We did it, folks: The year is 2021 and New York City demonstrated time and again that we are ready for fresh faces, progressive policies, and a range of candidates representing diverse demographics and interests.
On the docket, we have Felicia Singh (District 32 – Queens), Shahana Hanif (District 39 – Brooklyn) and Shekar Krishnan (District 25 – Queens). These three South Asian candidates each ran successful campaigns, culminating in a win not only for their district constituents but for the many New Yorkers whose interests will now be backed by city officials.
We spoke to all three council candidates in order to learn more about what spurred them to run, the truth about the campaign trail, and what lies ahead in the November elections.
“My motivation to run for City Council comes right from home.
I am the proud daughter of two working-class immigrants: My dad is a taxi driver from Punjab, and my mom is a school bus matron from Guyana. My family and I nearly lost our home during the primary – in November of 2019, he filed for bankruptcy because he could no longer manage to pay the bloated taxi medallion loan, surcharges, insurance, gas, and repairs on what he was earning as a taxi driver on top of other necessary bills.
My life’s work has been serving and empowering the people around me, and bringing about real change by addressing the root and systemic causes of issues facing our communities.Our immigrant populations helped build this city and they keep it going, but investing and caring for our communities has never been centered. We can see from the census data that we have the numbers to build political power and hold electeds responsible.
I believe that the impact of the incoming city council members like me will be prioritizing the working-class and immigrants by making processes more accessible, including language services. When we uplift the folks that need the most help, everyone will benefit.
We can transform our communities by investing in all of them, and for many years, parts of the district have been neglected. We all deserve the opportunity to live dignified lives here in Queens.”
The top three priorities on Singh’s platform are: fully funding public schools, climate jobs and environmental resilience, community programs and resources.
“At 17, I was diagnosed with Lupus, and my immigrant family, not having the English proficiency to navigate a broken healthcare system, was left at the mercy of an uncaring bureaucracy as I fought for my life. Since my diagnosis, I have not stopped fighting for healthcare for all, an accessible transit system, and language justice.
I decided to run for City Council because I want to ensure the communities often excluded from the conversation have a voice at the table. With this city being home to the largest Muslim and Bangladeshi diaspora in the US, our win marks a historic moment in our City for Muslims and Bangladeshis everywhere.
When COVID hit, my entire campaign changed. My team and I raised over $40,000 in survival funds to support undocumented folks in our district. I organized as our city failed to defund the police despite widespread protest from community members. I talked and listened to immigrant families who were excluded from the Department of Education’s planning around school reopenings, closings, and hybrid learning. My entire education platform shifted to acknowledge these radical changes in our society.
Language inaccessibility is often a barrier that prevents communities of color and immigrants from fully participating in the political process. Policy should not be written for community members, but with community members. This does not just mean putting language through Google Translate — but centering native speakers in translation.”
The top three priorities on Hanif’s platform are housing equality, education equity, and defunding the NYPD.
“Our community of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst is the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is no accident.
It is the result of decades of disinvestment in our community. COVID didn’t create these inequities; they exacerbated them, revealing the extent to which NYC neighborhoods like mine need massive investment in our social infrastructure — from health care to our housing and public schools.
Our city is facing crises of public health, racial justice, and economic inequality. Where you live, and whether that home is affordable and dignified, determines everything in this city.
For most people, it dictates where your children go to school, what food you can access, the quality of your healthcare, the purity of your air or how much park space you have. It determines how you’re policed, whether you have ICE on your streets and in your schools, whether you can access mass transit, and whether your streets are safe for walking or overrun by cars.
During the pandemic and the campaign, instances of Asian hate increased and received greater public and media attention. As a campaign led by Asian Americans, we felt it was crucial to bring everyone together in our communities of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst — with one of the largest Asian American populations in the country — to show that we will not be invisibilized any longer, and to push for concrete action and not just rhetoric.
People often say that “representation matters.” It’s true, in that it matters to those who have been underrepresented for so long to see someone elected who looks like them, who shares their culture and their skin complexion, or speaks their language. But it’s not just symbolic or visual representation that we as Asian American communities need.
Our historic lack of representation means NYC has not had adequate services and resources in Bangla, Nepali, or Urdu, that South Asian taxi workers haven’t received any relief from the government, and that Diwali is still not a public school holiday.
I’m proud I will be one of the first South Asians ever elected to the City Council in the history of New York City. I intend to fiercely represent my communities and ensure we get the resources, attention, support, and political power we deserve.”
The top three priorities on Krishnan’s platform are housing injustice, community building, and building an immigrant-centric bilingual program in public schools.
In New York City, council members are elected to represent their districts and oversee a number of responsibilities, including “introducing and voting on legislation, negotiating the city budget alongside the sitting Mayor, monitoring city agencies (e.g. Department of Education, the NYPD) to ensure they are serving New Yorkers,” and more.
At the forefront of all three individuals’ platform priorities lie issues that are intersectional and in imminent danger – housing crisis, language access, education reform and more.
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Dear President Biden,
As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.
Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.
“As privileged members of the diaspora, it’s our duty to challenge the repressive practices of the current regime in India. We stand in solidarity with those … opposed to the government’s attempt to reshape the country into a Hindu nationalist state. https://t.co/RxU9wUy2Zy
Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.
India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders‘ press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index — which examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi.
“If the President meets with PM Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities, there’s a strong possibility India starts pulling apart.” Thank you @BarackObama! https://t.co/RhcMNfiqaR
Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.
This morning in DC, on the lawn of The White House at the welcome reception for Modi.
As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.
— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).
Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting.
In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance eventcentered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.
In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships.
Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality.SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.
While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.
Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular