A new gangster culture is emerging in certain enclaves of the South Asian diaspora.
Lets first consider the scene in North America.
Mimicking the tough street hustlers among the inner city youth, South Asian American gangs are to be found in Jersey City and Edison, in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, and in Brooklyn's Midwood area, reports Ana Arana in the Village Voice.
The groups adopt symbols and names that define their religion or locality. The Punjabi-by-Nature-Boys used to wear Sikh symbols and hang out in Flushing, Queens. The Medina Boys, named after the Muslim holy city, is made up of Pakistanis who mostly reside in the Jackson Heights area. The Malayalee Hit Squad is named for the Indian area where most of its members' families come from. The 74th Street Boys got their name from the Jackson Heights street lined with Indian and Pakistani bazaars.
According to community activists, the gangs are loosely organized and do not engage in heavy criminal activities as Indo-Canadian gangs do. But they suggest that there are deeper issues of alienation and identity crisis. "They're an American relflection of what's going on," says DJ Rekha, an Indian-American who grew up in Flushing and Long Island. Rekha explains: "They're defining a new sense of self; they're not white, they're not black. They're picked on by everyone. They have conflicts with their parents, who still behave as if they don't belong here."
Until the mid 1990s it was the story of a successful model community. And today’s gang culture, found primarily in the working-class community of cab-drivers, restaurant workers, and service industry employees, is seen as damaging to this reputation of well-mannered, hard-working, high-achieving ethnic group. Which is why few experts in the community are willing to talk openly about youth problems and alienation.
DJ Rekha observes: "The parents want the gangs to go away and want to say they're only poor kids. But [the groups] also include sons of doctors and other professionals. They're only an expression of the difficulties youth are facing. ..It includes second-generation kids who want to belong and are reacting to the idea that Indians and other South Asians are nerds or Gandhi types."
DJ Rekha and others trace the origin of South Asian gangs to the late 1980's and early 1990's, when gangs of white youths beat unsuspecting South Asians and vandalized shops in Jersey City. The so-called Dot Buster Gang attacks opened the eyes of the young South Asian population and led to the creation of consciousness-raising groups in colleges. In the streets, and at the high school level, it led kids to the realization that they would have to fight back so as to not get beaten up in school.
Community activists also say that some of the behavioral problems leading to gang culture are connected to youth's feelings of inadequacy in their new country. “A lot of the kids who join gangs just want to become Americans quickly.”
CBC Network News reporter Natalie Clancy notes, ‘In terms of organized crime, police say the East Indian gangs are small players who get a lot of attention only because they are so brazenly violent.’ She adds, ‘these gangsters get into shootouts on the street regularly, sometimes over nothing more than a dirty look or a love triangle.’
The head of British Columbia’s Integrated Gang Task Force provides a glimpse into the violent world of South Asian Canadian gangs, saying the body count for the last six years alone numbers 60 people.
Supt. John Robin of the Delta police department also said the number of kidnappings linked to the same criminal gangs has doubled since 1999. It is also well known that police have had limited success in solving violent crimes in the close-knit Indo-Canadian gang world.
Consider the following incidents of Indo-Canadian gang-related killings during just six months in 2005:
- Sept. 30, 2005 -- Hardev Singh Sidhu, 27, was found shot to death in a car at 136th Street and Grosvenor Road in Surrey. He is believed to have been involved in the drug trade.
- Aug. 28, 2005 -- Hartinder (Harry) Gill and his girlfriend Lexi Madsen were gunned down at a busy intersection in Abbotsford. Gill was facing an attempted murder charge at the time of his death and was well-known to police. His house was hit by gunfire in July.
- May 13, 2005 -- Surrey resident Dean Mohamed Elshamy, 30, was found slumped in a late-model grey Audi in the parking lot of a Mac's store at 72nd Avenue and Scott Road in Surrey. While Elshamy is Egyptian, the intended target of the hit is believed to have been his buddy, Sandip Singh Duhre, who was uninjured in both the May shooting and a second incident in July 2005.
- May 7, 2005 -- Inderjit Singh Rai, 23, shot to death about 2:30 a.m. in the 9800-block 140th Street in Surrey.
- April 2, 2005 -- Sukh Jawanda, killed on a rural road in Abbotsford. His friend was injured in the shooting.
The profile of Indo-Canadian gangsters varies. Some come from well-off families, while others are from poorer homes.
Indo-Canadian crime groups are known to specialize in the transportation of marijuana, and the smuggling of South Asians into the United States.
In British Columbia, Canada, most of the gang related violence is happening in the South Asian community, according to the Integrated Gang Task Force (IGTF). Their summary report, “Responses to gang violence,” indicates the task force is concentrating on gang activity within South Asian groups “due to (their) high profile and level of violence.”
The task force reports, “The majority of crimes are opportunistic – extortion, kidnapping, drug ‘rips,’ drug smuggling, homicides and violent acts.” And it suggests that the bad boys with the guns still adhere to traditional Sikh values of “image, status, reputation and respect.”
