Do Black lives matter to Southasians? Depressingly, the answer can seem like a resounding ‘no’. African residents have faced horrific racism in India: in early 2017, African diplomats accredited to India issued a press release condemning attacks against African students as “xenophobic and racial in nature”. Many Southasians blindly subscribe to some of the worst stereotypes of African Americans. In the United States and the United Kingdom, Southasian immigrants’ support of Donald Trump and Brexit have had clear racial overtones, drawing a line between ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ immigrants and minorities.
And yet, the Southasian faces at recent Black Lives Matter protests offer hope. They also point to a much longer and deeper history between Southasians, Africans, and members of the African diaspora (leave alone the centuries-long presence of African diasporic communities within Southasian countries). In fact, Black lives have mattered a great deal in the history of modern Southasia – especially through the Indian nationalist movement and the broader campaign against colonialism. There has been a shared struggle that goes well beyond what comes to mind for many Southasians: the influence of M K Gandhi’s nonviolent thought on Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela, or B R Ambedkar’s insights into similar predicaments of Dalits and African Americans. Indeed, in this shared struggle, Southasians have greatly relied upon and benefited from the support of Africans, West Indians, and African Americans.
Slate channels the towering African American intellectual W E B Du Bois to describe how coloured cosmopolitanism appealed to those forging “a united front against racism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression.”
Today, this history should compel Southasians – whether in the Subcontinent or the diaspora – to take the Black Lives Matter movement seriously and to augment antiracist participation. History reminds us that there is a fine line between modern-day prejudices and those that our ancestors faced and fought against.
It is not difficult to see why Blacks (and here I define the term broadly to include Africans and members of the African diaspora in the West) and Southasians worked together in the past. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, they faced remarkably similar predicaments in their respective countries: severe economic injustice, colour prejudice, political disenfranchisement, and colonial violence. Looking at the history of African Americans and Indians, the historian Nico Slate has eloquently written of a “colored cosmopolitanism” shared by political activists in India and the United States. Slate channels the towering African American intellectual W E B Du Bois to describe how coloured cosmopolitanism appealed to those forging “a united front against racism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression.” This was a dynamic whereby someone like the nationalist and feminist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, traveling across America between 1939 and 1941 to champion Indian independence, could also take a stand against Jim Crow laws. A similar dynamic existed more broadly with Africans and other members of the African diaspora. From the Subcontinent to the West Indies, from Calcutta to London, and from a plethora of new organisations and institutions that blossomed across the global south, Blacks and Southasians forged common struggles for emancipation.
Emancipation – specifically, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and the United States – was an important stimulus to Southasian political activity. It is no exaggeration to say that Indian nationalism sprung in part out of the abolition movement, which demonstrated that the colour line was not cast in stone. Less than a decade after slavery ended in British territories, a prominent Bengali citizen urged his fellow Indians to reach out to one of the architects of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, Henry Brougham. A man “instrumental in causing the fetters of slavery to fall off from the limbs of the Negro,” after all, could also help Indians achieve their political rights.
It is no exaggeration to say that Indian nationalism sprung in part out of the abolition movement, which demonstrated that the colour line was not cast in stone.
White British abolitionists became important early facilitators for Southasian political reform. One such abolitionist, George Thompson, toured Calcutta and set up a London branch of a Bengali political society in 1844. As the historian Lynn Zastoupil has pointed out, some of the most prominent abolitionists, including William Wilberforce, also campaigned against sati, seeing British toleration of slavery and widow burning as two sides of the same coin. Rammohun Roy, the great Bengali liberal and anti-sati activist, spent the last weeks of his life in Bristol, where he consorted with prominent abolitionists and interested them in Indian affairs (his statue in Bristol is a short walk from the now-empty plinth for Edward Colston).
America also figured in these reformist visions. In Poona, the anti-caste reformer and educator Jyotirao Phule saw parallels between caste discrimination in India and slavery in America. In 1873, he dedicated a book against Brahmin dominance to “the good people of the United States” for having successfully delivered on the promise of emancipation after the Civil War.
