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South Asians for Abolition: Diasporic Strategies and Conversations

In Part Two of a discussion on South Asian diasporic organizing in the movement for abolition, Mon M. and Sharmin Hossain reflect on their histories and positionalities as South Asian abolitionists.

In Part Two of a discussion on South Asian diasporic organizing in the movement for abolition, Mon M. and Sharmin Hossain reflect on their histories and positionalities as South Asian abolitionists. From the fractured history of South Asian immigration to the U.S. to the reformist threads within South Asian anti-violence organizing, the authors discuss what kind of lessons and strategies are best deployed by South Asian communities in the U.S. as they stand in solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and Dalit people working to end the white supremacist, colonial, and capitalist logics of incarceration and policing. Read Part One, an essay by Mon M. on organizing beyond gilded cages, here.


Mon M.: I really admire all the organizing you’ve done in New York and within South Asian communities around the world. I feel that this conversation is a really pertinent one to what I’ve written in the first section of this piece for A World Without Cages because I feel like your experiences reflect of some of the things I’m trying to say around how people—particularly people of privileged positionalities, so class privilege, caste privilege, cis, able-bodied people—can organize against policing, against jails in the U.S. as part of the South Asian diaspora, or even as first-generation immigrants. 

Sharmin Hossain: Yeah, thank you. South Asian Muslims don’t often get to reflect on our role and our unique histories around abolition, specifically because the history of abolition is deeply seeded in Black history in the United States. Black Muslims played such a major role in the Civil Rights movement, out of some of the first enslaved folks that were brought here, scholars estimate that 30 percent of them were Muslim. The resistance that we’re seeing from these communities at the margins of the margins are pieces that I’ve always been interested in, because as a Bangladeshi queer Muslim, I feel at the margins of the South Asian community, and the Muslim community. I’m excited to be able to tease out those ideas because we both aren’t necessarily scholars or academics, and it’ll be fun to talk through some of the things that we see as organizers be pertinent to how we do movement.

MM: Definitely.

In the first part of this two-part series, I say that there are three things that should formulate a base to a South Asian approach to abolition in the United States, and not worldwide. The first being the need to make transparent connections between movements and be in solidarity with the most oppressed from victims of U.S. imperialism and Global South movements; the second being the need for community self-determination and resources to respond to violence without relying on the state; and the third being the need to recognize and organize against false solutions when they’re presented to us, especially from “representation and diversity” to casteist narratives and reformist solutions. 

In talking to you, I want to jump into each of these and get into the tensions that exist in these spaces when it comes to organizing against police or when it comes to gender-based violence. 

SH: Yeah, I love the three critical points that weave together internationalism and how local movements need to be able to have abolitionist approaches in the ways we look at addressing, let’s say the military industrial complex, the ways in which our communities are facing an assault on immigration, and even connecting it to broader ecosystems of climate change.  

Because of South Asia’s unique history of caste apartheid and Islamophobic violence, a large majority of the most visible Indian people that were migrating here [from home] benefitted from their caste privilege and came here to settle in places like Boston and Texas, where we’re seeing a large population of dominant-caste Indian Americans. These networks are crucial to interrogate, but the hegemony of Indian Americans means other South Asian American experiences become invisibilized. 

Take the example of the unique experience of Pakistanis after 9/11 for example, where thousands were registered within the NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration Sytem), a surveillance program that racially profiled Muslims from a certain age group from Muslim majority countries to register to be surveilled by the Department of Homeland Security. They were manipulated by the state to self-opt into this registration system, and consequently, thousands were deported, surveilled, or chose to self-deport as a result of harassment by the state. 

Source:  Julie Strupp for DCist

That experience did not happen to dominant-caste Indian networks. Actually, dominant-caste Indian networks were flourishing in the IT sphere. Like FCC chair Ajit Pai, right? They were able to secure positions and make room for themselves at the table, while we got thrown under the bus. These types of histories are unique to the ways that we see caste and Islamophobia play out in our communities. Even the model minority myth, for example, which became a really popular way of looking at our community, didn’t allow us to look at the disaggregated numbers of undocumented day laborers, asylum seekers, and the folks that are surveilled and targeted and not benefitting from the “American dream.” 

