A Desi Woman with Soniya Gokhale

A Desi Woman with Soniya Gokhale: A Conversation with Historian, Author & Speaker Manisha Sinha Ph.D.

Episode Summary

A Desi Woman Podcast is joined by world renowned Historian & Author Manisha Sinha PhD. Manisha Sinha is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut and a leading authority on the history of slavery and abolition and the Civil War and Reconstruction. She was born in India and received her Ph.D from Columbia University where her dissertation was nominated for the Bancroft prize. She is the author of The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina, which was named one of the ten best books on slavery in Politico in 2015 and recently featured in The New York Times’ 1619 Project. Her multiple award winning second monograph The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition was long listed for the National Book Award for Non Fiction. It was named the book of the week by Times Higher Education to coincide with its UK publication and one of three great History books of 2016 in Bloomberg News. Dr. Sinha explains the profound connections that exist between the Black struggle for freedom & Civil Rights and India's fight for freedom from British Colonialism. Dr. Sinha also elucidates the congruence between Indian Nationalists movements and movements for Black freedom in the United States and how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who adopted the Gandhian notion of Satyagraha as a tactical and principled way of fighting against racial segregation and discrimination in the United States. Dr. Sinha & Soniya also review the depth and meaning of Kamala Devi Harris and her nomination as the first African American & first Indian American to be elected as a Vice Presidential Candidate in the US.

Episode Notes



Satyagraha:(Sanskrit and Hindi: “holding onto truth”) a concept introducedi n the early 20th century by Mahatma Gandhi to designate a determined but nonviolent resistance to evil. Gandhi’s satyagraha became a major tool in the Indian struggle against British imperialism and has since been adopted by protest groups in other countries.




Episode Transcription

[(0:06)] Soniya Gokhale: Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman podcast, I am your host, Soniya Gokhale and the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is A Desi Woman? She is a dynamic, fearless, and strong woman. She is your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us with on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale and I am A Desi Woman.


[(0:41)] Soniya: Hello, and welcome to another episode of A Desi Woman podcast. I am your host Soniya Gokhale and today I am so excited to be joined by Dr. Manisha Sinha. Dr. Sinha is the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, and the Mellon Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the American Antiquarian Society for the current academic year. She received her PhD from Columbia University where her dissertation was nominated for the Bancroft Prize. She taught at the University of Massachusetts for over twenty years where she was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal, the highest honor bestowed upon faculty. She is the author of the The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina, which was named one of the best books on slavery and Politico in 2015, and featured in the New York Times 1619 project. Her second book, the multiple award-winning, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, was long listed for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. She is the author and editor of numerous books and articles. She has lectured all over the world and written widely for the mainstream press, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, and has been interviewed by the national and international press. A historian  of the long 19th century. Her research interest lies specifically in the trans-national histories of slavery, abolition, feminism, and the history and legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction. She is currently writing a book on The Reconstruction of American Democracy after the Civil War, currently under contract with Liveright. Welcome to the show, Dr. Sinha.


[(2:40)] Soniya: Welcome to the show, Manisha.  


[(2:42)] Manisha Sinha: Thank you for having me.


[(2:44)] Soniya: My first question for you, Dr. Sinha, is a personal one which I hope you will answer for us. When did you decide that you wanted to choose to study the history of slavery and the Civil War. Was there a specific course, professor, or experience that was a catalyst for this decision?


[(3:06)] Manisha: Yes. I wanted to study American history and it is one of the reasons I came to graduate school to the United States, and while I was here in graduate school I got my Master's from Stony Brook University which was a History Department that was dominated by social historians. I wanted to do more political history. They have some really good professors there who advised me very well -- Wilbur Miller, Leslie Owens. But then I eventually got my doctorate from Columbia University. I transferred there and worked with Eric Foner and Barbara Fields, who were some of the top historians of the American Civil War era. I was just lucky to have them as my mentors.


