That Fire in Their Eyes: Towards a Diasporic History of South Asian Protest

Mar 2014

Issue 6  Essay

Photo credit: Gulf Labor |

Photo credit: Gulf Labor |

In 2010, the Gulf Labor coalition of artists and activists called for an artist boycott of the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dubai to protest the work conditions of migrant labor. The initiative led to a broader call in which the collective specifically targeted the museums being built on Saadiyat Island including those hosted by international institutions such as the Guggenheim, Louvre, the British Museum, and NYU Abu Dhabi.

The main claim—then and now—is that these art museums are being constructed with migrant labor under harsh and unsafe work conditions. Plenty of documentation has recorded the details of these circumstances. The range of problems associated with the Gulf system of labor exploitation are appalling: a devastating mortality rate while on the job and a remarkably high suicide rate; the lack of adequate health care, unsafe housing, and living conditions; work conditions in which wages and passports are withheld by employers as a punitive form of job compliance; and social conditions rife for abuse that include racism and sexism. Perhaps the most galling issue however has been the prohibition of the right to protest and dissent itself. Workers in Gulf countries are by law forbidden the freedom of association and the right to strike. In other words, workers are not allowed to discuss their grievances in a group setting much less form bodies of collective action to voice their issues in formal associations such as trade unions. While Gulf Labor has focused on changing the discourse of how art spaces engage in a practice of labor rights, the argument spans the arts-labor connection toward the broader issue of recognition of just labor conditions and the freedom of collective action at a global scale.

The artists participating in the Gulf Labor coalition are creating ingenious ways to think and protest outside of this legal limbo by providing the weight of their privilege as artists, scholars, and activists. The power of their protest comes in a subversion of the law. In an innovative move, Gulf Labor launched ‘52 Weeks,’ a year-long web campaign initiated in October 2013 of weekly art actions that address the work conditions of migrant labor used to construct cultural institutions in Abu Dhabi. Art itself becomes the language of protest in the absence of legal sanction. It is not surprising that their political actions and dissent of the status quo takes on a largely digital character.  By taking protest digital, Gulf Labor is combining the ethos of on the ground disparities to a wider audience through the internet to participate and engage with issues of labor inequality and the glaring facts of social division enabled by globalization.


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This is an extreme setting of what some have come to call hyper-capitalism that over the years has certainly not stopped workers from engaging one another to organize work stoppages, demonstrations, and strikes, regardless of whether they are breaking the law. Readers of media and newspapers outlets of the Gulf and South Asian regions will find occasional reports of the basic details of labor unrest: how many workers were involved, what are their grievances, what is the name of the company at issue. For the casual observer, the fact of labor unrest seems unremarkable given the reputation of deplorable work and living conditions. And it might even seem obvious to protest based on the basis of contractual agreements and the rule of law. Yet, the organization of workers and the impact such conditions has on migrant labor is something to mull over. The conditions that lead to strikes and acts of dissent are self-explanatory, but the actual organization of workers and the strategies of collective action have a longer history and context, and perhaps a transnational praxis. This history of protest culture is little known, often carried in the stories and experiences of the workers themselves as they travel from place to place. The itinerant archives of journalistic reports and the scant records of the companies and government that control and police these events provide a sense of the relationship between workers and their employers, yet a number of questions remain in regards to the organization of migrant labor. For example, given the constraints of the laws in the Gulf region how has migrant labor organized itself in a transnational context? Further, what strategies are used to address unjust working and living conditions? What is the system of accountability given the extreme paternalism of the state that penalizes protest? This subterranean history is far from buried and goes beyond a regional experience of the Gulf and South Asia. Rather, the chronicle of protest culture is better told through the concepts of diaspora and interrelation. And by diaspora I refer to economic and social mobilizations that are transnational and migratory and their political implications.

A number of these issues of race and labor hierarchy are at the center of the research I completed for my book Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora (2011) in which I examined how Pakistani workers are represented and made into racialized threats. Since my study, the issues I researched for over a decade have only exacerbated and reached surreal proportions. Although my study examined the contemporary condition of what I refer to as labor diasporas, in other words the working class populations that travel to the Gulf and other regions of the world in the hopes of eventually making a living in Europe or North America, a main question that spurred my research centered on the social history of labor organizing that has transnational and internationalist roots. Organizers and community activists in New York City often note the connection of political critique and action among South Asian workers connected to a history of radicalism and trade unionism in home countries. For example, labor organizer and scholar Biju Mathew in his book Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City (2005) tells an animated story of how this comes to fruition through labor strategies and the hard work of everyday organizing among the South Asian workforce of taxi workers. In my research in New York and

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the UAE I easily found South Asian workers with a long history of organizing and protest as part of their work conditions and as part of their general political culture. Whether as former trade unionists or simply as workers who very well understood the contradictions implicit in their class location, migrant laborers are far more complex than the general public is often led to believe. Even in the narrative of the migrant laborer in the Gulf the emphasis is on misery rather than on the strategies, tactics, and assessments of a political savvy and critical mass.