MM: That’s a great example because it’s connected to all three of those points: inter-community violence that isn’t being addressed, state surveillance on an international scale perpetuated through these dynamics, and false solutions. One-sided representation such as Ajit Pai is not going to be liberating for anyone, particularly as his aim in office has been to undermine access to information.

I also appreciate the grounding in a New York City context, because the NYPD was definitely empowered by NSEERS. My primary experience organizing in New York City has been the fight around closing Rikers without building four new jails. Jail expansion was presented as a false solution to major problems like houselessness and poverty. Ultimately, it will be Black and immigrant people who are sent to those jails.

SH:  Progressive ideas becoming convoluted through reforms is rooted in the history of South Asian migration and how people come to be in this country. In the early 20th century, we saw cases like Bhagat Singh Thind who argued in 1923 that because he was Brahmin and of Aryan descent, that he was closer to Caucasians and therefore deserving of citizenship. He used his relationship to whiteness as a way to argue that, although there was a ban on foreign-born immigrants getting citizenship, that Aryan descendants, Brahmins were actually united with Caucasians and their white supremacist project. 

Source: Bengali Harlem, Caption: “small groups of Muslim peddlers arrived at Ellis Island every summer”

Around the same time in the 1910s and 1920s, archivists uncovered the stories of over 1,000 Bengali Muslim peddlers jumping ship, migrating, and integrating into communities in New Orleans and across the East Coast. These Bengali Muslim peddlers, who came right before the passage of the xenophobic Immigration Act of 1917, actually had similar experiences to what Muslims across the United States right now are fighting for: they were surveilled, living in tenement housing, undocumented, and had low-paying jobs without insurance and benefits. They had radically different experiences than the Bhagat Singh Thinds or the MIT grads of the South Asian community. So, these communities were also differently positioned within the American imperial project as far back as the beginning of the 1900s. 

This history really puts us in a place to examine which South Asians aided and benefitted from white supremacy, and which South Asians were consequently thrown under the bus by these same administrations and these same state-sponsored policies? 

MM: Agreed. The way that South Asians came here—the history of Bengali Muslims, the history of Bhagat Singh Thind—reminds us that there are narratives within the narratives that have been mainstreamed by dominant caste, namely professional class immigrant communities assimilating into the U.S. I think those dynamics have mutated into contemporary realities, where many South Asians, especially North Indians, are propelled by a desire for supremacy and placement in the hierarchy, rather than one that understands, “we have all been oppressed and now we need to act against oppression.” At the same time, the histories of Bengali Muslim, Dalit, Guyanese, Trinidadian, Nepali, and so many other communities are that of resistance and struggle. 

I’m returning to the need for solidarity as a critical practice, which is something Thenmozhi Soundararajan has written about, but that I—and other Savarna folks organizing in the US —have to embody perpetually. I think many, many people fighting for liberation have talked about this—but, solidarity really does form the basis of an abolitionist approach among South Asian diasporic communities, not just with Black and Indigenous communities, but within our expansive community as well. 

SH: Yes, and I think we need to center our analysis in communities that have actually reckoned with the issues that necessitate abolition, whether that is policing, patriarchal violence, or ethnic violence. That allows us to have frameworks of possibility to address problems at the root. When I’m thinking about policing and abolition in this country, I see that there are so many ways in which South Asian Muslims specifically have contributed to some of the reformist community-led initiatives—such as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) funding—that are perpetuating harm. Back home in Bangladesh and other parts of South Asia, I learned about who fills up the prisons, and you can probably guess—it’s Dalits, Adivasis, and poor landless people. These conversations about the conditions of prisons in South Asia taught me a lot about the different linkages that need to be made about policing worldwide and the criminalization of poverty.  

At the same time, along with building in practices within our spaces and organizations that embody solidarity with each other and with Black, Indigenous folks, we need community and public investment in the tools our communities need. Like language access, or interpretation services—these are critical for our community to survive and respond to violence, for victims to be able to leave home when they’re abused, and for organizations led by working class people to be able to advocate for resources that their communities are paying taxes for. Many South Asians in the U.S., which is who we’re focusing on here, are disabled, elderly, or don’t speak English as a first language. 

