Solidarities Across Borders

Students & Afro-Asian Solidarity

The Bandung Conference of 1955 in Indonesia is widely recognised as a landmark moment that inspired Asians and Africans to carve out a transnational network based on intercontinental solidarity in the pursuit of a decolonised world. In a lesser known meeting, one year later, hundreds of students from twenty-seven Asian and African countries gathered in Bandung, the city dubbed by India’s Jawaharlal Nehru as ‘the capital of Asia-Africa’, for the Afro-Asian Students’ Conference (AASC). Willard Hanna, an American observer of the event, referred to the AASC as ‘The Little Bandung Conference’ – because it was like that earlier meeting in terms of location, model and purpose, only smaller in scale. Yet, the AASC was not just a miniature version of the Bandung Conference that preceded it. It can be understood in its own right as a site in which students played a key role in forging internationalist solidarity in the post-war world.

The AASC meeting at Gedung Merdeka (Freedom Building). Source: The National Archive of the Republic of Indonesia (ANRI), Kempen Jawa Barat, No. JB 5601.664.

The students from Asia and Africa that built such solidarities have been the focus of my research on the struggles for independence and decolonisation in the mid-twentieth century. These students were often backed by heads of state from the Afro-Asian world, and their work often complemented the decolonial aspirations of emerging nations. At the same time, they were instrumental in initiating an era of transnational cooperation on social, political, economic, cultural and women’s issues. What, then, did decolonisation mean to these students? The story of the AASC shows some of the deliberations about the meaning and scope of decolonisation taking place within the project of Afro-Asianism.

Instrumental to the organisation of the 1956 Afro-Asian Students’ Conference were Indonesian students. Although later inspired by the 1955 Bandung Conference, the Federation of Indonesian University Student Organisations (PPMI) first proposed to hold an Asian-Arab Students’ Conference in 1952. The proposal was fueled by the students’ understanding of the increasing role of independent countries in world and cultural affairs at the time. They felt a need to bring together students from Arab and Asian countries to discuss this new geopolitical situation and to strengthen relations between them. In addition, Indonesia’s close ties with the Arab world guided the students. Arab countries had been the first to recognise the legitimacy of Indonesia’s independence in 1945, while the Netherlands, the country’s former colonial power, and other Western powers had refused to do so.

With the idea for the conference in place, in 1953, Radjab Nasution, the Deputy Chairman of the PPMI, brought the proposal to the third World Student Congress in Warsaw. The World Student Congress was sponsored by the International Union of Students (IUS), a left-leaning international student organisation founded in Prague in 1946 that supported socialist bloc politics in the Cold War. The IUS was also concerned with anti-colonial struggles and had links with students from emerging countries, such as Indonesia and India. In the postwar period, the IUS had a rivalry and jostled for influence in the Third World with the United States-backed International Student Conference (ISC).

Students at the AASC. Source: ANRI, Kempen Jawa Barat, No. JB 5601.779.

The Indonesian students’ proposal received an enthusiastic response from Lebanese, Indian, Iranian, and Burmese students within the IUS. However, the connection between the PPMI and the IUS became a source of contention. Inside Indonesia, it was argued that the PPMI was not adhering to the non-aligned principles formally adopted by the Indonesian government. In the international political landscape, the CIA suspected that the IUS had significant influence in the upcoming AASC. Although the PPMI decided to leave the IUS membership in 1954, and the International Preparatory Committee of the AASC also expelled its members with links to the IUS, the suspicion that there was a connection between the IUS and the AASC never faded.

With the organisation of the conference in motion, its geographic boundaries remained a matter of deliberation. At an organising meeting in July 1954, the new chairman of the PPMI, Agusdin Aminudin, suggested changing the format from an Asian-Arab to just an Asian Students’ Conference. Aminudin believed that it was more relevant and sensible to first consolidate relations among students from Asian countries. He was also concerned about the technical difficulties that would arise from inviting Arab delegations – because they did not have well-qualified French translators to translate French-speaking students from Arab countries to a primarily Asian audience.

