Stephen Chan: Political thought on the just rebellion, part six. Last week we looked at the Māori rebellion in New Zealand, and we began looking at the nature of syncretic thought, thought from different cultures put together to establish a framework from which rebellion might be possible. I want to continue that particular theme this week by looking at a number of rebellions that you might loosely call “magic rebellions,” mythologically-based rebellions, but all the same looking at pathologies that are either genuinely very old, or which have been especially created for the purpose of rebellion.
We can begin at the very start of the 20th century, with the boxer uprising against foreign rule in the great Chinese cities. The imperial armies of the emperor had failed to dislodge the foreign occupation. The use of boxers, or what we would today call kung fu fighters, was an artifice devised not only by the ruling elite in China, but something which had great popular support among the rank and file of the citizens of the different Chinese cities.
These fighters, who were recruited from the streets, were promised that if they undertook certain forms of magical training (kung fu training), then they would become invulnerable. The weapons of the foreign occupiers could not harm them. So, the uprising turned into something which was simultaneously extremely brave, but also extremely tragic. Because tens of thousands of boxers were of course slaughtered by the guns of the occupying powers.
I begin with the boxers because curiously, in Uganda many years later, one of the surviving boxers—or rather his spirit—surfaced in the head of an African rebel who rose up along magical lines to challenge the rule of the government in Uganda. That person was Alice Lakwena. After the fall of Idi Amin, after unsuccessful interim governments, after a bloody successor government led by Milton Obote, rebellion and war returned to Uganda. And it was won by a faction led by the current president, Museveni, who all the same was unable to unite the country. And the Acholi people, thinking that their historical privileges would be taken away from them rose up underneath a prophetess who adopted the name Alice Lakwena.
Her head was said to have been inhabited by a high command of spirits drawn not only from Africa but from all around the world. There were scientists—one of them was a Dr. Wrong Element. There were field marshals from previous great battles. There was a Chinese spirit, Ching Po, who had survived in one way or another the slaughters of the boxer uprising and now inhabited Alice as one of her advisors.
All of this might seem to be the stuff of mystery and nonsense. But Alice also had an extraordinarily well-organized side to her rebellion. She wrote a military manual for her soldiers. She wrote a health and safety manual for proper conduct during war. She infused her people with the suggestion that they too, if they adopted certain magical practices advised by her high command of spirits inside her head, that they too could be invulnerable.
Of course, they marched forward, and of course they were slaughtered by Museveni’s soldiers. The descendant, the spiritual descendant of Alice Lakwena, is Joseph Koni, who continues to be active today. Continues to be the survivor of many attempts to bring him to justice or to kill him. Is very very much the survivor of all kinds of false dawns in terms of negotiated breakthroughs with Museveni as to how to end the conflict. Is also of course an atrocious person in terms of the depredations and destructions that he has brought to northern Uganda.
But he’s also a very strangely ecumenical person. His spirits are drawn from all faiths. Koni himself celebrates every one of the major religious festivals, whether they’re Jewish, whether they are Islamic, whether they are Christian, as well as a number of African religious festivals, all in an ecumenical desire to have as much spiritual power from as many sources as possible on his side.
These things would seem preposterous had they not been so effective. Because the rebellion of Koni survives to this day. And this is not accomplished only by atrocity. It is accomplished in part because he has followers who believe in him, and a population who, for many reasons, and despite many misgivings, might still see him as some kind of hero for their cause.
The complication of thought, and the bodies of thought that one requires for successful rebellion are manifold. So that in a country like Zambia for instance, shortly after independence, there rose up a Christian church—a so-called Christian church—led by a prophetess, Lenshina, who gave Kenneth Kaunda—the ecumenical, the embracive, the communalistic president of Zambia—a huge amount of difficulty and a huge amount of trouble. She raised up her followers along syncretic Christian but also local religious lines, and declared rebellion against Kaunda’s Zambia. So that even the embracing, accommodating, inclusive Kaunda was forced to fight a war in which the church Lenshina was crushed.
And this was the first and probably the only war that Kaunda fought with arms. He did not fight the armed raids of the Rhodesians, and the armed raids of the Apartheid South Africans. But he fought Lenshina with his own army—and this is for every odd for a man who was very very much brought up during his early adult years on the thought of Gandhi.
So we turn now to the thought of Gandhi in India. The thought that made such a huge impact on the liberation struggle in that country in the 1930s, the 1940s, before dependence finally came in 1947. Thought to do with nonviolent resistance. But Gandhi himself had been formed by experiences in more than one country. In Great Britain, in South Africa, in all of these places he gathered the ammunition of thought and strategy as to how best he might take the struggle forward.
Of course Gandhi was famous for the image of Gandhi. The image of a simple man. The image of a man at his spinning wheel. The image of a man who was in touch with the spiritual heritage of India. Of course, all of this to a certain extent was true. A lot of this was also something which flattered to deceive. It meant he could leave the hard political work to someone like Nehru. By hard I mean the often vexatious and compromising negotiations and discussions which had to take place with the British.
And of course the drawing upon Hindu mythology, the drawing upon Hindu legends, meant an exclusion of the Islamic participation in Gandhi’s struggle for a new India. Whose India? How can you develop a united India where one part of the community is excluded from the foundation thought of rebellion which is meant to lead to an independent country?
All the same, the mythological nature of Indian history has made its way past Gandhi into the body politic in India today. The whole idea of Hindutva, the whole idea that there is a cosmic justification for the Indian nation, for the Indian state, as something which still informs Indian politics today.
In a sense, none of us after successful rebellions ever get over our founding mythologies, our founding legends. A lot of this, however, has to be contrived. A lot of this has to be exclusive. Some people are kept out of the founding mythologies. And a lot of this is quite inclusive in a way which would only be possible in a 20th and a 21st century, whereby the thought of many nations is brought to bear to achieve the successful rebellion of one.