Sikh Book Club – Uncle Swami – Part 1


Co-blogged by Jodha and Mewa.

See introduction here.

In order to give some format to this, I’ll attempt to summarize major points of each chapter and then conclude the post with a bit of my own thoughts, analysis, questions, and/or comments.  Looking forward to your comments and thoughts!  We’ll see how it goes for this first time and can revisit the format, if need be.

Chapter 1 – Letter to Uncle Swami

Professor Vijay Prasad opens his Uncle Swami with a provoking letter to the Uncle.  Uncle Swami may be the same as Uncle Sam or there may be some differences too.  Prasad takes stock of the past 10 years since the “planes crashed into your buildings.”

Written in an anti-imperialist vein, he writes “planes crash; people are smashed.”  The effects of that fateful September day were not limited to New York or Washington, to those nearly 3,000 people that died, or even their families.  No, Prasad writes “your feet stomped on your own ground, crushing Balbir Singh Sodhi and Gurcharanjeet Singh Anand, Imran Tahir and Ahmed Abualeinen.”  Nor were these feet only stomping on “your own ground” – they stomped “far-off Kabul and Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Herat, later Baghdad and Basra.”

But that “obedient servant” knows that Uncle Swami isn’t just stomping feet and whipping tails, he acknowledges “You have been good to me.  You have been good to many of us.”  Still he suffers – “I have heartburn, Uncle.  I will take to drink.  I will take to drugs.  I will take to watching TV, eating fast food, going into debt.”

Contradictions and all – this is Uncle Swami.

Chapter 2 – The Day Our Probation Ended

In the second chapter Prasad winds a historical narrative of South Asian Americans in-between discussions on deportations, and an apolitical middle class.  Muslims are often deported; Sikhs are often killed; and Pradip “Max” Kothohari tries to avoid awkwardness.

But it was not always the same.  While deportation and killings occurred in the early 20th century, when immigrants from South Asia first arrived in California, hoping to go unnoticed or declaring “we are not Muslims” was not seen as the solution.  Vijay Prasad relates one story of a Sikh man in Maryville (Yuba City area) in the 1920s stating:

‘One day a drunk ghora came out of a bar and motioned to me saying, “Come here, slave!”  I said I was no slave man.  He told me that his race ruled India and America, too.  All we were slaves. He came close to me and I hit him and got away fast.”

This pales in comparison to the murders of Pakhar Singh – killing 2 goray in broad daylight, after they attempted to cheat him and called him a “goddamn Hindu.” Pakhar spared a third, only because his 8-month pregnant wife interceded.  I have a feeling that Prasad is unaware of this history.

The Ghadars had a vision and rallied against imperialism.  They saw the link between racism and imperialism, one that Prasad notes is forgotten by far too many contemporary South Asian activists.  Racism may be challenged but imperialism is far too often ignored.

The roots of this amnesia come from the South Asian immigrants themselves.  Recalling the middle class aunties and uncles that were engineers and doctors (those first allowed into the country under LBJ’s “Great Society” in 1965) that he associated with in San Leandro, California, he describes their professional capacity and political apathy.

He notes: “The Middle class seeks convenience, and is loath to turn to politics when it might inconvenience one’s daily life or one’s sense of moral equilibrium.  That’s a universally enforced silence.”

Brought over to staff the Medicare system expanded by LBJ and the Democrats (seems a rather interesting point of note that many of these beneficiary South Asian American physicians now lament the passage of the so-called “Obamacare”), they benefited from the civil rights movements of the preceding generations without actually participating or even appreciating those struggles.

But it was from their children that the “South Asian American” was born.  According to Prasad’s reading, it was at universities that communities divided by region and religion came together to form South Asian Students Associations (SASAs).  Then in 1989, the most energetic SASA organizations came together to create an annual SASA conference.  From this morphed the Network of South Asian Professionals.  It was these same youth that by the 1990s had come to fill staff positions at a host of nonprofit organizations, many committed to civil rights.

Prasad also highlights the contradictions of the supposed successful “model minority.”  While “Indian Americans” reported the highest median household income in the 2000 census ($51,094), still over 25% live with incomes below 25,000 and have some the highest rates of inequality.

Before and After – September 11

The story before September 11 wasn’t all rosy.  When Ramzi Yousef bombed the WTC in 1993, Prasad was nervous of his own safety.  The same was true in 1995 after the bombing in Oklahoma City.  But it was September 11 that brought it home.

Interviewing our own @Brooklynwala, Prasad quotes – “No one in my family talked much about racism when I was growing up, but suddenly it was clear that while many in my Sikh family might not share my anti-oppression leftist politics on paper, they sure as hell knew what it means to be a target.”

