South Asians in the 2008 elections

How have South Asians been getting involved in the 2008 elections? How have the ways that South Asians been involved in the civic and political process changed or evolved? What kind of voter turnout can we expect from the South Asian community on Election Day? What’s at stake for South Asians in this election?

Hear the answers to these questions and more in “South Asians in the 2008 elections,” SAALT’s pre-election webinar. We were joined by Vijay Prashad (Trinity College Professor of International Studies and the author of Karma of Brown Folk among other works), Karthick Ramakrishnan (one of the main collaborators in the National Asian American Survey), Seema Agnani (Executive Director of Chhaya CDC, a community development nonprofit based in Queens, New York), Ali Najmi (Co-founder of Desis Vote in New York) and Aparna Sharma and Tina Bhaga Yokota (Members of South Asian Progressive Action Collective in Chicago). The full video of the webinar is here<>. Stay tuned for SAALT’s post-election webinar, during which guests will dissect the election results, report the findings of multilingual exit polling and look forward to the transition to the new Adminstration and Congress.

History Repeating Itself: Xenophobia in Political Discourse

With merely one week until Election Day, it seems like candidate stump speeches, pundit commentary, and the volley of talking points from all sides are everywhere you turn. And if you’re anything like me, you’re transfixed to cable news and media analysis about what’s been happening on the campaign trail.

Here at SAALT, we’ve been keeping a special eye on what’s being said in this highly-charged political atmosphere particularly as it relates to the South Asian community. In recent years, we’ve unfortunately witnessed a spate of xenophobic comments being made against our community within political discourse. Such rhetoric has emerged in various forms, including challenging the loyalty of those who are or perceived to be Muslim. Sadly, this hearkens back to the sentiments and actions that led to bias and discrimination against South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, and Arab communities in the aftermath of 9/11 and raise concerns about the overall environment leading up to election. We encourage the community to remain vigilant about such rhetoric.

Be sure to check out SAALT’s three-part toolkit on xenophobia in political discourse, which includes comments made by political figures against the South Asian community, remarks made against South Asian candidates for political office, and tips on how community members can respond to such rhetoric, which have been featured by UC Davis Law Professor Bill O. Hing over at ImmigrationProfBlog.

Do you know your rights on Election Day?

Are you required to show your ID to vote?

What do you do if you need help translating the voting materials?

Want to know what the answers to these questions are? Then read “
Elections ’08: Know Your Rights on Election Day“! This new SAALT resource outlines what voters can expect at the polls like what poll workers allowed to ask for and what provisions protect your vote. Check it out along with all the other SAALT Elections ’08 resources at

One “Be the Change” Volunteer’s Experience Registering Voters in NY

Read this post from Parth Savla, Be the Change Volunteer in New York City:

On Oct 4, I had the pleasure of participating in SAALT’s Be The Change event by volunteering with Chhaya CDC, located in Queens, NY on their Voter Registration drive.  It was a great a experience street canvassing – going up to South Asians and asking them to register to vote.  I was really surprised by how many people were compelled to vote for the first time in their lives.  In addition to spreading the word about the importance of voting, we were also educating people on the public advocacy work that Chhaya does – providing everything from legal services to grassroots community development.

Supporting the voter registration, I believe, impacted the community on a variety of levels.  It enabled those who want to make a difference but don’t know where to go, by providing them access to do so.  Deep down, everyone wants to make a difference and support each other, but are often stifled by a lack of knowledge in how to do so.  By being out there, it provided greater accessibility to folks while helping them realize that they have champions standing for them. 

Street canvassing, I recall fighting my reservations about going up to one passerby and saying:

“Uncle, have you registered to vote for this year’s election?”


“No, I have never voted.  Why would it matter?  I’m only one person” he replied in his broken accent.

“Do you have children, uncle?  Are they in school or looking for a good paying job or looking to get a loan for a house?”


“Uncle, voting in this year’s election will enable you to vote for the policies that will not only affect their ability to do those things, but also to safeguard your retirement.  I can understand that you haven’t voted before, neither had my parents before this year,” I said empathetically.

