Berkeley has long been an epicenter for leftist activism. It was home to the Free Speech Movement and central to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Now a walking tour in downtown Berkeley explores the city’s little-known South Asian radical history, from a 1908 protest by South Asian students to the community’s battle against hate violence after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The tour is called the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour. Organized by Anirvan Chatterjee, a tech entrepreneur, and his wife, Barnali Ghosh, a landscape architect, the project is a part-time labor of love. Chatterjee and Ghosh are activists in the Bay Area South Asian community and amateur historians.
“We started hearing stories from older activists in the community, and sometimes they’d be fragmentary. But you’d sit down at a dinner table … and you’d just hear some really amazing gems,” Chatterjee said. “I just kept thinking to myself: People need to hear these stories.”
During the tour, the first of its kind in the country, Chatterjee and Ghosh pass around photographs and old newspaper articles. They even use street theater to bring their stories to life.
At one point, Anirvan portrays Khatar Singh Saraba, a Cal student from India who arrived in 1912 and helped create a revolutionary group called the Ghadar Party. The party brought together Indian students and farmers in California to protest British rule in India.
Eventually, Ghosh tells tour-goers, Saraba returned to India with other revolutionaries to stage an uprising. They were betrayed by a spy, caught and tried in India.
The tour also covers a 1976 protest by Indian students at Berkeley against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s suspension of elections and civil liberties in India. The 21-month period was known as The Emergency. Chatterjee and a few volunteers re-enact the protest with paper bags over their heads, as students did then to protect their identity.
Farukh Basrai, a video producer from Mountain View, drove up for the tour with his wife. Basrai was a young professional in India during the time of The Emergency.
“I lived through it but I lived through it in India,” Basrai said. “And I absolutely had no idea -- which was quite revealing -- that there was even a movement of any kind in the U.S. and at Berkeley. And as we found out, some of the students were at risk.”
The tour ends in front of Berkeley High School, and Chatterjee concludes it by describing the activism that occurred among students after 9/11. Some South Asian students at the school, particularly those who wore headscarves and turbans, feared for their personal safety.
“They organized a buddy program, a multiracial buddy program so that targeted students could look around wherever you are in your classroom and if you saw one student wearing a green armband you would know he or she was there to keep you safe,” Chatterjee said.
Priti Narayanan, who lives in nearby Albany but was raised in India, was on the tour for the second time. This time she had her cousins with her.
“I wanted my cousins who grew up here to know that there is this history, that there is activism, that it’s not just about becoming doctors, engineers and lawyers. That we … do have different passions … and we can make a difference,” she said.
That’s exactly why Chatterjee and Ghosh have put together the tour – to inspire a future generation of Indian Americans.
“I am part of that same wave of immigration that is very much focused on being a model minority and being allowed into this country because you’re either smart or have money,” said Ghosh. “But … as Indians with a revolutionary past, it’s almost our responsibility to speak up.”
So far, there have been 27 runs for more than 300 people. Ghosh and Chatterjee are also helping South Asian storytellers and activists in other parts of the country create their own tours.