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April 03, 2019

This Instagram Account Is Schooling The World On South Asian History

Text by Shubham Ladha

Check out Brown History, the Instagram page that’s turning into an important resource on the subject

South Asia — comprising Afghanistan, India,Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives — has been a part of the many social, political and cultural changes that history has witnessed: trade, migration, war, slavery, colonisation and more. However much of the pages from this history are missing and so many stories of South Asian people have been forgotten or were never told.

But 31-year-old Montreal-based electrical engineer, Ahsun Zafar is digging deep to revive and share these stories through his Instagram page, Brown History. And he does so, not simply though the lens of nostalgia, but in an effort to document the dynamics of oppression, equality, power and tradition — amongst many other themes. The page carries tales ranging from Teja Singh, who prevented the Canadian government from getting rid of all the South Asians in Canada by leading his people to defend their residency rights in 1908 to Indrani Rahman, the first Indian to compete in the Miss Universe beauty pageant in 1952.

Since 2017, when he started the page, it’s come to garner more than 100,000 followers. We speak to Zafar about what inspired him to start the page, why it’s important to turn the spotlight on the South Asian community, and how its sub-sects are all essentially connected:

What inspired you to start Brown History?

I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge and I’ve been a voracious reader but it came to a point where I was learning all these things but wasn’t doing anything with it. What’s the point of knowledge if you don’t use it? At the same time, I wanted to learn more about my roots, so Brown History was the sum of all this.

 

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Many women followed Sarla Thakral’s inspirational lead and served in the airforce in WW2.

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Where do you find such stories from history? How’re you able to curate your content?

I just ask questions and follow my curiosity. For example, I was watching a documentary on the Black Panther Party movement and the narrator said that the party inspired groups all around the world so I wondered if South Asia was influenced in any way and lo and behold, I learned about the Dalit Panther Movement and the British Black Panther Party who’s core members were South Asians. Everything you need to know is out there waiting for you in books, museums, documentaries etc.

Why the concentration on stories from the pre-independence era?

That’s slowly changing as now I’m looking at different time periods. When I was researching about my roots, I realised that it goes further back than Independence – to an era when we were all one. Everyone influenced each other, through music, traditions, languages, cuisines, arts, etc. We’re all connected and that is my state of mind when I’m working on Brown History.

 

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Someone commented in an earlier post (I’m paraphrasing here), “I hate it that he posts Black history stuff when its a Brown history page.” Now usually I ignore most of these kinds of comments but that one annoyed the shit out of me. ⁣ ⁣ In the 50s, when many African-American straightened their hair to imitate the hairstyles of white people, singer Sam Cooke started to wear his hair natural as a point of racial pride. And now currently in a country obsessed with fair skin, Nandita Das stands as the front for the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign. And even though the Black Panther Party was based in the US, it inspired the formation of the Dalit Panthers in India to fight caste discrimination. ⁣ ⁣ The place, the time and skin colour can all be different but the struggles, the fights and the revolutions are identical and these truths surpass those boundaries set by geography, oppression, and even by it’s most toughest opponent – ignorance.⁣ ⁣ Our stories are barely ever told. I hope that this page shows you that we too are also responsible for how history has shaped. Our stories are real. Our contributions are equally important. We were there in all the World Wars, right in the muddy trenches of the battlefield. We lifted Britain when she had fallen and even though she has forgotten it, we still continue to do so. In the early 80s, volunteers from Bangladesh went out to fight for the Palestinian cause. Sofia Duleep Singh organized marches and refused to pay taxes until all women in Britain were allowed to vote. Anwar Ditta didn’t just go home after six years of fighting for her children against Britain’s racist immigration laws, she instead took her family and joined in on the fight against South Africa Apartheid. Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent resistance was influenced through Gandhi’s example and when slavery was abolished, where do you think they got their replacements from?⁣ ⁣ Just as we are part of the stories of others’, people around the world in different times of history are a part of ours. It is not a “us and them” thing. It is a history shared. It is countless ripples coming together and forming into a sweeping wave that we need, to bring us forward. ⁣ ⁣

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You’re able to highlight different aspects of brown history such as politics, culture and tradition. How does it help in decolonising thought-processes ?

Maya Angelou once said, “the more you know of your history, the more liberated you are.” Think of it as doctors trying to find the cure for a sickness and the first step they take is to find the source of pain.

