The Promise of the Nation

Gopal Guru at JNU

Gopal Guru at JNU. Credit: Special Arrangement

The proof of an idea or an institution lies in its imagination. In the face of highly contested charges, Jawaharlal Nehru University kept its imagination alive: It held a series of open-air lectures on nationalism by professors, for students of the university and beyond. In the first among these, Gopal Guru shared his idea of the nation with his usual incisiveness and clarity. Though I heard the lecture on video, the event appeared historic.

Guru begins by evoking an assuring aspect of the idea of the nation: “Nation has to be imagined… in terms of the promises the nation is making.” He fuses the idea of Benedict Anderson’s definition of the nation as an “imagined community” with his idea of “promise”. To Anderson, a national community is not to be distinguished by any false/genuine binary but by its “style” of imagination. It is a “fraternity”, Anderson says, which makes this community “possible”. There is a fraternal thrust behind Guru’s idea of promise. He mentions how, in 1947, “the nation offered promises to us.” What were those promises? To create, he says, a “decent nation, a nation which is based on, not rumours, not insecurity, not any kind of indignity, humiliation.” Interestingly, the idea of promise is introduced by Guru through a series of negatives – describing what is not promising. “We are being seeing as somebody not fit for staying in this country,” he adds, referring to the current political atmosphere surrounding JNU. “There is a growing stigmatisation. You can’t build a nation on this notion of stigma.” The Indian constitution, he affirms, lays down certain “provisions”.

Space for change

Guru’s use of the word “provisions” in relation to the constitution reminds us that the text of the nation is a provisional one which lays down certain principles (and laws) that are held desirable. These principles and laws are open to interpretation and change in time, according to the demand of current sensibilities. In that sense, the constitution is not a closed document, where matters have been solved forever. By providing provisional space for change, by laying down certain basic tenets and principles through which one may think, the constitution keeps itself open to the future. The constituting text of the nation is thus a constituent of its own capacity and legitimacy for change. It envisions a future, where newness can be adapted, sanctioned, and made part of a new law. The nation, then, always aspires to this future law, this law of the future, from the provisions of its current text, the text which we call the constitution. This basic understanding provides us hope that one day in the future, we will be able to shred the colonial remnants that found its way into the constitution and still linger within its text. The provisionality of the constitution can be read as its promise – which lies in its future, and ours.

The word Guru uses for promise is “decency”. Decency is a word that stands for reasonable behaviour in relation to what we consider or adhere to as values. It is a word meant to serve both as an aesthetic and normative determination of things. The idea of decency may appear to be a conservative yardstick against freedom of personal expression, for instance in matters of gender and sexual orientation. But it might be useful to consider its variants in the larger political sphere, where different ‘notions’ of decencies may be pitted against each other. If we link the understanding of decency to the promise of the future, it is clear that the limits of what we mean by that word may change over time. The future meaning or understanding of decency may include what is considered indecent today. Even as we challenge the limits of what is considered “decent”, regressive indecency – which seeks to coerce decency and overturn it – holds no promise. It leads precisely to the limits of decency Guru is talking about: Coercive state apparatuses, colluding, unprincipled media, and fanatic passions thwart this idea of the nation’s promise.

It is instructive that Guru brings up the “notion” of stigma. In The Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar calls caste a “notion”, and the annihilation of caste as a desirable annihilation of that notion. Stigma, inherent to the notion of caste, is a larger notion associated with all forms of naming, of othering, where people are ascribed with certain attributes that produce and promote prejudice. Prejudice is also an extended notion, produced out of biases in society. It is this dangerous play of notions that threatens the promise of the nation. These notions need to be dismantled to make the promise welcoming for all.

Sacral sanction of segregation

The other two aspects that Guru names, “indignity and humiliation”, are related in many ways to the notion of stigma and prejudice. People don’t attach value to the dignity of labour. People allow the division of labour to exist. And as Ambedkar clarified, people in India also extend that division of labour to labourers defined by their caste. Caste is a sacral sanction of segregation that forces humiliation upon people. Guru also mentions “patriarchy”, as another mode of power that not only suppresses women, but also disallows challenges to its familial idea of nation and community. It disallows, Guru points out, the internationalising of the caste issue. Caste is seen as the ‘private property’ of the community, which is an extension of a patriarchal ‘notion’. This ‘notion’ seeks to silence the question of humiliation. To humiliate, or shame anyone, according to fixed notions of stigma and prejudice, is simply another aspect of regressive indecency. It robs the question of promise from its victims, and disallows any thinking of change, any possibility of the new. Newness certainly cannot come from holding on to these notions.

The JNU incident, where a few outsiders raised aggressive, political slogans, created a nation-wide debate over nationalism and sedition. Such debates are always the strength of a robustly functioning and critical-minded democracy. But they took place under the grave shadow of a whole university being painted “anti-national” by a surcharged campaign by certain section of the media. In the course of the past few days, we witnessed a rumour-machine at work, manufacturing a sense of insecurity that got translated into public outrage. Students belonging to the university faced a palpable atmosphere of threat, not only on campus or spaces outside but also in court. A dalit professor of sociology from JNU, speaking on Ambedkar at a recent event in Gwalior, was attacked. Guru finds this politics of rumour, insecurity and violence, a travesty to the promise of the nation. If a Bihari is insecure in Assam, if people from the north-east and Kashmir are insecure in other parts of India, if students are insecure for holding certain views considered politically volatile, if women are insecure in the streets, if minorities are insecure just by being minorities, then you have an indecent atmosphere which is dangerous and full of harm.

Fraternity and egalitarianism

What Guru calls the promise of the nation is linked to Jacques Derrida’s idea of ‘democracy to come’. The promise of a nation is nothing else but a promise of democracy. Derrida speaks of a “democracy that must have the structure of a promise.” “The idea of a promise” Derrida 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 that are deeply linked to the fundamental idea of what comprises a democracy. Perhaps Guru, coming from the historical and political tradition of Ambedkar’s thought, would like to add to Derrida’s list of concepts: The idea of fraternity, of a new fraternity, a fraternity of the not-yet nation, of the not-yet democracy to come. Guru has spelt out everything this new fraternity has to relinquish. Once those regressive values become less important, we may be able to better realise the promise of the future. This idea of fraternity made Ambedkar hold on to the idea of Buddhism as much as he adhered to a Marxian idea of egalitarianism. He was very categorical that in India, you needed a spiritual idea of fraternity that Buddhism offers (for it rejects caste), along with the idea of radical equality.

This nation, in the name of democracy, must promise a future it is historically and politically committed to. In this commitment lies the future of that promise.