[(3:53)] Soniya: Having read some of your work and watched some of your speaking events, I was very impacted when I heard you describe a profound connection that exists between Mahatma Gandhi and his notion of "Satyagraha" and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s, nonviolent resistance. Just to define for our listeners, Satyagraha is derived from Sanskrit, "Satya" means truth, and "Agraha" means fervor. It is essentially a policy of passive political resistance that was advocated by Gandhi and other freedom fighters during the struggle for independence from British rule in India. Similarly, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s, strong belief in nonviolent protests lead to legislative changes and awareness. So could you explain to us further what the connection is between the two concepts from Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Two men who could be considered the personification of leadership in the civil rights movement universally?


[(5:04)] Manisha: Absolutely. If you think of some of the great figures of nonviolent resistance, and nonviolent resistance does not mean passivity, it means resisting but through nonviolent means. As you put it, a battle for the truth. Gandhi himself was very influenced by some of the great thinkers of civil disobedience from Henry David Thoreau to Leo Tolstoy, and some of the great American abolitionists were all pacifists too. So there was a tradition of nonviolent resistance within the United States in the fight against slavery. And interestingly enough, Mahatma Gandhi learned to that. When he was in South Africa, he was very influenced by the writings of Leo Tolstoy, and Henry David Thoreau, and he combined that with the traditional, Indian respect for Ahimsa -- "Nonviolence", that comes from the Hindu-Jain-Buddhist traditions. He came up with this notion of nonviolent resistance to imperialism, to British rule. As taking the higher moral ground then militarism and imperialism that was personified by the British Empire. This really inspired a whole slew of African-American civil rights activists of whom Dr. King was only the most prominent. They adopted those ideas to fight for civil rights in the United States in the 1960s. But even before that, there was real overlap between Indian Nationalists movements and movements for Black freedom in the United States, and there were other great Black thinkers who were very influenced by the Indian Nationalists struggle in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. But it is really Dr. King who adopts the Gandhian notion of Satyagraha as a tactical and principled way of fighting against racial segregation and discrimination in the United States. And then, of course, the person who then carried that forward in the late 20th century, in 1980s, was the great Nelson Mandela in South Africa, who was very influenced both by Gandhi and Dr. King. So it is a very long and proud tradition of nonviolent resistance and it shows a real overlap between the Indian struggle for freedom and the Black civil rights movement in the United States.


[(7:55)] Soniya: Many of our listeners might be surprised that there is a long relationship between the Black struggle for freedom and decolonization in Asia and Africa. These are not necessarily topics or concepts that were broadly included in our education in American history or world history, at least in the United States going back decades. Can you help us better understand the relationship between the two?


