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January 31, 2000
Tribute to the unknown immigrant
R S Shankar
Carrying banners that read 'Reddy Na Pasand', 'Get Reddy for Jail' and 'Boycott Pasand', about 220 people, including many non-Indians, joined in a candlelight vigil outside Pasand Madras Cuisine Restaurant in Berkeley on Saturday.
They were there not just to protest the alleged sex crimes perpetuated against teenage girls brought from India by Lakireddy Bali Reddy, owner of the Pasand restaurant. Reddy's lawyer Tedd Cassman has denied the allegation and charges, calling them "salacious" and "inflammatory".
The protesters were also paying their respect to a 17-year-old girl, first identified as Sitha Vemireddy, who died by a carbon monoxide leak in one of the apartments owned by Reddy about eight weeks ago.
The protesters, like the authorities who arrested Reddy about two weeks ago on charges of having sex with a minor, do not know the girl's real name.
Her younger sister also suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, but survived. She is currently under protective custody and several groups are working with immigration experts to make sure she is not deported to India.
"Though we do not know Sitha's real name, we are going to ask, in her name, any information about other women who might have suffered at the hands of Reddy and his family members," said Firoza Chic Dabby, executive-director of Narika, a program that helps abused south Asian women. Narika was one of the half-a-dozen Bay Area organizations that arranged the vigil.
"She was sold by her real family and given a fictitious one," one protestor said.
"Her death should not be in vain," said another.
Protesting groups included Asian Law Caucus and San Francisco Women Against Rape.
Berkeley city lawyer Manuela Albuquerque believes at least eight other teenage girls who were reportedly working for Reddy -- the biggest landlord in Berkeley who owns at least 1,000 apartments in this university city -- disappeared the day he was arrested and held in jail for 11 days before being released on a $ 10 million bond. She suspects they were spirited to India to avoid being called as witnesses against Reddy.
The demonstrators also sought to remind people through the media that there should be a thorough investigation into the alleged wrong-doings not only by Reddy but also his son Vijaykumar Lakireddy, 30. Vijaykumar reportedly furnished documents that allowed a man who pretended to be a hi-tech worker come into America with Sitha and 15-year-old younger sister. According to the police Reddy, 62, had sex with both girls.
Reddy, who surrendered to the authorities last week, was allowed to remain free on a $ 500,000 bond. Taking cognizance of the fact that he was charged with drinking while intoxicated, a magistrate ordered he should not drink till the trial was over. He cannot travel beyond a certain point and cannot go near a long-distance train station, airport or harbor.
But to the 200-plus demonstrators, the bail amount was too small. "The family has property worth at least $ 60 million," said one protester. "The bail amount is ridiculously low."
The protest was widely covered by the mainstream and Indian media. Russell, a professor emeritus at Mills College, said she was horrified when reading about the allegations against Reddy and her son. So stood outside Pasand for six of the past seven days to discourage people from eating there. Reddy's older son, Pasand, manages the restaurant, which was closed most of last week. He told reporters two days ago: "People will come back. The food is good."
But Russell told reporters that quite a number of people had turned away after meeting her.
'A lot of the people have not connected (the scandal) with this restaurant. They say 'Oh, that's the guy' and then they leave,' she told the San Francisco Examiner.
Some demonstrators said they were disappointed there were just about 220 people.
"There are about 100,000 Indians in and around San Francisco, and we should have had at least 2,000 demonstrators if not 20,000," said one protester.
"I am surprised that people who know about these issues look the other way," said Bipina Patel who carried a sign written in Hindi that read 'Reddy, Hame Na Pasand.'
"Maybe it's because of (Reddy's) power and the male-dominated southeast Asian community."
But several others thought Indians were too ashamed of Reddy's conduct and were too embarrassed to protest.
"When there are wonderful stories about Indians earning millions in the Valley, everybody wants to be known as Indian but when there is something bad happening in the community, we do not want to protest it," said M H Shoba.
Some participants in the candlelight vigil thought Indian Americans might have thought that they should not judge Reddy and his son before a court had reached the verdict.
"But then can anybody deny the fact that Sitha was brought into this country using deception," said one of the organizers. "She died a horrible death at a young age. We should have had hundreds of people to mourn her death."
The coalition is collecting donations for the victims who have allegedly suffered at Reddy's hands.
Money can be sent to: PO Box 14014, Berkeley CA 94712. Checks are payable to 'Narika - Victim's Fund'.
For more information, call 1-800-215-7308.
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