Left organizing in South Asian communities in Montreal

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Organizing the left in Montreal's South Asian communities

Shazma Abdulla and Vijay Kolinjivadi are members of Garam Masala Montreal, a collective of South Asian people holding a range of progressive, left, and radical politics. Scott Neigh interviews them about the group and about the grassroots political work that they are doing in Montreal, particularly in the context of that city's South Asian communities.

The original group that Vijay Kolinjivadi was part of was not about politics but about learning language. It brought together young diasporic South Asian people living in Montreal to learn Hindi. For Vijay, that wasn't even the language that he grew up surrounded by – his parents speak Tamil. But he, and others in the group at that point, felt that learning Hindi (and Urdu) was a way of grounding themselves in community and culture and one useful tool for navigating some of the complicated realities of diasporic life in North America.

As the group met, however, it became clear that the people participating were also keen to talk politics – and not just in general, but specifically from the left. Some of that conversation was about experiences of growing up and of everyday life as a South Asian person in North America, from experiences of racism to all of the complications of navigating community, culture, and family in the context of a largely hostile and xenophobic dominant society. It also included current political issues in South Asia itself, like the growing power of the Hindutva movement and right-wing nationalism in India and anti-fascist resistance there. And it included the ways in which political dynamics on the subcontinent and political dynamics in North America intersect within diasporic South Asian communities.

At a certain point, some of the members of the language-learning group decided to found a new group with an explicitly political orientation, which they named Garam Masal Montreal. The name is not only taken from a spice mixture common in some South Asian cuisines, but is also an acronym for the combined French and English names Groupe d'action révolutionnaire sud-Asiatique de Montréal and Montreal Alliance of South Asian Leftists and Allies. New members joined, including Shazma Abdulla.

The group is a response to the relative lack of explicitly left spaces within South Asian communities in Montreal and elsewhere -- a lack that today's interview participants link to histories of South Asian community formation in North America in the context of a white supremacist and capitalist mainstream that supports elite, conservative, and conforming elements of marginalized communities and silences or erases important traditions of radical, left-wing, anti-colonial, and otherwise dissenting politics that have deep roots in South Asia and in South Asian diasporic communities.

The group has been placing a great emphasis on self-education and on public educational events aimed at members of South Asian communities in Montreal. They do things like hold discussion groups on specific issues, or screen films about political topics, including films that have been banned in India, accompanied by public discussions of the issues raised. Sometimes, they try to draw attention to issues that have resonance both in South Asia and in North America, like the rise of the far-right and the struggle against it. And they work hard to open up space to have difficult conversations about issues of oppression that are powerfully present within the dominant society in North America but that are also reproduced within diasporic South Asian community contexts – things like anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, homophobia, and Islamophobia.

A key community intervention for the group involved posting flyers and other peaceful engagement methods with attendees at a major Indian cultural festival held in Montreal last summer, which the group identified as pushing a very narrow and elite-centric understanding of South Asian culture that had many politically troubling elements. They have also been working to become more active in solidarity with struggles grounded in other contexts – missing and murdered Indigenous women, liberation struggles in other parts of the world, various anti-fascist and anti-racist mobilizations, and so on.

The group hopes to bring South Asian Montrealers with left politics together, to open space that otherwise doesn't exist, to have difficult conversation, to share tools for challenging oppressions within South Asian community contexts, and to build capacity for advancing a broader progressive agenda. In the longer term, they hope it is possible to build a network with similar collectives grounded in South Asian communities in other cities around North America.

Image: Modified from an image obtained from Pixabay.

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