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When India Proposed a Casteist Solution to South Africa’s Racist Problem


When India Proposed a Casteist Solution to South Africa’s Racist Problem

BY  ON 04/04/2016 • DIPLOMACY


‘Private and secret’ memo in the South African diplomatic archives reveals an astonishing proposal that India made in 1949.

Indian settlers in South Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On October 24, 1949, South Africa’s representative at the UN, G.P. Jooste, sent a ‘private and secret’ memorandum to his headquarters in Pretoria. The opening paragraph of the memo read:

“I have to inform you that shortly after my minute of September 23rd, Sir Benegal [Narising Rau] saw us and explained that his government had authorised this [meeting], at his own request, to discuss the matter with us on a non-committal informal basis. He therefore suggested exploratory conversations.”

My eyes lit up as I scanned through this document at the National Archives in Pretoria. Until then, most books on India-South Africa relations (there aren’t too many) that detail these early years of independence had given me, page after page, a story of massive confrontation – almost mythical in proportion – between India and South Africa in the late-1940s at the UN. So quite naturally, an informal dinner meeting between two top UN diplomats of countries that were at each other’s throats excited me. But as I read on, the excitement turned into bewilderment for Rau had proposed a casteist solution to a racist problem, alerting me to an issue that has been almost singularly stripped from any narratives of Indian foreign policy – caste.

One of the reasons B.R. Ambedkar had cited in his resignation from Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet in October 1951 was his exclusion from decision making on foreign policy. In the first couple of decades of India’s independence, the Indian foreign service (IFS) was the most elite of all civil services (which, as a joke went, suffered from Menon-gitis). But beyond the (Brahmin) men (in the first 10 years of recruitment into the IFS, only three out of 62 selections were women), how did casteist ideas filter into foreign policy discourse? In general, what role do caste dynamics play in the formulation of foreign policy? We have never known, because foreign policy as a matter of ‘national interest’ is deemed above domestic squabbles, such as caste. Yet, the fact is, diplomacy is carried out by diplomats, and their social milieu influences not only their views about what constitutes ‘national interest’, but also who constitutes the ‘nation’. No study has ever been done on this, but perhaps this document will prove a valuable entry point.

Let us return to our tale then.

Arrival of the first Indians in Natal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A proposal for caste-based segregation

Less than three years earlier, from October to December 1946, the Indian delegation to the UN, led by Vijayalakshmi Pandit, had carried out a diplomatic David vs Goliath with perhaps the most respected statesman of the world then – Jan Smuts. The man who had “inserted human rights” into the preamble of the UN Charter left New York with “the honour, the power and the glory, all vanished,” wrote a sympathetic biographer, due to an “avalanche of condemnation” heaped on him by the Indian delegation on the question of human rights. Most prominent of these was Pandit herself, who called Smuts out for his hypocrisy on the treatment of Indians in South Africa.

On December 8, soon after an impassioned speech from Pandit, who, with a tear rolling down her eye, had appealed to “the conscience of the World Assembly,” India secured a two-thirds majority on its resolution against South Africa. India’s diplomatic assault had left Smuts to rue: “I am suspected of being a hypocrite because I can be quoted on both sides”. By sheer force of conviction, India had placed the issue of racism on the UN agenda.

B.N. Rau. Credit: Photo Division, Government of India

By late-1949, through a continued strategy of shaming South Africa at the UN, India had been able to secure a preliminary roundtable for talks with Pretoria. Perhaps to create a positive environment for talks, in September 1949 Rau deliberately used a milder tone in his opening statement on South Africa’s treatment of Indians, and let his counterpart, Jooste, know that his statement “may be regarded as a compromise”. A former Indian civil servant who also played a key role in drafting India’s constitution, Rau was India’s permanent representative to the UN. Known as ‘the saint of the United Nations’, he along with Nasrollah Entezam of Iran and Lester Pearson of Canada, formed the ‘Three Wise Men’ group at the UN in those early years. Under Rau, the Indian delegation was once described by Alastair Cooke as “messengers of peace casting sweetness and light around” in The Times.

