Afro-Asianism in the Indonesian Academy

Wildan Sena Utama
Feb 10 · 5 min read

Four years ago, Carolien Stolte wrote in this blog that Bandung had shaped a new orientation towards regionalism via the career of Indonesia’s renowned maritime historian A.B. Lapian. Lapian’s regionalist vision led to the initial attempt of decolonization in the historiography of Southeast Asian and especially Indonesian history. While Carolien argued that Bandung shaped a new Southeast Asian regionalism in the Indonesian academy, I argue that Bandung also played an important role in elevating the idea of Afro-Asianism in the Indonesian academy.

Indonesia was a key initiator of Afro-Asian networks of solidarity before, during, and after the Bandung Conference. The idea of the Bandung Conference was first suggested by Indonesian Prime Minister Ali Sastroamidjojo at the Colombo Conference in 1954. After successfully holding the conference, Sukarno, who emerged as one of influential Third World leaders, was eager to raise the idea of Afro-Asian solidarity both internationally and nationally. Indonesia’s anti-colonial vision was in line with the vision of these Afro-Asian networks. Therefore, in the span of 1956–1965, Indonesian students, writers, journalists, feminists, and activists actively organized and participated in conferences and organizations under the flag of Afro-Asian solidarity. Some of their meetings were also held in Bandung, Jakarta, and Bali.

Given the country’s enormous support for Afro-Asian solidarity, two of Indonesia’s leading universities, Universitas Indonesia and Universitas Gadjah Mada, took the initiative to create courses on Asian and African history in this era. In the early 1960s, both universities invited Roeslan Abdulgani, one of the key architects of the Bandung Conference, to be a visiting professor in Asian and African history.

Commemoration of Bandung anniversary in Indonesia. Roeslan stood behind Indonesian Prime Minister Ali Sastroamidjojo and was surrounded by ambassadors and diplomats of India, Burma, Ceylon, and Afghanistan.

Roeslan had a great career in Indonesian foreign affairs. In 1954–1956, he served as Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As a member of the Indonesian National Party (PNI) close to Prime Minister Ali Sastroamidjojo and President Sukarno, Roeslan was appointed Secretary-General of the Bandung Conference. In a joint secretariat located in Jakarta, ambassadors and diplomats from India, Ceylon, Burma, and Pakistan worked with Roeslan, who sat as the chairman of the conference preparatory committee. After Bandung, Roeslan’s career skyrocketed. He was appointed as foreign minister in Ali Sastroamidjojo’s second cabinet in 1956–1957. He then often wrote his views on Indonesian foreign policy. He wrote the most about the history, importance, and relevance of the Bandung Conference, detailing his firsthand experience in a book titled The Bandung Connection: The Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung in 1955. In his writings, Roeslan first introduced the term of “Bandung Spirit” to the public. A collection of writings and speeches during the years 1955–1963 about the history and legacy of Bandung was published in 1964 entitled Bandung Spirit: Moving on the Tide of History.

Request to Roeslan to teach Asian-African history at the UI and the proposal of Drs. Sahib Effendy as a teaching assistant (Source: ANRI[i])

Due to his extensive involvement and knowledge of the history and politics of Asia and Africa, Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, the most elite university in Indonesia, invited Roeslan to become visiting lecturer in 1961. Roeslan taught a course on “the History of Asian and African Revolutions” (Sejarah Pergolakan Nasional Bangsa-Bangsa Asia dan Afrika) in Faculty of Letters (Fakultas Sastra). An archive report shows that Roeslan still taught this course up until 1965 — the turning point of Sukarno’s regime. Roeslan’s position at that time was Visiting Professor of the History of Asian-African Revolutions. This was a visiting position because at the time Roeslan’s main job was as a deputy chair of a Supreme Advisory Council to the Indonesian president.

UGM asked Roeslan to give lecture on the History of Asian-African Awakening in 1965 (Source: ANRI).

Roeslan was also asked to teach at the “populist university” Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta. The letter mentioned that the history department would open the 1965–66 lecture rostrum with a course on “The History of Asian-African Awakening” (Sejarah Kebangunan Asia-Afrika). This was to educate revolutionary cadres on campus in order to support the NEFO program. NEFO (New Emerging Forces) was a concept that Sukarno popularized in the early 1960s to refer to the front of progressive Third World countries that were anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist. In the imagination of Sukarno’s world order during the Cold War, it was not the Western bloc and Eastern bloc which were in conflict, but the neo-colonialists OLDEFO (Old Established Forces) and NEFO, a bloc that included Asian, African, and Latin American socialist countries.

UI and UGM’s request to Roeslan to teach Asian-African history shows that the idea of Afro-Asian solidarity had influence in Indonesia’s academic landscape. In the 1950s, the Indonesian government and historians agreed that as an independent country Indonesia needed to rewrite its history. The European perspective which was so dominant in previous historiography should be replaced with a more appropriate Indonesian-centric perspective. Indeed, Indonesian historians did not employ the terminology of decolonization to call the reorientation of the writing of new history. However, when examined, an Indonesian-centric perspective also contained the mission of decolonization to undermine the Eurocentric paradigm. This new vision of historiography provided a space for non-Western history, especially Asia and Africa.

Also, in the early years after its founding, the history departments at UI and UGM had more regional and international awareness in teaching history. The curriculum at both universities included the history of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Intriguingly, some topics of undergraduate thesis written by history students at UGM in 1960s were more international. Some students who wrote non-Indonesian history as their undergraduate thesis later became prominent historians, such as Taufik Abdullah, Kuntowijoyo, and Teuku Ibrahim Alfian. Among these theses were Darsiti Soeratman’s work on the history of European imperialism in Africa, later published as a book. Darsiti then worked as a lecturer at UGM and became one of the few female history professors in Indonesia.

Darsiti Soeratman, Sejarah Afrika (African History) (Source: Ombak Publisher).

However, as the regime changed from Sukarno to Soeharto and the emphasis on writing history with a national-centric perspective took precedence at universities, the idea of Afro-Asian solidarity deteriorated. Nevertheless, the 1950s and 1960s constituted a widening of regional and international perspectives in the Indonesian academy that deserve further reconsideration, particularly within the context of Indonesia’s Bandung moment.


[i]ANRI: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia (National Archive of the Republic of Indonesia)

Afro-Asian Visions

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and Asian-African Connections.

Wildan Sena Utama

Written by

PhD Student at the Department of History, University of Bristol and Lecturer at the Department of History, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia.

Afro-Asian Visions

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and Asian-African Connections.

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