[(8:23)] Manisha: Yes, absolutely. It is unfortunate that for a very long time, American history was taught in very simplistic and mythic ways and with a lot of incorrect, actually generalizations, let us say on the history of slavery, or the Civil War and Reconstruction, which is the period that immediately followed the Civil War. As a US historian, I have spent a lot of time trying to get this into school curriculums that would adequately reflect African-American history. But if you look at the overlap between African-American and Indian history, it goes way back I would say, right to the 19th century. Even earlier in the 18th century, you had actually Indian sailors from Bengal, they were called, lascars who were sometimes wrongfully enslaved in the United States along with the African-Americans. And many of the early abolition societies fought for their freedom. When abolition takes off in the United States, they are very much aware of the Indian Nationalists movement, they are aware of Indian Nationalist figures and social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy or Dwarkanath Tagore who was Rabindranath Tagore's father. They were not ignorant of what was happening in India the way we are today in the United States. They actually well aware of the Great Revolt of 1857 and defended it as resistance against British exactions and cruelty. I came across an instance when I was writing my book on abolition of the Indian social reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy. His locks of hair were being sold in the Boston anti-slavery bazaar, the way they sold the locks of hair of British abolitionists. So it was interesting to me that these connections were there in the 19th century and probably most Americans do not know about it. We know better the 20th century history of Indian migrations as indentured labor to Caribbean, to Guyana, and then later on Bengali and Punjabi immigration, mainly to the West Coast and to New York. But it is really in the 20th century that this kind of political project, this kind of political identification with each other's struggles really takes off. You can see right from Swami Vivekananda's visit to the United States, but even Indian Nationalists who came to the US and contacted Black leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai. There was also the Ghadar Movement in Punjabi that advocated a more violent overthrow of British rule. They had a branch in California, and they were persecuted along with other black and white radicals after the first world war. So, there is this long history that we are completely unaware of. There were very important Indian Nationalists who came the United States and preceding Kamala Harris. There was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who was a feminist and a nationalist, and she was traveling in the South and she got Jim Crow. And then they looked at her attire and realized she was Indian and they said, "Oh, well, we let you stay here because you are Asian", and she was like, "No, I am a woman of color and I will stay here because it is my right to stay here." And so all these stories of the 20th century of these early connections between Indian Nationalists and the Black civil rights activists is narrated really well in Nico Slate's book, Colored Cosmopolitanism. I would recommend that highly. I read it, I myself was not aware of some of these precursors to Dr. King and some of the Indians who had actually come to the United States and some famous African-Americans who went to India to learn how to conduct a nonviolent struggle. And one of them was actually Dr. Lawson, who-- rather I should say Rev. Lawson, who gave one of the eulogies recently at John Lewis' funeral. He actually went to India and taught in a college there. So there are a lot of these visits back and forth. Finally, of course, Dr. King. When he visited India in the 1950s, this is immediately after the triumphant Montgomery bus boycott. He wanted to go to India because he was so influenced by Gandhi and philosophy, and he knew with his wife visited India. He got the notion of affirmative action from reservations that we had in our constitutions for what is known in our constitution as the backward cause, right? And so it is really important sometimes to even trace the exact stories of these connections that many people are unaware of.


[(13:48)] Soniya: Absolutely, and what is incredible as you stated Luther King Jr. did indeed travel to India. I am reading and researching for this show, I read that, it was actually quite amazing. He would go to villages and people actually were familiar with his struggle for freedom, what he was leading in the United States. Even they knew of his bus boycott. So, what you have indicated is just truly phenomenal. The interconnection between India's struggle for freedom. We have not eluded yet to the caste system, but of course that was also sort of explained in greater detail, and I think Dr. King achieved the better understanding when he was in India of the correlations between the "Untouchable Caste", and African-Americans in this country. It is a really profound connection. So, I just want to hear more from you on that.


[(14:49)] Manisha: That is a very good question, Sonya, because there is a lot of talk about it, especially with the publication of Isabel Wilkerson's book, Caste, but it is something that had been talked about for a long time even before by black activists and Indian activists. For instance, I got a reference of Jyotiba Phule in 1870s, who was a caste reformer in India who wrote a book called Gulamgiri, by which he meant slavery. In which he argued against caste discrimination in India and he dedicated that book to American abolitionists who had fought against the enslavement of African-Americans. So, it is a very old connection thereto that many people are not aware of. Of course, Dr. Ambedkar, who was belonged to the "Dalit" caste and had studied in Columbia University. I guess, he preceded me. He is the father of the Indian Constitution and these idea of reservations. He actually studied in the United States. We know that during the civil rights movement, many Dalits in India adopted the Black Power movement, the Black Panther Party, they called themselves "Dalit Panthers", to fight for the liberation of lower castes and Scheduled Castes as it is called in our constitution, and Scheduled Tribes in India. They were a bit inspired by a Black activism too. But I think it is also important to caution against too simple analogy because caste in India is so complicated. We have so many caste and sub-caste and jati's, etc., that it is difficult to make a complete one on one comparison with African-Americans. There are some who do it but I would really be careful about this. There were two very good reviews of Isabel Wilkerson's book, Caste, by South Asians anthropologists and Indian writers. One was, I think in The New Yorker, and another was by the great anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai. They appreciated Wilkerson's attempt to understand racism through the analytic category of caste, but they warned against a simple parallel because the Indian situation is actually far more complicated, I would say, than the American situation. And in India, because of law and custom you find even sub-caste and caste like moving within the original Four Varnas. Brahmin, Kshatriyas, and Shudras, like going up and down within those Varnas. I think it is a useful, maybe political ploy but in terms of a scholarly comparison, one should be careful with not making too simple on comparison.


