Speech delivered by Sharad Karkhanis, Ph. D. before the Queens Village Republican Club at Antun’s on the occasion of Lincoln’s Birthday Celebration and Award Ceremony 2/10/2008. He was honored as Educator of the Year for his valiant stand for free speech battling a defamation lawsuit for daring to suggest that placing convicted terrorists in teaching positions on the CUNY payroll is not appropriate.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Honorable Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, Chair James Trent, President Phil Sica, Mr Marlin, Prof. Matacotta, friends, relatives, and recipients of other awards, my friends and colleagues from Kingsborough and my good friend Phil Orenstein. Thank you Phil, for that wonderful introduction. I’m truly overwhelmed with this honor. I’m humbled with the thought that you too have recognized the importance of protecting one of the most cherished rights of American Citizenship, that of the First Amendment right to free speech and the press. Thank you , thank you, thank you for joining me in this struggle, for if I am not able to express myself freely, one day, you too will be subjected to the denial of your right to express yourself. My fight is your fight, and I intend to go on no matter where it goes, or however long it takes. I will fight it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States even if it takes twenty years. This fight is a fight worth fighting for.
I come from a very large family of eleven siblings, and though everyone knows that in Asian countries like India, Japan and China, people have extended families of brothers, sisters, Cousins and cousin’s cousins often numbering into 2-3 hundred people, I am proud that I now have an even larger extended family. A family of bloggers from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and all over the world. However, I have never come across a family more beloved than those of my fellow Americans. They are all talking “Free Speech for Sharad”. It is simply astounding how the flames of support in defense of free speech has ignited all over the world and I’m more than gratified that I am not alone in this fight.
I would like to give you a little glimpse into my early life after I graduated from High School. As is common among the middle class families, after high school one goes to work during the day and attends the college either early in the morning or late at night. I began my search for a job right after graduating high school. As required in my country, India, one must appear for a written test whether it be the job in the Post Office or in any other government office. I took tests everywhere with no success --- I failed and failed and failed. My failure was mostly due to my handwriting, which was bad, bad, bad. Come to think of it, it is still bad today! Thankfully we now have computers and Microsoft word, and everyone can properly express themselves with no worries about their handwriting. My brother suggested that I apply for a job in the foreign consulates where generally no one thinks of applying. I did exactly that. I went out and applied to about 110 consulates. Two or three weeks later, I got a call from the British consulate, I went for an interview and got a job working for their government. The next day, I got another call, this one was from the American consulate. I went for an interview and charmed up the Americans with my crew cut, Camel cigarettes and a whole lot of pizzazz. There were no written tests at both the British and American Consulates. It was personality that counted at the interview. I got a job with a larger salary than what the British had offered me. I took the job with U.S.I.S. where I was making more money than my older brother with a master’s degree and title as an officer in the bank. On my first paycheck, I bought saris for all of my sisters and mother. They sure were proud of me. I was rich, and so well to do, that I was even able to give money to my father to build a new house. Thus began my migration to the West. With a little help for my bad handwriting I landed a job with the American consulate.
After about three years of working for the American consulate, I decided to expand my horizons and went off to England to pursue a career in flight navigation. Fortunately or unfortunately, the business of flight navigation was fast dwindling due to technological advances in aeronautics radar navigation. However, there was no internet and blogosphere at that period so I was a bit behind the times.
My stay of less than a year in England was not particularly enjoyable. It wasn’t easy to find a place to live in London. A Jewish family, however, was kind enough to rent me a small room in their home. I gravitated towards going to America. I applied to numerous universities as a work-study student and finally, I was admitted to Rutgers University with a job offer in the Montclair Public Library in NJ.
Like many other immigrants I landed at JFK with fifty dollars in my pocket. I heard that your last year’s recipient of the award, Mr. Thakral had come to America with a little larger amount than what I brought. He had a big $100 in his pocket, but lost most of it on his way home from the airport. Happy to have fulfilled the dream, drunk because I was transferred to first class in the plane, mind you, in those days they used to serve unlimited liquor and all the broiled lobster you can eat, I had a ball on the flight. I do not remember how I got through customs. The only thing I remember is when I asked a taxi driver to take me to Montclair, N.J. he told me that he will take me to Port Authority where I can get a bus. I asked him “ how much will the ride cost?” He replied “two fifty” Shocked, I said to him “I heard you can buy a whole car for less than two hundred and fifty dollars.” He said no no no, not two hundred and fifty dollars, it is two dollars and fifty cents.” “Ah, that’s better”, I said. Thus began my journey in this beautiful land.
Here in Montclair as well, a wonderful Jewish family, the widow of a former caterer for President Roosevelt rented me a room for five dollars a week and I stayed with the widow and her two children Donald and Helene for almost three years. It wasn’t easy. I’ll give you a quick glimpse of my early struggles. After rent and other travel expenses I had only $20.00 left in the pocket, and there were still two three weeks before I could get my first pay check. I was living on rice and milk, day in and day out. One Sunday, bored and hungry, I got up, got dressed and began to take a stroll in town on an empty stomach. As I was walking I saw few people in front of a church. When I came in near proximity of the church the pastor waved at me as if he wanted me to come over and talk to him. I did. He asked me whether I was new in town to which I said “yes”. He asked me to come in and join them for a coffee in the church’s basement. He took me in and introduced me to the many parishioners. As much as I enjoyed the chat, my eyes were however, glued on the cookies and as soon as I got a chance I took a handful of those cookies (and boy did I enjoy them!). You have no idea how happy I felt eating those cookies. As I went into the church and sat in the pew, I stood up when I saw others standing up, I sat down when I saw others sitting down, I held the bible and read from it following the lead of the other parishioners. At the end of the service one of the parishioners, fascinated with this mysterious creature from the East asked me whether I am free for dinner that night. I said “yes, but I don’t have a car.” He said “someone will come and pick you up”. That evening his beautiful daughter came and took me to their house on top of a lovely little hill.
