Why Muhammad Ali’s words should matter to the subcontinent

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By Garga Chatterjee

When the American Black resistance icon, champion boxer Muhammad Ali died on 3rd June 2016, there were widespread condolences among many all across the world, including certain sections of the citizens of the Indian Union. Many remembered his defiant stance against Yankee militarism and white racism and some his now iconic quotes spread around social media like wild fire. Such was the power of what Muhammad Ali stood for in the USA that even the US government engaged at present and as usual in multiple wars against coloured people across the globe felt that it needed to own him, however awkward that maneuver looked. It was kind of ironic for that was the exact time when the Indian Union government functionaries were trying to play down the reports of racist attacks on black Africans living in the Indian Union, claiming that they were small matters. Playing down its own crimes has been a traditional value of the Indian Union government.

When Muhammad Ali was forcibly drafted into the US Army to go fight against the Vietnamese resistance war for complete national liberation, he refused. Ali put the voice of a human being in an inhuman war-frenzy when he said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. ”. On other occasions, he put things much more concisely as he described US wars where ““the white man sent the black man to kill the yellow man”.

Muhammad Ali was being disloyal to his government, the government’s army but was being loyal to human values that predate all nations and constitutions and will outlive them too. In the subcontinent, all the existing armies are continuations of the British Indian Army and not those who actually fought the British colonization of the subcontinent like the Azad Hind Fauj which was not made part of the Indian Army after 15th August 1947. That is very revealing about the nature of institutions that exist around here.

When transfer of power from London to New Delhi happened on 15th August, 1947, what changed? Who fought Subhas Bose in Burma? Who fired the shots and destroyed Delhi in 1857? Who captured and killed Surya Sen? Which army? Who was it loyal to? Who did it serve by killing Bagha Jatin? Did anything substantially change in that army on that fateful August day in 1947? What did not change was the sense of regimental accomplishment in having been awarded Victoria crosses, barrah khana traditions, fake ‘Sandhurst’isms, subsidized liquor, that peculiar brown-skinned sense of pride of having served the House Saxe-Coburg Gotha and the House of Windsor by killing coloured people and their resisting forces in Iraq, Egypt, France, Belgium, Burma, Thailand and most poignantly, in the Subcontinent, including Jallianwala Bagh. If some Union of India citizen were to do the same today by making a career out of serving the House of Windsor militarily and then go on to claim loyalty to Bharatmata the next day, what would one say? The crucial difference however lies in the formal idea of loyalty to a state – often confused with the country. Nationalism apart, there is another thing Bengalees call “deshoprem” or love of one’s own land. The definition of land is mostly left to the person. Which is why there can be deshoprem for a 30 square mile area around one’s home. I don’t know if there is a Hindustani word for it – qaumparast does not quite do it, which I reckon is nearer to nationalism. I am sure they too have a word or expression for it – for they too like everyone else came to know their own land before they came to heed the administration which told them what their nation ought to be and how much does it extend. Ideologies that reverse this sequence are sociopathic.

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