Updated: April 10, 2012 15:22 IST

Shades and colours of politics and race

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan
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BROWN OVER BLACK — Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation: Antoinette Burton; Three Essays Collective, B-957, Palam Vihar, Gurgaon-122017. Rs. 300.
BROWN OVER BLACK — Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation: Antoinette Burton; Three Essays Collective, B-957, Palam Vihar, Gurgaon-122017. Rs. 300.

Africa and India have far longer shared histories than do India and imperial Britain, and Antoinette Burton investigates Afro-Asian solidarity, an idea prominent in the decolonisation era, to show among other things that the official rhetoric bore a complex relation to people's everyday experience of the purported phenomenon. She starts with Ansuyah Singh's 1960 novel Behold the Earth Mourns, in which one son of an Indian family — traders who have moved to Natal — gets involved in protests against the early apartheid laws, partly because his Indian wife is not allowed to join him and enters South Africa by appealing to a border guard. The respective friendships Srenika and Yagesvari develop with the African activist Serete — Srenika and Serete go to prison together — stand in contrast to the exchanges between Yagesvari and her African maid Anna, and the impact of racist legislation on “the innermost recesses” of the Indian household, home, and family grows ever more apparent. Burton notes here that Gandhi, who in places wrote of Africans as “kaffirs”, had his own racialist attitudes, and that the gulf between South African Indians and South African Africans was very deep.


A journalistic source is The Importance of Being Black, Frank Moraes' account of journeys across Africa in the early 1960s. Moraes, like many other South Asians, accepts cultural or racialist hierarchies disseminated by British colonials, but he is certain that the imperial denial of opportunities for development was the cause of Africa's then condition. He also sees complexities in the Afro-Indian relationship, commenting that Indians in Africa have held themselves “aloof” from Africans. African leaders knew that; Julius Nyerere said Asians would be welcome as “technicians, managerial talent, and sound investors”, and not as traders and moneylenders. Moraes is clear that India was an inspirational example for African politicians, but he also examines parallels between caste and tribalism, even if his apparent commitment to trajectories of development implies a form of historical determinism.

There is, however, no doubting the importance of Phyllis Naidoo, the anti-apartheid lawyer whose life and writings are grounded in the rejection of racial identities, a commitment particularly hard to sustain when the white establishment was replacing organised Indian workers with Africans, who were banned from unionising, and when the embryonic African National Congress was for Africans only. Naidoo tells of the time she overheard three Indian taxi-drivers coarsely remarking, in Hindi, on the Indian girl walking along with three Africans. One of the Africans was Chief Albert Luthuli, president-general of the ANC and later a Nobel Prize winner; when Naidoo told him what they had said, he walked across and asked the men if they were South Africans. Their reply that they were not brought from Luthuli the comment that he and his three friends were South Africans; that silenced the drivers. Many famous names figure here, including several whom the racist regime murdered even in other countries; so do the unsung, like Poomoney Moodley, who through failing health and deepening poverty did whites' washing so that she could keep up her union work and anti-apartheid campaigns.

If the political story needs telling lest we forget, some of the book's sharpest insights are in the chapter on The Morning After, the 1973 English version of Chanakya Sen's 1960 Bengali novel Rajpath, Janpath, in which the Africans Solomon, a poet, and Peter, head of the African Students' Union in Delhi, study on Indian scholarships.

Solomon stays in the home of a senior IAS officer, and Peter works in rural development. In contexts fraught with sexual tension, some of it from surprising sources, all the main protagonists make some unsettling discoveries about one another, about Indo-African developmentalism, and about themselves.

As Burton's range is remarkable, the occasional inaccuracy, such as the use of ‘strata' as a singular noun, or the remark that airliners fly at 60,000 feet, does not make much difference. Other issues, like the use of ‘citation' in so many ways that it becomes almost meaningless, and the multiple use of obliques which conflate rather than elucidate meaning, will be of interest to researchers in critical studies, but this book illuminates and challenges many received concepts in the study of diasporas or postcoloniality.

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