Rau sought Jooste out for an informal dinner meeting, at the behest of the Indian government, and Jooste was told by Pretoria “to be most careful literally to say more or less what is proposed”.

In the meeting, Jooste, accompanied by his deputy J. Jordaan, kept to his brief, detailing South Africa’s position on the issue. Rau, however, let his tongue fly. Showing a rather “unexpected measure of frankness,” Rau began with confessing, Jooste noted, that ‘the feverish attempts in his country to destroy all caste inequalities were resulting in what in actual practice amounted to discrimination against the erstwhile ruling castes such as the Brahmins, to which he belongs’. Interestingly, this confession came just over a month before the pro-caste equality draft of the Indian constitution was introduced in the constituent assembly. In introducing the draft constitution, ironically, Ambedkar went on to specially credit Rau for his sterling work in preparing the draft.
Going further, Rau stated that “Indians who went to South Africa did not belong to the best type  and that, as in Burma, they may have exploited the local population and given India a bad name”. He added that the way the South African government treated them “might be fully justified and that in fact India would not mind discrimination against our local Indian community if only it was not based on racial lines”.

In his earlier discussions with Canadian authorities, Rau stated, he had proposed that Canada should allow “a small group of select nationals, say 20, to migrate to Canada where after a period of time they would be granted full rights of citizenship”. (Indian diplomats had indeed made such a suggestion to the Canadians, but the figure was 200) Based on this precedent, Rau enquired whether a similar proposal of citizenship to “a small number, say 10, of the cultured and best type of Indians” could work for South Africa “as a token to the world that the racial equality of Indians was recognised” by that country.

The Jooste Memorandum

It is clear from the contextual reference to Rau’s lament about “discrimination against erstwhile ruling castes like Brahmins” that his euphemistic reference to Indians of the  “best type” was really a proxy for the upper castes.

Effectively, what Rau had proposed was that if a small number of upper caste Indians were admitted as equal citizens in South Africa, this would in principle mean that there was no racial discrimination against Indians and give South Africa a way out in rechristening racism as a form of minority protection. Rau’s argument was based on the premise that upper caste Indians constituted the Indian nation in its best form, and thus only they were its true representatives. Lower caste Indians were, in short, not Indian enough, and hence how they were treated did not matter.

Rau assured Jooste that as soon as South Africa did anything to “remove discrimination based on racial considerations,” India would end its opposition to the country. He further added that India was acting as a “bulwark … against Communism in the East” and had taken a leadership position, and hence, “could not accept the position of being the inferior race,” and the South African application of the racial criteria was “playing into the hands of the communists who, today, were representing themselves as the liberators of the oppressed and the champions of freedom and liberty”.

The reaction from Pretoria to this memo was cautious. They refused to entertain the idea of making caste-based, and not race-based, distinctions. Ironically, year after year, it was apartheid South Africa that highlighted, at the UN, India’s hypocrisy on racial issues by deeming casteism as a form of racism.

Casteism in foreign policy

So, how does a historian of India’s foreign policy read this particular memo written by Jooste?

Indians in South Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One standard requirement would be to find out what Rau had to say about this conversation in his missives to Nehru or the Ministry of External Affairs. Such a letter doesn’t exist in Rau’s papers at the Nehru Memorial Museum Library, neither can one find anything in the National Archives. Short of conclusive proof, we are forced to ask the next best question: how much does one trust the authenticity of another person’s account? If it is a ‘private and secret’ memo of an external affairs department that is crucial in formulating foreign policy, there is a strong case for believing that this conversation actually happened in this form.

Or perhaps Rau was bluffing the South Africans to get a desired deal. We would never know for sure, although such a proposal of entry of just 10 Indians would almost certainly not work, given the strong struggle South African Indians were then waging within that country. Rau, though, had either misquoted or purposely brought down the numbers in the Canadian case from 200 to 20, possibly to make it more acceptable to South Africans.

