From Slavery to Freedom - India and USA’s shared history

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

Slavery plagued India and USA for at least 200 years. Violent discrimination, economic suffering and eventually, the revolt against it followed a strikingly similar timeline across both countries. Following George Floyd’s murder and the protests across USA, as I learnt more about American history, I realized that significant historical events unfolded in the two countries around the same time teaching us valuable lessons about where we have come from and how we can learn from our shared experiences.

A Common Connection: The British Empire and European Settlers

The British empire had spread their colonial tentacles to USA and India, with slavery at the center of their growth strategy. In 1757, the British defeated the Nawab of Bengal, marking a significant turning point in the British East India Company’s control over India. In 1607, the British established their first colony in Jamestown, Virginia and while the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain by 1776, the shroud of slavery had covered American soil. The European settlers including the British turned to slavery as a cheap and profitable source of labor to drive the economic growth in the American colonies. Moreover, slavery was more than an economic lever; the philosophy that somehow Whites were a superior race was engendered into the belief system of the colonial empire that created the inhuman business throwing the Blacks in America and local “colored” population in India into the abyss of economic destitution, racial discrimination and death.

Economic windfall on the backs of the slave labor

The Black community suffered for 400+ years under systematic racial injustice and violence in the U.S. while the local Indian population were colonized and treated like the black community for 190 years, first by the British East India company and then the British Government, also known as the British Raj.

The slavers in both countries had stacked the legislative, judicial and executive branches against the Blacks and Indians respectively and amassed a huge amount of blood stained wealth. According to renowned economist, Utsa Patnaik, the British stole $45 Trillion between 1795 and 1938. Similarly, America was reaping significant economic benefits from slave labor. At the start of the American civil war, the confederate states, as a cohort, were the fourth richest economy in the world and were exporting 75% of the world’s cotton.

Indian Uprising and American Civil War

Drained by the tyranny of the British East India Company, several mutinies sprouted across India to rebel against the colonial empire leading to the National Uprising of 1857. It was the first large scale effort to try and defeat colonial rule and while it ultimately failed, it was a watershed moment in the country’s fight for independence. The British Crown was forced to dissolve the East India Company and shifted the rule to the British Government while a new wave of nationalism was born and underway.

Around the same time, President Lincoln, with the support of the Republicans started gathering support for banning slavery across the country. The southern states were infuriated as they saw this as a violation of their constitutional rights and had vested interest in protecting their slave driven economies. The simmering opposition finally led to the American Civil War (1861-1865) between the northern and the southern states.

The northern states won the civil war but it did not change the condition of the Black communities for several decades. After the federal troops withdrew from the southern states, the Jim Crow era of racial segregation began and it wasn't until 1965 with the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights act that the Black community started enjoying truly equal rights as Whites under the leadership of icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who, through their respective ideologies, led a wave of opposition to Jim Crow laws during the Civil Rights movement.

Similarly, it took 90 years after the National Uprising and the concurrent occurrence of several events, for India to get its independence in 1947. The two world wars put a tremendous amount of pressure on the already outstretched British Empire and to make matters worse, a wave of relentless push back from the local population overwhelmed the Raj. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi organized nationwide non-violent protests while revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh spread fear and shock through targeted attacks on British officers that eventually forced the Raj to concede defeat.

March for Equal Rights | Dandi and Selma

The most iconic moments in Indian and American history were just 35 years apart.

(Image: Wikipedia and Associated Press)

Mahatma Gandhi championed the non-violent civil disobedience (Satyagraha) against the British rule, making it one of the reasons that has made him a global household name. On 12th March 1930, he gave the British rule its first taste of Satyagraha by leading a 24 day march from Sabarmati to Dandi to oppose British tax laws and salt monopoly. This act of non-violence, also called the Dandi March, became a symbol and rallying cry for the nation as they continued their fight for independence. While the march did not result in any immediate policy changes, it galvanized the nation and sparked the civil disobedience movement in the country, one of the key reasons for India’s independence.

35 years later, Martin Luther King Jr. led a similar non-violent march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery to protest against the discriminatory voter rights that had disenfranchised millions of Black voters. The 3 day, 54 miles march began on March 21 after two prior marches resulted in violence, most notably the infamous Bloody Sunday. The walk in some ways, culminated several decades of Black opposition and efforts to to uproot deep seated segregation that had prevented Black Americans from accessing the same quality of education as White Americans, enjoy equal voting rights and achieve true freedom from slavery. The nationally televised pictures of the violence leading up to the eventually march and the iconic march itself had a powerful effect. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that August, a monumental achievement in the fight for equal rights for Black and true abolition of slavery in America.

Be it slavery or colonialism, Gandhi or Martin Luther King, the world’s largest democracies have more in common than we might think of and by understanding these similarities and the root cause behind the pain and suffering, we can continue building stronger bonds and demonstrate true allyship. Economic inequality, as an example, has created significant distrust and suffering in both nations. All we need is reasonable, inclusive leaders who treat their citizens, regardless of color, as equal in all aspects. Is that too much to ask?

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