Indo-Americans Outraged at Pasand incident  

Source: Mercury News; January 30, 2000


The charges that a Berkeley landlord used three Indian girls for illegal labor and sex have galvanized local Indo-Americans as seldom before, sparking everything from a women's rights protest Saturday to complaints of media overreaction over one man.

The case of Lakireddy Bali Reddy is proving a catalyst for a community grappling with the tension of sharing a common identity despite coming from a country with numerous languages, religions, political groups and economic classes. And the negative publicity -- while painful -- also signals that the community is now large and established enough to warrant attention.

``It's a community that's come into its own politically and socially,'' said Purnima Mankekar, an anthropology professor in Stanford University's Comparative Cultural Studies program. ``I believe that this is a historical moment in which the community is strong enough and self-confident enough (to deal with hard issues).''

Reddy, a wealthy businessman, was arrested Jan. 14 and accused of importing the girls from India for menial labor at his restaurants and apartment complexes. He also is accused of having sex with them.

The investigation was launched after the November carbon monoxide death of one of the girls, which was later ruled an accident. Reddy has denied the charges and is free on $10 million bail.

The case has generated a wide range of reaction from the Bay Area's Indo-American community of more than 65,000.

Some of the most visible response has come from Indo-Americans concerned about possible exploitation in a community often portrayed as wealthy and successful. Hina Shah, staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, says the case is spurring discussion of labor issues and the sexual exploitation of girls.

On Saturday, about 100 members of the South Bay's Indo-American community, representing several organizations, rallied in front of Pasand Indian Cuisine in Santa Clara. The restaurant, which was closed, is one of two owned by Reddy.

A mix of men and women young and old chanted ``We will overcome'' in Hindi and tied white ribbons to their arms in a show of support for victims of labor and sexual exploitation.

The demonstration was intended not only to show support for them, but also to send a message that the South Asian community stands together in its condemnation of Reddy's alleged abuse, organizers said.

``We're creating a presence,'' said Raj Jayader, an event organizer. ``We are showing people there's an activist South Asian group who will be proactive dealing with any issue.''

A second protest Saturday evening in Berkeley drew nearly 200 people at its peak to the Pasand Madras Indian Cuisine, the other restaurant owned by Reddy. The protesters gathered in front of the closed-down restaurant, two blocks from the University of California campus on Shattuck Avenue near Bancroft, for a candlelight vigil.

Carrying signs that read, ``Put an End to Trafficking of Women and Girls,'' and ``Keep Lakireddy Behind Bars,'' the crowd listened to songs, poems and speeches calling for legal immunity for any women brought illegally to the United States for the purpose of forced labor or sexual exploitation.

Around the Bay Area, some Indo-Americans say they are concerned that the case may promote stereotypes among people who do not understand the diversity within the Indian community. Some South Asian men fear that the Reddy case -- along with a recent shooting at the El Sobrante Sikh temple that killed one man -- may fuel anti-immigrant sentiments and provoke an unwarranted backlash against Indian men.

``It's certainly embarrassing to the community,'' said Raj Baronia, founder and president of Indolink.com, a San Ramon-based Internet forum for South Asians, who added that the media gave the case too much scrutiny. ``Our men are suddenly being seen as the oppressor of the womankind.''

Mayank Chhaya, editor of the India Post weekly based in Fremont, also worries that the Reddy case will affect the reputation of an entire community accustomed to being treated as ``a good citizen.'' He and others emphasize that labor and sexual exploitation is not endemic to the community. The case is an anomaly, they say, and the allegations -- if true -- will reflect only on Reddy.

The case is particularly sensitive because Indo-Americans are more used to being portrayed as hard-working, successful and affluent. Indo-Americans cover the range from old immigrants with deep roots in California's railroad and agricultural industries to newcomers who are helping to drive the high-tech success of Silicon Valley.

``Usually the stories that come out about Indians are positive,'' said Minu Mathur, a sociology professor at Cal State-Hayward. ``This is among the first negative. Some people are upset that something so negative has hit the front page of the papers.''

Silicon Valley engineer Aruna Victor reflects the general ambivalence about the Reddy investigation, which she said has been both positive and negative for her community.

``If it will stir the Indian community into action to prevent this from happening again, a little good would have been done -- but at too high a cost,'' she said.