That was my first real dinner in America with an all American family. It had all the glamour of a high society dinner with all the trimmings and maid service. The people who had invited me were very very rich. Now, you can surely take a guess at what I might have done for the next few months to survive. I was going to a new church every Sunday. I had no idea nor did I care whether it was Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian or whatever, as long as I managed to get invited to a dinner that evening. As you can imagine, I really looked forward to Sundays during those days.
Yes, I had a rough time in the beginning, but so did many other immigrants who came to this shore before and after me. But imagine the brutal and nasty life of the immigrants in the Colonial era, and during the Civil War. Imagine the times of World War I, and World War II, think about the Depression era when there was rationing and people were lining up for work and food. Think about the early immigrants, the Chinese, the Polish, the Russians, the Jews and all the others. Think of the native Indians and the plight of the African Americans. Recall the Civil Rights era when there were all those marches and demonstrations around the country. The history speaks loudly and clearly that because these early immigrants and settlers made so many sacrifices, we the recent immigrants had it much much better.
I recall traveling to Florida on 95 south and stopping at a gas station in Georgia where I had to decide whether I should go in the Whites only Bathroom or in that which was marked “For Coloreds Only.” I still have the frightening recollection of an incident which took place in a Georgia Diner. The waitress asked me where I came from “originally”. When she heard it was India, she approvingly said “that’s good.” I gave her a quizzical look to which she responded “if you were a black man, I would have had my husband shoot you down on the doorsteps of this diner.”
Yes, yes, yes. These days, as soon as we pass through Customs at JFK, we begin to demand our rights, we want equality, and we want that American dream to be fulfilled as quickly as possible. We want a big house, a big car and now the big Television. If we work hard we get most of those. That is all good, but let us not forget that it is because of the long and hard struggle of blacks, the Jews, the Irish Catholics, the Native Indians, the Hispanics and multitudes of others that we are able to achieve the ever-present American dream much more quickly. It is these Americans who have shed their blood for this country, for the spread of democracy and a decent life for all of mankind. We are honoring, posthumously, one of those great heroes who sacrificed his life for us today serving our nation in Afghanistan, Major Jeffrey Calero.
I often find that recent immigrants have no sense or very little sense of American history. Their demand for rights and privileges for themselves are based on what is good for them without realizing that other groups and immigrant minorities have given a lot more so that the recent immigrants can now enjoy the fruits of their labor. The message I want to leave for my fellow immigrants is that they should take a little bit of time from their busy schedule of making money and focus a little bit in understanding the American culture and its metamorphosis to what it is today. With that knowledge, they will be able to appreciate and partake in far more benefits of the opportunities presented in this beautiful land of liberty, freedom and success.
As odd as it may seem, I feel that I will take the liberty of comparing my current struggle to that of the struggle of one James Augustus Hickey, an Englishman, and a printer by profession. He published the first issue of Bengal Gazette on January 29, 1780. He claimed that he was printing it “to take a pleasure in enslaving my body in order to purchase freedom for my mind and soul.” Hickey’s Gazette contained comments about private affairs of individuals in Her Majesty’s Service and their leisure, carefree, detrimental, lackluster lifestyle. He skillfully used the information supplied to him by enemies of Governor General Warren Hastings’ Council members, who at the time were the appointed representatives of Her Majesty’s government ruling over India.
When the Governor denied Mr. Hickey the use of postal facilities, Mr. Hickey bitterly attacked the Governor and wrote, “Mr. Hickey considers the Liberty of the Press to be essential to the very existence of an Englishman and a free Government. The subject should have full liberty to declare his principles and opinions, and every act which tends to coerce that liberty is tyrannical and injurious to the community.” Mr. Hickey was arrested, fined and eventually was forced to close his gazette within a year or so. However, new newspapers made their appearances, but with the utmost caution that if they go against the authorities they too will suffer the same fate.
I’m taking the example from Mr. Hickey’s courage, endurance and determination to continue his battles for free press and expression of free ideas and opinions. Similar to Hickey, I will continue to fight no matter what it costs, even if it lands me in jail.
One does not have to be a Democrat or a Republican, Liberal or Conservative, rich or poor, educated or illiterate to defend and have the right to free speech. It is rather a struggle for our firm beliefs in an unhindered free flow of ideas and opinions with commitments to defend and protect the peace loving people of this nation and the world. Do not yield an inch to those who are giving support and comfort to the individuals bent on harming our people and this proud nation.
I would like to close by reading a quote from one of the great presidents of this country, Abraham Lincoln. In his speech in Kalamazoo, Michigan on April 18, 1864, he said, “Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties. And not to Democrats alone do I make this appeal, but to all who have these great and true principles.”
Thank you and God bless America.