It was in this moment that Prasad recalls Deepa Iyer and SAALT’s leadership in calling a unique conference, titled “Desis Organizing” in May 2011 as a seminal moment.  Bringing together AIDS groups, unions, students, journalists, lesbian and gay associations, women’s groups, domestic violence groups, and even our own SMART (Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force – now renamed SALDEF), groups came together to build alliances.  These alliances have been further reinforced and strengthened in the years since 9/11.

While many of these organizations do battle against racism, it is only the most forward-thinking, according to Prasad, that see racism’s connection to American imperialism.  The Ghadars understood this link nearly a century ago.  Prasad calls for others to see it today.

My Thoughts:

Instead of creating a flowing prose, I think it best for me to use bullet points to share some of my own commentary.

  • From the subtitle of the book “South Asians in America Today” – Prasad assumes that this category is viable.  In my experience (and in a previous post, we discussed that this can be due to period and region), it is political coalition, but not a viable category.  Prasad is aware that connections amongst these groups are “not immediate.”  In reading the names of those deported and killed after 9/11- it is Sikh and Muslim names.  I believe political solidarity is important, but we cannot claim to all be threatened in the same way.  Similarly, I think there is something powerful in saying “we are all Trayvon Martin” and stand in solidarity against racism and oppression; however groups of privilege should not “co-opt” true experiences of oppression for some perverse sense of “cred.”  I think differences are important.


  • Tied to the previous point, I actually see the term South Asian becoming less viable in the communities, except as a political tool for coalition-building.  While Prasad highlights the amazing work of various “secular” organizations, such as Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and even New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), in some way his admiration is really for the 100 Imams coalition that grew out of the Muslim Peace Coalition.  Although not a focus, Prasad comments that the older ‘secular’ organizations “continue to operate alongside the recent public confidence of organized Islam (30).”  While my own involvement with the Jakara Movement may also color my impression, but I do find that it is in the so-called “religious” sphere, where you are seeing a turn towards active engagement on issues social and political.  The Sikh Coalition and SALDEF have increased turn towards this sphere, after a focus on only legal issues.  Even in generally assumed “secular” fields that have been celebrated by scholars interested in issues South Asian American – especially the bhangra circuit – recent voices are questioning how open it really is or if the turn towards “authenticity” is also nod towards Punjabi-Sikhs at the expense of other groups.  If we are seeing a “Sikh turn” (which I am suggesting) – although it may not be in a Khalsa form – then where does that leave a “South Asian American” identity? Are they exclusive?


  • Continuing on this track with regards to “South Asian American” identity, is the history that Prasad traces really a history of South Asian Americans?  Or is it better viewed as that of particular communities?  I feel that I use to be more confident of a South Asian-ness than I am today.   While always weary that it is just another name for “Indian” with claims to something larger, I do feel it is politically viable for coalition-building, but for little else.  With growing attendance of youth at Gurdwara through Khalsa/Punjabi schools, gatka classes, and increasing numbers of youth camps (although largely aimed at pre-high school students), where do they interact with other South Asians? Again, this view could be due to my own California-centric-ness that has an overwhelming Sikh majority.


  • Is the “Ghadar” story outlined by Prasad, the Ghadar story?  We know them men were overwhelmingly Punjabi and largely Sikh.  Scholars that once tried to maintain a secular/religious dichotomy have increasingly been challenged as to whether this ahistoric reading should be used to understand the Ghadarites.  Stockton Gurdwara and even the El Centro Gurdwara were central places for organizing.  We can discuss this more in the comments section, if needed.


  • Finally and this is something that Prasad doesn’t really comment on – South Asian Americans have an overwhelming number of lawyer-based organizations.  Other organizations are named – such as a few grassroots organizing groups and a few groups that center their work on issues of domestic violence – but overwhelmingly those involved with the “Desis Organizing” conference are lawyer-based groups.  We see the same in the Sikh community – with the most well-known non-Gurdwara groups all lawyer-based, be they United Sikhs, Sikh Coalition, or SALDEF.  What are the limitations and biases of such a strong focus?  Can activism only be done within the confines of having a “respectable career” (such as being a lawyer)?

I’ll leave it here for now.  Look forward to hearing your thoughts on the chapter or on my comments.


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8 Responses to “Sikh Book Club – Uncle Swami – Part 1”

  1. […] fascinating tale that is rarely discussed is that of Pahkar Singh.  In our new post 9/11 fad to ad nauseam repeat that we are a “peaceful religion,” we tend to […]

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