Wayward Internationalisms Across India and Mexico—Conclusion to Summer 2021 Research

In my previous update on my summer research project for CASI, I provided a critical review of scholarship on Latin American Orientalism and Mexican literary representations of the Orient, particularly India. I sketched out an updated outline of my chapter that attended to the question of Orientalism in Latin America and its roots in the early modern Iberian empire that linked Asia to Mexico via the Acapulco-Manila trade routes. A précis for each subsection of the chapter explained how the autobiographical writings on three historical figures—Octavio Paz, M.N. Roy, and Pandurang Khankhoje—help us think anew various historical connections forged between India and Mexico. As a refresher: Octavio Paz—a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature and Mexican ambassador to India from 1962-68, whose poetry and autobiographical writing on India updates nationalist ideologies of mestizaje through extended references to various Indian spiritual textual traditions; M.N. Roy—an Indian radical nationalist turned international communist who founded the Communist Party in Mexico in 1919, whose Memoirs detail his encounters with Theosophical Societies in Mexico led by mestizos who promoted the Orientalist image of a spiritualized Indian, which, in turn, causes him to meditate on the question of “cultural nationalism” produced in various exchanges between India and Mexico; and, lastly, Pandurang Khankhoje—a Ghadar internationalist revolutionary, trained as an agronomist in Berkeley, California, then fled to Mexico as an exile to avoid extradition by the British Empire after being implicated in the Hindu-German Conspiracy case, and then lived in Mexico for nearly forty years (also becoming a Mexican citizen in the process, astoundingly) until India’s independence. This chapter sought to bring together the travels, writings, and lives of these figures in order to illuminate the range of political, economic, and literary connections that developed between India and Mexico from the interwar period, to the years following India’s political independence and into the revolutionary era of the 1960s.

In my last post, I mentioned the difficulty of neatly synthesizing my research on Pandurang Khankhoje with my writing on Octavio Paz and M.N. Roy. I feared that my work on Khankhoje had started to drift too far away from questions of peripheral Orientalism, which were central to my analysis of Paz and Roy’s writings. I considered excising my section on Khankhoje from this chapter; I thought it would be more appropriate for a separate project, one that would also draw upon the Godha Ram Channon papers held in the Kislak Center’s special collections. However, upon rereading Savitri Sawhney’s biography of her father Pandurang Khankhoje, titled I Shall Never Ask For Pardon, I realized that this need not be the case.

In my last post, I had mistakenly assumed that Khankhoje did not have any contact at all with M.N. Roy. This was entirely incorrect: it turns out that both Khankhoje and Roy had connections with V.I. Lenin through the Second Communist International, particularly in a set of debates related to Lenin’s famous Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions. Initially, it seems that Khankhoje and Roy had their own differences, as Khankhoje quietly accuses Roy of acting as a kind of political gatekeeper for the Comintern. Speaking as part of the “Berlin Committee,” composed of members of the Ghadar Party and other militant internationalists, Khankhoje responded that the Comintern cannot abandon pursuing “world revolution” in a truly global scope. However, Khankhoje mused that “We could not get an interview with Comrade Lenin. M.N. Roy’s view of us, as not being serious about communism, prevailed.” (I Shall Never Ask for Pardon, 214). Eventually, Khankhoje did end up developing a friendly relationship with Lenin over time, and he was particularly interested in Khankhoje’s agricultural research and the possibilities of improving the caloric intake and diets of peasant laborers in Bolshevik Russia. Their shared concern over better food security for the peasantry, and the land question more broadly, is provocative, but it does not seem to lead to any kind of fully-fledged revolutionary program or collaboration. Rather, Khankhoje takes time to explain in detail ideological fractures that emerged among Indian revolutionaries involved in the Berlin Committee those in the Comintern, particularly over differing views on the “colonial question.” Khankhoje expressed the suspicion that Roy was somehow unnecessarily deepening divides among a pan-Indian revolutionary collectivity. I found that this episode in Khankhoje’s Memoirs , and the fact that not-easily-smoothed-over tensions between Khankhoje’s contingent of revolutionaries and Roy, helped me construct organic pivot from my subsection on M.N. Roy to the one on Khankhoje.

