The Hollywood blockbuster “Black Panther,” which has earned more than $1 billion globally, has had a good run in India. It has been the subject of a wave of analyses as to its messaging for African Americans and for Africa (sub-Saharan Africa in particular). Are there inherent lessons for India as well? I think so.
In “Black Panther,” M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari tribe (played by Winston Duke), says “Glory to Hanuman” (though inexplicably, the “Hanuman” reference was removed in India). Lord Hanuman is one of the most popular gods in India. He is simple, large-hearted and a powerful warrior. “Black Panther’s” reference to Lord Hanuman is not mere fiction. He was once worshiped by warriors across many parts of the ancient world. Indeed, the ships sailing on the trade rounds on the Indian Ocean rim (between eastern Africa, Arabia, Persia, India and Southeast Asia) carried not only goods and cloth, but philosophies and tales of Indian gods and goddesses. In return, African ideas, materials and people arrived on the shores of India. The Siddhis (originally from ancient Ethiopia and Kenya) came to India many centuries ago, and over time, rose to become great traders, generals and even kings and queens. Many of them converted to Hinduism or to Islam. They adopted Indian ways. Today they speak Indian languages such as Marathi and Gujarati.
But India and Africa share another, darker commonality: They have both been victims of rapacious invaders. India, just like Africa, suffered substantially in the past few centuries. Angus Maddison, a British economic historian, stated that India was the No. 1 economy in the world in the centuries before the British arrived. Regrettably, by the time the Turkic and European invaders were done with us, we were a byword for poverty and backwardness. Ancient India had yielded a tremendous crop of knowledge, not just in the domain of spirituality but also in mathematics, metallurgy, astronomy, medicine, navigation, water management, textiles, etc. India had among the oldest universities in the world. Many aspects of India’s culture were destroyed by invaders; most famously, Nalanda University. It was the largest university of its time, with more than 10,000 students. It was burnt to cinders in 1193 by Turkic invader Bakhtiyar Khilji.
Historians estimate that man-made famines killed 30 million to 35 million Indians during the British Raj. The Bengal Famine of 1943-44, to name but one, was the result of conscious war policies of Winston Churchill. An estimated 4 million Indians starved to death because of his decisions. When local Raj officials messaged him about the devastation, the great “war hero” purportedly wondered why Gandhi was still alive.
Indians could be like Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) and react to past crimes with hatred, anger and vengeance. Or one can be like T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who acknowledged historical crimes but without anger and hatred. Instead of seeking revenge, he instead worked to make Wakanda strong. My mother, a very wise woman, once said to me, if you hate someone more than you love yourself, there is no hope for you.
Watching “Black Panther” is also a reminder of the regrettable strains in the modern India-Africa relationship. Indians remember the mass expulsion from Uganda under Idi Amin in the 1970s. Africans feel the racism of modern India toward them. There have been reports of attacks on African students in India. But these go against the grain of traditional African-Indian ties. Even in the recent past, India inspired decolonization movements across Africa. India has invested in varied fields such as energy and telecommunications in Africa. Ghana’s Presidential Palace was built with Indian aid. I couldn’t help but notice that many of the traditional clothes in “Black Panther” had a mix of African and Indian designs.
Africa and India would do well to remember the ways of their ancestors, approach each other with liberalism and respect, and build a new future.
The other forceful message emerging from “Black Panther” is the importance of pride. Wakanda may be fictional, but the ancient kingdoms of Songhai and Great Zimbabwe are not. They have been airbrushed from history. Africans would do well to revive the memories of these great empires, which will fill them with pride and confidence and can be the fuel for greatness. India and Africa must remember the great achievements of our ancestors, infuse ourselves with pride and strive toward scaling greater heights today — and not because we want to prove something to the invaders and colonialists who once brought us to our knees. We must make grand achievements today so that we can prove ourselves worthy descendants of our remarkable ancestors.
“Wakanda Forever!” is the salute in the film. But if you’ll permit me, I’ll also say Africa Forever and India Forever, too.