The ‘small number’ argument had, in fact, also been used by Gandhi in his struggles in South Africa where he had asked for six Indians to be allowed to enter the Transvaal district, as an in principle acceptance of Indians as racially equals to Europeans. But Rau’s emphasis on ‘select nationals’ chosen from the ‘best type’ clearly referred to allowing only upper caste Indians, in order to sideline the racial argument. Although India’s argument on racial discrimination at the UN was only limited to discrimination faced by Indians – not Africans –  in South Arica until 1952, it was broadly justified by arguing that including Africans would step on South Africa’s sovereignty and thus strategically weaken India’s anti-racial struggle. But Rau’s suggestions, clearly, don’t help in using that explanation either, since he believed that racial discrimination in general could continue as long as it didn’t ‘look’ racial towards Indians.

This, of course, gives credence to the argument that India’s anti-racism has always had limited sympathy with Africans, and thus is often hypocritical. But Rau’s diplomacy reveals something more: that Indian diplomacy has also, in ways subtler than stark, used casteist framings. And accordingly, while caste has, justifiably, been scaled up as an issue of national importance, recently its remnants need to be exposed even in the most sacred of our institutions. Foreign policy is certainly one.


Vineet Thakur is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg.

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The making of India’s modernity


The making of India’s modernity

Reviewed publication: Arnold, D. 2015. Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226269375


In terms of thematic exploration, David Arnold’s book on technological modernity in colonial India, which covers the period between the 1880s and the 1960s, is seminal. In the current historiography, there is hardly any book which includes sewing machine, bicycle, rice mill, and typewriter in one single account that tells us the story of modern India that unfolded at the intersections of technology, state and society.1

Two important aspects related to the theoretical positioning of the book need brief comments. One relates to the scale of technology; and two, the scale of history and history writing.

Technology: A function of scale & site of social issues

On the first: the book makes a very pertinent claim that “Technology did not need to be big to be significant, audible, visible, and everyday” (10). Arnold claims that much of the existing historiography in South Asia has remained focussed on railways, irrigation (and very recently on telegraph) as main technological movers of the nineteenth century. Against this, he presents his justification of studying “everyday technologies” because “they frequently possessed an intimacy, a companionable association with family life and domestic existence, which bigger machines lacked” (11-12).

Arnold rightly observes that the little that exists on the history of technology, which includes his own earlier works, has remained focussed on big-scale technology. They explore the big politics of imperialism, nationalism and capitalism. There is, therefore, a need to look at small-scale technologies. However, intimacies, domesticities, and other such quotidian markers/formations are not necessarily a function of the scale of technologies. If a group of girls riding on bicycles sang away, quite literally, their free-spirited pedalling across the serene landscape as one towards love and freedom which no one should try to stop (the famous song main chali, main chali from the movie Padosan, 1968) then almost two decades earlier a song picturised in a railway carriage amusingly chronicled the enactment of some other everyday practices such as sleeping, playing cards and not least eating (the song rail mein jiya mora from the movie Ankhen, 1950). Further, Bhojpuri folksongs from the early twentieth century on railways and steamships (the big technologies) very vividly depicted the intimate everyday relationship around conjugality, family life, and domestic existence (or lack of it).

The argument that technology did not need to be big to be significant is absolutely valid, but equally true (and I assume Arnold will agree as he himself uses Nirad Chaudhuri’s reminiscences of the sound of steamers, pp17-18) is that the ‘everyday’ does not need to be necessarily located in something that is plebeian, subaltern, and small. Everyday is not a function of scale. Railways and sewing machines were both part of the same everyday – at individual and social levels. And the colonialists/corporatists displayed the same kind of prejudices in relation to both: as Singer agents thought Indians incapable to use their machines, so did the agents of railway companies a few decades earlier. If Singer claimed to have helped Indians move towards better civilization, so did the power of steam.

Influenced by the ‘social construction of technology’ theory (SCOT), Arnold’s second theoretical intervention is to rescue the social history of these technologies, which were all imported in their provenance, from an instrumental relationship of transfer and diffusion from the West to the East. This relates to the scale of history and history writing in which he admits of not looking at the technical make-up of the machine, but in exploring how they became part of the social and political processes of change in specific localities; how in India they became carriers as well as sites of issues such as race, class and gender (12).

