South Asian Bar Association raises US$50K for new legal defense fund

Separately, Indiaspora has pledged to partner on the new venture, with a US$25,000 donation

from left to right: Ritu Singh, SABA Foundation President, Charanjit Brahma, President, SABA North America, Indiaspora founder MR Rangaswami, speaker Kalpana Peddibhotla, SABA Northern California President Dan Vaswani, and Siraj Husain, SABA NC Incoming President. / Photo- Sunita Sohrabji

SAN FRANCISCO, California — The South Asian Bar Association of Northern California collected US$50,000 in donations to launch a new legal defense fund in its Mar. 30 annual gala in San Francisco, California.

The national legal non-profit will be known as the South Asian American Justice Collaborative (SAAJCO). Fremont, California-based attorney Kalpana Peddibhotla, one of the key organizers of the new initiative, told New India Abroad that the South Asian American population is rapidly growing, but often lacks the resources it needs to battle immigration issues, fight against hate crimes, and understanding their basic rights. A lack of fluent English language skills often becomes a barrier to gaining justice, she said.

Peddibhotla pointed to last year’s death of 23-year-old student Jaahnavi Kandula, who was killed by a speeding police car as she attempted to cross the street. Her death was largely unnoticed until community advocates demanded an investigation.

Working with the Asian American Legal defense and Education Fund, SABA brought on a legal fellow last year, Erum Kidwai, who has helped Nepalis apply for Temporary Protection Status to remain in the US; created a rapid response system to battle the current wave of hate crimes; and created “Know Your Rights” materials. SABA’s 29 chapters last year collectively raised US$170,000 to fund Kidwai’s work for two years. Peddibhotla told NIA she is hoping to raise at least US$340,000 this year to get SAAJCO off the ground.

“If we have learned anything from the last couple of decades since 9/11 — and frankly the more than 130 years that South Asian Americans have lived in the US and struggled with bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment — it is that our rights must be defended,” she said onstage at the gala.

“The tool that we, the legal community, can offer is to fight for the rights of our community in the courts,” said Peddibhotla. “SAAJCO is born from hope, not fear. “Together, we can empower our communities so that they know that we will fight for their rights and pursue access to justice,” she said.

The new initiative has already gained traction outside the legal community. The non-profit organization Indiaspora has agreed to partner with SABA on the legal defense fund, as has donated US$25,000 in seed funding.

MR Rangaswami, Indiaspora’s founder attended the Mar. 30 San Francisco gala, and told NIA he was pleased to support the new venture. “Over the years, there has been a lack of community focus and resources to address the growing danger of hate crimes that affect ethnic minorities,” he said, likening the new initiative as the equivalent of the Anti Defamation League, created by the Jewish American community.

Since 2020, the Asian American community has been the target of more than 11,000 hate crimes and incidents, according to data collected on the web platform Stop AAPI Hate. Islamophobia is on the rise in the US, amid the Israel-Hamas war.

The FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Reports for the year 2022 — based on data collected from local law enforcement agencies — reported 181 hate crimes against Sikhs, 158 anti-Islamic hate crimes, and 25 hate crimes against Hindus. The data represents an alarming rise from 2020, when 92 anti-Sikh hate crimes were reported, along with 129 anti-Muslim and 10 anti-Hindu hate crimes. Community advocates say FBI hate crime data represents a massive under-count; agencies submit data on a voluntary basis and are not mandated to do so.

The SABA Northern California gala ended with a performance by Raaginder, a Sikh American violinist who brought the crowd onto the dance floor with Bollywood classics.