However, the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung shaped a more expansive vision of transnational solidarity amongst the students. After witnessing the success of that conference in bridging cultural and linguistic barriers, students from Indonesia, India, Japan, China, Lebanon, and the Philippines agreed to expand the boundaries of the Asian Students’ Conference to also include students from Africa (many of which French speaking). With the geographic parameters of the conference now set, the AASC received substantial political and financial backing from Sukarno, the president of Indonesia from 1945 to 1967, who considered the AASC to be in line with his anti-colonial vision and an opportunity to enlarge Indonesia’s role in mobilising Afro-Asian solidarity.

Student and youth parade at the AASC. Source: ANRI, Kempen Jawa Barat, No. JB 5601.822.

The opening of the AASC took place at the Varia Cinema on 30 May 1956 and one of its sessions at Gedung Merdeka (Freedom Building), the same place where the Bandung Conference had been held a year before. A parade of Asian and African student delegates in traditional dress and local students and youth enlivened the conference with banners and performances calling for peace, friendship, and the destruction of colonialism. Participants expressed their concerns on the issues of colonialism and its legacies, racial discrimination, the threat of war and nuclear weapons, as well as promoting cooperation in academia, education, and culture.

However, a conference filled with speeches, messages, and sentiments of anti-colonialism was contentious. The Philippine delegation led by Guilermo de Vega denounced the political tendencies of the conference. He stressed that the AASC was ‘a student conference’, meaning it should focus on academic and student affairs rather than talk about colonialism, imperialism, nuclear threats, and world tensions. De Vega’s argument was countered by that of Fotso Odon, a student from Cameroon, who argued that the end of colonialism and living in peace were the first prerequisite for students to cooperate across continents.

Debate between students in the AASC. Source: ANRI, Kempen Jawa Barat, No. JB 5601.716.

With the focus on anti-colonial struggle, of all the participants, the spotlight was on the Algerian delegation. The Algerian national liberation struggle, launched in 1954 and aimed at independence from France, was gaining increasing attention from Asian and African countries. The Algerian delegation consisted of Mohammed Benyahia and Lakhdar Brahimi who were members of the Union Générale des Etudiants Musulmans Algériens (UGEMA), a student organisation in Paris with links to the revolutionary Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). They flew from Paris to Bandung, sacrificing their budding career and studies – Benyahia had just started as a lawyer and Brahimi was a political science student – to fight for Algeria’s national liberation on the international stage.

Benyahia and Brahimi did not only come to Bandung to seek support and solidarity from the students and intellectuals of Asia and Africa at the AASC. They had a bigger plan: to become representatives of the FLN abroad. To realise this plan, the Algerian delegation asked the Indonesian students to set up a meeting with Sukarno. Following this meeting, Sukarno provided an office in Menteng, Jakarta, to act as the headquarters for FLN representatives in Southeast Asia. This establishment of this office facilitated the FLN’s expansion of a transnational network and set the ground for Indonesia’s consistent support for Algerian national liberation until the country became independent in 1962. It is a reminder of the trajectories that such international conferences could create beyond the conference hall.

Mohammed Benyahia receiving a banner from the AASC organising committee as a symbol of solidarity with the national liberation struggle in Algeria. Source: ANRI, Kempen Jawa Barat, No. JB 5601.752.

In hindsight, the making of the post-imperial world envisioned and championed by Afro-Asian solidarity movements involved a mutualism between non-state and state actors. This symbiotic relationship was one of the factors that enabled Afro-Asian movements to flourish in the mid-1950s to mid-1960s. At the same time, dependence on political and financial support from state leaders was also a weakness of these transnational movements.

The conference of Afro-Asian students can also be seen as part of a radical tradition of students acting in response to international political issues and expressing solidarity against global injustice. In the AASC, amongst debate on the geographic and political parameters of the conference’s participation and aims, the majority of the students were not only interested in addressing shared student issues. They wanted to bring a framework of decolonisation to education and build decolonising efforts to end colonialism and imperialism for a peaceful world.

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