A New York subway train
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‘We Gave So Much’: Subway Conductor Who Caught COVID-19 Urges Workers to Fight

When Sujatha Gidla, the first Indian woman to conduct in the NYC subway, got sick, it was just one more time she grappled with inequality.

This article is part of VICE’s Strongman series. Sujatha Gidla tells her full story in the fourth episode of Strongman, available now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

New York City subway conductor Sujatha Gidla, 57, was infected with COVID-19 in the first few months of the pandemic. On March 27, 2020, Gidla called 911 with symptoms of aches, chills, and a dry cough. After being treated and discharged from the hospital, she spent the next fourteen days in quarantine. 


Though she has since recovered from the worst of the illness, Gidla still struggles with the long term physical effects like debilitating fatigue and insomnia. But for her, the virus has become more than that; Gidla now has questions about the social effects of the disease that have highlighted the inequality and hierarchy at the heart of the pandemic. 

“We gave so much, like we've worked without equipment, PPE, we worked through the pandemic and we've worked, [with] no hazard pay, nothing,” Gidla told VICE News. 

Early in the pandemic, the MTA followed CDC guidelines to not wear or distribute masks. Then, in late March 2020, they changed the policy to distribute PPE to workers. In those first weeks Gidla saw many of her colleagues get sick—until one day she got the disease herself. 

“We gave so much, like we've worked without equipment, PPE, we worked through the pandemic and we've worked, [with] no hazard pay, nothing.”

Gidla’s experience with the virus and subsequent mistreatment as an essential worker felt connected to her time growing up in India; although Gidla has been living in New York City for almost 30 years, she grew up in India and is Dalit, a group forced to the lowest rung of India’s social hierarchy. 

“Unless workers take charge and fight against this, we're doomed. And that's what is happening in India. That Modi is just running roughshod, you know—eviscerating section after section of the society and here too. It's the same thing,” said Gidla. 


A few years ago, Gidla wrote a book about her family called Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India. The book features her uncle KG Satyamurthy, who went by the initials SM and was a famous Dalit poet who fought against caste discrimination. In the book and throughout her work, Gidla traces how class and caste intersect, a thread that began in her hometown of Kakinada, India.

Gidla was born in a small town on the east coast of the country, and grew up in a mostly Dalit neighborhood. She didn’t realize what being Dalit meant at the time, however, because her parents didn’t talk about caste. Both of her parents were college lecturers; her mom taught history and her dad taught english. Her family was relatively comfortable compared to the rest of the neighborhood. But as she grew older, she started to realize that her family was treated differently every time they left their neighborhood. 

“Whenever we go to [the] grocery stores and stuff, like we couldn't hand the money to the cashier, we have to put it on the counter for him to pick up,” she said. Dalits used to be called “untouchables” because of the dirty jobs they were assigned to by the Hindu hierarchy. The system was outlawed in 1950 shortly after India gained independence, but caste-based discrimination continued. 

In July 1985, when Gidla was in college, hundreds of men chased down and tortured Dalits in a village near where she was studying. The Karamchedu Massacre only lasted an hour, but women were raped, at least six people were killed, and homes were burned to the ground.


The massacre was a turning point for Gidla. “Caste is a very, very useful tool to divide [the] working class and keep them from fighting together,” she said. “All of that has to be in place to keep the workers down, to keep the workers divided.” 

It was also a turning point  for the modern day Dalit movement. Dalits were creating art, writing literature, and organizing politically like never before. That same year, there was a strike that caused a complete shutdown at her school and Gidla left her college campus for home. At the same time, she was involved in the Radical Student Union; a student wing of the Maoist group called the People's War Group that was also fighting for Dalit rights. Soon after, the police showed up at her family’s home and took Gidla to the police station.

“Caste is a very, very useful tool to divide [the] working class and keep them from fighting together. All of that has to be in place to keep the workers down, to keep the workers divided.”

