BY CYNTHIA CHOCKALINGAM, CIVIL RIGHTS UNIT INTERN AT SAN
When I was—probably—around 10 years old, I learned at Chinmaya Mission—a Hindu Sunday School system—that when I walk around with scissors, the blade should be facing myself so no one else is at risk. We learned of self-sacrifice and valuing others; an innocent person should not suffer for the mistakes of others. But what about when they are not just an innocent person? Even before India’s fight for independence from the British, Black Americans were already fighting for freedom from the oppression they still face. Both conversations alike stress the importance of nonviolence from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. However, these conversations fail to include the importance of violence and nonviolence working side-by-side. At Black Lives Matter’s peak during the summer of 2020, many South Asians jumped to the side of white Americans in chastising the entire movement for the violence of some. Just as during the initial civil rights movement and the more recent Black Lives Matter movement—both of which are ongoing, South Asia’s fight for independence from Britain involved both civil disobedience and violence.
India’s vision for independence began in 1857 with the rebellion uprising, which was later referred to as the First War of Independence. India itself learned that staying peaceful and moderate with no force did not lead to change. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Congress President as of 1905 and one of Gandhi’s mentors, initially opposed what he called “extremists” like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, an early member of Congress who gained support in the 1890s. Tilak then spent the following decades cooling down towards Gokhale’s more “moderate” views. However, they soon learned this led India nowhere. Even when India greatly supported Britain during World War I, India was not granted any further autonomy.
Understanding the fight for independence through key figures Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose helps grasp the role violence played in India’s fight for independence. Born in 1907 to a Sikh family in modern Pakistan, Bhagat Singh was born into the fight for independence; when he was born, his father was in jail for political agitation. His father was a supporter of Gandhi, so Singh fell into this non-violent crusade, but in college, he came to believe armed conflict was the only way to political freedom.
In April of 1929, he and his colleague—Batukeshwar Dutt—bombed the Legislative Assembly in Delhi to scare, not kill, as a result of the Public Safety Bill. After being arrested, he used the courtroom as a way to spread his political beliefs—rather than defend himself—so he was sentenced to life in prison. While investigating, Singh was connected to an earlier killing of Officer Saunders, so Singh was sentenced to death and hung. While he died at age 23, his life and actions became inspiration for many to come.
Like Singh, Subhas Chandra Bose was a controversial figure, yet, also like Singh, he was extremely significant. While he was initially a supporter of Gandhi, he became more critical of his “less confrontational approach toward independence.” Leaving India in 1941, he travelled seeking Indian support for a forceful fight against the British. He appealed to Japan, receiving military support to take back to India. While he and his new crew were forced to retreat and he then died—which is rumored to be caused by a plane crash over Taiwan but is unconfirmed—he opened much of India and the government’s eyes to the hits they could make to the British forces. He was integral to forming the liberation army identity of the Indian National Army, and he became an inspiration for the independence movement.
The Civil Rights Movement in America was fundamentally about freedom. Malcom X articulated that the center of this movement was identity, integrity, and independence. His philosophy was for Black Americans to protect themselves from white aggressors “by any means necessary.” Even Martin Luther King, Jr stated that Malcolm X “had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem.” Nonetheless, the importance of non-violence cannot be undermined. They have been critical in both independence movements, both that of India and Black Americans. However, South Asians should not misrepresent our own history: it was not that purely of non-violence and success did not come from non-violence alone. Instead, we should understand this violence and force comes from a place of suffering; violent and non-violent actions together is what made India’s freedom possible. As Black History Month comes to an end, that does not mean it is time for everyone to go back to turning a blind eye to Black people’s suffering. Conversations of discrimination and inequality should continue afterwards for the rest of the year, even—and especially—in South Asian spaces. Black Americans should not be expected to keep sitting back waiting for this nation to treat them as equals.