“Oh, I didn’t know it made that much of a difference,” he said as he filled out the voter registration form.  Once he was done, he took a few more forms to take back to his family.

        “Thank you young man.”

By seeing you make a difference, they also get inspired to make a difference!  

I wanted to participate in “Be the Change” this year because of seeing the difference that SAALT had made in our collaborative efforts during our YJA (Young Jains of America – Convention this past July 4th weekend, and being inspired by the public advocacy work they’ve done for the South Asian community.  For SAALT’s “Be the Change” efforts this year, they’ve been able to mobilize thousands of volunteers nationwide to support countless projects for the community.  That’s a pretty incredible feat!I was particularly inspired about their Voter Registration drive, because this the most important presidential election of our lifetime.  There are many things at stake from our economy – being able to get loans for college, to getting a good job when entering into the job market – to education, to retirement benefits for our parents.  Being a South Asian American, it was a great opportunity to speak to elders in our community about the importance of voting in this year’s election and enabling their voices to be heard.

I knew that being part this event would not only enable me to make a difference but also meet cool people who shared a similar goal to make a difference.  While one person can make a impact, many people who share a collective voice and vision can make an exponential impact!

Over 2,000 people volunteer for Be the Change on October 4th!

On Saturday, October 4, 2008- over 2,000 volunteers from around the country participated in SAALT’s annual day of service, Be the Change. As the National Be the Change Coordinator, it was exciting to see many individuals from cities and campuses around the country involved in this great cause- volunteers from over 40 cities and campuses participated nationwide! Atlanta, Boston, Bay Area, Washington D.C., New York, Philadelphia, University of Central Florida, Texas A&M University- College Station and more joined in on this effort!

For the past 5 months, individuals around the country volunteered their time to plan and implement this event in their city or campus. These individuals are a testament to the change occurring in the country and their role in Be the Change truly exemplified Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of ‘be the change you wish to see in the world”. Of course, we can’t forget the wonderful volunteers who came out on a Saturday morning because of their belief in the importance of making a difference and changing their community.

This year, Be the Change volunteers participated in activities such as revitalizing local parks in East Brunswick, New Jersey; packaging books for prisoners in Washington, DC; restoring the bay in San Francisco; and working with mentally and physically disabled children in New York and much more.

I would like to challenge everyone to let Be the Change be the first step. I challenge you to let this not be a day of service but a life of service– whether it be at your campus or university, in your workplace, with your friends or family, by volunteering or by creating your own organization- I challenge all of you to carry on this principle of being the change wherever you go and in whatever you do. I hope to see you ‘being the change’ for many years to come!

-Ramya Punnoose, National Coordinator of Be the Change ’08

October 11th (National Coming Out Day) Street Procession in Artesia, CA

Read this guest blog from Rashmi Choksey, member of Satrang, a social, cultural and support organization that provides a safe space to empower and advocate for the rights of the South Asian LGBTIQQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex, Queer and Questioning) community in Southern California. Satrang and the South Asian Network, a grassroots, community based organization dedicated to advancing the health, empowerment and solidarity of persons of South Asian origin in Southern California, worked together to organize a Street Procession in Artesia, CA on October 11th to commemorate National Coming Out Day.

The afternoon started out with creating a fun atmosphere, making posters and eating samosas…even dancing to old classic Bollywood movie music…all in South Asian Network’s (SAN) office.

Dressed in desi outfits, more than 20 Satrang members (compared to 7 last year), along with SAN staff and volunteers, and allies/partners, gathered in the parking lot with our banners and posters with Salman leading the out and loud chants on the bullhorn – “We’re Here, We’re Queer, We’re Out on Pioneer!”, “Jeeyo Aur Jeene Do”, “No on Prop 8” (aka No on Prop Hate) and many others.

After the procession and slogan chanting was done for the evening, we all headed to Bombay Sweets and Snacks for some delicious food…we took all their tables and consumed our Bombay burgers and falooda.

