Sharmin Hossain

An exploration of the Bangladeshi American activism scene provides a glimpse into how the South Asian American political landscape continues to expand and change.

South Asians are one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in the United States. We’re growing as a deeply involved and strategic political base. The Biden administration has appointed dozens of Muslims and South Asians at key positions. The support of Indian-Americans, especially those from dominant caste communities, for the Trump administration has also been well known. While neoliberal and dominant caste networks are pleased with representation, albeit pro-policing and corporate backed representation, there is a new crop of South Asian working class progressive organizers—many of whom are Bangladeshi. Bangladeshis are a growing progressive movement of leaders who are organizing tenant unions, running for office, fighting to cancel rent and evictions, protecting workers’ rights, and demanding progressive policies like a Green New Deal and the Fight for 15.

Over the years, the category of ‘South Asian’ has homogenized South Asian communities, leaving little room to understand the intricacies of religion, caste, socio-economic status and ethnicity. While dominant-caste Indian Americans have gained prominence for joining the Trump bandwagon and offering to raise millions of dollars for Trump’s border walls, Bangladeshis have often been neglected. Nearly half of all Bangladeshis in the United States reside in New York, with a staggering one in three living in poverty. Yet the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United States is among the most progressive in the country.

Bangladeshis are essential workers in major American cities, from New York to Detroit: the cab drivers, restaurant and grocery store workers, construction workers, many of whom are uninsured and undocumented. But they are also deeply engaged and effective organizers, political candidates, and community leaders. Running critical mutual aid networks to Bangladeshi American political organizations, these organizers are re-imagining the political landscape of South Asian America. Theirs is a struggle against climate change, racial capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy and fundamentalism – a critical counterpoint to the rise of a dominant caste and class rightwing Hindu/Indian elite, cheering on the Trump-Modi alliance.

I spoke to frontline Bangladeshi organizers who are building a real progressive South Asian-American base to learn more about the legacies of resistance that inspire them and understand the unique challenges of mobilizing our disenfranchised communities.

Like many organizers of my generation today, my political journey began shortly after 9/11. I was facilitating anti-militarization workshops across New York City high schools to educate young people about the myths of the U.S. military, leading demilitarization efforts at the City University of New York, successfully removing ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) from campuses, and joining anti-war activists against the astounding surveillance technology, police and military budgets in New York City. My mentor, Sasha Ahuja, a queer Indian-American social worker, invited me to a radical South Asian political education camp called East Coast Solidarity Summer. Here, I found a political home to learn about South Asian history and approaches to organizing. My community was fighting to survive in Bush’s America, against the surveillance and entrapment of Muslims; the brutal murders of Black people by the police; and the increasing onslaught of budget cuts, hospital closures, and deteriorating social safety nets. For many organizers that I met through this journey, the struggle has only intensified since, with increasing precarity, marginalization and brazen exploitation suffered by working class South Asian migrant communities across the United States.

Exploited by Caste and Class

Nahar Apa’s (sister) story is a testament to the challenges often faced by working class Bangladeshi migrants to the US. After escaping an abusive relationship with a police officer in Dhaka, she faced further abuse from her dominant caste employers who imprisoned her as a domestic worker. In 1997, Gulnahar Alam founded Worker’s Awaaz and later Andolan in New York, a grassroots worker-led organization to defend the rights of domestic and low wage workers. They sought to bring public attention to cases on the federal violation of state minimum wages, sexual harassment, assault, and imprisonment upon false charges by employers, many of whom were South Asian diplomats and class-privileged immigrants.

“When I came to the United States, Indian, Bahraini, Filipino, and Bangladeshi diplomats and ambassadors made up the majority of the employment networks [for South Asian migrants]. Bangladeshis would come on terms agreed upon before their departure through worker visas, and after their arrival, the terms would change, and they would be paid below minimum wage. Year after year, these workers would need resources and support  to escape [these places of employment]. So it was important for me to speak to the ways workers are pressured and treated by upper middle class employers.”

A fearless organizer, Nahar Apa organized alongside other workers using a diversity of tactics: they protested outside employers’ homes, sued employers to win some of the largest settlements for domestic workers, coordinated working class organizations to get immediate resources and responses to grievances, and forcefully challenged the dominant caste Indian nonprofit industrial complex.

