Jesse Jackson’s visit to Calcutta recalled a state department recommendation in 1949 that it would be a good idea to send only Black (then called Negro) diplomats to newly-independent India. Even if a case could be made out for rewarding tokenism (and the even must be stressed) in those early years, it would make little impact now that the relationship is so complex and substance matters far more than symbols. Jackson himself recognized this in another context when he said, “When we change the race problem into a class fight between the haves and the have-nots, then we are going to have a new ball game.”
His low-key pragmatism may have disappointed some listeners here. As Ralph Ellison, Black author of the Invisible Man noted, “Some Negro preachers are great showmen.” Jackson’s own guru, the late Martin Luther King, held massive audiences spellbound with his messianic oratory. His wife Coretta, whose church service I once attended in Montgomery, Alabama, was similarly compelling. But what Jackson had to say in his soft southern drawl echoed the fervour of communists who in 1947 denounced independence as a fraud. They thought there could be no freedom without revolution. Jackson thinks there can be no freedom in either India or the United States of America that does not include freedom from poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, infant mortality and from short life expectancy. Food, clean water, housing, railways and other infrastructure are part of the challenge of that “weapon of mass destruction” — poverty. “Poverty breeds terrorism. It breeds fear,” he said. “The unfinished business of the Indian liberation struggle is freedom from poverty.”
That strangely apposite and timely message could have applied to many current Indian conflicts. Not just the caste hierarchy of which he obviously knew something since he repeatedly called Blacks America’s untouchables, but also to the sense of rejection that grips many northeastern tribes as well as the social, economic and educational condition of Muslims that the Rajinder Sachar Committee highlighted. It was a plea, in fact, to go beyond tokenism, a plea for the enforced change in social attitudes that alone can make constitutional reform meaningful. The US has had legal equality since Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965 but one has to walk only a few blocks from the White House in Washington to see that “discrimination and inequality” are rampant. Blacks are “free but not equal”. “Neither are we” one can hear from the friends and relatives of Nido Tania, the boy from Arunachal Pradesh cruelly cut off in the prime of promising youth by a vicious Delhi mob. Many other minority groups might take up that refrain if they dared.
Ironically, the next day’s news again illustrated how constructive messages are lost on shortsighted politicians. Although blest with the best intentions, Rahul Gandhi demonstrated an inability to grasp what social change is all about by declaring he wanted “a law which will ensure all Indians feel at home anywhere in the country”. Such laws we have in plenty but they are without moral force because they are conceptually far ahead of people whose India does not extend beyond their own little circle. Officers of State, whether in the police or judiciary, are incapable of enforcing these laws because even if they are not malign or corrupt, they lack the vision to realize that someone who looks different, eats, speaks and dresses differently and worships unfamiliar gods are equal members of a diverse Indian family. Rahul Gandhi may have played into the hands of blinkered sectarians who believe the outcome of the coming election will allow full play to their prejudices by referring to Nido Tania as “the son of our MLA”. That description reduces a colossal personal and national tragedy to a petty party conflict.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Rajnath Singh was infinitely worse. Making a song and dance of a new member because he is a Dalit from Mayavati’s caste was cheap enough. Since the new recruit is also from the Indian Revenue Service, the BJP gloats it has upstaged Arvind Kejriwal as well. Singh then assured Muslims his party would apologize to them by bowing their heads. What for? Surely not for the pogrom that followed the Godhra horror of 2002? We are repeatedly reminded that a Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court cleared Narendra Modi of complicity and that only two months ago, another court upheld the SIT report and rejected a petition seeking to prosecute him. Modi’s supporters also make heavy weather of the argument that Gujarat has known a decade of communal peace since that bloodletting. Why then is Singh so publicly anxious to abase himself before Muslims? Votes of course. It was not for a guest (and a polite churchman at that) to point out flaws in the host country. But everything he said about his own country was a resounding condemnation of precisely this kind of hypocrisy.
That brings me back to the original question: Would Black American diplomats be a good idea? The state department probably believed in 1949 that Blacks would respond more readily to Indians. It may also have thought that Indians would be more sympathetic to Blacks than to white Americans. If both assumptions had been wrong then, they would be even more inaccurate today. Perhaps India would have made much of Blacks in 1949 as epitomizing Afro-Asian solidarity. But it would have been a shortlived romance. African students complained even in the 1950s of being stared at in the streets and jeered at as “hubshi”. They were seldom invited to Indian homes. The kind of contretemps that was reported from Delhi’s Khirki Extension in January would sooner or later have fouled the atmosphere.
“Man,” Larry Wilson, the Black American consul in Bombay, exclaimed to J. Saunders Redding, a Black writer whom the state department sent on a lecture tour of India in 1952, “we’re dealing with coloured people in a coloured country!” What Wilson omitted to say — perhaps he didn’t know for we are good at concealment — was that like the Whites and Reds who were all black in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop, Indians don’t see themselves as coloured. Under the political posturing, we believe with Bhagat Singh Thind, an immigrant who entered the US in 1913, served with the American forces in World War I, and petitioned for citizenship in 1922, that we are “descendant(s) of the Aryans of India, belonging to the Caucasian race (and, therefore) white...”.
American Blacks (or Negroes or African-Americans, call them what you will) would not have put up with the pretension. They would also soon have disabused Indians of the illusion that they themselves are Blacks with American passports. Apart from those few who became Liberians and the even fewer Rastafarians and followers of Marcus Garvey who went to Africa, they are resolutely Americans who happen to be Black. Redding spoke of “Asiatic ethnocentrism” and Indians who patronized him. I asked Ellison in 1964 about the Black’s original ethnic identity and was baffled by his incredulous “After 500 years?” until I read much later that he saw Blacks not as a single group but as an American amalgam of many African, European and American-Indian blood lines. Denying “that culture is transmitted through the genes”, Ellison attributed what is regarded as a Black lifestyle to “social conditioning”.
India can expect no special indulgence from the modern Black. He will judge by the yardstick of American values and from the viewpoint of his own experience. Where Jackson may have erred was in warning that the alternative to meeting expectations could be civil war. Murders and massacres are more the style here than open confrontation.