All technologies and commodities covered in this study were global in their reach and introduced in India largely but not exclusively through the network of imperialism, but their ‘creative appropriation’ in different settings gave them context-specific meanings. It is the context of the social which is at the heart of this book, which ties the global, the imperial and the local in an un-formulaic way. Given the ascendancy of formulaic ways of doing global history through connections and comparisons, I find this approach of not letting the ‘social’ go adrift refreshingly important (see the brief comment on 38). Once again, it must be stated that the cultural adaptation of technology is not specific to small or big.

Global technologies & colonial state

The foreignness of these technologies invariably leads Arnold to raise the question of their relation with colonial state power. Most of the big and small technologies were thought of first serving the state power. He says, unlike western societies where commerce, industry, and civil society played a more dominant role in fashioning technological modernity, in India the colonial state remained the leading user and publicist of these technologies (148).

Bicycles were distributed to help policing, typewriters in government offices and courts to speed up administrative work and efficiency, cars and telephones to speed up the movement of administrative personnel and information. The state was not the producer; in fact, within the ironic relationship between imperial protectionism and laissez-faire, American products (Singer sewing machines, Remington typewriters and Ford automobiles) dominated the Indian market. But the state significantly benefitted from this. These technologies strengthened the ‘inner life of the state’. And they did so in phases. During the Second World War, for instance, the expansionary nature of the state in terms of being able to regulate the usages of these technologies was quite marked.

Yet this is only one part of the story. The social and political re-calibration of these technologies to either subvert the state power or to question the existing social identity was equally important and forceful, which Arnold lucidly demonstrates. Women working for communist organisations and low-caste villagers using bicycles, typewriters used for disseminating anti-colonial nationalist aspirations – they all point at colonial control that was leaky if not absent. They all show that the life of technology was beyond the simplistic control of the state. They all indicate that different social groups used these technologies to articulate the idea of modernity and modern self-hood.

Nature of technological modernity

What are the axes and scope of this technological modernity? Exploration of race, gender and class is obviously one way of knowing the nature of this modernity, which this book like many others especially on a colonial society, does. Numbers definitely are not on the side of showing the ‘quantitative’ axes of this modernity. In spite of the rapidity with which these commodities became part of Indian life, they were still used rather sparsely if compared with figures of other countries. Arnold is aware of this dilemma and hence the way out for him is to underscore the social, experiential and utopian articulations of this modernity. The mix of social life captured through visuals, literary works and films is interesting. The articulation of this modernity is tied to the manifold effects these different technologies produced on diverse social groups and classes.

Moving beyond the state and the enterprising initiatives of some Indians selling, part manufacturing, repairing, and assembling these products, Arnold leads us into the world of users and consumers. Did new technology such as sewing machines and typewriters require new skills? Who were the people that moved in to operate them? Did they lead to displacement of existing groups and skills? One gets glimpses of answers into these questions. Bicycles empowered rural folk and elite women; typewriters mainly remained within the confines of Anglo-Indian women in offices and scribal Indian men outside the courts; rice mills took away the work of poor women; and sewing machines tapped into the existing skills of darzis, but also became part of the reformist discourse on ‘new women/new domesticity’ of the late nineteenth century. The last enlarged the scope of domestic work for women.

Yet, many of the answers to the question of modernity are just about at the exploratory level. Bicycle races fitted into the notion of Bengali manliness, but did it also contribute to the emergence of a new sensibility and aesthetics of landscape, space and movement, and if yes, how? Did the new modernity based upon widespread use of sewing machines create a new culture of mass production and consumption? Was it linked to, if any, the emergence of new ‘modern’ fashion? How did the earlier individualized notion of work which darzis performed on the veranda of their masters/employers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries transform into a shop based work culture of the later period, in which these people were not the owners of their tools? Did technological modernity bring alienation and firmer labour control? Passages from literary sources on sewing machines (141-42), and work-related changes brought about by rice mills (134-40), are illuminating sections.

