The Indian freedom struggle inspired liberation struggles in Africa and Afro-America.
“Gandhi pioneered a philosophy of the movement which was based in the life-world of the peasantry and the poor.”
The year of 2019 is the 150thanniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. In Philadelphia, we will celebrate the anniversary with our second event of the year, Now is the Time, where we call on people to look back at the Indian Anti-Colonial Struggle and the Black Freedom Movement to anchor us today in a new resistance.
Why celebrate Gandhi?
These are difficult times for people around the world. The ruling elite in the United States has brought the world close to war. This society is driven by increasing violence, in the form of white supremacy and economic exploitation, leading to misery and poverty around the country. Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the United States, and all around us, we see an illogicalsociety unable to provide people with basic needs, but also unable to create meaning in the lives of people. A crisis in which a society is unable to create meaning for those who live in it is a crisis of civilization, and these are signs of the increasing calamity that western civilization faces.
In this time, people are crying out for a new knowledge and morality that can liberate them from the shackles of oppression and create new meaning in a time of crisis. They are increasingly rejecting elites who control knowledge. They are rejecting “experts” who stand above the people, and exercise authority and control over knowledge. They are rejecting the attacks of these elites on our great freedom fighters.
“This struggle marked the first victory of mass people’s struggle against western colonialism in the 20thcentury.”
And so we turn to Gandhi as a figure for our times. A celebration of Gandhi, is not merely a celebration of a man, but rather it is a celebration of the Indian freedom struggle, a multi-faceted struggle which heralded the end of colonialism in India and inspired the liberation struggles in Africa and Afro-America. This struggle marked the first victory of mass people’s struggle against western colonialism in the 20thcentury. This victory was the first link in the chain of anti-colonialrevolutions across Asia and Africa. Yet the Indian anti-colonial movement is hardly studied by activists today or accorded its proper significance by historians. Nevertheless, its importance was recognized by no less a figure than WEB Du Bois, who said that August 15th, the date of India’s independence, was one of the greatest dates of the century. The philosophy and methods of this struggle has renewed importance today in a time of crisis. It was able to move the world and illuminate its conscience at a time when the British empire’s grip on the world seemed unshakable and hence parallels the world we see today.
Gandhi and his political genius
In celebrating Gandhi, we also commemorate an unparalleled political genius. His entrance into the anti-colonial movement marked the shifting of the Indian National Congress into a mass political organization. He went to the masses of people in India and lived among them as perhaps no other leader had. He pioneered the concepts of satyagrahaandahimsa, providing a language and theory that spoke to the Indian masses, and a philosophy of the movement which was based in the life-world of the peasantry and the poor. He saw a rejection of western political thought and the reconstruction and renewal of India’s ancient philosophies as a path to independence and national regeneration. He demonstrated that all progressive political thought did not emerge from the European enlightenment. He did this at a time when colonialism had severed all progressive legacies from India, preserving and enhancing decaying feudal structures. He rejected the violence inherent in the concept of western “civilization,” and instead spoke about an ancient moral tradition of non-violence. He demonstrated that Indian religious and spiritual traditions, as well as texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran could be read and interpreted as texts of freedom and liberation, and carried more weight among the people than the combined weight of western thought. This tremendous political turn away from the Western intellectual tradition causes great consternation and discomfort to the westernized left up until this day, as exemplified in Perry Anderson’s mediocre work “The Indian Ideology.” In a period of the acceleration of the collapse of Europe, such a political turn as Gandhi’s is more significant than ever. Western civilization and its political thought must be interrogated by the darker people of the world.
Gandhi and Black America
The Indian Freedom Struggle was deeply connected to the Black Freedom Movement. A celebration of Gandhi is hence necessarily also a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., a great soul himself and the greatest interpreter of Gandhi, who provided an extraordinary synthesis and radical practice of the ideas of Gandhi. It is grounding ourselves in the values and ideas of the black freedom movement, and seeking the path forward. It is no exaggeration to say that it is Black America that best understood the significance of Gandhi. During the height of the Indian independence movement, it was African American leaders like Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman, who visited India and met Gandhi. Their meeting was a meeting between equals, seeking a common solution to the problem of European domination. Many other figures, from black colleges and universities as well as the black church, like Mordecai Johnson, William Stuart Nelson and others visited India and understood the Gandhian principles of Satyagraha. They established a theological and philosophical connection between the ideas of the Indian freedom struggle and the ideas of black freedom. WEB Du Bois once called Gandhi the greatest man alive, and made a careful study of his life and philosophy. These figures formed a chain of intellectual and political contact that would crystallize in the thought and practice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the emergent black freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. King became Gandhi’s greatest interpreter through his own American satyagraha, and established a new synthesis which marked the coming together of two great struggles.
Lastly, the celebration of Gandhi is a call for the revival of the memory of the anti-colonial movements in our time, and continue the struggle against imperialism. The western ruling elite and their intellectuals have worked overtime to bury this legacy. The Indian independence struggle and the black freedom movement are connected to the freedom struggles in Africa, to the meeting of darker nations in Bandung, and to the construction of a just world order based on peace and justice. These past struggles remain unfinished and in studying them, we search for a vision of a new world in our times, and to continue them as we see contradictions intensifying in western imperialism. To celebrate Mahatma Gandhi is to call forth the memory of figures like Martin Luther King Jr, Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Sukarno, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Agostinho Neto, Patrice Lumumba and all others who fought for freedom and liberation. In a time of pessimism and repression, we seek ideological clarity and we will seriously study these figures from the past, as we continue the struggle today.
We seek to know the world in order to change it. We will discuss and learn from the ideas of the Indian freedom struggle, the Black Freedom Movement and other movements for freedom and liberation but also from some of the world’s greatest civilizational traditions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Black Christianity, Islam and African spiritual traditions. We will bring light to the ideological and principled unity between these past heroes, and the lessons for today.
We call upon the people of Philadelphia, and around the country to join us and continue the struggle for peace and justice
Now is the Time: Mahatma Gandhi, Indian Anti-Colonial Struggle and the Black Freedom Movementwill be held on June 14thand 15that the Church of the Advocate, 1801 Diamond St Philadelphia, PA.
Jahan Choudhry is a member of the Saturday Free Schoolbased in Philadelphia, PA. He is an organizer of the Year of Gandhi.
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