“Nonprofit organizations in New York that serve South Asians are primarily run by Indians, despite Bangladeshis being the largest client base, we are unable to make decisions. Because [Indians] arrived to the United States earlier, and they have higher education levels, they are able to maintain power, and made little room for Bangladeshi organizers. At that time, I didn’t realize that because of my language, because I was Bangladeshi, and because of my position as a survivor, I was going to be used by different social service organizations and disposed of [when I fought for worker justice]. These people [in power] are middle class, and they use people like us — our people couldn’t write legal documents, we couldn’t build infrastructure that other highly educated women could,” explained Nahar apa.

Nahar had similarly scathing criticisms for academics: “A lot of Indian academics and writers use our practical experiences and our cases [for their work], but end up forgetting the importance of actually doing the organizing work and fighting for the wellbeing of workers in the aftermath of publishing. What benefits are our workers getting? Now, when I’m interviewing and working with writers, I ask explicitly: what are our workers getting back? They don’t make space for us, and many of us are struggling for ourselves.”

This is the other side of South Asian America: exploitation at the hands of caste and class domination rife even within communities and organizations professing to fight for emancipation. Working class migrants like Nahar Apa fleeing abusive circumstances find little recourse in countries like the United States where they face significant barriers from language to legal access and poverty. Here, working class networks of support and mutual aid function quite literally as survival networks that are invaluable for access to basic necessities and resources.

Mutual Aid as Survival Networks

Throughout this pandemic that has had devastating effects on South Asian communities, mutual aid efforts have been organized across New York. Mutual aid is a political process where people take responsibility for taking care of each other, and build new social relationships where we’re all responsible for each other. Importantly, the Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens mutual aid networks are all led by Bangladeshi feminists.

An intergenerational organizer, Rima Begum, and co-founder of the Bangladeshi Tenant Union in New York, is currently organizing one of the largest rent strikes led by Bangladeshi tenants who face harassment, shame, lack of adequate heat and repairs, exacerbated under the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bangladeshi Tenants Union has garnered national attention and even the support of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Tenant organizers like Rima have been protesting, hosting political education workshops, and legal clinics weekly during the pandemic.

Although Indian-Americans are the largest South Asian population in the United States, Rima shares that Bangladeshis are the largest client population receiving services at many South Asian justice and welfare organizations. “A lot of the folks who are trying to buy homes (Chhaya runs homebuyer programs for low income New Yorkers to access grants and financial support), attend ESL classes, are Bangladeshi. There are such unique dynamics at play – a Sylheti Muslim immigrant’s experience is radically different than let’s say a Hindu or Buddhist migrant who are often underrepresented in Bangladeshi spaces.” Hindus, who are minorities in Bangladesh, are experiencing ongoing human rights violations, with their homes and temples burned down by state-backed right wing Islamist parties, while tribal communities across regions like Chittagong are facing the brunt of climate change and illegal land grabs by the Bangladeshi military for coal mining factories. Similarly, the partition of Bengal and the greater South Asian subcontinent had unique implications for each of these populations – caste-oppressed communities in areas like Mirpur, Dhaka were pushed into refugee camps, while millions of landless migrant workers were forced to migrate to UAE, Europe, and North America.

When I asked Thahitun Mariam, founder of the Bronx Mutual Aid Network about the legacy of her work, she pointed to Bangladeshi cultural and traditional heritage as one inspiration: “There are systems of community care that are built into the fabric of our culture. Our (Bangladeshi) family structures function as mutual aid networks. Wealth redistribution is thinking and acting from the point of [view that]: there are people who need their education, medical bills and funerals to be funded, so we must mobilize folks to organize, especially those with more wealth and access. It’s a struggle to preserve human dignity in the work we do, and offers a decentralized understanding of power…”

Queens and Bronx Mutual Aid Networks

“Representation and identity politics is not a win for us, if we do not gain wins for the people.”

