The Indian connection

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 02, 2024

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeWhen Eric Williams went to London in 1955 to discuss PNM’s programme with CLR James, George Padmore and Arthur Lewis, he also visited with Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India. He raised the possibility of republishing Nehru’s autobiography with the latter writing a new introduction to it.

A leading Indian diplomat, Pandit was the first woman to head the United Nations General Assembly. Trinidad and Tobago’s Dennis Francis, who assumed the presidency of the UN General Assembly last September for a one-year term, acknowledged Pandit’s place in international affairs when he addressed the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi on January 25, 2024. He said: “I am therefore privileged to lean on her [Pandit’s] pioneering shoulders, as one among the woefully low number of female presidents of the Assembly in 78 years.”

Pandit visited Wellesley College frequently from 1944 to 1966 as Barnett Miller Visiting Professor of International Relations. Nehru also visited the college in 1949. Pandit was a very close friend of Paul Robeson, a noted African-American civil rights activist, and Rosamond Soong Ching-ling, the third wife of Sun Yat-sen, a former president of China. Rosamond’s sister, Soong Mei-ling, attended Wellesley College. It is quite possible that Ching-ling persuaded Pandit to send her two daughters (Chandralekha and Nayantara) to Wellesley to study.

Nayantara Sahgal followed in her mother’s footsteps as a political activist. She also won much acclaim as a leading Indian writer in English. In 1947, Nayantara was photographed with Frida Kahlo, a famous Mexican magical realist painter who was part of the US and Mexican labour and anti-colonial movements. Kahlo married Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist. The New York Times called them the “eccentric duo”.

Kahlo was also part of the revolutionary circle around Leon Trotsky, one of the chief architects of the Russian Revolution of 1917. He was forced into exile in 1928 and was assassinated in 1940 by a Soviet agent in Mexico on August 20, 1940, because of his criticism of Joseph Stalin who replaced VI Lenin as the leader of the Soviet Union.

James (under the pseudonym JR Johnson) also met with Trotsky in Mexico in 1939 to discuss what the Soviets called “The Negro Question”. James alerted Trotsky about the self-determination of Caribbean people and reminded him: “In Africa the great masses of people look upon self-determination as a restoration to their independence. In the West Indies, where we have a population ­similar in origin to the Negroes in America, there has been developing a national sentiment. The Negroes are a majority.”

Nayantara possessed an independent spirit. Both she and her mother fell out with their cousin, Indira Gandhi, during the latter’s time in office in the 1960s and 1970s. “Gandhi cancelled Sahgal’s scheduled appointment as India’s Ambassador to Italy within days of her return to power.” Sahgal wrote scathingly about that incident in her book, Indira Gandhi: Her Road to Power.

Sahgal was also critical of Presi­dent Narendra Modi’s right-wing government whose policies she claims were influenced by those of Nazi Germany. Her novel, The Fate of the Butterflies, confronts what she calls the toxic dangers of “war, religious polarisation and authoritarian charisma—the dystopian future that is already upon the world” (Nation, February 28, 2019). Although she is a believing Hindu, she “absolutely rejects” the ideology of Hindutva that is practised by Modi’s party.

In 2021, together with several other Indian writers, Sahgal supported the right of Palestinians to resist Israeli occupation of their land and blamed Israel for stealing Palestinian land. The collective wrote: “These families had settled in this part of Jerusalem when they had been expelled by the Israelis from their homes, and now they were to be expelled again.” (International News, May 18, 2021.) This year she was active in South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that “charged Israel with genocide for its ongoing campaign in Gaza”. Three days ago, the ICJ ordered Israel to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

The work of Pandit and her daughter brought UNC’s “internal discord” into sharp focus. I do not believe Rushton Paray and his followers are “being used as puppets” by the PNM “to destabilise the UNC”, as Kamla Persad-Bissessar alleges (Guardian, March 27). UNC should refrain from this self-inflicting tendency of snatching defeat out of the mouth of victory. It cannot blame the PNM for this weakness.

UNC members should also guard against its relentless tendency of pulling down and defaming their leaders. Indian men should not forget the ancient Hindu practice of sati, in which widows sacrificed themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands. It was a reflection of how Hindu men saw their women. Persad-Bissessar has served her party for 15 years as its leader. That should count for something.

It follows that male and female members of the party should be careful how they treat Persad-Bissessar in her last years as party leader. They may be ­politically correct in their demands but short-sighted electorally. They may win the battle of earnestness but lose the war of electability. Williams’ wisdom still remains pertinent: one from ten leaves naught.

Williams’ formulation may have been bad mathematics but constitutes instructive political strategy. The UNC should take this political insight into account as it wends its way to the election of 2025.

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