The first modern political links between Blacks and Southasians were, therefore, indirect. But travel soon facilitated direct contact. In the late Victorian era, London emerged as a hub of anticolonial activity, and it was here that various colonised and oppressed people forged their first personal links. In 1893 or 1894, for example, Dadabhai Naoroji, the early Indian nationalist leader, met the African American journalist Ida B Wells, who spoke passionately against lynchings in the American South. A short while later, the Indian National Congress seems to have helped Henry Sylvester Williams, a Trinidadian activist, organise the Pan-African Conference of 1900, held in London. This was the first-ever political meeting between Africans, West Indians, and African Americans, the venue where Du Bois condemned imperialism and the exploitation of the wider “black world”. Meanwhile, African students and residents began attending Indian political meetings in the British capital.
It was around this time that Southasians began traveling in increasing numbers to the United States. As was demonstrated by Swami Vivekananda, the most famous of such early visitors, Southasians fixated upon the plight of African Americans and the systemic racism meted out to them. Why was this the case? When Southasians looked at Black Americans, they saw a reflection of their own predicament: being victims of “the crime of colour”, British colonialism had rendered them as second-class citizens in their own country, at the mercy of a judicial and police system governed by flagrant racism and different laws based on the colour of one’s skin. In a manner similar to Black Lives Matter, the early Indian National Congress demanded comprehensive police reform. The Congress called out British law-enforcement officers who “think we are all thieves and scoundrels and deal with us accordingly.”
Racism and prejudice inevitably seeped in, and many Indians adopted patronising attitudes towards their Black colleagues and contacts.
White hate crimes against African Americans therefore horrified Southasian visitors to the United States. Har Dayal, the Indian revolutionary, wrote revealingly from Berkeley in 1911 that America was known to the average Indian as “the country of Washington and Emerson and of negro-lynchings.” The same year, a student from Bengal, on board a train hurtling through the Midwestern countryside, recalled in chilling detail how a fellow passenger gloated to him about a recent lynching in Illinois. “A large number of Americans, it seems, think no more of shooting the negroes for pastime than they do of shooting the wild cats in the prairie,” he concluded.
Sympathy was not the only emotion that Southasians showed for blacks. There was also deep admiration. Nationalists admired how blacks such as Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian revolutionary, wrested their own freedom from tyrannical colonial rule. In 1908, Ramananda Chatterjee, the editor of the Modern Review of Calcutta, published excerpts of a biography on Louverture, remarking that his life would “inspire us with self-confidence.” In an era when Southasians clamoured for education to remedy their poverty, the achievements of former slaves in the US were truly inspiring. A Punjabi journalist, Saint Nihal Singh, toured the American South in the early 1900s, marvelling at the emergence of a Black professional class just a few decades after emancipation – and despite Jim Crow laws. “This is extraordinary development, unparalleled in the history of the world,” he declared. Like Gandhi, Singh admired Booker T Washington, the Black educationist, and urged Indians to set up schools modelled on his Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
In return for sympathy and admiration, Black communities gave something much more concrete: assistance in the struggle against colonialism. African Americans were some of the staunchest supporters of Indian independence. Walter White, the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) spoke vigorously in defense of India’s rights during the Second World War, counselling US President Franklin D Roosevelt to take a harder line against British colonial intransigence. In London, George Padmore, the Trinidadian pan-Africanist, worked alongside V K Krishna Menon in anti-imperialist activities. Black support transcended the objective of colonial liberation. When the US Congress considered the first bill to grant limited Indian immigration and naturalisation, the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, two African Americans, Du Bois and A Philip Randolph featured amongst the bill’s supporters.
Har Dayal, the Indian revolutionary, wrote revealingly from Berkeley in 1911 that America was known to the average Indian as “the country of Washington and Emerson and of negro-lynchings.”
It would be wrong to assume that Black-Southasian cooperation was frictionless. Far from it. Racism and prejudice inevitably seeped in, and many Indians adopted patronising attitudes towards their Black colleagues and contacts. Even universalism and antiracism, after all, are subject to human biases. While Southasian students in the US condemned lynchings and the general mistreatment of African Americans, many of them consciously wore turbans or other cultural markings in order to distinguish themselves from members of the Black community. Their solidarity could be limited.
In a similar manner, Southasian political leaders could deploy European racial biases in their favor. Several Indian nationalists embraced the argument that Indians were more advanced than African ‘savages’ or ‘Hottentots’ and therefore deserved more political rights from their colonial masters. They leaned upon Aryan racial theories to bolster claims of similarities with whites while distancing themselves from other coloured people, fusing together indigenous prejudices with Western ones.
