Indian Americans want a Berkeley street named after Kala Bagai

Campaign seeks to honor one of the earliest Indian immigrant women to America.

A tiny, downtown street in Berkeley, California may witness a new-found affirmation to immigrant identities in America if Indian Americans succeed in getting it named after Kala Bagai.

One of the earliest Indian immigrant women to America, Bagai who came to the U.S. back in 1915 from present day Pakistan made important contributions to the immigrant history of America.

The Action Network, an open platform that facilitates groups to organize for progressive causes, has started a campaign inviting people to submit letters demanding that the street be called Kala Bagai Way.

Many South Asian Americans see the renaming of the street as a perfect opportunity to honor not only an exceptional woman, but also the country’s rich immigrant past.

Born in undivided India under British rule, Bagai with no knowledge of English language, did a commendable job of building one of the earliest South Asian communities in California.

Kala Bagai’s fascinating story begins with her coming to the Bay Area with her husband Vaishno Das Bagai in 1915. They opened a small business and bought a home in Berkeley.

However, they faced extreme racism as the neighbors prevented them from entering their home and drove the family out of the town.

Soon after an anti-immigrant court ruling stripped all South Asians of their citizenship. Kala’s husband, despaired with the treatment meted out to him and now a stateless person, committed suicide.

But Bagai did not give up. She became the face of immigrant struggle, brought up her children in America, remarried and became an important immigrant leader. When she died in 1983, she was revered and remembered as ‘Mother India’.

Even though Berkeley like many other parts of the U.S. now boasts of a sizeable Indian American population with an estimated 20% Asian Americans, their contribution has gone largely unrecognized.

But now there is a new awakening where many Asian Americans are campaigning for streets and plazas to be named after people or places also central to their culture and ethnicity.

Many Asian Americans in Berkeley have been instrumental in shaping history. Among them Dalip Singh Saund from Punjab who was the first ever Asian American to be elected in the U.S. Congress; Kartar Singh Sarabha, freedom fighter and martyr; and Dhan Gopal Mukherjee, Newbury Award winner.

But for now the popular consensus in the community on choosing a historical figure to rename a street has been on Kala Bagai.

The Action Network’s honor Kala Bagai campaign has already received 86 endorsements out of its goal of 100.




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