On an Internet chat group, Surrey blogger “Raj” confirms this, saying the guns and gangster attitude are a way to get respect. “I’m all for some arrogant racist white guy getting put in check for making a racist comment to a Desi,” Raj says. “It’s empowering to be a Desi thug, to have these a..holes who look down on us, to fear us. It’s good in a way, for us to unite and look out for each other.”
Research by VIRSA, the Sikh Alliance Against Violence, shows that “gender inequality” and authoritarian parenting may help lead to the creation of gang culture. The studies show “many young boys killed in gang violence were either the only son or the first son in the family,” writes Harbans Singh Kandola, president of VIRSA. “Parents give boys everything they want such as expensive cars, permission to come home late and other special treatment while girls are restricted and treated differently.”
Kandola says there is often poor communication between immigrant parents and their Canadian-raised offspring. “The common complaint of our boys and young girls is that their parents do not listen to them. Some describe their communication with their parents as talking to a brick wall. Children growing in western culture do not take orders, they ask for logical discussion and logical answers rather than decisions being forced on them.”
VIRSA is campaigning for public education programs and early intervention to prevent more young men from joining the gun culture.
Most recently, another Canadian government task force, with input from ten Indo-Canadian professionals, many of them social workers, has called for peacemakers to be sent to gangland "war" zones in an effort to curb the toll of young Indo-Canadian men killed during years of gang-related violence.
The proposed emergency conflict resolution team, to consist of family members, former gang associates and social and religious leaders, would be dispatched to "hot" spots between "warring parties" to try to resolve conflicts in a non-violent manner, the task force suggests.
The bold recommendation was one of many in a wide-ranging, comprehensive report that says misguided family and cultural values are a chief cause of the disputes that have killed more than 100 Indo-Canadian males, almost all in their 20s, during the past 15 years.
While not discounting the role of racism and the marginalizing of Indo-Canadians by mainstream society, the report pinpoints many other causes for the continuing violence, including:
*The absence of emotional security and structure, particularly for boys, in family life. "Boys experience a very unstructured, controlled and forgiving environment. Girls experience a very structured, controlled and unforgiving environment."
*The importance of status, reputation and image in South Asian culture, "fostering the use of violence as a means of saving face, earning respect and deterring further violence."
*The loss of a "moral compass" and the acceptance of unethical means of pursuing and achieving power, money and status by some South Asian people.
*The lack of accurate understanding of religious history and the true meaning of Sikhism, "resulting in misguided perceptions regarding the acceptability of violence."
The main proposal by the task force is the establishment of a broad-based, youth and family integration strategy, funded for its first five years by the federal government, to facilitate, co-ordinate and monitor the community response to youth violence.
The task force also recommends more community counseling, a help line, after-hours school programs aimed at Indo-Canadian youth and a parent education program to help people raise their children in a Canadian context.
"Many South Asian parents believe that 'old ways' of parenting are effective and acceptable," the report said. "In the Canadian context, these ways can contribute to children disconnecting from their home and family environment."
A final recommendation is for a media watchdog to monitor the role of the media in stereotyping Indo-Canadians.
Meanwhile, writing about the Indo-Canadian gang violence, journalist Navin Jagasia observes, “the level of violence in the South Asian community is escalating to disturbing levels, and no one can be certain whether the worst is still to come. But there’s one thing that is certain: few, if any, parents will admit to their child’s involvement, because of the culture’s insistence on maintaining a polished image of family life.
“This attitude has allowed even worse problems to flourish behind the scenes. One such problem has now reached epidemic levels and is the catalyst for much of the violent activity, but it almost never gets addressed because of the public embarrassment it would cause the community. The problem is substance abuse.”
Who are these gangsters? According to Jagasia: “They’re largely East Indian males, approximately aged 18-35, from middle, and even upper-middle class backgrounds. They violently engage one another as a way of settling disputes involving bruised reputations, because someone was “talking shit,” or because of gangland-style battles for turf. Still others attack for no better reason than an unwanted look.”
Jagasia observes that there is a long-held notion among many Desis that binge drinking is a routine part of social life. “For this reason, alcoholism’s effect on violence and our community as a whole has been largely overlooked. Ignoring it has only allowed substance abuse to advance to another level. For example, in today’s generation, cocaine has increased dramatically in popularity, but the community remains in denial, in spite of the public acknowledgement by law enforcement that East Indian gangs are involved in dealing drugs, and often fighting for turf as a result.”
Jagasia concludes by warning: “Violence and substance abuse are serious problems in our society today, though not exclusively the problem of the East Indian community. But there are many cultural obstructions that impair our ability to understand the problems in our community. We must shed our outdated desire to uphold reputation within the community, our prideful nature and our draconian attitudes of retribution and revenge in our eye-for-an-eye culture. Only then can we summon the courage to confess our worst-kept secrets, and admit that we are a community in crisis.”