In recent years, Gandhi has come under particular attack for his attitudes towards Black South Africans. He is the wrong target. Gandhi undoubtedly subscribed to racist notions during his time in Natal and Transvaal, but he at least overcame his prejudices and engaged closely with Black leaders in later decades. By the time of his death, Gandhi understood how Black lives mattered: by frankly discussing racism with African Americans or by protesting the leadup to apartheid policies in South Africa. Here is Gandhi in June 1946, a fundamentally different man from the earlier South African activist, and reacting specifically to South African mistreatment of Indians and Blacks: “The real ‘white man’s burden’ is not insolently to dominate coloured or black people under the guise of protection; it is to desist from the hypocrisy which is eating into them. It is time white men learnt to treat every human being as their equal. There is no mystery about whiteness of the skin. It has been repeatedly been proved that given equal opportunity a man, be he of any colour or country, is fully equal to any other.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Dalits drew upon African American radicalism, namely the Black Panther movement, by establishing the Dalit Panthers (J V Pawar, one of the founders of the Dalit Panthers, even named his daughter after the Black Panther leader Angela Davis).
Rather than attack Gandhi, it is far more useful to focus on those double standards and inconsistencies that endured. While Indian nationalists and Black activists cooperated in New York and London, chasms of racial hatred developed in East Africa, where Southasian settlers became the target of often justifiable resentment by indigenous inhabitants. Although sympathetic towards African Americans or West Indians, Southasian leaders could be shockingly dismissive of African aspirations. For example, Taraknath Das, the New York-based Indian intellectual and nationalist, spoke loftily of human brotherhood in a 1946 speech. But in the same breath, he argued that part of modern Somalia should be handed over to India as an emigrant colony to compensate for its wartime sacrifices. Das, who was a fiery revolutionary in his youth, was wholly unconcerned about what Somalis might think of his proposal.
These inconsistencies help explain our current-day predicament: how Black Lives Matter has had limited resonance in Southasia, and how inbuilt prejudices have triumphed in Southasian perceptions of the Black world, dimming memories of earlier solidarity and cooperation. In India, at least, the most significant internal inconsistency remains caste-based discrimination and violence. In the 1960s and 1970s, Dalits drew upon African American radicalism, namely the Black Panther movement, by establishing the Dalit Panthers (J V Pawar, one of the founders of the Dalit Panthers, even named his daughter after the Black Panther leader Angela Davis). In much the same way that African Americans campaigned for the full deliverance of their rights as American citizens, Dalit leaders fought to narrow the gap between the egalitarian spirit of the Indian Constitution and what was actually practiced on the ground.
By the time of his death, Gandhi understood how Black lives mattered: by frankly discussing racism with African Americans or by protesting the leadup to apartheid policies in South Africa.
This was a significant departure: Southasians forging organisational and ideological links with Blacks in order to fight discrimination practiced by other Southasians. And, instead of self-reflection or an appeal to the ‘colored cosmopolitanism’ of the past, many upper-caste Southasians reacted with resentment, violence, and the embrace of Hindutva-inflected rightwing politics. For those who migrated abroad, resentment towards lower-caste assertion probably helps explain why some Southasian immigrants aligned with racially divisive rightwing populism.
While the Black Lives Matter protests have generated media discussion in Southasian countries, it has not translated into the popular demonstrations witnessed as far afield as New Zealand, Japan, or Israel. Southasia, it can be argued, is a landscape of staggering injustice: what resonance could events in distant Atlanta, Minneapolis, or London have here?
But this is also precisely why it should matter. Much like those Indians who witnessed African American struggles a century ago, the Black Lives Matter movement should hold up a mirror to Southasia’s own predicaments. Jyotirao Phule and B R Ambedkar—who responded to black oppression abroad by pointing an accusing finger at fellow Southasians in addition to whites – must serve as the model, no matter how disturbing or unsettling the process may be. For those of us in Southasia, can Black Lives Matter bring attention to the police brutality, lack of due judicial process, colour discrimination, and rampant inequalities that exist right under our very noses? Solidarity is a nice idea, but it is, by itself, insufficient. What is demanded is radical and searching introspection of the prejudices that govern our own lives.