Hot gossip about the interwar Comintern aside, I began to tell a very different story about India and Mexico in the twentieth century when I turned to Pandurang Khankhoje’s memoirs: one about the overlooked socialist origins of the Green Revolution in Khankhoje’s experimentations with cross-breeding high-yield variety seeds in Mexican Free Schools of Agriculture. Initially, these agrarian development programs were to be part of a popular socialist initiatives in Mexico to reduce crop failures and to ensure food security for indigenous peasants. However, after Independence, Khankhoje returned to India and was invited to partner with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as other national and multilateral agencies, to create institutions devoted to rural development. Some aspects of these rural development programs were based on Khankhoje’s research he pioneered in Mexico. More particularly, versions of high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds, as well as these newly formed national and international rural development programs, extended across India (especially Punjab, but also other regions) and Mexico. However, these institutions were ultimately appropriated by global financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund under the aegis of Norman Borlaug, with whom Khankhoje also collaborated alongside other technocrats. These partnerships produced a top-down template for agricultural modernization designed to “develop” the Third World—this global project came to be known as ‘the Green Revolution.’ Borlaug, the World Bank, and the IMF worked in tandem with the kinds of institutions founded by Nehru and Khankhoje to expand ‘the Green Revolution’ into rural zones across India and Mexico. Both Akhil Gupta (Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India) and Arturo Escobar (Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World) persuasively detail the many ways in which the Green Revolution devastated rural India and Mexico (as well as other regions in the Third World). These agricultural modernization programs entrenched capital-intensive production of agricultural commodities for both national and international markets, which immiserated small peasant producers and aggravated various kinds of ecological & climate destruction. The Green Revolution continued to ‘’underdevelop” these nations through restructured relations of imperial dependency. Furthermore, the nominal claim heralded by Borlaug and his affiliates to end hunger in the Third World under the banner of the Green Revolution amounted to nothing more than an anti-communist effort to keep the activities of the “Red Revolution” in the countryside at bay–who were seeking to create a revolutionary base among the peasantry.

What we see in this longer trajectory is a reversal of some of Khankhoje’s original egalitarian dreams to labor as part of the revolutionary intelligentsia in political, racial, and economic solidarity with the peasantry. Khankhoje’s socialist experimentations on maize, wheat, and other crop seeds ended up bolstering a capitalistic set of international agricultural modernization programs–a program that was not unilaterally ‘imposed’ onto the Third World by the ‘West,’ but facilitated by various heads of state of newly independent postcolonial nations, and, to a degree, Khankhoje himself. My commentery here is not meant to condemn Khankhoje’s political legacy or scientific achievements; in fact, his narrative raises larger, intriguing questions about the role of science and technology in socialist and capitalist agrarian relations of production (though, admittedly, this inquiry is outside the scope of my own chapter). More importantly, at least for my chapter, Khankhoje’s memoirs continually rehearse his own dissatisfaction with his role in politics in postcolonial India (though he never became totally disillusioned with the possibilities for revolution). As he approached an older age and started to encounter chronic health issues, he started to very reluctantly step back from political work, though the narrative makes clear that this proved to be quite difficult for him psychologically. Indeed, at this point in his life, especially his return to India as former Ghadar revolutionary, was indeed suffused with what we may perhaps call a kind of melancholia. His daughter routinely described some of the challenges he faced in fully reintegrating back into into Indian society as a former political exile, especially in the aftermath of the major social and religious dislocations engendered by Partition.