[(18:02)] Soniya: I am glad you indicated that because I would absolutely agree with you and it is a topic I intend to explore further on this podcast series because as you stated, many listeners who are not of South Asian or Indian-American descent are somewhat taken aback that the caste system is still indeed a phenomenon in our culture and the diaspora. And I agree with you that is so complex and I do not know that it can be so easily compared as you stated to African-Americans in this country. But I am also glad that you mentioned Mr. Ambedkar, and I may not pronouncing his last name correctly, but when I saw his last name I automatically presumed he might be Maharashtrian, any typically people with the last name K-A-R often from that part of the world and it just shows you that his success in the face of so many obstacles as "Part of the untouchable caste", was really a defining moment for our country and universally, really. And so, did we learn anything as a result of the work that he did in trying to advocate for those who may be marginalized in India or around the world? Or are we kind of at a stalemate as it pertains to that? And I am talking about really globally, because I know you are an expert certainly in this country and much of what we are seeing right now socio-politically, but we would love to hear your thoughts on that.


[(19:36)] Manisha: Yes. It is important to remember that caste is somewhat different in India even though it persists. Now, according-- we have the reservation systems, unlike affirmative actions, it is not just laws that can be challenged. It is in our constitution. So, it is constitutionally mandated. And you are right, Dr. Ambedkar, I think was form Maharashtra but he was a Dalit. He was able to come to this country and get educated at the time when that was not the norm either. So even among Dalits, I would say that was a relatively a position of privilege for him but it is not as if he was satisfied with that. He really did fight on a very broad front for the Dalit rights. And always reprimanded those who were blind of plight of the Dalit caste in India. The problem in India right now is that in law and in theory, everything looks great because there is not supposed to be castes and it is kind of outlawed, right? But in practice, in custom, it is so strong. Socially there are a lot of people who still marry within their caste, leave alone marrying outside your religion, because of the whole arranged marriage system. There are a lot of people who are still very discriminatory towards Dalit people. I mean, you will just hear of some of these awful cases recently of the rape and murder of Dalit people, and especially Dalit girls. It is horrifying, there is always one kind of dramatic instance that comes up ever so often from India which shows how high-bound and how long-lasting this idea is. And of course, Mahatma Gandhi fought against this all his life, right? He was the one who called Dalit people, Harijan or god's people. He tried to take away the stigma from Harijan people by actually cleaning toilets, which was regarded as their profession. So Gandhi, he did that. He washed the feet of Dalit people trying to set an example that this is wrong. And just as we now try in India to live up to anti-caste and secular aims and principles, it is being challenged. It is being challenged in all fronts. So I think it is very important for Indians and Indian-Americans also to recall the traditions of our freedom-fighters and our nationalist movement which was far more enlightened than the way some of these practices have persisted. The fact that they have persisted is not their failure, I think it is ours, and it is up to each generation of Indians I think to challenge caste system as it is up to the each generation of American citizens to challenge racism and racial discrimination and systemic racism in the United States.


[(22:50)] Soniya: Absolutely. My next question for you pertains to the groundbreaking nomination of Kamala Devi Harris to Vice-President. I wanted to ask what that might mean to you on a personal level? When we were putting together the framework of this show, we did wanted to discuss this groundbreaking nomination and the first African-American and Indian-American to be nominated as Vice-President of the United States. So we would love to hear from you on that.


