The Afro-Asian Moment: Anti-imperialist Mobilizations in the Indian Trade Union Movement during the Early Cold War

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:50 PM
Marshfield Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Carolien Stolte, Leiden University
Currently, the 1955 Bandung Conference is regarded as an important prelude to the non-aligned movement. Yet eleven days prior to Bandung, a conference that must be considered its non-state counterpart was convened in New Delhi. In contrast to Bandung, which was closed to the public, the unofficial nature of the Delhi conference enabled thousands of people to attend. Likewise in contrast to Bandung, this movement sought bottom-up, mass-based support for decolonization through manifestations of international solidarity. The Delhi gathering’s success soon gave rise to a set of additional anti-imperialist initiatives, which brought Indian activists in close touch with their counterparts across Afro-Asia.

This paper argues that this ‘Afro-Asian Moment’ during decolonization and the early Cold War was not a pastime for highly educated Indian leftists, but a moment driven by a more widespread mentality of internationalism than is currently acknowledged in historiography. A unique feature of this broad-based Afro-Asianism in India was that local organizers, too, ended up at international Afro-Asian manifestations. This bridging of local and international communities, often bypassing the national level altogether, has not been researched. Using the Indian trade union movement as an example, this paper investigates this form of ‘subaltern internationalism’. It was at the level of workers’ organization and workers’ rights that the imbalance between ‘Euro-America’ and the decolonizing world was most acutely felt. In the 1950s, trade unionism therefore became a major avenue toward Afro-Asian cooperation. The Soviet-directed ‘Red International’ is typically credited with fostering such connections, and it is insufficiently recognized that this happened in more horizontal ways as well. Asking what regionalist aspirations caused organizations and individuals to jump scale and leapfrog the national in favor of an intercontinental platform, and why Afro-Asia was chosen as a unit of solidarity, this paper seeks to bring those horizontal connections to light.