Indian and Chinese Anti-imperial Networks in the 1930s and 1940s

Category: Essay 0

In August 1939, Jawaharlal Nehru, an influential leader of the Indian national movement and the future prime minister of independent India, explained his decision to visit China by evoking solidarity among oppressed people: ‘I go to China because China is the symbol today of magnificent courage in the struggle for freedom, of a determination which has survived untold misery and unparalleled disaster, of unity before a common foe. I go to her with my homage and my greeting.’[1] Admiring the determined fight of India’s East Asian neighbour against Japan’s aggression, Nehru time and again pointed out the commonality that India and China shared: their joint cultural and religious heritage, and their present-day anti-imperialist struggle.

Nehru’s emphasis of a commonly shared past, however, was no novelty. Various concepts of Pan-Asianism had been in the air since the early 20th century. These concepts centred on notions of Asian cooperation. Initially, Japan had emerged as an appealing partner for Indian nationalists, with its promises of a non-western Asian modernity. The country’s growing imperial ambitions, however, made it a difficult role model, and Indian politicians and intellectuals moved closer to developing bilateral cooperative relations with their Chinese counterparts in the interwar period.

One vital opportunity to meet and discuss in person the shared themes came in 1927 during the Brussels Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism, organized by the German communist Willi Münzenberg with the support of the Communist International. The Congress brought together left-wing politicians, trade unionists as well as anticolonial activists from Asia, Africa and Latin America with a view to link all anti-imperial forces. In order to form a ‘united front’ against imperial exploitation and oppression, the meeting inaugurated a permanent organization, the League against Imperialism. Moreover, the delegates of the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Chinese Guomindang used the opportunity to sign a joint declaration calling for mutual understanding and cooperation. Soon afterwards, several Indian Chinese initiatives followed in the cultural realm. With the backing of the Guomindang and the INC, the Sino-Indian Cultural society was set up with branches in Nanjing (1933) and Santiniketan (1934). A few years later in 1937, the Cheena Bhavana, the Institute of Chinese Language and Culture was opened at the Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan. These initiatives were understood by Indian and Chinese nationalists as vital tools of cultural diplomacy between the two countries.

The outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in summer 1937 brought the question of political alliances back to the forefront. The Indian National Congress that was leading the national movement against the British colonial rule, passed a resolution condemning Japan’s ‘imperialist aggression’ and expressed its sympathy with China. Interestingly, at this point in time, but also later, the INC discourse did not differentiate between the Guomindang and the Communist Party of China, which had officially halted their civil war and had entered into an alliance to fight the Japanese together. Believing that both India and China were fighting a common battle against imperialist suppression – a belief that was likewise expressed by Chinese leaders in their requests for support – Indian nationalists devised various initiatives to help their East Asian neighbour. Next to the boycott of Japanese goods and the organisation of solidarity days, the INC sent humanitarian aid to China in form of an Indian medical mission. This mission – comprising a fully equipped ambulance car, medical supplies and five Indian doctors who were selected from more than 700 applicants – left Bombay for Hongkong in September 1938.

In the first few months after its arrival in China, the mission visited different places held by the Guomindang and took up work in military, municipal and Red Cross hospitals. Their destination for service, however, was Yan’an, headquarters of the communists and endpoint of the Long March, which the unit reached in early 1939. Initially, the unit was supposed to remain in China for one year, but the last member returned to India only in 1943. During the stay, the mission met – within the context of several social functions – members of the Chinese political establishment, representatives of political and humanitarian organizations as well as individuals from other countries who actively supported China. Perceived as representatives of the INC and as ‘ambassadors of goodwill from the people of India’, the medical mission had talks with leading members of the Communist party, such as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De, prominent Communist supporters, for instance Song Qingling as well as representatives of the Guomindang, such as Song Meiling, and Dai Jitao. In doing so, but more importantly owing to their work, the doctors helped to establish an anticolonial alliance with China.

The medical unit was greatly appreciated in China. Amongst others, Mao Zedong personally thanked Nehru for the medical and material aid from India in a letter in May 1939 and expressed his hope ‘that in future the Indian National Congress and the Indian people will continue to help and aid us and thus together drive out the Japanese imperialists.’ Similar hopes for an ongoing Indian support were articulated by Song Qingling, widow of Sun Yat-Sen, who had founded the China Defence League in 1938 to encourage international medical and material relief for China. While the Defence League appreciated the voluntary and free aid rendered by the Indian people, it also approached the Indian National Congress in spring 1939 with a proposal to facilitate the procurement of urgently needed medical supplies for China from Indian companies. The proposal – though framed in the spirit of anticolonial cooperation – clearly had favourable economic implications for India and was understood as an advantageous business opportunity by Indian nationalists. The idea of intensified business relations between China and nationalist India – relations that could support China’s war efforts – came up again in a lengthy exchange between Jawaharlal Nehru and Song Meiling in 1940. Although both sides explored the possibilities of increased economic collaboration, it finally did not materialize due to the war and India’s status as a colony.