“I didn't think I didn't ever think that I would be arrested for [a] strike. I didn't ever think that I would be arrested for anything. I guess I was naive to think that [the] police did that only because they have a reason to” said Gidla. After some time, she was taken to another police station several hours away. Gidla walked into the deputy’s office, and she remembered he asked “Why do you want to be in these radical politics? Uh, you want to be a terrorist or something?... You're the only one we arrested because you're a Dalit.” Then, Gidla said, officers dragged her into another room and beat her. 


“That beating, I don’t remember very well,” said Gidla. “That's the first time, I guess, like I was hearing some people saying that ‘you're an untouchable and this is why we are doing this to you.’”

Afterwards, Gidla was shuffled from police station to police station. She ended up in prison for a couple of months until her family found her and helped get her released. She finished school and laid low, eventually moving to the United States in the hopes that she would finally feel accepted. 

Sujatha Gidla

Sujatha Gidla moved to New York in 1992. (Courtesy of Sujatha Gidla)

In India, the kind of violence Gidla experienced would continue for decades. Caste-based violence and mob violence has become commonplace under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. Though Modi rose to prominence for his charismatic speeches, he has wielded his power in controversial ways like passing the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 which excluded Muslim immigrants from citizenship. Now, his Hindu nationalist rhetoric has thrown the foundation of India’s secular democracy into question. 

In recent months, hundreds of thousands have demonstrated in the farmers protests, where Shudra farmers have unsuccessfully appealed to Dalit laborers to organize alongside them against laws that deregulate the cost of crops. 

But despite moments of attempted organizing, Dalits are still being targeted. In September, 2020 hundreds gathered throughout the country in protest aganist the gang rape and murder of a young Dalit woman in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Six months later, another young Dalit woman in the same area came forward after an alleged gang rape. According to November 2020 report, 10 Dalit women are raped everyday. 


“They're daring to aspire for more. And this is the backlash—the violence against them,” Gidla said. “In a way it's progress because they recognize that they're human beings and they deserve things that other people have. But if there is no leadership to lead them and there is no alliance with the working class, [Dalits] will go nowhere.”

When Gidla came to the United States in 1992, she brought her commitment to solidarity and activism to her daily life. She also brought her fears: “Maybe I don't admit it to myself, but a couple of times inAmerica [I] had this paranoid sensation that the police were following me.” said Gidla.  

Overall, she found comfort in being in a new place where most of the people she met knew little about India’s caste system. It was also exciting to try new things: “Somebody showed me a supermarket and said, this is [where], you can get food. But I didn't see anything that I could recognize. I bought angel cake for $5 and I ate it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,“ said Gidla. 

Though Gidla’s first job was in IT, she soon became fascinated with the women train conductors she would see on the way to work. “I was so impressed with the women being so confident driving this train that carried so many people and, you know, they're in charge of this big behemoth of a metal dragon,” said Gidla. She eventually took the exam to become a train operator and passed, making her the first ever Indian woman to become a subway conductor in New York City. 


Gidla has now been working as a conductor for almost a decade. Occasionally, she runs into someone who recognizes that she’s Dalit. One time, at a bank in the city, the teller asked Gidla to put the money on the counter so she wouldn’t have to touch Gidla’s hand. 

When Gidla came to the United States in 1992, she brought her commitment to solidarity and activism to her daily life.

To her, these moments underscore hierarchy in the U.S. too. When Gidla joined the MTA, most of her coworkers were Black. Gidla said she would talk to them about the divide she saw in her home country reflected in the U.S. “My occupation is to inform the West of Indian caste oppression, and to inform Dalit fighters about the Black struggle in America,” Gidla said. After Gidla recovered from COVID-19, she went back to work. People were still getting sick, and although PPE became more widely available, the train operators never stopped working. Gidla said many of her coworkers, including those she interacted with on a daily basis, died during the pandemic.  

“Hopefully this experience will make us see clearly the crucial role we play in keeping society running,” said Gidla. “So that we can stand up for our interests, for our lives.”  

Strongman is a podcast series of intimate narratives from across the globe about power and control, and how these dynamics shape our lives. Hosted by Hind Hassan.