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The Time When Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn Met India’s Lakshmi Sehgal

Corbyn at the Stop the War rally in 2003.

In 2004, British parliamentarian and outspoken anti-war campaigner Jeremy Corbyn was invited to the World Social Forum in Mumbai (India). The organisers invited Corbyn for his frank stance against the West’s illegal war on Iraq.

On 15 February 2003, Corbyn gave a speech in Hyde Park at the podium of the Stop the War Coalition, with which he had been associated since its formation in 2001. Nearly two million people – Corbyn’s natural constituency – marched that day in London against the impending war. Here, as a Member of Parliament from Islington North, Corbyn called for a vote on the war in the House of Commons so that he could vote against it. George W. Bush and Tony Blair wished to start a war, Corbyn warned, that would ‘set off a spiral of conflict, of hate, of misery, of desperation that will fuel the wars, the conflict, the terrorism, the depression and the misery of future generations’. It was a powerful speech – prophetic only because these obvious warnings keep being deliberately undermined by the capitalist media.

Little wonder that Corbyn was invited to share the main stage at the Mumbai World Social Forum the next year. At the plenary, Corbyn was joined by Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian National Initiative and by Arundhati Roy. Roy, in her speech, was sharp in her criticism of the US war on Iraq. Here is a powerful extract,

If all of us are indeed against Imperialism and against the project of neo-liberalism, then let’s turn our gaze on Iraq. Iraq is the inevitable culmination of both. Plenty of anti-war activists have retreated in confusion since the capture of Saddam Hussein. Isn’t the world better off without Saddam Hussein? they ask timidly.

Let’s look this thing in the eye once and for all. To applaud the U.S. army’s capture of Saddam Hussein and therefore, in retrospect, justify its invasion and occupation of Iraq is like deifying Jack the Ripper for disembowelling the Boston Strangler. And that — after a quarter century partnership in which the Ripping and Strangling was a joint enterprise. It’s an in-house quarrel. They’re business partners who fell out over a dirty deal. Jack’s the CEO.

So if we are against Imperialism, shall we agree that we are against the U.S. occupation and that we believe that the U.S. must withdraw from Iraq and pay reparations to the Iraqi people for the damage that the war has inflicted?

Nothing in this would be alien to Corbyn, who had as fierce words of opposition to the war-mongering of the British government and the US government.

The panel that Corbyn shared with Arundhati Roy and Mustafa Barghouti was chaired by Captain Lakshmi Sahgal (1914-2012; for more on her, see the obituary by Lisa Armstrong and myself). Two years before the World Social Forum, Captain Sahgal had been nominated by the Left parties as their candidate in the presidential election. She visited every part of India, vigorously campaigning against the dangerously unstable warmongering system that threatened the planet. In particular, she said that the nomination by the BJP of a nuclear scientist at a time when Indian and Pakistani armies prowled the border between the countries with great menace sent the wrong message to the world. Captain Sahgal had been a key figure in the Azad Hind Fauj and was the Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Azad Hind Government. Captain Sahgal, who joined the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) in 1971, was a hero of India’s freedom movement.

Captain Lakshmi Sahgal

I asked Sahgal’s daughter – the CPI-M Politburo member Subhashini Ali – about the interaction between Corbyn and her mother at the World Social Forum. Subhashini had been on the stage that day as the translator for Corbyn.

Subhashini Ali and Lakshmi Sahgal

Ali remembers that someone introduced Corbyn to Lakshmi Sahgal, describing her rightly as ‘a great freedom fighter. And she twinkled her eyes at him and said what a good time she had had fighting the British. And he seemed to like that’.

Corbyn was very ‘low key and not a great orator’, remembered Ali. But, she remembers, ‘what he said was good’. He was clear-cut in his opposition to the West’s war on Iraq and on the chaos this would create in West Asia and North Africa.

A superb orator herself and a Member of Parliament from Kanpur after the 1989 election, Subhashini added some masala to Corbyn’s prose. It was an accurate translation, but – as she put it – dhuandhar, a wonderful Hindi word that implies the thunder of a waterfall. ‘Every time there was applause’, Subhashini remembers, ‘he looked at me quizzically. I met him in a lift later and he laughed and said that I should translate for him regularly’.

Prabir Purkayastha, who helped organise the World Social Forum, remembers that Corbyn congratulated Subhashini for her translation – saying he had never had a crowd of a hundred thousand applaud his speeches with such enthusiasm. All that changed when he ran to be the leader of the Labour Party.

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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