I. India and Palestine
We live in a world that undergoes moral upheavals daily. At this time any sensitive human being goes to sleep thinking of the children of the world -- suffering a slow death of spirit from poverty, or being massacred by war without being given a chance. Living in an Indian city means you come across examples of the former daily. Children sleep in the streets, even through the extreme winters of Delhi which many face without sweaters or socks. In the daytime you can see them sometimes outside cafes and restaurants which are monuments of wealth and opulence that the Delhi middle class frequents. They beg through the glass, making faces at the well fed and properly clothed versions of them across the window pane. On one side is all the civilization and finery of the West; chocolate, cream, cinnamon, marble and silk. On the other is the alleged barbarity of the Indian people, gray and brown, unwashed and haggard.
When the people across the glass are young, you can see their inner world in turmoil. They laugh nervously at the children outside, but do not know how to confront their role in this injustice. As they grow older, many of them will learn how to shut down their moral instinct completely. It is this Indian middle class, formed in many of its aspects after the fall of the Soviet Union and liberalization in 1991, that must be held responsible for the erosion of the moral life world of India in this time. It is this class from which the mainstream of Indian intelligentsia, so eager to denounce the freedom struggle in this time, has arisen.
The fact that the educated and stable middle class has turned away from the people of this nation expresses itself on the issue of Palestine. There is a section of the middle class that has dealt directly with the white world, is exposed to the Zionist propaganda in the West, and unashamedly supports Israel. Another section has elements of our Nehruvian tradition in their ways of thinking of the world, because of which they have to contort and twist in convoluted ways to support Western agenda. As in any revolutionary upsurge, they were the section who went along with lip-service to socialism without having to make significant sacrifices. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, there was no moral leadership to keep them in check. They cry out in support of Ukraine, condemning the barbaric acts of the Asian despot Putin. Yet, on Palestine, they whisper in hushed tones about the cruelty of the terrorists, making parallels with terrorist attacks within India. When confronted with the logical implications of their argument, they cry out with self absorbed indignation, “I would never support Israel!”
The suffering of Palestinian children washes over them with no effect on their moral life world, just like the suffering of children of the Indian poor. They are obsessed with their families and selfish gain, perpetually living in fear of scarcity, unable to deal with the slightest hardship. Their minds are full of obtuse calculations of how to maximize their pleasure, and the worry for its denial. James Baldwin was right, people pay for the choices they make very simply by the lives they lead. The lives of the Indian middle class are devoid of the beauty of art and music, only allowing them superficial engagement with their own culture. Their dependence on the poor for their own humanity mirrors Tolstoy’s depictions of Tsarist Russia, but maybe even he would be astounded by the irony and hypocrisy of their lives. They behave like children with each other, and are regularly shown kindness and understanding by the people who work for them.
It is with this background that we are celebrating the centenary of the birth of ES Reddy this year. Young or middle aged educated people in India do not know his name, as he belongs to that inconvenient history of moral uprightness that they wish could be forgotten. Even as happenings at the UN are a subject of regular conversation, the greatest envoy of the Indian revolutionary tradition at the UN remains unknown. Yet, he must be known among all sections of the Indian people if we are to unite our nation and claim our moral inheritance once more.
II. “I cannot feel free, as an Indian, until South Africa is free of apartheid.”
ES Reddy was born in Pallapatti, Tamil Nadu. As a young student, he participated in the Indian freedom movement. Reddy came from a family that was politically active, and he imbibed the ideas of Gandhi and Nehru from them as well as his teachers at school. In 1946, after finishing his bachelors he traveled to the US to pursue higher education and came into contact with Kumar Ghoshal in New York. Through him, Reddy came to know and be a part of the African American community. In particular, he became intimate friends with Alpheus Hunton, and looked to W.E.B Du Bois and Paul Robeson. It was under Paul Robeson’s Council on African Affairs that Reddy first came form a picture of African liberation movements and came to be trained in political work. Thus, like Gandhi, Reddy was created in many ways by a confluence of India and Africa.
E.S. Reddy found work in the UN, but he was hardly a career diplomat. As a worker in the UN, Reddy worked to bring African revolutionaries into the mainstream of world politics and give them a platform to voice the positions of the anticolonial movement. Being denied funding from the UN in many instances, Reddy funded meetings for this purpose from his own salary. He went on to become the head of the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid. He worked closely with Romesh Chandra, who was President of the World Peace Council, to merge the world movement for peace with the struggle against colonialism and racism. It was through him that Romesh would get to know the Black world within America, and Africa. Reddy knew and was intimate with all the leaders of the South African revolutionary movement, Oliver Tambo, Winnie Mandela, Chris Hani and Ahmed Kathrada. They considered him one of their own, the international wing of the ANC, fighting apartheid on the international level. Reddy was instrumental in shaping world opinion against apartheid South Africa.
