Looking for the Nation

By Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

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Territory without Justice
Before you ask for justice–make sure that you won’t get it, just by accident.
—Paavo Haavikko, Fifteen Epigrams in Praise of the Tyrant

Nations are born with, and live by, dates. But are dates the most promising reminders of freedom? Dates are promising only because they promise people a freedom that wasn’t available to them before. In other words, dates are promising only because they announce a certain beginning towards the promise of freedom. If those freedoms have not been realized in people’s lives, if the promises haven’t been granted, then those dates, too, lose meaning. Dates can’t simply be relics we hold on to for sentimental comfort, for jingoistic pride, unless they have kept their promise to the future. Every date is meaningful, not only vis-à-vis our past but also our future. If Independence Day marks a new beginning in the fate and life of a people who were under British colonialism, it also marks a day when the Indian nation promised its people a host of things that freedom brings. If dates promise a break with an un-free past, they are also bound to grant people the freedom they are looking for in the future. If today we have to assess the meaning of a date, it can’t simply be a cyclical commemoration of what it meant to people in the beginning, but a reckoning of whether that date has kept its promise to the future. Dates are mere accidents which cannot exhaust the future of freedom.

In his speech during the series of open-air lectures on nationalism held in Jawaharlal Nehru University in early 2016, Gopal Guru, professor of political science, said ‘the nation has to be imagined…in terms of the promises the nation is making.’ These, clearly, are promises that the nation is making to its present and its future. What Guru calls the promise of the nation resonates in Jacques Derrida’s idea of ‘democracy to come’. The promise of a nation is nothing but a promise of democracy. Derrida speaks of a ‘democracy that must have the structure of a promise.’ ‘The idea of a promise,’ he writes, ‘is inscribed in the idea of a democracy: equality, freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press.’ These are then the concrete forms of the structure and spirit of democracy where, for Derrida, a future can be imagined. He calls it both a historical and political set of concepts which are deeply linked to the fundamental idea of what comprises a democracy.

The word, the concept, the demand, which haunts the claims of any nation, is justice. It is through the measure of justice alone that we may measure the promise of a nation. Can a nation be just? How do we measure a just nation? A nation is considered just by the promise of justice it grants its people. I say ‘people’ and not citizens, for the nation is ethically bound to help even those it considers non-citizens, i.e. migrants and refugees who are caught in territorial demarcations which violate the human rights to land and livelihood. How is justice given? Not simply by laws and court verdicts, though these are a fundamental part of the system of justice. Apart from the justice system, there is also the promise that lies in allowing people freedom—freedom to speak, think, criticize and break the strangleholds of prejudice, freedom to speak against violence and to remind people of the promise of justice. If this freedom is denied to the people, the nation is not only going against its ethical duty, it is destroying its promise.

In the provocative lines of this chapter’s epigraph, which accident of justice is the Finnish poet and aphorist, Paavo Haavikko, warning us against? We may consider the date of liberation from colonial rule an accident that had serious consequences. It was motivated by various historical and political factors that gifted us freedom and Partition in one stroke. The ‘stroke of the midnight hour’, which Nehru eulogized, was also the midnight of horror for many. The vultures preying over dead bodies in Bengal and Punjab offered a stark contrast to the doves flying from the Red Fort. When a date is reason for both jubilation and grief, can such a date simply define freedom? How can the birth of the nation be just if Partition was unjust? It isn’t about how we look at freedom and justice as mere ideas to be debated, but the actual cost of lives that pose limits to those ideas. Ideas cannot be free from the question of death—in this context, the deaths that followed independence and the Partition. Neither the British nor the Congress claimed sincere responsibility for the countless lives lost during the birth of the nation. It was a date they decided together, without anticipating the consequences.

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