(Cover: China Defence League, Annual Report & Survey of Projects, 1939–1940, publ. by The Central Committee, Hongkong 1940)

The emerging anti-imperial Indo-Chinese network was further fostered by a series of mutual visits between the leading politicians and intellectuals of both countries. Nehru, who had long cherished the idea to go to China, finally visited the East Asian country in August and September 1939. During his 13-day trip, he met with numerous Chinese politicians and visited various institutions. In his public speeches delivered during the visit, Nehru emphasized the long Indo-Chinese friendship and criticized Japan’s imperialist policy. His pronouncements spoke the language of Pan-Asianism; however, by excluding Japan and marking it as imperialist aggressor, Nehru’s Pan-Asianism was framed in anticolonial terms.

During his stay in China, Nehru discussed at length the present and future relations of both countries with Chiang Kai-shek and Song Meiling. Following these exchanges, a proposal was prepared that delineated possible fields of bilateral cooperation, such as education, economy, culture, and politics. The envisaged common aim was to further strengthen the political ties between the Indian National Congress and the Guomindang. The comprehensive proposal included the exchange of students and professors, the sharing of intelligence information, and mutual visits of scientific and economic experts. The proposal was a serious attempt to not only form an anti-imperialist alliance, but also to develop a counter-internationalism beyond the existing imperial world order.

The limitations of this approach were, however, visible within a few weeks. While Nehru emphasized in his notes the importance of a common policy for dealing with the European and world powers, this point was not mentioned in the Chinese outline drafted a few weeks later after the Second World War had begun. Although both partners understood their movements as anti-imperialist, they differed on the question of against whom this anti-imperialism was primarily directed. Nehru rejected Japan’s aggression in East Asia. His focus, however, was on Britain whereas for Chiang Kai-shek it was on Japan. Despite this silent omission, both sides strove to implement other features of the proposal, for instance, in the field of cultural contacts. In 1940, Dai Jitao, member of the Executive Committee of the Guomindang and of the Supreme Council of National Defence, toured India on a cultural goodwill mission, partly organised by the INC.

The question of political cooperation finally became vital again in 1942. By this time, the international situation as well as the domestic conditions in both India and China had changed due to the ongoing war. In September 1939, the British Indian Government had declared war on Germany without consulting the Indian nationalists. There were different opinions in the nationalist camp regarding India’s war efforts and the continuation of the anticolonial movement. The Congress’ official stance was to give no support to Britain and the allied forces as long as India remained a dependent colony. At the same time, following Japan’s simultaneous attacks on Pearl Harbor and on the European colonies in South East Asia in 1941, China’s fight against the aggressor became part of the global Second World War and Chiang Kai-Shek was named the Allied Supreme commander of the Chinese theatre.

With the Japanese troops approaching India via Burma and the deadlock between the British government and the Indian national movement over the resolution of the question of India’s independence remaining unresolved, Chiang Kai-shek decided to visit the subcontinent in early 1942. Although being the official guest of the British Indian Government, Chiang’s principal aim was to win (nationalist) India’s active participation in the war by supporting the INC’s demands for a transfer of political power to the Indian people. During his stay, Chiang met with the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, other government officials, as well as with Congress leaders, such as Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. He asked the British to immediately grant India the status of a dominion. In return, Chiang suggested, the Indian National Congress would halt any campaign for full independence until the end of the war. His efforts, however, were in vain. Neither the British Indian government, nor the Congress were ready to move. The latter stuck to its policy of not actively aiding the British during the war as long as there was no full transfer of power, i.e. India becoming independent. The limits of a successful anticolonial cooperation between China and India thus became visible once the nationalist objectives of the two partners prevented the envisaged counter-internationalism from functioning effectively. The importance of their national agendas, however, did not hinder both sides from declaring their continuing belief in future cooperation and pledging for peace and prosperity of Asia and the world.

(Chiang Kai-Shek, Song Meiling, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, 18.02.1942. The date when the photograph was taken is noted wrongly in wiki Commons.