These mutual aid organizers are also founders of Bangladeshi Americans for Political Progress, engaging Bangladeshis in the political process on a wide range of issues, from participatory budgeting, voter education, census participation, to tenant rights. “Representation and identity politics is not a win for us, if we do not gain wins for the people. It’s important to have these questions around accountability within our community, and organize across immigrant communities to build stronger networks of politically engaged bases.”

It is important to note that these models for organizing were not considered coincidental by all the Bangladeshi base builders I spoke to, primarily because of the class and gender position of Bangladeshi Americans. They roundly emphasized the role that co-liberation, anti-oppression and socialism plays within our community, and how the Bangladeshi Liberation struggle shaped their understanding of the role of organizing. On Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary this year, a dozen Bangladeshi writers joined the Asian American Writers Workshop to reflect on Bangladesh’s unfinished revolution. Many spoke about the conditions of mass unemployment, food insecurity and lack of adequate resources from our government, as the reason why their commitment to a systems change framework was necessary to address socio-economic inequity.

Building Solidarity: Power and Safety in Interdependence

These values are all what I see embodied at Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a New York-based South Asian working class organization fighting for the rights of undocumented, low wage workers and families. DRUM’s leadership consists of working class South Asians from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Indo-Caribbean communities, who are working to get funding for New York’s excluded workers, and building programs like the Power and Safety campaign, that forges a groundbreaking framework to educate, agitate and organize in an era where our communities are left to fend for themselves. By practicing language justice and coordinating monthly membership meetings, DRUM’s theory of change is rooted in transformational solidarity — building power and safety through interdependence and deep base building. For DRUM, language justice is a key component of building stronger communities — through providing deliberate translation and engagement strategies in Bangla, Nepali, Urdu and other languages, DRUM is able to build strong bases with communities that are often left out of the political arena.

Kazi Fouzia, DRUM’s Director of Organizing, joined me on a panel last year about the significance of South Asian intergenerational organizing towards abolition, speaking about the ways anti-Black racism and classism create the urgent conditions to fight to change our community internally, debating online and offline especially with male leaders, and problematizing patterns of oppression. Kazi shares: “Organizing protects us. We struggle and do the internal work within our membership on caste, class and anti-Blackness, we fight within our community, and also build multi-racial solidarity with other communities to fight back on white supremacist, capitalist, nationalist society.”

In Brooklyn, Shahana Hanif is one of the first Bangladeshi Muslim women to run for City Council, and her policy platform stresses the importance of intersectionality and disability justice. Raised in Kensington, Brooklyn’s Bangladeshi enclave, Shahana emphasizes the importance of organizing with taxi drivers and rideshare drivers for better protections, and creating an undocumented workers’ “Bill of Rights”.

“Through local organizing, national networks, and experimenting with deep base building models, these Bangladeshis are defining another South Asian America.”

In Detroit, Namira Islam Anani has co-founded the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, bringing forth a powerful framework to address anti-Black racism and racial justice within the wider Muslim community. “There’s this default narrative that privileged South Asians are against interracial marriage, but that wasn’t true for me, and I felt that these stories flatten our differences so often. When a Yemeni brother asked for a breakdown of MuslimARC’s South Asian members, we had a lot more Bangladeshis involved in the work than we did Indians or Pakistanis. What happened to my family as a result of the Bangladeshi Liberation War has shaped my understanding of revolution, and that impacted how I showed up to MuslimARC. Those differences are important to name. My earliest memories were the black and white videos of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman refusing to speak Urdu on national television, so there’s already this understanding that agitation is good, movement building is good. These things were things to emulate, and they will make our communities better.”

For over eight years, MuslimARC has been delivering education on internalized, interpersonal, and institutional racism, to address social disparities and increase access across urban development, immigrant rights, economic justice, environmental racism, food justice and addressing the criminalization of people of colour.

From helping run Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s campaign to lawyers fighting for labor rights, Bangladeshi feminists are re-shaping the cultural landscape and political culture of South Asian America. Through local organizing, national networks, and experimenting with deep base building models, these Bangladeshis are defining another South Asian America.

Sharmin Hossain is a Bangladeshi Muslim organizer, artist and Queens nationalist. She is formerly the Political Director of Equality Labs, founder of the Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project and co-founder of Naree O Shonghothok, the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @sharminultra

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