Indian expatriates in America shared a common cause with African American leaders before Independence.
|When Enuga Reddy arrived in the United States in 1946, he was an Indian man caught in the limbo of a country firmly divided between white and black.|
By then, Indians in the United States had already managed to win support for Indian independence, as well as the greater rights of Indians in pre-Apartheid South Africa, because of the respect Mahatma Gandhi had engendered among blacks and whites.
"African Americans felt very happy that Gandhi, a colored man, had stood up to Britain," said Reddy, who stayed initially at the International House in New York's West Side. "There was a feeling of kinship in the struggle."
Lajpat Rai, Taraknath Das, Swami Vivekananda and Vijayalakshmi Pandit were just a few of the Indian luminaries who had visited America and developed kinship with the African American struggle for human rights. Others such as Reddy and Goshal stayed in the United States, serving as liaisons between blacks fighting segregation and Indians fighting for freedom in India and in South Africa.
Though the Indian presence in the United States prior to 1965 is easily overlooked, their interaction with black and white human rights advocates, is an important part of American civil rights movement and the larger struggle for global suffrage. It also underscores the reciprocal feelings of kinship felt between Indians and African Americans as a result of a shared struggle against racism and oppression.
Roots of struggle and kinship
Because of racial discrimination in the United States and the difficulty of Indians living under British rule to travel, only a handful of Indians came to the United States in the late-19th and early-20th century. The most famous visitor was Swami Vivekananda, who toured the country in 1893 while spreading the word about Hinduism and Vedanta philosophy. Vivekananda experienced overt racism, particularly in the South, where he was often confused for an African American.
Some blacks also believed Vivekananda was a "distinguished Negro," and in one case, a black porter congratulated him for representing black people so well. Vivekananda's empathy with blacks extended to his teachings in the United States about Vedanta philosophy, particularly the need to dissolve the barriers that prevented different groups from rising together. When one of his followers asked why Vivekananda never corrected people who mistook him for an African American, he replied angrily: "Rise at the expense of another? I did not come for that."
Nearly two decades after Vivekananda, Indian freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai visited the United States and likened the African American civil rights struggle with India's. Rai became close with Du Bois, who had become actively interested in how Indians were resisting white domination.
Du Bois would later write about Indians' ignorance of blacks, lamenting that "unless they are as wise and catholic as my friend...Lajpat Rai, they are apt to see little and know less of the twelve million Negroes in America."
By the 1920s, Taraknath Das, an Indian freedom fighter settled in the United States, had also made the connections between African Americans' calls for equality and Indians' desire for independence. Das, who became one of the pioneers of the Indian community in the United States and a benefactor of future Indian graduate students in America, aligned himself with numerous causes supporting African Americans.
Indians on the frontlines of the struggle
The few Indians who came to the United States as students or lecturers found it impossible to avoid the country's racial conflict. In many cases, Indians were treated the same as blacks, and in the South, were often forced to ride in segregated train cabins and use facilities for "coloreds only."
One of the mainstays of the American Left from the 1930s to the 1950s was Kumar Goshal, an Indian revolutionary who fled to the United States to escape arrest by British authorities. According to Reddy, Goshal was involved with Indian militant groups who often used violence against British targets as both resistance and propaganda against colonial rule.
Goshal's articles about India often stressed the commonalities between Indians and African Americans in their struggle for human rights and independence. By the 1940s, Goshal had moved to New York and joined with other Leftists in the Council on African Affairs, a fiercely anti-colonial organization with unofficial ties to the Communist Party. He also taught at the Jefferson School, a well-known Marxist institution in Manhattan.
Esther Jackson, a former acquaintance of Goshal's during the 1940s, recalled that Goshal was keen on developing a social network of minority intellectuals against global oppression and that his writing often hreflected those beliefs. In many ways, Goshal was a precursor to Desi postcolonial writers such as Homi Bhabha, Arjun Appadurai and Gayatri Spivak.
Reddy met Goshal shortly after he arrived in the United States. "He was not very friendly with the Indian community; his friends were in the left," said Reddy, who recalled only meeting one other Indian at Goshal's home. "As I was interested in the South African passive resistance, he suggested that I go to the Council Library."
"I participated in it with an Indian woman student from Bombay, Ms. Anasuya Godiwala," said Reddy. "We were very few Indian students at the International House then."
A short time later, Vijayalakshmi Pandit visited New York, pledging solidarity with African Americans against Jim Crow. Du Bois and other African American leaders, including Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, were among Pandit's biggest admirers.
Pandit made frequent visits to African American groups during her several trips to the United States. However, Du Bois remarked later that Pandit, who had called for an unconditional end to racial segregation in the United States, shied away from strong condemnation of the U.S. policy during the 1950s, a period when both the American and Indian government sought to establish closer diplomatic ties.
Cooling ties during Cold War
By the mid-1950s, most of the Indians who had come as students and as activist visitors had left the United States. The few who remained in New York settled in Harlem, sometimes marrying blacks and Puerto Ricans in the area.
Felipe Luciano, a noted Latino activist, said that the social relationships between Indians and Puerto Ricans in Manhattan and Queens often arose from a common sense of economic disenfranchisement. Indian merchants maintained a small presence in New York during the 1950s, but de facto discrimination often prevented upward mobility.
"There was some racism among Indians," said Reddy, who settled in Manhattan and began a long career with the United Nations. "Some people brought over their attitudes from India."
Reddy, who went on to become the assistant secretary general of the U.N. and led the U.N. Centre Against Apartheid, said that even Indians with strong political sympathies with African Americans rarely intermingled with other minority groups.
However, the diminished ties between Indians and African-Americans, which were further strained following the immigration of Indians into the United States after 1965, should not discount the impact of their solidarity in the first half of the century. The Indian freedom struggle undoubtedly influenced African American leaders who saw kinship with a group determined not to let go of its identity.