After all that was done people went off home or to other destinations…carrying the feeling of having accomplished what we went out there to do…be visible and create awareness.

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Read Sandip Roy’s article about “The Two Faces of America’s Economic Collapse”

Many people have read about the sad story of the Rajaram family in California. New American Media’s Sandip Roy presents an interesting dissection of the pressing economic issues and how they are affecting our community in different ways. We feel that it is important that our community is represented for all of its diversity and that no story goes unheard.

The Two Faces of America’s Economic Collapse

New America Media, Commentary, Sandip Roy, Posted: Oct 08, 2008

Editor’s Note: Karthik Rajaram, the unemployed father and husband who recently killed his three sons, wife, and mother-in-law before turning the gun on himself, has much in common with another Indian American, Neel Kashkari, who has been selected to head the Treasury’s new Office of Financial Stability. When banks go bust, the American dream implodes — not just in NASDAQ indexes, but also in tidy suburbs and quiet, gated communities, writes NAM editor Sandip Roy.

Neel Kashkari, 35, MBA. Job Experience – Goldman Sachs, TRW, U.S. Treasury.

Karthik Rajaram, 45, MBA, Job Experience – PriceWaterhouseCoopers, NanoUniverse, Azur Partners LLC.

In another life they could have known each other, traded business cards. Successful professionals with all the trappings of the model minority. The kinds that can own a home in a gated community with a Lexus SUV in the driveway. Indian-American median family income rose from $87,484 in 2006 to $92,925 in 2007. Kashkari and Rajaram should have been examples of those statistics.

But instead they have become the two faces of America’s economic collapse – the two horsemen of our apocalypse.

Kashkari is the $700 billion man – the knight on the white horse heading the rescue of collapsing corporations. Except it was too late for Rajaram.

Rajaram, unemployed, his savings wiped out in the market collapse killed his three sons, wife, and mother-in-law before turning the gun on himself in a 2,800 square foot house in an upscale California

Two days ago no one knew either of them. And we still know very little about either. The South Asian Journalists Association posted two items about Kashkari. It wasn’t much information but SAJA had its biggest day of web traffic. Soon I imagine Kashkari will be on the cover of every Indian American magazine. Already the Indian media is scouring his grandfather’s rundown neighborhood asking the befuddled residents – “Do you remember the Kashkaris?”

When Rajaram wiped out his family, the media didn’t even know if he was an Indian citizen or not. His mother-in-law, we are told, was an Indian national. His children were named after Indian warriors and gods. But soon we will find out the neighborhood in India where his roots are. Soon the media will be asking some old man standing on his porch – “Do you remember the Rajarams?”

I hope we will remember the Rajarams. I hope we will remember that the same pride that allows us to celebrate the Kashkaris and anoint them “Indian American of the Year” in glittering ceremonies in New York hotels also keeps the Rajarams of the community from seeking help, from talking about their financial meltdown and its mental toll.

Did Subasri Rajaram know her husband was spiraling into a desperate blind alley? Did she reach out to anyone? Friends, counseling services, domestic violence organizations. I don’t know. They seemed okay, said an Indian friend who had seen them at a party a few days ago. But then, she added, Indians don’t like to talk about their financial problems.

We would rather save face. And Karthik Rajaram no doubt thought that his family was better off dead than losing face as the sons of a failure. Even in death we read the honor roll of his family. One son
was an honors student. Another was a Fulbright scholar.

Obviously Karthik Rajaram had his own mental problems. A business associate has called him emotionally unstable. But if we are to embrace Neel Kashkari as our own, we should think twice before turning our faces away from Karthik Rajaram because he’s a “bad apple.” When SAJA posted the news about Rajaram’s death, SAJA founder Sree Sreenivasan noted, “Every time we write about a crime
in the U.S. involving South Asians, we get criticism from some on our mailing lists.” No one, he added, complained about news items about the ascent of Indian American CEOs.