[(23:27)] Manisha: Absolutely. So for me, it was a fantastic decision on the part of Joe Biden to choose Kamala Harris as his Vice-Presidential nominee. And for very good political reasons, she brings a ton of charisma and leadership and inspiration to the democratic presidential ticket. I think it is really important for us to look at Kamala Harris, and see her like most Indian-American communities even are not used to seeing. She is the child of an African-American man and an Indian-American woman, which in itself is really unusual. But the stories of her parents are very inspirational and it seems that her mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, was very influenced also by the civil rights movements here. She met her husband through being somewhat of an activist and joining study groups that had-- actually some very famous African-American scholars. As a historian of US and African-American history, I read this wonderful article in The New York Times by Ellen Barry that trace these groups and name the people who were in these groups, and I recognized those names because they were very prominent scholars and historians. So, she chose to identify with the Black struggle the way in which many Indian Nationalist leaders who came to the United States in the mid 20th century did. Even her, Kamala Harris' namesake Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay whom I told you about. So, I think it is a political statement virtually on the part of her mother. It is a personal statement, she married this man, they had these children, and she raised her daughters to be Black women in the United States which is very unlike, I think, many Indian-American communities, many Indian-American immigrants who came to this country after the 1960s. And the fact that they were even able to immigrate to the United States was a result of the civil rights movement because it lead to the liberalization of immigration and naturalization laws. So the 1965 law actually allowed Indian-Americans to come to this country and become citizens. But many Indian-Americans are not aware of this because of the way immigration structured. Most of them tend to be highly educated or come here for education and join professional classes and do extremely well. But I think it is important for us to remember, and Kamala Harris' nomination reminds us of these long forgotten political interconnections between Indian-Americans and African-Americans. So in that sense, I think, her nomination has galvanized and has made people. So think about that history. When I wrote about this in my New York Times, I got so many emails from Indian-Americans telling me, "Oh, my God, we were not even aware of this. We vaguely knew about the nonviolent stuff but we were not aware of the depth of the connections." So I think it has become kind of a political education certainly for many Indian-Americans and certainly the younger generations who were born and brought up here who tend to be more American, more liberal and progressive in their views and less parochial. I think for them, this history is actually quite inspiring. So in this sense, I think her nomination has really crystalized that political project of the ways in which people of color all over the world can empathize with each other and each other's plight. Because Indian-Americans, even though they are already successful, have at times in this country, being the target of similar kinds of racial profiling and discrimination as African-Americans. They can sometimes identify also with that being the recipient of discriminatory acts or words. Many times or instances where things have happened to them or the worst case scenario as we have heard the stories of people being attacked and even killed. So I think it is important for us to remember this history.


[(28:14)] Soniya: Absolutely. I was going to ask you, I know that you have a book in the works. I will have, in the podcast notes on Dr. Sinha's link to her book, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition, as well as her recent New York Times opinion article which is exactly the reason that why I was prompted reach out to her among others. But I wanted to hear about your new book and what we might expect from it and when we might expect it?


[(28:44)] Manisha: Yes. I am actually working on it right now. I am on leave this year, finishing it up. I am hoping that it will be out by the end of next year, if not that, then early 2022. But I certainly am on a deadline from my publishers at Liveright, which is an imprint of Norton, to hand in the book manuscript by the end of next summer. So I am feverishly working on this book on the reconstruction of American democracy after the Civil War, and I find many of the issues that we contend with today, for instance, systemic racism, or deep-rooted misogyny. Those issues were present in the 19th century and people were struggling against it even then. Our history resonates today and I thought it was very important for me to write this book not just as a historian, but also as a citizen. I immigrated from India to this country and now I am a US citizen and I thought it was really important to uncover that history for most American citizens to realize today that the struggle that they are engaged in, whether it is against systemic racism, or it is against mass incarceration, or for women's rights-- these all have 19th century roots and I want to talk about it in this book.


[(30:15)] Soniya: That sounds amazing and we cannot wait for that. I am a huge fan and so I really thank you for joining me today. And I sincerely hope we will have your voice as a continuing contributor. Again, thank you so much, Dr. Manisha Sinha.


[(30:33)] Manisha: Thank you so much for having me, Soniya.