Some of the depth and magnitude of these protest histories can be found in Robert Vitalis’ America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (2007). In it,

Vitalis describes a series of strikes by South African, Italian, Arab, and Pakistani workers beginning in the 1940s of the labor conditions meted out by the American bosses of oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. Through a critique that conjoined racism and exploitative conditions of American overseas capitalism, the Pakistani workers in particular organized campaigns that compared their conditions to what Vitalis interestingly surmises is the U.S. racism of the Jim Crow South. ARAMCO, or the Arab American Oil Company, used as a model for labor camps and the broader spatial corporate organization of Saudi oil fields based on colonial ideas of racial hierarchy and divide and rule. The camps themselves replicated the racial divisions institutionalized in the coalmines of the U.S. South, where many of the Americans had prior experience. An experiment in social  engineering, such tactics have historically been a central aspect of the American version of capitalism that expand racial hierarchies of management to global settings. Through this telling of both labor oppression and protest, this book does some important work in describing a much larger phenomenon in relatively few pages. Because Vitalis focused on diplomatic exchanges, this is a small part of the larger history of ARAMCO and the creation of a pact between energy, military, and economic interests between the United States and Saudi Arabia. That this connection was forged on the tenets of racial capitalism provides a corollary for the relationship to labor diaporas and their political culture. In other words, South Asian migrant labor recognized racism as an inherent aspect of their exploitation as workers and voiced it in their political critiques.

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More recently, scholar and filmmaker Vivek Bald looks to the example of Dada Amir Haider Khan in his book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (2013). Known to many of his admirers as Dada Khan, his memoirs entitled Chains to Lose (republished in a two-volume set in Pakistan in 2007) represent a case study of a diaporic history of labor. Bald largely situates Dada Khan’s life in terms of the first volume of his memoirs in which he recounts his formative years in British India, his travels as a maritime worker, and his experiences as a railway worker and autoworker in the United States. Here we learn some important details of his coming to consciousness through the racism Dada Khan witnesses at sea and in the working class economy of U.S. industrial cities. While this moment in Khan’s life is exemplary of his early engagements with the injustices of race and class, demonstrating how South Asians traversed these worlds of social hierarchy in the early twentieth century, the second volume of his memoirs continue

some of this analysis toward his eventual training and education in Moscow as a fighter of injustice and later to his ancestral home in the Azad Kashmir of Pakistan. The second volume of Dada Khan’s memoir continues to recount his growth as a thinker and sophisticated intellectual and critic of capitalism. While highly illuminating in terms of understanding how some South Asians traversed the world as subjects of the British Raj and later as citizens of postcolonial India and Pakistan, Dada Khan’s memoirs speak to a remarkable pattern of diaspora and interrelationships with people of many national and racial backgrounds. Dada Khan’s international travels led him to insights and a radical politics of anti-imperialism and anti-racism. We have Professor Hasan Gardezi to thank for publishing and editing these volumes that transcend many of the accepted truths about the role Muslims, Kashmiris, and Pakistanis have played in the revolutionary politics of South Asia and its diaspora. As a conclusion, we can look to the example of Dada Khan as a complex figure who represents many of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of migrant laborers as they come to terms with their work conditions and continue the struggle of protesting injustice.

Junaid Rana is an associate professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Slideshow photo credit: Gulf Labor |

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3 Responses to That Fire in Their Eyes: Towards a Diasporic History of South Asian Protest

  1. Issue 6: Mobs and Movements | Tanqeed on Mar 2014 at 10:33 AM

    […] Rana re-writes points the struggles of migrant workers in the Gulf from one of misery and labor exploitation to […]

  2. TQ Chāt | # 5 | Tanqeed on Mar 2014 at 9:31 PM

    […] of The Scatter Here Is Too Great and The Corpse Washer, and essays on communal riots in India, labor organization in the Gulf, the history of Golden Dawn, liberal narratives about the “irrationality” of “mob […]

  3. TQ Chāt | # 20 | Tanqeed on Sep 2014 at 11:00 AM

    […] A.A. Advani, Bogus Indian Prince/International Conman, and more! In the Dust of This Planet – the indelible connection between pop culture and death in America Kingdom of Slaves in the Persian Gulf, and That Fire in Their Eyes […]

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