Youngsters, armed with fierce poetry, seeking to change the world, are just what you’d expect at Berkeley, a California university town at the edge of Silicon Valley, with a reputation for social activism; a hub for protests against the Vietnam War and a prominent site for America’s civil rights movement.

“If they ask you who you are, tell them that your name is Rebel, that your occupation is to wipe out tyranny, that your work is to create tumult,” wrote one such revolutionary poet, a turbaned teenager from rural Punjab called Kartar Singh Sarabha, who sailed to America to study electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, over a hundred years ago.

He went on to join the Ghadar Party, a political outfit comprising Punjabi students and farmers in California, fighting Britain’s occupation of India. On his return home, Sarabha was arrested by the British and hanged in a Lahore prison.

A hundred and nine years after his execution, Sarabha’s poems can still be heard on the streets of Berkeley, recited with great gusto by Anirvan Chatterjee, a Silicon Valley techie who lives in Berkeley.

The performance is part of the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour that Chatterjee and his wife, Barnali Ghosh, a landscape architect, have conducted for over a decade on the streets of Berkeley. Traditionally, guided tours involve pointing at something – a monument, a sign, some sort of marker of the past. But over a century of South Asian activism has left virtually no physical traces on the streets of Berkeley.

Kartar Singh Sarabha. Credit: Cryptoboy295, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“South Asian communities were not forcibly excluded or segregated like other Asian communities. We’re all over the place,” said Ghosh. “There is no distinct vernacular South Asian architecture to mark where we live. So when people move, the places where they lived are hard to trace,” added Chatterjee.

In the absence of anything to point to, the couple use story-telling, street-theatre and poetry to recreate the past.

The couple want to expand an understanding of South Asia beyond Bollywood, Bharatnatyam and samosas. “We are so much more than that. We also come from having defeated the British empire,” said Ghosh.

Midway through the tour, men and women with brown paper bags pulled over their faces, hold banners seeking an end to Emergency in India, a recreation of protests in the 1970s, when Indian students at Berkeley protested Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s attack on democracy. They hid their faces for fear of being recognised and deported back to India.

While passing the Pacific Center, the oldest queer rights centre in the Bay Area, the tour recreates the story of Ali Ishtiaq, a Bangladesh man who, in the mid 1980s, spotted a flyer in the centre’s window which said, “Are you South Asian and gay?” This was the first time he had seen the words gay and South Asian in a sentence. Ishtiaq went on to co-found Trikone, possibly the world’s oldest queer rights organisation.

The tour invokes a story of solidarity at Berkeley High School, where Middle Eastern and South Asian students found themselves at the receiving end of racial slurs and physical attacks after 9/11. These students conducted a series of anti-hate teach-ins that inspired students across races and communities to wear green arm bands as a show of alliance towards those being targeted. The allies would walk to school with classmates who felt unsafe, and have lunch with them at the cafeteria.

The student solidarity initiative was in stark contrast to instances where Sikhs and Hindu distanced themselves from Muslims during this period to shield themselves from anti-Muslim hate.

“Cross-racial, cross-religious solidarity isn’t just moral, it’s also effective,” said Chatterjee. “People who distance themselves from communities under attack do a great disservice to everyone including themselves. Letting people know that you’re not Muslim won’t prevent your child from being called a terrorist at school.”

Divisions in the South Asian community post 9/11 were reminiscent of the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. At the time, Chinese Americans wore lapel badges identifying themselves as Chinese to prevent being mistaken for Japanese.

Ghosh believes in the importance of archiving activism over time and passing on hard won lessons of strength and solidarity through stories. “Our stories are relevant, not only for our own communities, but for other Asians as well,” said Ghosh.

The cultural and legal push back against targeted hate faced by South Asians post 9/11 was relevant in the wake of anti-Asian hate post-Covid-19 as Chinese Americans became a prime target. This was because the disease originated in China.

I am not Chinese was a terrible way for other Asians to protect themselves,” added Chatterjee.

While many of the stories on the walking tour have remained the same over the last 13 years, the nuances change to reflect the political climate, a reminder that history is not a thing of the past, but very much a tool for the survival of a community.

During President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim ban, the tour passed a cafe in Berkeley with the picture of a hijabi woman on its windows, signalling that everyone was welcome there. Well after 9/11, anti-Asian hate remains a disappointingly relevant subject.

For Chatterjee, a second generation Indian-American who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, 9/11 was a pivotal moment, the sort of moment in his life that has a before and after. Chatterjee’s identity as a South Asian and as a progressive American activist were suddenly connected in a meaningful way.

Chatterjee was not new to activism, having grown up in a liberal Bengali family and having been involved in campus activism. However, after 9/11, he went from a relatively safe position of privilege to being the community that was targeted. “All of a sudden, they were now coming for us,” he said.

The walking tour started in 2011, only 10 years after 9/11, when the aftermath of the terror attacks and the war in West Asia were fresh on people’s minds. Many who now attend the tour were born after 9/11, for whom the event does not have any special significance.

The Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour has an intentionally long name, with a little something in it for everyone. Some attend because they are South Asian. Others because they love Berkeley and still others because they enjoy walking. Some join in because they have not seen the words radical and South Asian in the same sentence. This is unsurprising, given that South Asians in America are viewed as a model minority – talented, docile and hardworking, not the sort of people who engage in protests.

Chatterjee and Ghosh themselves fit the model minority trope in their choice of careers – technology and architecture – while simultaneously turning the stereotype on its head. Chatterjee wants South Asians to see that a job in tech and social activism can go hand in hand.

“The model minority trope pushes people to focus on their jobs, stay within the boundaries and never raise their voice,” said Ghosh. “This is why, several generations after moving to the US, South Asians remain the eternal foreigner.”

She and Chatterjee were frustrated by the low participation of South Asians in environmental activism. The walking tour itself has its unexpected origins in the campaign against climate change.

Ghosh, who grew up in India, always felt a part of her heart was left behind in the homeland. “Climate feels like that magical issue where, if you are able to make changes in the belly of the beast, right here in the US, you will see a direct impact in the homeland,” said Ghosh.

The couple calculated their carbon footprint and were shocked to find themselves in the 95th percentile of Americans, largely because of the flights they took. This prompted them to opt for a no-flying year, spent on the road, travelling across Asia and Europe, researching solutions to the climate problem.

On returning home to Berkeley, they resolved not to fly out of the city for vacations. Meeting interesting people and discovering new places are the things people look for in a vacation. “We began looking for these very same things in Berkeley,” said Ghosh. Both loved walking, loved cities, worked in the social justice sphere, and were history buffs. A synthesis of these interests resulted in the walking tour.

Not only was the tour itself inspired by environmental activism, so are some of the stories told on it. At first glance, the life of the teenage revolutionary Kartar Singh Sarabha and his rousing verse seem far removed from climate activism. While Sarabha battled the British, Ghosh likens the scale of the British empire to the enormity of the climate problem. Both saw the plundering of resources by richer countries at the cost of poorer ones.

Sarabha’s story and those of his fellow radical South Asians, are an attempt at making Berkeley feel like home for many immigrants who lack a sense of belonging, and feel rootless in America.

“We want to ground people in their own history here, and show them that our communities have been fighting for social justice for a long time,” said Ghosh. It’s only when people truly fit in do they feel entitled to fight for change in the place they live in and the place they came from.

Anahita Mukherji is an award-winning Indian journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.