of punishment, but with accountability and consequences.  We must also be ready to acknowledge and respond to those who perpetuate contradictions, harms, and historically-rooted violence within our communities through strategies like removal, accountability, and reparations for those harmed.

Rejecting False Solutions and Manifesting Solidarities

For Indians in the U.S., and for all South Asians in the diaspora, true solidarity requires South Asians to reckon with the multilayered histories and dynamics of our own communities.

Many South Asian immigrants’ struggles—particularly Indian Americans from caste oppressor backgrounds—have focused on obtaining rights and mainstream acceptance in the U.S., from citizenship to visas to representation in popular culture. In desiring inclusion in the matrix of institutional and ideological policies that make up American civic life, South Asians have allowed—even coveted—their complicity with fundamentally imperialist and carceral state systems. In particular, while Savarna, class privileged, cis and straight South Asians have pursued wins on the basis of “rights,” and political inclusion, undocumented, incarcerated, and climate displaced South Asians have been left to fend for themselves. 

Dominant caste Indians, for example, have fought for H1B visas, a special category of immigration, even as Sri Lankan Tamil organizers have advocated for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Emerging alliances between white supremacist conservatives and South Asian conservatives have supported mass incarceration in the U.S., killed net neutrality, excused violent anti-Muslim pogroms, and chummed it up with Hindu fascists. In some cases, police officers have been invited to partake in Hindu ceremonies by organizations with a record of supporting fascist policies. 

This desire for political incorporation into dominant systems has also looked like so-called political representation from liberal prosecutors like Kamala Harris, who, as California District Attorney, was proudly ”tough on crime,” essentially code for deeply carceral and anti-Black, despite her multiracial identity. It has looked like “Brown Girl Solidarity,” appropriating the concept of ‘Black Girl Magic’ to celebrate any “brown” South Asian woman, no matter their problematic political views, their Brahmanical allegiances, their satisfactory ‘fair’ skin shade—even Islamophobic actresses like Priyanka Chopra who willfully participated in a show that celebrates the FBI, an agency that trained its officers to racially profile Muslims. 

Rather than look to false solutions such as policing and prosecution to address hate incidents, which brings more police into our communities, we can do better and demand more. Groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving, Believers’ Bailout, Justice for Muslims Collective, and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities have worked hard to respond to pro-police narratives within our communities by offering abolitionist spaces and strategies as an intervention into anti-Black systems of control. Other groups have done counter-recruitment to stop the scapegoating of their communities by the police. 

We cannot accept or tolerate the false solutions that try to appeal to superficial identity markers and sell representation rather than social and economic transformation.

Conclusion

A Black and Tamil woman will be the Vice President. A woman whose political history as a prosecutor, whose dual identities, and whose continual endorsement of carceral systems requires us to respond with critical nuance, solidarity, and care for each other. Kamala Harris is a false solution: representation, perhaps, without the kind of major cultural and political transformation we need to end militarism, policing, and capitalist theft. 

We are on the threshold of a historic shift in the political context for abolition. For Savarna Indians like myself, the playbook laid out in this essay is a hopeful one. By rejecting these false solutions, engaging in transborder struggles, and creating, while demanding, necessary anti-violence resources within our communities, we can be activated towards abolition in the US. 

In order to fashion a world without cages, we must reject the gilded ones. We can join in the work of challenging and dismantling systems of police, prisons, and prosecution by joining efforts to close down jails; writing to people who are incarcerated and sharing lessons with them; demanding our communities have control over non-police resources we receive; supporting the calls to free people like Prakash Churaman, a Guyanese man incarcerated since the age of 15, the release of political prisoners in India, and to end caste in the USA.


This is Part One in a two-part series on South Asians for Abolition. Read Part Two, a conversation on diasporic strategies and connections with Mon M. and Sharmin Hossain here.


This essay is published as part of A World Without Cages, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s ongoing project on The Margins that imagines the end of mass incarceration and migrant detention by bringing together the work of writers on the inside and on the outside. This project aims to nurture writers, activists, and intellectuals to dream new worlds beyond punishment, policing, surveillance, segregation, and exclusion. Read more in the project here.