During the ‘Quit India movement’ – the last mass campaign the Congress initiated against the British in August 1942 –, many nationalists were arrested. Most anticolonial ventures came to a halt until the end of the Second World War. In the years following the end of the war, independent India and the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC) continued to foster their mutual relations, repeatedly emphasizing their longstanding close links, their shared Asian heritage, and their friendship based on the common anti-imperialist struggle. Both countries closely cooperated in the domain of foreign policy on multiple occasions, such as the PRC’s admission to the United Nations, the Korean War, the Indochina question, and the Bandung conference. The language of this cooperation was not only framed in terms of friendship and a commonality of problems but also, although only initially, it drew upon Pan-Asian concepts of Asian unity and power. This was directed against a new kind of ‘imperial internationalism’ that emerged in the context of decolonization and the Cold War. The Indo-China war of 1962, however, marked a final turning point in this relationship, and broadly, of Pan-Asianism which continues to influence the Asian and world geo-politics.

Pan-Asian solidarities emerged in the first half of the twentieth century as one expression of transimperial anticolonialism, albeit not as the only one. Indian anticolonialists engaged in and shaped different networks of anti-imperial solidarity, stretching from the US and Europe to North and South Africa, the Middle East, and Central, South East and East Asia. Moreover, Pan-Asianism came in multiple forms and produced next to solidarities, also hierarchical and paternalistic expressions that threatened to facilitate and introduced new forms of ‘benign’ colonialism. In the case sketched out here of Indian-Chinese anti-imperial networks in the 1930s and 40s, they were driven by a threefold impetus: their common anti-imperialist struggles, notions of Pan-Asian solidarity and, to a lesser degree, the potential national benefits that strategic alliances with the right kind of powerful partners could produce.

Further Reading

Maria Framke: ‘We must send a gift worthy of India and the Congress!’ War and political humanitarianism in late colonial South Asia, in: Modern Asian Studies 51/6 (2017), pp. 1969–1998.

Fredrik Petersson: Willi Münzenberg, the League against Imperialism, and the Comintern, 1925–1933, Vol. 1, New York 2013.

Tansen Sen: India, China, and the World: A connected History, New Delhi 2018.

Carolien Stolte, Harald Fischer-Tiné: Imagining Asia in India: Nationalism and internationalism (ca. 1905–1940), in: Comparative Studies in Society and History 54/1 (2012), pp. 65–92.

Madhavi Thampi (ed.): India and China in the colonial World, New Delhi 2005.

Tianshi Yang: Chiang Kai-Shek and Jawaharlal Nehru, in: Hans van de Ven, Diana Lary, Stephen R. MacKinnon (eds.): Negotiating China’s Destiny in World War II, Stanford 2015.

[1] Jawaharlal Nehru: China, Spain and the War: Essays and Writings, Allahabad/London 1940, p. 18.

Author profile

Maria Framke is a historian of modern South Asia and research fellow at the History Department of Erfurt University. Maria has researched and published on the history of international organisations, imperial and nationalist politics, humanitarianism, and international relations and ideologies in the 20th century. Her work has engaged with questions of transimperial connections both regarding anticolonial internationalisms and anti-imperial biographies. Maria received her doctorate from Jacobs University Bremen in 2011 on the topic of Indian engagements with Italian Fascism and German National Socialism in the interwar period. Her current research projects focus on ‘South Asian humanitarianism in armed conflicts, 1914–1945’ and on 'Hidden histories: Women’s role in rural development programmes in India, c. 1920–1966'.

2021: Indian humantarianism under colonial rule: Imperial loyalty, national self-assertion and anticolonial emancipation, in: Harald Fischer-Tiné, Maria Framke (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of the History of Colonialism in South Asia, London, pp. 486–496.
2017: ‘We must send a gift worthy of India and the Congress!’: War and political humanitarianism in late colonial South Asia, in: Modern Asian Studies 51/6, pp. 1969–1998.
2016: Shopping ideologies for independent India? Taraknath Das’s engagement with Italian Fascism and German National Socialism, in: Itinerario 40/1, pp. 55–81.
2013: Delhi–Rom–Berlin: Die indische Wahrnehmung von Faschismus und Nationalsozialismus, 1922–1939, Darmstadt.
2011: Vorbild oder Feindbild? Die Wahrnehmung Japans in Indien von 1915–1920, in: Bochumer Jahrbuch zur Ostasienforschung, 34, pp. 103–120.

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