The other calculus for how to organize is recognizing the histories of genocide, Partition, trauma, surveillance, and policing that people have also experienced before migrating to the U.S. Because of the political persecution of so many of our people by corrupt political parties—whether it’s the Awami League or Sinhalese nationalists—if you get involved in politics, or have a land dispute with a well connected political leader you’ll literally be murdered in daylight and democratic spaces are dwindling. We are in a terrifying climate—secular writers like Avjit Roy were murdered at Boi Mela (book fair) in Dhaka, and right-wing mobs kill LGBTQ activists with impunity. Recently, activists in Bangladesh have been advocating for abolitionist solutions—after the attack on Holey bakery in Dhaka, they saw an increase of counterterrorism initiatives and surveillance technology deployed, and many of them have been advocating to address the rise of Islamic fundamentalist groups through an anti-surveillance lens. 

MM: I think any organizer anywhere has to be asking: Why do we keep relying on the same solutions when nothing is changing? In your example, in a system where people haven’t received justice without police, and now are looking for better police, better governance under fascism—it makes me want to ask: who are the people in that space? What kind of examples and lessons are being distributed among people? Who is the organizer who shows the ways we can bring in forces into our communities that wouldn’t be militarized, that wouldn’t carry weapons, that wouldn’t be forces of brutality, but would hold these people accountable who would have some level of leverage or accountability or power? 

Because even if community-based models of justice and safety aren’t applicable, people can see and understand the ways in which police have harmed them. Going back to my original three points, however, I agree with you that transnational solidarity can’t be prescriptive, it has to be oriented towards self-determination for everyone. Abolition as a concept isn’t just one vision, but a revolutionary project for communities to free themselves. It’s something that communities have to define for themselves. 

SH: Yeah, one of the things that really stuck out to me was when I was in India and Bangladesh talking to feminists, they were explaining the barriers to different models that they are experimenting with to both hold perpetrators accountable and challenge the systems that they were operating in. Many of them want systemic change and were willing to organize towards incremental change to shift the conditions of their people. 

I look at formations like Gulabi Gang, and I’m like: that is transformative justice! One Dalit feminist was telling me that where she’s from in Haryana, the panchayat, or the village council, makes all decisions for the village, including how water gets distributed, land disputes, and how to solve for different issues within the community. These cis male caste privileged land-owners have historically perpetuated a lot of crimes against caste-oppressed folks in villages, it’s one of the main sites of caste atrocity and apartheid. She was saying that the panchayat system is the main perpetrator of violence, as a “community-led initiative”—where people are making decisions for the whole. Yet, it reflects caste hierarchy and gender disparity. There isn’t necessarily a transformative justice model that is safe enough for them to engage in currently within their community, because in their case, the community leaders are the perpetrators of violence.

She was like, we have this model, and it is actually reifying caste oppression and caste apartheid, so for us, having a government that advocates for the rights of Dalit and Adivasis who are not benefitting from this system of “community engagement,” actually gives protections to fight for the types of changes that we want to see in our communities. 

MM: I think that’s what’s meant by saying abolition or transformative justice aren’t “one size fits all.” Without the strength of community bonds that are committed to annihilating caste, I don’t think there could be a “community based” form of transformative justice. I’ve come to understand that transformative justice is only one model of safety without policing, and has to begin with peeling back the various interlinked oppressions that produced the harm in the first place. Many abolitionists who work on issues around survivors and on responding to gender-based violence have maintained they don’t posit transformative justice as the only solution to violence, but instead that we need to experiment. 

For South Asians, I think that means so many kinds of community defense techniques that we’ve practiced historically already, and at the same time, carceral attitudes have a tenacity. My mother, for example, as a financially disempowered and disabled survivor, hasn’t had any institutional options in India, but she’s modeled a kind of survival and healing that definitely informs my work.

For example, abolition in India would fundamentally mean valuing Dalit lives to the full extent so that they wouldn’t be harmed by dominant caste people, and in so many ways, and that they would always receive the justice they wanted. Caste abolition must happen for there to be police and prison abolition. It would mean undoing my own Savarna fragility. I don’t, and can’t, speak for the type of organizing that would happen in South Asian countries themselves, but what I do know is that there needs to be solidarity in the face of everything I named above, on an international scale. 

