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September 2006


Thousands of Indian-Americans went on riots in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and other major cities over the shortage and rising price of dal or lentils. The rioters overturned cars, broke store windows and burned effigies of Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, angered that his government had banned the export of dal.

"How could they do this to us?" screamed Manish Desai of Atlanta. "They want us to support India, but they're not supporting us."

The riots began in Atlanta when a man named Rajiv Krishnan tried to buy eight packets of urad dal at Patel Brothers Spice and Dal Store.

Store manager Sanjay Patel told Krishnan that customers were limited to one packet of dal each. Krishnan paid for one packet, then returned to the store with his wife and six children, asking each of them to buy a packet.

Patel refused to sell the dal, saying that the entire family was considered one customer. This angered Krishnan, who started throwing packets of dal at Patel. Some of the packets ripped open, causing dal to be strewn on the floor. Customers rushed to fill their pockets with dal, fighting with each other and sparking the riot.

As word of the Atlanta riot spread around the country through blogs and text messages, Indian-Americans in other cities panicked, believing that the price of dal would shoot up further. They swarmed into stores, found shelves empty and went berserk.

Police were caught completely off guard by the dal riots. "At first we thought they were rioting over dolls," said Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington. "We thought they were offended by the new Diwali Barbie."

Before the riots, prices of some dals (also known as pulses) had risen from about 50 cents a pound to more than $2 a pound. A drought in India had shrunk the supply of dal, causing the government to ban exports to ensure that the staple food was available to the 1.1. billion people in India.

"We sympathize with our people in India, but we need dal too," said Rupinder Gill, one of the rioters in Chicago. "We call them ‘pulses,' because without them, we won't have any pulse."

Patel, who hopes to import dal from another country, has posted a new sign in his store: "All dals are being kept in a glass case at the front counter. Limit one per extended family."

Gill and other rioters called on President Bush to suspend America's nuclear deal with India until the two countries could agree on a "dal deal."

Gill said anger over dal prices had been brewing in the Indian-American community for weeks and it was inevitable that it would erupt. "We Indians are generally peaceful people," he said, "but we wanted to send a strong message to the world: Don't mess with our dal."

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