Kala Bagai, born in undivided India, arrived in the United States with her husband and three children at the age of 21 in September 1915. When they were moving into the new home they had bought in Berkeley, their racist neighbours physically stopped them – an event that served as a bookend for a lifetime in activism on the West Coast.
Over 100 years later, the city of Berkeley renamed a street after her this week.
Kala Bagai’s story is part of a long legacy of activism among South Asian immigrants in Berkeley, which community historians Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee are helping keep alive. They started The Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour in 2012, which takes groups of 20 people around the Northern Californian city and talks about notable South Asian people and events. They have conducted around 192 tours over the last eight years.
“It’s really exciting to finally see a street named after an Asian American woman in a city that is 20% Asian American,” said Ghosh. “Representation is important. But this isn’t just about ethnic pride. We know that just the act of naming will not solve the issues. Honouring Kala Bagai helps us grapple with our history, and reminds us of the work we have to do to be a welcoming city.”
According to Chatterjee, renaming the two-block stretch “Kala Bagai Way” is a fitting tribute to an immigrant and woman of colour: it emphases the importance of welcoming immigrants and preventing displacement.
On their walks, Chatterjee and Ghosh always mention the story of Kala Bagai, along with the stories of Kartar Singh Sarabha (an early member of the Ghadar Party who was hanged in India at the age of 19) and Kartar Dhillon (who was involved in the Black Panther movement). They make a point to highlight the life stories of people who faced discrimination like Kala Bagai, such as Japanese American George Shima. Street theatre is one of the techniques they use on the walks since it makes local histories more accessible.
The tour, Ghosh and Chatterjee say, is meant to highlight a layer of South Asian history in Berkeley: by visiting areas steeped in historicity, tour participants form a connection with the city and feel a sense of belonging.
“The city of Berkeley has all these histories, and if you walk around, you won’t necessarily see any plaques, buildings or signs marking South Asian history,” said Ghosh. “A lot of South Asian American histories are trapped in people’s memories or in archives.” The tour makes them tangible.
Drawing attention to local stories at the sites where they unfolded also resonate with current struggles of communities. “We wanted to share these stories as a way to get South Asians comfortable with our organising history, and maybe even to get them to participate in activism,” said Ghosh. Both Ghosh and Chatterjee come from organising backgrounds and believe that there are many ways besides protesting to get involved in the fight for social justice.
History of Activism
Berkeley, where Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris’ parents met at a civil rights movement protest, has a history of activism. A major reason is that it is a student town, home to the University of California’s oldest campus. According to data from the Migration Policy Institute, 20% of the Indian diaspora in the US live in California. Berkeley’s population is 20% Asian American.
Ghosh and Chatterjee stress that activism is not just about protests. “These stories exist everywhere,” said Chatterjee. “Every time a woman hears a friend talking about her abusive husband in a nondescript suburb and reaches for her hand across the table, that becomes an act of activism. Every act of support is activism. We’re careful not to oversell Berkeley as a site of organising.” Many other cities, he added, will have similar but less documented histories.
Kala Bagai herself was part of a women-led organisation that merged into the Indian-American Society. They hosted picnics, lectures and art exhibitions for local women; supported Indian and Pakistani refugees; and published works from the subcontinent. Her home, said Chatterjee, became a sanctuary for the growing immigrant community, especially for women.
“She did quiet, connective community work,” said Chatterjee. “In Southern California, she made a name as a community activist post-World War II, organising with women to build bridges between American and Indian culture. She dove into this work further in the 1950s, after she finally received her US citizenship, after the federal restriction stripping all Indian Americans of their American citizenship was ended. Unfortunately, her first husband, Vaishno Das Bagai, didn’t live to see that day.”
In this oral history, Bagai did not speak English when she arrived in the US. The family’s first friends were German immigrants. After the family was barred from entering its home, the Bagais left Berkeley to protect their children from discrimination. A few years later, in 1923, the landmark case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind stripped South Asians of citizenship, which led to her husband taking his life because of his statelessness. Bagai raised her children alone, remarried and continued building networks of solidarity for immigrants in California.
“We don’t hear about this radical legacy enough,” said Ghosh. “People see the Free Speech Movement in 1964-’65 as the start of Berkeley’s legacy of activism, but the first ever South Asian protest that we know of happened in the city in 1908.” In 1908, 16 of the 17 South Asians at UC Berkeley protested an event in which a Christian missionary was critical of Hinduism and defended British colonialism.
“What the 1908 protest shows us is that there might be stories of other communities that we don’t hear about or include Berkeley’s legacy,” said Ghosh. “If I had come to Berkeley knowing about these different legacies, I would have had a different experience here.” Ghosh grew up in Bengaluru and studied at UC Berkeley.
“Since we’ve been doing the tour, my connection to this city and my entitlement to living here has vastly deepened,” she said. “Now I can say things and do things that I wasn’t sure I could do before: now that I know these histories exist, I feel a different sense of belonging in this city.” This feeling of belonging, she clarified, is often challenged by racist events in the US.
Chatterjee, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, says hearing these stories also pushes back against the model minority myth, which characterises Asian Americans as docile, law-abiding immigrants. They show that South Asians were active participants in fighting for community rights as well as in organising transnational networks of solidarity against British colonialism.
The Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour tries to focus on the solidarities early immigrants formed with each other and with Black and indigenous people in the US. The tour tries to show South Asians how they can stand in support of other communities by bringing up issues like homophobia and casteism. Though over 50% of the tour’s participants are South Asian, its long name attracts people who might be interested in organising, radical activism or feminist histories.
“It’s exciting for us to talk about freedom fighters and queer activists in the same space,” Ghosh said. “These stories resonate with people who aren’t South Asian, in the same way that we resonate with white or other histories. It creates moments of intersection between South Asians and people from other communities.”
Both Ghosh and Chatterjee are part of Berkeley’s activist community. Besides campaigning for the Kala Bagai Way, they are working with a campaign to remove traffic enforcement from the police department’s mandate.
Chatterjee works in tech, and Ghosh, whose background is in landscape architecture, works full-time as a web designer and in community activism. They used to conduct the tour on weekends, and have been forced into a hiatus since the pandemic began early this year. Ghosh and Chatterjee cannot wait to resume. “We’re both a little bit in mourning,” said Chatterjee.
Chatterjee, who has been collecting stories about early South Asian immigrants for years, is using this time to research South Asians in Berkeley before 1920. One such story is about Boor Singh, a South Asian fortune-teller who reportedly lived above what is now a McDonald’s.
“Early 1900s migration was more complex,” said Ghosh. “There were different kinds of immigrants coming into the US for different reasons. After the 1960s, you see a very specific kind of South Asian immigrant – usually upper-caste professionals. And now, patterns of immigration are changing again, and so South Asian America is looking very different.”
South Asian immigration, since the 1980s, has expanded from professionals moving for specialised jobs or higher education to working class people as well. As of 2017, the US is home to over 600,000 undocumented Indian Americans alone.
“Our narratives of South Asian Americans and who they are have not caught up to these facts yet,” said Ghosh.
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