As I completed the research and writing for this chapter, I found my myself refining the following overarching argument for my chapter: this unorthodox set of texts, when read alongside one another, challenges pieties that underpin dominant narratives of the formation of the “Third World,” usually termed the “Bandung Spirit.” “Bandung” refers to a specific historical event, the 1955 Bandung Conference convened in Indonesia, where several recently independent postcolonial nation-states met to devise institutional structures that would challenge existing forms of colonialism and neo-colonial practice. But, the “Bandung Spirit” refers to something more expansive. It encapsulates a kind of celebratory vision of the Third World as an anti-imperialist project, particularly one that rests on presumptive cross-racial solidarity among peoples in formerly colonized nations across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

And so, in my final post for the 2021 CASI Summer Research Grant, I wish to touch on the ways I substantiate this argument in my chapter’s concluding subsection, currently titled: “Beyond the Bandung Spirit.”  

To be clear, my chapter does not focus on the 1955 Bandung Conference as such, but the ethos of the “Bandung Spirit” that guides so many popular and scholarly histories of South-South political internationalisms in the twentieth century. And so, my chapter does not exclusively focus on Bandung, but a number of other intergovernmental fora and regional blocs that advocated on behalf of the economic interests of former colonies across Asia, Africa, and Latin America to the United Nations. This includes the Non-Aligned Movement, which emerged out of the 1955 Bandung Conference, as well as the G-77, a forum that played a role in legislating the 1974 New International Economic Order (NIEO), a set of proposals that sought to acknowledge “economic colonialism” and resolve ongoing inequalities related to trade, industrialization, and technology transfer. I also address some of the collaborations between Mexican and Indian nation-states through regional political blocs, like the Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLA) and the Afro-Asian Organization for Economic Cooperation, as well as their participation in the 1966 Tricontinental Conference held in Havana, Cuba, which itself generated a powerful Third World anti-colonial mythos not at all different from the “Bandung Spirit.”

Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the New World helped me understand these institutional histories. He discusses the hopes and dreams of those from formerly colonized nations, who sought to coordinate global projects against the brutality of European and American colonialism, economic warfare, and imperial racism. These shared aims and objectives constituted the contours of the Third World; as Prashad pithily puts it: “The Third World was not a place. It was a project.” What I appreciate about Prashad’s study is his attention to Communist internationalism in the interwar period, and his cursory remarks about the ideological and institutional implications for the foundations of Bandung-era Third Worldism. In an essay titled “Imaginary Futures and Colonial Internationalisms,” the historian Manu Goswami has expressed that “the neglect of colonial internationalisms has impoverished our understanding of twentieth-century political modernism. It has also made it harder to grasp the affiliations of interwar movements with subsequent waves of internationalism that have oriented an advancing wave of interdisciplinary research” (Goswami “Imaginary,” 1485). A study like Prashad’s attends to this gap—and it is one that I have sought to tend to, as well.

Prashad, for the most part, does not slip into an uncritical hagiography of the Third World, which is a familiar mode of left-wing writing on political histories and individuals. He tries to offer a clear-eyed assessment of the Third World project. For example, he addresses the failure of Julius Nyerere’s socialist village project of ujamaa in Tanzania; this national development project was conducted by state officials and not in any meaningful way alongside the peasantries, who were forcibly relocated in order to “develop” the nation-state. Prashad, in this same mode of calculating some of the pitfalls of the Third World agenda, specifies that the Indian and Mexican nation-states, in the later years of the Non-Aligned Movement, “played a crucial role in the derailment of the Third World agenda” (215). This is largely related to the states’ mismanagement of the debt crisis: “The experience of Mexico cast a long shadow on India’s growing debt. Mexico, an oil-rich country, defaulted on $80 billion in public-sector debt in 1982”; both India and Mexico responded by ramping up national security in order to crack down on organized labor (217) In my understanding of Prashad’s analysis, the Third World agenda did not necessarily create a robust enough buffer against aspiring technocrats from formerly colonized nations, those who would rise to the upper ranks of the state apparatus and blunt the more radical dimensions of the Third World project through bureaucratic means. Nor did the agenda really pursue the revolutionary horizon of the “withering away” of the bourgeois state apparatus, a process that Lenin described in The State and Revolution.   

