As we begin 2023, reminding ourselves of the momentous historical events that have taken place on January 1st can inspire and bolster our hopes for a more just future.
The first day of the year is often portentous in the narratives we sketch out for our future selves to inhabit. But it is also important historically; a day which marks not one, not two, but multiple epochal events.
January 1st marks the triumph of good over evil, of the oppressed over the oppressor, of justice over ignominy. It is the day that the Haitian Revolution and the Cuban Revolution triumphed; the day that the Zapatista uprising took place in 1994’s Mexico, radically shaping the way we can structure our societies and their relationship with their living environments; and the anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon victory in the Indian subcontinent.
These events are displaced temporally and may appear to merely be connected by the happenstance of date, an SEO-friendly coincidence beloved by digital journalists and sub-editors the world over.
But they are intrinsically tied to the idea that radical, generative change is not only a conceivable proposition, but actually possible. Something which is vital to remember after the last few years which has witnessed the malodorous rise of the Far-Right in mainstream politics and the wanton destruction of our planet thanks to the rapacious greed of late capitalism and its sycophants.
Political commitments complement personal resolutions. My personal goal to loose flab and no longer resemble an overripe peach can be matched by my conviction to not only dream of a better world but commit to making it happen.
Separated by more than a century, but linked by a shared history of imperialism and anticolonial resistance specific to the West Indies, both the Haitian and Cuban Revolutions stand as a reminder than any oppressor, no matter how overwhelming their numbers, can be beaten, and that a better more equitable future for all is within our grasp.
The 1801 Constitution drawn up by Louverture and his compatriots ought to be the one taught in schools around the world rather than its American counterpart, the latter of which is forever tainted by the hypocrisy of enslavers penning words declaring their freedom. The Haitian Constitution instead enshrined the unassailable dignity of every man and woman, regardless of colour or creed, and declared all equal before the law.
But it also represented, as the historian CLR James put it, the first time that “…West Indians first became aware of themselves as a people…”. If Haiti was the start, Cuba in 1959 was the conclusion to the quest for sovereignty and search for a nationhood antithetical to the best interests of the groups which historically pillaged and ravaged the West Indies.
As Castro and his colleagues triumphantly marched into Havana, the world woke again to the possibility of a different way of being — one that breaks from the well-trodden paths of imperialism and capitalism.
This sentiment echoed again in 1994, when the Zapatistas rose up to seize several municipalities in Mexico, simultaneously reclaiming land and dignity whilst demonstrating that decolonisation is not merely a theory, but a liveable and achievable reality that must centre indigenous lives and experiences first and foremost.
The vision of the movement should speak to us in the 21st century, grappling with the worst excesses of capitalist extraction and its appalling environmental impact.
If the Zapatistas point towards a truly decolonised socio-political formation, then Bhima Koregaon represents the messy power structures that underpinned the colonial project, and how its afterlives can often be best understood, as the historian Partha Chatterjee put it, as “…national identities within a different narrative, that of the community.”
Seventeen years after Haiti, an estimated 800 Mahar troops employed by the East India Company successfully defended their position against a 28,000 strong force by the Brahmin Peshwa-led Maratha confederacy.
The 1818 battle is a major military turning point in most macrohistories of Indian colonial history, representing a key chapter in the Third Anglo-Maratha War which culminated in the establishment of unfettered British rule in Western, Eastern, and Southern India.
But it is also an important chapter in the history of opposition to caste violence and a reclamation of dignity from indigenous (understood here as originating within the subcontinent as oppose to “Adivasi”) forms of oppression.
It is rightly celebrated every year, to the increasing ire of upper-caste bigots and Hindu Fascists, as a victory for the Dalits of India, and stands as a reminder that nationalist narratives of the past tend to subsume microhistories of resistance and defiance in favour of a simplistic rhetoric.
But it has also been used as a scapegoat by the current Hindu Far-Right Union government, which arrested activists and scholars under a draconian security law in 2018 after claiming they were responsible for violence during that year’s commemoration. One of those arrested, Jesuit priest and campaigner Stan Swamy, was the oldest prisoner in Indian history, and was allowed to die by a callous state more interested in crushing resistance than cultivating pluralism.
It has subsequently emerged that the evidence used in all of the above trials was fabricated, and most likely planted on electronic devices belonging to Swamy and his compatriots, the latter of whom still are in jail. Just as those celebrating Bhima Koregaon demonstrate how colonialism continues to shape identity and dignity so too thus state reprisal demonstrate abuse of authority.
All four events are intrinsically tied to the quest for dignity and self-respect, torn from the hateful hands of imperialists, and inspired by dreams for a better more equitable world.
As we begin the new year, may they continue to inspire us to physically, intellectually, emotionally, and actively challenge those who wish to deny their importance, our agency, and our ability to not only envisage a better future, but work towards making it a reality.