Stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past

This week in North Philly Notes, Manan Desai, author of The United States of Indiawrites about a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals.

In 1916, fresh off a tour across the United States, the exiled Indian nationalist Lajpat Rai penned what he described as a “Hindu’s Impressions and a Study” of America from his adopted home in Berkeley, California. After visits with prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Margaret Sanger, and Booker T. Washington, and stops throughout the country, Rai concluded that “the problems of the United States were very similar to those that face us in India.” As unlikely as that comparison seems, Rai was not alone in making it. During his time in the U.S., Rai became a part of a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, who actively imagined themselves as part of a shared project of anticolonialism. For the Americans with whom Rai and other Indian expatriates formed lasting friendships and alliances, the encounter with the Indian cause had shifted their perspective and left a lasting impression. Agnes Smedley, a working-class radical from Missouri who was mentored by Rai, would later write that her acquaintance with the Indian expatriate scene had led her to apprehend world events “through the eyes of men from Asia—eyes that watched and were cynical about the phrases of democracy.” W.E.B. Du Bois himself held onto the promise of Indian decolonization for decades to come, declaring in 1947 that India’s independence was “the greatest historical date of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” By comparing one another’s conditions, this band of writers came to reconsider not only how “the problems” of the U.S. and India were similar, but how such friendships and affinities formed across national and racial lines could foster new visions for a decolonized future.

United_States_of_IndiaThe United States of India reconstructs this network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, and examines vision they shared, during and immediately after the First World War. Organizations like the New York-based India Home Rule League, the radical San Francisco-based Gadar Party, the Friends for Freedom of India, and national student groups, produced periodicals, newsletters, pamphlets, and books, advocating for the rights of Indians under colonial rule as well as Indian migrants in the U.S.

But one of the critical goals in this book is to take seriously the contradictions that such comparisons opened up, how imagining one form of freedom at the expense of another. To return to Rai, for instance, we might ask: How could a white settler nation at the cusp of global dominance actually resemble a British colony in the East? What real comparison could be drawn from the structures of colonial dominance in India and the metropolitan world of the U.S.? What gets left behind in such comparisons?

These contradictions are particularly important when considering the relevance of early histories of South Asian America to our contemporary moment. To name just a few explored in the book: We see how in navigating discriminatory laws, Indian immigrants like Bhagat Singh Thind formally made claims to whiteness, but in doing they espoused a “racist response to racism,” as Sucheta Mazumdar describes it, that reinforced a system of white supremacy. We see how upper-caste Indian writers would acknowledge the violence of the caste system (from which they benefited), but just as quickly disavow it by foregrounding their experiences of racism in the United States and India. Lajpat Rai, who could be so sharp and cutting in his critiques of colonialism, also upheld Islamophobic ideologies and forms of Hindu nationalism that we see horrific repercussions of today.

As important as it is to engage the stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past, it may be an even more critical task to engage its contradictions, because they continue to persist and shape our present.

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