Freedom, the Nation and the Perils of Accidental Justice

As long as the Indian nation ignores the injustices it has perpetrated from the very beginnings of its existence, freedom will continue to mean nothing but the celebration of a date.

Credit: Twitter

Credit: Twitter

Before you ask for justice –
make sure that you won’t get it, just by accident.
~ Paavo Haavikko, from ‘Fifteen Epigrams in Praise of the Tyrant’

Every Independence Day, freedom becomes the celebration of a date. 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 occurred 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 those dates 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 is a day that marks a new beginning in the fate and life of 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 unfree 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 cyclic commemoration of what it meant to people in the beginning, but 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, professor of political science Gopal Guru started by saying, “The nation has to be imagined… in terms of the promises the nation is making.” This promise is clearly a promise the nation is making to its present and its future. In our imagining the nation in terms of its promise, we also hold the freedom to assess it, critique it and even judge it. The nation, if it proclaims itself a democracy, must allow its people the freedom to assess and critique it. If it doesn’t, the nation is clearly showing signs of tyranny and dictatorship, which happens in theocratic, military and totalitarian states. ‘Nation’ is not simply rhetoric. Nation is as nation does.

Is a nation just?

The word, the concept, the demand, which haunts the claims of any nation the most is perhaps justice. It is through the measure of justice alone that we may measure the promise of a nation. Is a nation 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, not citizens, for the nation is ethically bound to help even those it considers non-citizens: migrants, refugees, those who are caught in the borderlines of nations where territorial demarcations violate the human restrictions of land and livelihood. The nation’s responsibility lies in the promise of justice it gives its people. How is justice given? Not simply by laws and court verdicts, though they are a fundamental part of the system of justice. Apart from the system of justice, there is also the promise that lies in accepting and allowing people freedom – freedom to speak, think, criticise and break the strangleholds of prejudices, freedom to speak against violence, 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. Freedom and justice are most thickly entwined to each other.

Who is raising questions of justice in India today? Obviously those whose lives are under siege, who suffer the consequences of raising their voice against all forms of injustice. In the voices of students from Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi and Kolkata, Dalits from UP, Gujarat and elsewhere, workers of Maruti and other factories, tribals from Bastar and other areas, the queer and the displaced, political activists and feminists, minorities from Assam, Kashmiris, and Manipuris, we hear the harshest criticism of the nation. For their lives are under trial, their rights are on the retreat, their state far from promising.

The ideal condition would be if those who aren’t suffering the plight of these people raise their voice in solidarity. If the nation is not promising for some, it can’t be promising for all. But the nation’s most pampered and privileged people are reluctant and indifferent when it comes to issues other than price rise, corruption or law and order. The privileged class is not interested in matters which affect the challenged sections of society. This social division is not merely the doing of a nation, but a proliferation of fundamental historical and social differences which the nation acknowledges but does not erase. The constitution has the limited promise of safeguarding our rights and directing the state to grant special rights to the underprivileged. A larger sense of promise lies with the people themselves, for they alone can voice what they lack and suffer. A promise is not something external, something that reduces people into passive receptors, much like what political parties offer as gift packages during elections. A promise is something more sacredly liberating, even if it be for profane ends.

The freedom of the country from colonial rule hasn’t ensured the many freedoms people are fighting for today. Freedom from colonial rule only ensured a promise made by the nation to its people of the freedom to come. For Thomas Hobbes and David Hume, freedom meant the absence of external obstructions. This is what Isiah Berlin later termed in his lecture ‘Two Concepts of Liberty‘ (1958) as “negative liberty”. By “positive liberty”, Berlin meant the freedom to act or decide without threats and compulsions.In his essay ‘On The Jewish Question‘ (1843), Marx had already combined these two ideas. He described liberty as the realisation of human potentiality. But this potentiality, for Marx, was best served in relational terms, one that led towards an emancipatory community.  Reservations may serve as a good example to bring together these ideas of liberty. Dalits and other backward castes want reservations to be able to minimise the social prejudices against them and reach the same level of confidence and mobility enjoyed by the privileged castes. But this liberty is not enough for the ‘positive liberty’ they seek, which is the capability to assert their political and cultural aspirations. Both liberties work in different ways to ensure two different modes of capabilities and ways of being free. It is the combination of these two liberties that form the background of Ambedkar’s idea of “social justice”. For Ambedkar, Hinduism fails the “test of justice” from the point of view of the ‘untouchables’ as it fails to offer them freedom. The same question may be asked of the nation: Has the nation ensured Dalits the freedom it ensures others? There is no justice without freedom. Can there be freedom without justice?

Beware of accidents

In the provocative lines of the epigraph, what accident of justice is the Finnish poet and aphorist, Paavo Haavikko, warning us against? For instance, we may consider the date of freedom from colonial rule an accident that had serious consequences. It was motivated by various historical and political factors that gifted us freedom and partition at one stroke. The “stroke of the midnight hour” that Nehru eulogised was also the midnight of horror for many. The vultures preying over dead bodies in Bengal and Punjab were a stark contrast to doves flown 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, not 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, which in concrete terms means deaths that followed the declaration of both independence and 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. One accident often triggers another.

The Greek term ‘hamartia’, developed by Aristotle in Poetics, covers a broad spectrum of meaning that includes ignorance, error or accidental wrongdoing. Though based on the frailties of human character, we can transfer its meaning to a term meant for a community: national character. What if the nation’s character is constitutively flawed, accidental, beginning with its madness for dates and the shortcomings of justice? The meaning of hamartia can be extended in the case of national character to mean a flawed moment, an accident of time: Flawed at birth. To say independence/partition produced our moment of hamartia would be to acknowledge a birth-flaw in the nation’s character. Perhaps the worst proof of this accident lies in the fact that partition enhanced and hardened communal prejudices. The flaw remains ignored and unacknowledged by another trait of ‘national character’ that also originates in Greece: hubris, or foolish and dangerous self-pride.

Those demanding various kinds of political freedom and justice today also need to guard against repeating the accidents of the past. Political and legal victories are often accidents unless they translate into deeper freedoms, transform consciousness and give justice to the marginalised within that society. In other words, the character of resistance also needs to pay heed to the perils of error, of accidents. Modern movements have a tendency to replicate the crimes of their predecessors and enemies. Those who forget history’s accidents are condemned to repeat them.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi


    Who is celebrating independence day??? Only the political leaders with z plus security! The corporates establishing industries in people’s lands! Only the mining mafia destroying forests and destabilising adivasi lives! Only the corrupted bureaucrats and administrators! Only the schools and offices who view the day more as an entertainment rather than a day of freedom!
    Large sections of workers, dalits, minorities, weaker sections are waiting for another independence day…!!