Sarita Sarvate

Patriarchy And Landlordism -- Immigrants' Baggage Should Not Include Harmful Practices

02-15-00

Pacific Pulse

BY SARITA SARVATE

Charges against a landlord and restaurant owner in Berkeley, California -- including allegations that he imported young girls for sexual purposes -- have been greeted with distress and outrage. The alleged behavior, writes PNS commentator Sarita Sarvate, reveals a great deal about cultural practices in India, practices that should not be tolerated in either place. PNS correspondent Sarita Sarvate writes for India Currents and other publications.

BERKELEY, CA -- Criminal charges against a Berkeley landlord and restaurant owner highlight the fact that we immigrants tend to bring into America both the good and the evil practices of our old country. Lakireddy Bali Reddy has been indicted on charges of smuggling immigrants into the country illegally and importing minor girls for sexual purposes.

Just as Indians have enriched American life with our traditions in music, vegetarian cuisine, yoga and meditation, we have also brought with us some cultural tenets, such as patriarchy and landlordism. These may have originally been designed with benevolent intentions, but over the centuries they have been distorted in ways that allow abusive treatment of women and labor. The patriarchal system made it possible for the parents of two young women to entrust Lakireddy with their fate because the parents could not afford to pay dowries.

During a recent visit to my native country, I found the custom of dowry to be thriving. The practice was supposedly banned by a law passed in the 1960s, but such a law is difficult to enforce in a land where every politician, judge and lawyer seeks a windfall of lakhs (hundred thousands) from each son's bride.

While a few Indian women have become prime ministers, astronauts, and doctors, most remain subject to a social structure in which daughters-in-laws are subservient to the parents-in-law. Widows do not remarry, and property rights for daughters exist only on paper.

Patriarchy's hold on India is so strong that women's behavior is still dictated by the ancient epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The quintessential Hindu female role model remains Sita, wife of King Ram, who threw herself on to the pyre to prove her purity after her rescue from the evil clutches of Ravana, the king of Sri Lanka. The recent ascent of Hindu fundamentalism in politics has emboldened the old patriarchy. During my recent visit, for example, the country was plagued by riots over the movie "Fire" for depicting a lesbian relationship between two sisters-in-law trapped in loveless, stifling, arranged marriages.

Patriarchy and landlordism have worked hand in hand in India for centuries, in ways that reinforce the hierarchies of caste and class.

At the top of the village power structure, traditionally, was the landlord who owned a vast expanse of farmland which he let the sharecroppers till.

Historically, the landlord also acted as a moneylender. He was therefore able to use the womenfolk in the village for his own pleasure and rule over the populace like a king.

Benevolent or otherwise, the landlord controlled every facet of the villagers' lives. The government of India, recognizing the inherent injustice of the landlord system, passed a law in the early 1970s limiting how much land could be owned by one person, and vesting in the sharecroppers titles to farms they tilled for a number of years.

However, like the dowry law, the statute only existed on paper. Politicians, judges and lawyers -- landlords themselves -- soon found loopholes to get around it. And now the age of cyberspace has brought about a new mutation of the landlord/patriarch. This new species is not just the king of his little village, but is able to exploit the current shortage of workers in America to expand his empire across oceans.

Lakireddy, it is alleged, virtually became the emperor of Berkeley (his holdings are valued at $60-$70 million) by importing poor workers from India and using them as slaves. The case has highlighted the contrast between the haves and the have-nots within the Indian immigrant community itself, just as it has brought to light the mistreatment of Indian women at the hands of the patriarchy. Narika, the South Asian women's organization for assisting victims of domestic violence, recently held a candlelight vigil in front of the Pasand restaurant in Berkeley owned by Lakireddy. Ironically, several of the young women, allegedly brought into the U.S. by Lakireddy for slave labor and sex, worked at the restaurant where Narika board members regularly dined.

The fact that Narika members had no inkling of the women's plight speaks to the deep divisions of caste, class and creed in Indian society.

At least Narika protested Lakireddy's actions once they were brought to light. No other Indian immigrant organization has publicly protested the unfettered material greed that South Asian immigrants like Lakireddy have exhibited in recent years.

We Indian Americans must raise our voices now to condemn actions such as those Lakireddy is alleged to have committed, or face the prospect of letting the worst aspects of our culture take root in America.