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A Competition with Heart and Soul

Recap of the 1st Annual Hindus for Human Rights/Islamic American Muslim

By Shree Baphna, AsAmNews Staff Writer & South Asian American Advisory Board member


When I first came across this competition, I was immediately intrigued. The annual Civil Rights Essay/Art Competition for South Asian middle schoolers and high schoolers was something I had never seen, or had extended to me as an opportunity when I was that age. What struck me more was the prompt for last year’s competition: Civil Rights, Black Lives, and my South Asian Identity. Right away, it is apparent that such a topic cannot be taken lightly. It requires deep critical thinking on a number of complex social topics.

The Civil Rights Essay/Art Competition is back this year, the prompt being Intersections Between Caste Discrimination and Anti-Black Racism. The deadline for submitting entries is March 30th. 

To get a better sense of the personal connection behind this competition, as well as to inform readers ahead of the March 30th deadline for this year’s contest, I contacted Hindus for Human Rights and the Islamic American Muslims Council for an interview. I was fortunate to be able to interview last year’s middle-school category winner, Samara Desai, and her mother, Professor Bidisha Biswas, who is part of the organizing committee. 

Bidisha and Samara along with the rest of their family are currently located in Germany. Samara had just come home after a day of final school examinations when I spoke to her. 

Samara is in 7th grade, and enjoys playing basketball, chess, reading, and writing in her free time. Recently, she said, she had finished reading a slew of classics, including The Great Gatsby and The Invisible Man

When I asked her if these were reading choices of her own, she jokingly replied, “My parents think it’s good for me to read these books”. 

Samara described that the main inspiration for her award-winning essay from last year’s Civil Rights Essay competition came from a school lesson on redlining within the States. Her assignments on the topic got her thinking about how similar the caste system of India is to racial discrimination in the US. She decided to write an essay about how her life has been affected by both, and entered it for the contest. 

Samara’s maternal side of the family comes from a lower-caste community- known as the Dalit community- within India. Her mother, Bidisha, had explained the caste system to her, as well as how her maternal grandparent’s lives were affected by discrimination against Dalit communities. Out of curiosity, Samara was keen to hear stories from her grandparents about their experiences, as well as those of her great-grandparents. 

“I don’t remember some of the stories, but the one I wrote about in my essay is one of the stories my grandparents told me. My great-grandmother once experienced discrimination while attempting to fetch water from a well. An upper-caste woman also happened to be there at the time and promptly told my great-grandmother to find water elsewhere. To this, my grandmother retorted- “If you have a problem with me being here, take it up with the Prime Minister of India!”.”

Through the process of writing this essay, Samara highlighted her biggest learning: that most of the time people find a way to discriminate against someone, be it by job/family name or by skin color. More so, this system of discrimination does not go away for a long time. More so, society has come up with differences to create this discrimination. As Samara rightly said, laws are unfortunately not the sole solution to anything. The only solution is people willing to learn and work to dismantle systemic discrimination.

Art by @radicalroadmaps on IG! via Equality Labs

After my conversation with Samara, I was able to speak to Bidisha Biswas about her role as an organizer for the contest. Bidisha is currently a professor of Political Science at Western Washington University. 

The rationale behind this competition is to encourage young South Asians to think about the intersections between India and the US. Both countries are experiencing similar pathways in terms of inequalities and injustice. But beyond just being the world’s two biggest democracies, it is important to think about our South Asian identities in the context of the turmoil surrounding Black Lives Matter. 

As someone from a lower-caste community and as an educator in the field of political science, Bidisha certainly has a personal connection to the Civil Rights Essay competition. She has explored how civil rights movements in both the US and India have taken inspiration from each other and aims to imbibe them into this contest as an organizer. The aim is to encourage and maximize as many entries as possible. Judges for the competition are people of African America and South Asian background. Bidisha’s specific role is to help connect submissions to judges. The competition aims to maintain inclusivity throughout, and everyone who submitted an entry is invited to the award ceremony. 

As for what the organizers look for entries, Bidisha highlighted a few main qualities: curiosity and interest, critical thinking, active engagement with the issue, and as a result, an informed opinion. 

Above all, it is important that South Asian youth are aware of the privileges that exist within and external to the immigrant community. A vast majority of Indian immigrants are upper caste immigrants and there is a reason behind that. In this vein, it is important that upper-caste Indian immigrants and White Americans are aware of their privilege. Many times, organizers see hesitation amongst the student community, claiming that they don’t know anything about this topic or they do not have any personal experience that would inform their opinions. 

“This is in fact, all the more reason to engage in a competition such as this”, said Bidisha. “We really just want students to demonstrate eagerness to learn through their work and research. While it is not ok to speak as someone else, it is important to gain knowledge and develop empathy for those who have lived experience.”  

When asked about what has impressed or struck Bidisha the most in the entries from last year, she firmly expressed amazement at the passion that emanates from the essays and artwork. “These students have talked not only about history and current affairs but have also touched on their personal involvement in this story. This passion at a young age is very important. These issues affect all of us even if we cannot see it, and to see 8th-12th graders respond with this much emotion and empathy is very heartening. It is fantastic  to see how engaged they were with the Black Lives Matter movement, while also thinking about what their role in civil rights movements is.”

Successful entries aptly depict the idea that while a lot of progress made in both India and the US in terms of justice and equality, more needs to be done. For Bidisha, it is important that entries capture this trajectory: that while we are headed somewhere, it is not a linear process but it is progress.  

To wrap up our talk, I asked Bidisha what she wishes to see as a long-term outcome of this competition. First and foremost, Bidisha said, is creating awareness. This is the first step to creating change. Take Germany for example: they have a terrible history, but they have now risen up to be one of the most welcoming countries for refugees. To get there, they had to go through a long and terrible trajectory that involves acknowledging their past to create awareness and change. The same could be recommended for both India and the US. By recognizing the terrible parts of their history, which Germany does an excellent job of, they too can move somewhere better. But if countries and their people act like their past wrongdoings do not exist, then we are missing out on what could be a better present and the future. 

The hope is that engagement in such important topics in an incremental way that will go beyond just the competition. It is meant to be a springboard into engaging with these complex social issues more regularly. Curiosity, empathy, and how to separate information from opinion are all important skills that Bidisha hopes this competition will provide students who choose to participate. 

For this year’s contest, Bidisha looks forward to learning from the incoming submissions. As someone who belongs to a particular generation and has her own viewpoint, Bidisha looks forward to seeing how young people are thinking about and engaging with this topic of caste and racial discrimination.

**The Annual Civil Rights Essay/Artwork contest is co-organized by Dalit Solidarity Forum, Hindus for Human Rights, Islamic Americans Muslim Council, and Tasveer. Deadline for this year’s contest is March 30th.

You can find more information here.

You can read Samara’s essay here.

Other winning essays.

Winner of the art competition.

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