Typewriters brought bureaucratic utility and speed; it “transformed bureaucratic work regimes”; transformed the “ways in which novelists, journalists, politicians, and administrators pursued their daily work”, but exactly how is not clear (56-7). I would imagine for a long time the typewriter functioned as a ‘copying machine’ producing the ‘fair’ and ‘official’ version of hand-written letters, petitions, judgements, news, and even academic theses. In fact, this was true for early day computers as well (people wrote on the paper and got it ‘typed’ with the only but significant difference of editing on the screen, which theoretically meant fewer errors in the final print, but only theoretically). It has only very recently happened that the machine has become an accompaniment of the user in the same way as her lunch box or smart phone are. The question remains how did the typewriter change, or not, the processes of thinking, reading, writing, and reporting. Everyday Technology can mark the beginning of a more systematic tapping into sources to unearth the complex social relationships around these technologies.

Conflict and resistance

If modernity is a product of conflictual claim and counter-claim making, then the history of technological modernity should also reflect the same – conflicts between social groups and classes. Arnold says that “there is little evidence of significant cultural resistance to sewing machines” (49), but what about resistance based upon capital and skill? Did the traditional catchment of darzis’ work and clientele suffer because now women started sewing at home (and quite massively, with vernacular magazines publishing essays on how to sew different types of materials) or did the expanding market compensate for it (pp. 50-51)? The competitive clerical job market revolved around the skill of typewriting; what kind of social conflicts did it lead to? Arnold prefers to look at the history of interaction between technology and society through assimilation and acculturation; I wonder if there is more to be said about conflicts and dissonances; to be fair, they are not absent (most directly to be seen in the sections on traffic and roads, 162-64 and 167-71), but not adequately presented either.

Based largely on the biases for big technologies, Arnold revisits the temporal divide of technological modernity in India. For him, seemingly it was not the period of the 1830s-1850s that saw railways, steamers, and telegraph creating a modern India (a bias that has its obvious origins in colonial claims), but rather the period between 1905 and 1914 – marked by the Swadeshi movement – that constituted the technological watershed. Not only had the influx of everyday commodities started in this period but also the imaginaries of modern India. It is this extensive engagement with technology in both its supporting and opposing viewpoints (ranging between Saha and Nehru on one side and Gandhi on the other), that Arnold sees the constitution of modernity. The study of India’s modernity – derivative or otherwise – is being constantly traced from the times of the ‘Bengal Renaissance’ to that of the railways, Macaulay, census, ghore/bahire, and hybrid Bengali cuisines. Now it has reached the shores of everyday machines, technologies and commodities. If it is a mere addition to the set of ideas on how Indians thought of themselves to be ‘modern’, or a potential new framework that would recast the historiographical thinking, is too early to say.

Make in India

Finally, at least in two ways, this book reverberates with contemporary Indian politics over technology, and the social perception of Indian skill, and thus unwittingly adds an interesting historical layer to it. Foreign capital and the current governmental slogan of ‘Make in India’ are not very far from how American firms like Dunlop promoted their products as “made in India, by Indians, for Indians” (100). There is no dichotomy between nationalistic manufacturing boost that this present government is spearheading (with the logo of the lion) and the inflow of foreign capital. In fact, the mechanical robust lion can only survive with a financial begging bowl in his mouth. Arnold’s treatment of the Swadeshi phase shows historical antecedents. Second, from repairing cycles on street pavements to that of fixing typewriters (and in the current age of unlocking and repairing all sorts of mobile phones), this book tells us that there is a serious history to be told about how India has achieved its worldwide status of ‘jugaad economy’. The production of many a commodity was stifled under colonialism – is this the reason that the skill got channelized into fixing, assembling, repairing and selling, but not innovatively producing?


Nitin Sinha, Senior Research Fellow, Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin (nitin.sinha@zmo.de).


The Truth in Black & White


The Truth in Black & White

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Illustration: Namaah / Arré