It is clear from his interviews and articles that Reddy saw himself carrying on the work of the Indian freedom movement, and of Gandhi in particular. He said, "In India, in our generation, we're all influenced by Gandhi. So there is Gandhi under the skin ... We're influenced by Nehru. ... We wanted to have a society which is socialist, like Nehru wanted to have. So it was that kind of a radical outlook. ... Coming from that background, with both Gandhi and Nehru, ... we had a duty, not only to get India's freedom, [but that] India's freedom should be the beginning of the end of colonialism." The close link between the Indian freedom struggle and the peace movement, which was its logical successor, becomes clear in the life of E.S. Reddy.
Reddy was a true world citizen. He was comfortable among all the hues of Africa, Asia and America. In Reddy’s life we see that there is no contradiction between being an Indian patriot and nationalist, and being a citizen of all humanity. A complete recounting of his extraordinary life is beyond the scope of this article, but can be read about in the links given in Further Reading.
III. Single Garment of Destiny: South Africa and Palestine
Today, we are living in times that are historic. We have entered 2024 with a genocide in Gaza, and Western nations are in a state of crisis. South Africa has taken the cause of Palestine to the International Criminal Court, charging Israel with genocide. Reddy’s legacy remains a guiding light in this time. Indian society has moved away from the legacy of freedom fighters such as E.S. Reddy, and yet, we must remember. Freedom fighters of Reddy’s generation would be dismayed and shocked by India’s weak response to the human tragedy of Gaza. Among the people of India, the memory of Gandhi’s movement still remains. We must reignite this civilizational memory by carrying out campaigns of political education.
The world campaign against apartheid in South Africa serves as a model for us in the struggle against Zionism today. Now with the end of apartheid in SA, younger generations take for granted the moral bankruptcy of the apartheid regime, and the historical fact of its end. It is important to know that this was not always the case. Western propaganda on behalf of apartheid South Africa permeated world media, much like it does in this time on behalf of genocidal Israel. The effectiveness of the boycott movement was continually brought into question to undermine the movement. Indian collaborators of the Apartheid regime too worked to sway the Indian people away from their moral stance and in favor of the white minority. The liberation forces in South Africa, the ANC, were painted as violent terrorists. The parallel of this is evident in the case of Palestine today. Yet, as leader of the ANC, Oliver Tambo had said of the ANC’s decision to take up armed struggle, “The stage that has been reached is that the methods that are available to us now, are those which we have tried to resist over a long period of time, they are the methods of violence. The worst of all horrors in the world is to live forever as a slave, as a hated, despised subhuman. And this, we reject.”
Further, to understand South Africa’s courageous stand on Palestine, it is necessary to understand the history of the relationship of South Africa and Israel. Apartheid South Africa found in Israel an ally to continue the system of segregation. Israel consistently sided with the Apartheid regime in South Africa on international platforms along with the USA. The struggle against apartheid thus implicitly meant a struggle against the forces of world Zionism. It was through this struggle, as well as the efforts of the world peace movement that brought about the UN resolution to declare Zionism as a form of racism. Thus the people of South Africa were bound in a single garment of destiny with the Palestinian people, reflected in the warm brotherhood of Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat. India was a part of this emerging world anti-racist movement under the leadership of Indira Gandhi. The UN resolution against Zionism became historically the only resolution to be taken back because of campaigns by Western powers and the Zionist lobby.
The youth of our nation must be reeducated to know of the figures produced by our struggle for freedom that can serve as models of a revolutionary life today. Educational programs must teach our people about the history of the Palestinian people, and of the close historic ties that bind us together. We must play our role in a new international movement against genocide and Zionism in Gaza.
The memory of revolutionaries like Reddy has been ignored and misrepresented, appropriated by the Western liberal project even within India. When the life of Reddy is represented as that of a career diplomat, or merely as a ‘Gandhi scholar’, it ceases having relevance for the questions that face young Indians. E.S. Reddy was not simply a UN worker ‘interested’ in Africa. He was driven by the deepest quest for human freedom, the struggle to give oneself to the project of liberation. We must remember Reddy as he was, a revolutionary. He was a comrade to the South African revolutionaries, and to all revolutionaries. This is not for sentimental reasons, but for the future of our young. Through people like Reddy, one can see a direction for one’s own life that is beyond the narrow concerns of self and family, and reaches for the human universal.