Source: Equality Labs

SH: I also spoke with a few South Asian domestic violence (DV) advocates in the US, social workers, and organizations, and they feel like their hands are tied behind their back. They shared, for example, that when they talk to survivors that are urgently trying to escape a perpetrator on a Monday, and they need a safe place to stay on a Tuesday, the police are the only jurisdiction that allow them to feel some sort of vague safety net that will allow them to survive that day. Now, whether or not they are effective is debatable, but I’m alluding to the urgency of the community response networks we need to build in order to get people what they need.

In addition to this, wealthy philanthropists and foundations depoliticize gender-based violence because it allows them to feel like they’re doing a good job by supporting women who are battered, without interrogating the underlying systems of violence that need to be eradicated to truly build safer communities. They support the police because our city budgets support the police. Economic justice work is anti-violence work. Housing for all is anti-violence work. 

The DV orgs I spoke with felt that they don’t even have enough resources to actively provide multilingual services for the wide range of languages that we need in New York, for example. Finding a Bangladeshi social worker that would work at the rates that these DV orgs have when it comes to budget is one of the most difficult realities of the landscape of community services. They’re operating on devastating budgets. A lot of their donors and boards are dominant-caste Indians that are sometimes connected to right-wing networks of complicity, too, so the layers are important to unpack and recognize. 

For some of these DV orgs, they don’t have enough to operate within this climate, let alone think about hosting transformative justice workshops to build community-centered models to approach violence. And that maybe is controversial to say. The other barrier that we have is that within the South Asian community—and I’m sure this is similar across all races—our communities are the ones that isolate survivors, and actively silence survivors. The work of building a community-centered model and a holistic approach to DV within South Asian communities, requires us to build strong relationships with each other. But if you ask any South Asian—our community is so fractured from the traumas of genocide, Partition, caste and gender violence that those relationships will take years of iteration and conflict to grow and transform. 

MM:  We’re trying to critique the systems while holding people responsible for making those decisions. We know that the NYPD doesn’t answer to the City Council. We know that domestic violence and anti-violence programs or organizations have to rely on city funding and it’s so important for you to point out that DV orgs could lose federal or city funding. We saw this in New York this year when NYC Councilmember Corey Johnson cut funding for advocacy groups who fought to defund the police in the summer. 

For me, it’s about the kind of community political education, empowerment, and consciousness-raising that is taking place in order for people to know how to hold the line around abolitionist demands of any institution. It’s not enough for a politician or an organization to say they’ll invest in “anti-violence” or “mental health” resources if they haven’t demonstrated a commitment to disability justice or non-carceral, non-coercive anti-violence resources. Abolition feminism requires that people organize to push these stakeholders to stop seeing policing as a solution.

There are domestic violence and survivor support organizations with massive funding that must be pushed, even shamed, to divest from the police. And at the same time, there are smaller, local organizations that have to be organized and resourced in order to model alternatives to carceral anti-violence strategies. 

SH: Even when it comes to thinking about relationality to imagine another world, our community has so much work to do to show up for each other—from the slut-shaming patriarchy to the ethno-nationalist and bigoted leadership of our mosques and community organizations. We literally do not even love or support survivors. How can we even imagine what transformative justice would look like in the real sense? That’s not to say that there aren’t brilliant survivors who support each other in our community. There definitely are, but I think every survivor would say they want more. We need more.

As our social safety nets are shrinking, it leaves us very little room to imagine what an abundance model looks like, where we have all the money and the resources we need to be able to provide alternatives to our communities. It’s so important for us to take abolition as a value and hold people’s hands as they walk towards it and remember that for many Bangladeshi survivors in New York, they just need to get out of their neighborhood to be able to survive a violent partnership and have a job at the end of this horrible situation that they’re going through. We need to be able to embody some of that fluidity and meeting people where they’re at because instead, we end up isolating the same communities that we actually want to work with and learn from. 

MM: I think that’s a great note to end on. Following the leadership of Black, Indigenous, and Dalit leaders, and recognizing that we all have a shared, interdependent, stake in dismantling the tools of oppression: policing, surveillance, institutionalization, credit, land and wage theft, South Asians can move towards deeper transborder collaboration against carceral systems. From rampant Islamophobia in the US and in our communities, to patriarchal violence against women and trans people, to entrenched and covalent practices of anti-Blackness and anti-Dalitness, we know that being “for Black lives” is about an active support for abolition.


This conversation 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.