“Aditya …. India?” Another introduction, another chance to be called India, an unfortunate side effect of my last name Indla. Even my name brings to mind the model minority stereotype, one that hardly makes waves and rarely allies with other communities of color. Additionally, the focus on Western history in school meant my understanding of Indian history was limited to the movie Gandhi, and my only known allyship between African-Americans and Indians was the influence of Gandhi’s non-violence movement serving as a “guiding light” to Martin Luther King Jr.
But this could not further from the truth, for there have been several interactions between the African-American and Indian political and civil rights, the most notable —when the movement for Indian independence allied with the forces behind American post-Reconstruction civil rights, in the form of a strong bond of friendship between Lala Lajpat Rai, the founder of India’s Home Rule Movement and W.E.B. Dubois, the co-founder of NAACP.
Lala Lajpat Rai was one of the early leaders of the Indian independence movement. He was exiled from India for his position and spent 1917-1920 in the United States, where he founded the Indian Home Rule League of America in New York City in 1917. Upon his return to India in 1920, he led a special Indian National Congress Party session that launched Gandhi’s noncooperation movement.
During his time in America, he developed a strong friendship with W.E.B.Dubois. He was impressed by Dubois’ 1911 article The Last Word in Caste which laments the role of Blacks in American politics. Rai quotes extensively from that article in his travelog, describing the lack of voting rights and representation, comparing them to the plight of Indians under British rule, and the segregation of Blacks to the lives of the untouchables. He notes that the Sanskrit word for caste, varna, also means color, and calls out its similarity to the American “color line” mentioned by Dubois in his article. Writes Rai, “this leads one to think that the caste system in India owed its origin to probably the same considerations and causes as are to be found at the bottom of the caste feeling in the United States of America.” He draws comparisons to the anti-miscegenation laws and the taboo against inter-caste marriages in India and notes the similarities in barriers to education, income, and political participation.
Dubois introduced Lajpat Rai to Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and other African American leaders as Rai toured America. In his travelog, The United States of America; a Hindu’s impressions and a study, Rai shared tales of his encounters with prominent figures such as John Hope, President of Morehouse College, and Booker T. Washington, identifying the commonalities in their experiences.
He was especially impressed with the efforts to educate African-Americans at The Tuskegee Institute, describing his visit as means to “acquaint myself with the methods that are being adopted for the education and uplift of the Negro population of these States.” He modeled the Tilak School of Politics he founded in 1921 on some of the principles he learned during his visit.
The friendship between Rai and Dubois continued upon Rai’s return to India. Dubois relied on Rai to help him with material for his novel, Dark Princess, a romance between Matthew Townes, a young African American man, and Maharani Kautilya of Bwodpur, India. The novel explores an imaginary world, where the beauty and impact of color are celebrated, which Dubois described as his favorite work.
When Rai died in 1928, due to the injuries from a police beating during a demonstration, Dubois condemned his death in a letter to the editor of The Lahore People writing, “When a man of his sort can be called a revolutionist and beaten to death by a great civilized government, then indeed revolution becomes a duty to all right-thinking men.” Dubois was also disappointed about the general lack of awareness of the African-American struggle for equality by the majority of Indians.
Fast forwarding a hundred years, one would wish the situations were different. But the George Floyd protests of 2020, and reports of caste discrimination incidents of Dalits on US campuses in 2021 show how far we have to go, and how Indian-Americans need to draw upon this solidarity over generations in their fight for equity and justice for all communities of color.
As Black History Month comes to an end, nearly a century after the collaboration between Dubois and Rai, it behooves us to reflect on our history of collaboration in the quest for social justice. As the son of Indian immigrants, born and raised in the United States, stories like this help me connect my life and my heritage. In the midst of ongoing discussions over our country’s history of systemic racism, anti-Asian hate, and the discrimination that continues to affect marginalized communities including BIPOC across the country, stories like the relationship between Lala Lajpat Rai and W.E.B. Dubois highlight the long history and collaboration between people of all races.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”
It is stories like those of Rai and Dubois and their contemporaries, nearly a century ago, that inspire me to keep fighting for justice, to combat discrimination and prejudice in all its forms, alongside other communities of color. And the next time I get called “Mr. India,” I’ll take it in stride, a way to connect myself to those campaigning for justice not just in India, but everywhere in the world.
Aditya Indla is a high school student from California and has conducted extensive research on Indian-American history. He is also an anti-tobacco activist advocating for health equity and for protecting youth from the dangers of smoking and vaping.
This article was first published in Teen Ink.
Pictures of Lala Lajpat Rai and W.E.B. Dubois under Creative Commons License.