However, Prashad’s analysis loses its critical nuance as he strains to recuperate elements of Bandung-era anticolonial nationalism. In detailing the difference between racialized European nationalism and the anti-colonial nationalism of the Third World, Prashad writes that “anticolonial movements were conscious of these dual (security and racial) roots for border construction. Many of them had great unease about the linkage between ‘national dignity’ and territorial integrity. Multinational states had little need for chauvinist sensibilities about where the state started or stopped. Within the country, the division of the landmass was often conducted on lines that did not privilege the fault lines of race or religion; in India, for instance, the internal states were divided along the lines of language (which can be learned and therefore is not ontologically derived)” (171). While I understand the impulse to differentiate European nationalism from its variations in anti-colonial practice across the Third World, it is unsettling that the argument rests on an understanding of postcolonial India’s “success” in “dividing the landmass” after Independence. There are countless accounts, both scholarly and activist, about India’s border-making history that do not at all support such a claim. One need not be a scholarly expert to know this and can simply acknowledge the histories of Kashmir, the Assamese Northeast, Manipur, as well as territories that Adivasi communities inhabit, restive regions all contest the legitimacy of the borders born out of Independence. Prashad overlooks these disputes. Furthermore, Prashad’s move to neatly separate language from race and religion is too crude, as these are elements of social life that ultimately cannot be disentangled from such categories. Further, this does not account for questions of multi-linguality and the ranked, hierarchies inscribed in relationships between languages in India.

Prashad distinguishes an earlier practice of anti-colonial nationalism, one that was part of the inception of the Third World, from later anti-colonial nationalisms that regales in religious, racial, and patriarchal chauvinism: “The Third World agenda crafted so carefully, and with its major limitations, withered. The idea of nationalism began to change. Anticolonial nationalism disavowed a strict cultural or racial definition of the nation. Forged in opposition to imperialism, this nationalism created a program and agenda that united people on a platform of sovereignty of economic and cultural freedom…it allowed the new states to be patriotic without being chauvinistic. Patriotism in the Third World states was not to be a ‘zealous love of the country’ in an abstract, mystical way. National patriotism came in the defense of the principles of the republic” (217). In Prashad’s narrative, it is only during the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a significant political force in the 1980s-90s when anti-colonial nationalism fell into a “systemic crisis.” He writes that the “new nationalism ‘has entered its phase of racial, religious, and cultureal persecutions. The solidarity which transcended racial, religious, and cultural differences has weakened or totally collapsed in many Third World countries” (219). Prashad attaches this form of 90s “sectarian” and “parochially cruel nationalism” to “be the form that IMF-driven globalization has taken since the late 1970s” (219).   

 It is undeniably true that the era of neoliberal globalization has bolstered cruel nationalisms in the Third World. I also understand the Fanonian argument that declares the necessity of anti-colonial national liberation in the battle against European colonization. However, I find that Prashad’s periodization of anti-colonial nationalism in India is incongruent with the connected transpacific histories of Mexican and Indian racial formations, revolutionary movements, and anti-colonial nationalisms that I sketch out in my chapter. As the writings of Paz, Roy, and Khankhoje show, especially from the vantage point of the cultural, economic, and political connections developed between India and Mexico in the longue dureé, we do not get any sense of anti-colonial revolutionary nationalisms untainted by the racialized imagination, one inflected by caste, mestizaje, which are themselves deeply implicated in religious and spiritualist idioms. Closer attention to India and Mexico, the imbrication of anti-colonial nationalisms with transpacific racial imaginaries and formations, as well their role in the expansion of global capitalism through the Green Revolution, pose a challenge to what I understand as a lingering trace of Prashad’s own attachment to the ‘Bandung Spirit.’ Rather than allowing the ‘Bandung Spirit’ to guide our assessment of the Third World and anti-colonial nationalisms, the task is, instead, to revitalize a famous revolutionary maxim that Karl Marx penned in an 1843 letter: “…what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”