 

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In the late 1800s, Colonial Exhibits became a popular phenomena in the western world. These exhibits not only showcased artifacts but actual people. It was basically human zoos. In 1907, Paris recreated indigenous villages from the colonies to represent what life was like there and displayed live “exotic” human beings from all around the world. They were given costumes to wear and made to perform non-stop. They were forced to live inside the zoo. Terrible living conditions, foreign diseases, and the cold killed dozens of them and then they were buried in the gardens. Even elephants were brought in from South Asia to attract people. If you go there now, you can actually still see the ruins left behind from the zoo. (See Photos from 1 to 6) In 1904, the St Louis Fair held in Missouri had a ferris wheel, corn on the cob and a recreation of Filipino villages consisting of 1,000 Filipinos from dozens of tribes. They also displayed Africans. (See Photo 8) In 1958, Brussels held a World Fair which featured a Congolese Village. White hands from behind a fence fed a young Africa girl in western clothing. (See Photo 9) Human Zoos were just another form of theatrics used to show the contrast between the “civilized” and the “savage” – a way to dehumanize us and to support the belief that their “civilizing mission” was important and noble and thereby justifying colonialism. The mentioned above are only a few examples of the many human zoos that occured throughout history. Source: humanzoos.net

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Were there any stories that were really difficult to find?

The world has done a pretty good job of hiding our stories. Colonial amnesia is real. It’s the erasure of countries’ colonial past from their education systems and their media. For example in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), not a single South Asian character is present. It’s as if they never existed. If they were going to get a One Direction member in their movie, they could have at least gone with Zayn Malik.

 

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A school teacher, Pritilata Waddedar, joined the Chittagong revolutionary group headed by Surya Sen. Dressed as a Punjabi man, she led a team of fifteen revolutionaries in the 1932 guerilla attack on the Pahartali European Club which had a sign board that read “Dogs and Indians not allowed”. The revolutionaries torched the club and were later caught by the British police. To avoid getting arrested, Pritilata consumed cyanide and died. She was only 21 years old at the time. Her sacrifice became a defiant nationalistic image and seen by many as the definitive moment when women left the traditional roles to play a part in defining an independent national identity. See previous post for more context. #india #pakistan #chittagong #sen #uprising #chittagonguprising #britishindia #british #ireland #easterising #history #brownhistory #revolution #bangladesh

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Which stories affected you the most?

They’re all moving in their own way. History is like a medicine cabinet. Whatever you’re going through, you can always go back to history and find a story that you can relate to and in turn it can surprise you, inspire you, give you strength, like medicine. So far, South Asians have been going through life without a medicine cabinet, just imagine how much stronger and powerful we’ll be when our stories will finally be represented in books and the media.

The story of Vaishno Das Bagai trying to make it in America is a pretty heart-breaking. He migrated from Peshawar in 1915 and received citizenship in 1920. However he lost it 4 years later due to an Act of Congress that barred all “Asiatics” from citizenship, which eventually led to his suicide.

 

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In 1915, Vaishno Das Bagai with his wife, Kala Das Bagai and their three sons moved to the United States to start a better life. Because the majority of South Asian immigrants who arrived during that time were labourers, it came as a shock for everyone to see Kala. It was so rare to see a South Asian woman that the San Francisco Call-Post ran a article on her and her son, Ram. In fact, the article even put a focus on the diamond nose ring she wore as shown in the headline. ⁣ I also recommend that you read the Feb 4 instagram post about her husband, Vaishno Das Bagai and his story if you haven’t already.⁣ ⁣ Source: saada.org and “The Making of Asian America” by Erika Lee⁣

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What’ve been some of the reactions you’ve gotten after the page picked up popularity? What’s the #BrownHistoryPhotoAlbum all about?

It’s been overwhelming. My inbox is overflowing with messages of love and support. It just shows how hungry South Asians are to have their stories told.

#BrownHistoryPhotoAlbum is stories of everyday South Asians sent in by followers. Life didn’t get any better after the British left. Our people had another mountain to climb right after and that was overcoming the racism and hate from the Western world and the difficulty of leaving home and entering a strange new world. They were just everyday people but their stories transcend politics and borders. Doesn’t matter where we are from, we can all relate to their struggles.

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