I hope as Kashkari tries to bring financial stability to the country, he will remember Karthik Rajaram. When banks go bust, the American dream implodes — not just in annual reports and NASDAQ indexes, but also in tidy suburbs and quiet, gated communities.

The only clue it leaves of how an American dream turned into an American nightmare – an unread newspaper lying in the driveway.

Barack Obama and John McCain stood in a townhall on Tuesday night and squabbled over the economy and the middle class and vied with each other to feel the pain of the economic collapse. And they talked about the American dream.

But neither brought up Karthik Rajaram. Or Neel Kashkari. American nightmare and American dream – in a strange twisted way they will be forever linked together.

You toss a coin into the air and you never know how it will land.

Sometimes it lands Neel Kashkari. Sometimes it’s Karthik Rajaram.

Have you seen “Raising Our Voices”?

In January 2001, SAALT began work on a 26-minute documentary entitled “Raising Our Voices: South Asian Americans Address Hate.” Produced by Omusha Communications and guided by SAALT Board members and volunteers, the documentary set out to raise awareness about the increasing hate crimes and bias incidents affecting South Asian communities, especially in the late 1990s. In fact, in 1997 and 1998, South Asians were reporting the highest incidences of bias-motivated crimes in the broader Asian American community.

The documentary features South Asian survivors of hate crimes and their families in Queens, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, as well as organizers, lawyers and community advocates who mobilized the South Asian community and demanded justice.  When the film was completed two weeks before September 11th, 2001, little did we know how the landscape of the South Asian community in the United States would change.  With the alarming increase of hate crimes, bias incidents, and profiling that South Asians, especially those who are Sikh and Muslim, endured in the days and months after 9/11, SAALT re-envisioned the documentary and shot additional footage.

The documentary has been out since 2002, but you may not have seen it in its entirety yet. It has been used in classrooms and townhalls around the country and we encourage you to engage with it, comment on it, and if possible, to share it with friends, family, coworkers and community members.

You can view it here:

Part 1

Part 2 Please email us at with your feedback, reactions, and comments. Feel free to use this documentary in your community, university, or your personal network of colleagues and friends.




Second presidential debate tonight!

With four weeks left till Election Day, the presidential race is heating up! The second of three presidential debates is tonight at 9pm EST, so I hope everyone’s popped their popcorn, read up on their election coverage and generally made their debate preparations, because I think its going to be a good one. This debate is in the “townhall” style where questions are going to be asked either from a pool of undecided voters or by moderator, Tom Brokaw, from questions submitted via the internet. There are some pretty specific rules about the townhall (for instance, people who asked questions will be filmed asking the questions but not reacting) and there is also no follow-up questions or direct questioning between the candidates. Regardless, it promises to be an exciting viewing so I hope everyone tunes in! Check it out on any number of networks and cable stations at 9pm ESt/8pm CST/6pm PST.

If you want to read more, check out a post from the Chicago Sun-Times, here <>

What Do I Need to Bring to the Polls? and Document the Vote!

It’s almost here! Election Day! After a rather long primary season, this election is coming to close in the most exciting way possible. Voter turnout is expected to be quite impressive and if early voting is any indication Americans around the country are excited (and commmitted, with early voting locations in some states having wait times in excess of SIX hours) about having their say this election. So for everyone getting ready to vote on Election Day, make sure that the ID requirements in your state don’t keep you from casting a ballot. Lookup your state’s ID requirement on

Also, while you’re waiting online, document the vote, take pictures or video of how voting looks in your community. If you have any interesting stories to share about first time voters or the excitement in your family or circle of friends about voting, we want to hear about it. Are you voting, getting out the vote, or monitoring at the polls on Election Day? Bring a camera or videocamera with you to document pictures and stories of South Asian voters. Send pictures, video, written reflections, quotes and more to by Wednesday, November 5th at 5PM!

Here’s an interesting PSA I found that really underscores how meaningful the vote is, it may take a couple of hours (so I suggest bringing a book… and maybe a folding chair) but going out and voting remains significant long after Election Day.