Recently, literary critics and scholars of comparative literature have begun to interrogate the “Bandung Spirit” in a manner reminiscent of Marx’s mode of “ruthless criticism of all that exists.” For example, Shu-mih Shih, in an article titled “Race and Relation: The Global Sixties in the South of the South,” writes that “Bandung has long been considered the inaugural moment for racial brotherhood, but both the terms ‘racial’ and ‘brotherhood’ are haunted…by what happened following the conference…but also by revelations of what had transpired during the conference itself” (Shih “Race and Relation,” 149-150). She writes: “the host of the conference, as has been recently revealed, ran a ‘hospitality committee’ consisting of beautiful women, some of whom were already married, to offer, among other things, sexual services to the delegates. The masculinist thrust of the conference is perhaps best embodied in the all-too authoritarian states that the participant countries became: in the words of Samir Amin, ‘Bandung regimes’ of one-party states and authoritarian regimes that abused basic human rights and deprived workers and peasants of economic rights. Most of the countries involved, including India and Zanzibar, practiced racial nationalisms in which social inequality was structured by ethno-racial hierarchies” (149-150).

She concludes her essay with a call to proliferate new narratives about the Bandung Conference in relation to the “global formation of race” and that “rethinking our piety towards the global sixties has recently spurted critical reflections on the Bandung Conference, such as Antoinette Burton’s calls for a new history that would ‘refuse all of Bandung’s pieities and romances and break, finally, from its presumptive fraternal narratives, if not its epistemological grasp” (Shih “Race and Relation” 150).

Antoinette Burton, a historian of the British Empire, has elaborated upon the enduring power of the “Bandung Myth” in the contemporary imagination in her book, Africa in the Indian Imagination: Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation. She argues that the vocabulary of “Bandung” has in fact bolstered a “syntax of postcolonial nationalism” that shores up a racial hierarchy of ‘Brown’ Indians over ‘Black’ Africans. Through detailing specific examples on the literary, economic, and cultural encounters between India and the African continent, Burton extrapolates and makes the more general claim, which has consequences for thinking about South-South political internationalisms more broadly: “Bandung needs to be re-imagined less as an emancipatory lesson than as a cautionary tale about the racial logics embedded in postcolonial states from the moment of their inception: about the enduring power of ‘blood and nation,’ in other words” (6-7).  

It can be very easy to read the autobiographies of Paz, Roy, and Khankhoje as innocuous instantiations of Mexican-Indian ‘cultural exchange’ or within the terms of the romanticized ‘Bandung Spirit.’ But I have sought to puncture this narrative throughout my chapter, by connecting colonial interwar internationalisms to postwar internationalisms, and by reading closely and critically Paz, Roy, and Khankhoje’s narratives. In Paz, we witness the Orientalist, ideological renovation of anti-colonial nationalist mestizaje his poetry and writing on India; this was not incidental to his post as the Mexican diplomat to India, but a register for South-South racialized geopolitics. In Roy, we see his concern over brewing forms of chauvinism taking shape as cultural nationalisms within the interchanges between Mexico and India, particularly in the global proliferation of nationalist idioms produced by Swami Vivekananda and other Hindu reformers. And, in Khankhoje, we see the failure for socialist agrarian development to become fully-fledged globally and its cooptation by capitalist financial institutions and postcolonial heads of state. His own personal testimony and his difficulties to integrate back into India after Partition and the glimpses of communal, racial conflict taking shape there..  

My hope is that the study of wayward internationalisms, narratives like Paz, Roy, and Khankhoje, will not only trouble romantic narratives of the ‘Bandung Spirit,” but also lead us to other archives and literatures that can limn hitherto under-explored horizons of collective liberation.  

Thank you, CASI, for supporting my research and writing this summer!

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About nicomillman

I am a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. My dissertation, Land and Revolution: Literatures in India and Latin America studies dispossession and radical politics in the literary imagination and Left discourse across rural India, Mexico, and Peru. I examine fiction and non-fiction produced from the era of anti-colonial struggle and national liberation in the early-to-mid twentieth century, to the period of revolutionary upheaval in the global 1960s, and to the present moment of neoliberal enclosures and anti-systemic, counter-globalization movements.