Doodling, scribbling and drawing are reflexive. They are not just preoccupations of an inquisitive child or a restless teenager. As they listen to a lecture or ruminate on an idea, adults often scribble on the edges of a page. And sometimes that grows into a design, embodies a form and we recognize it as an animal, bird, tree or even one of those monsters from comic books. What began as just a few strokes from a wandering mind ends up becoming a ‘thing’. An identity is created and a relationship forged.
I often wonder if this was how we drew out countries. A straight line here, a turn elsewhere, shade the in-between… voila! we have India, Pakistan, Argentina, Botswana or Poland. Last I checked, there are about 195 such countries in the world; each with their own reasons to exist that are further fortified by artificially constructed identity markers such as a flag and an anthem. Each country happens for reasons that are historical and real, but the lines drawn to separate one from the other are products of negotiations and adjustments. Those in power decide what they want to protect or concede, essentially a land trade. Where are the people in all this?
In India, we often say that Pakistan was carved out of India (South Asia is frequently referred to as the Indian subcontinent). It makes timeline sense; but does it really resonate with the justice in the happening? The break was in the making for years; maybe there was really no single ‘India’ even before the creation of Pakistan. But, finally, those dark thick lines were drawn over deserts and mountains and neither side was entirely happy with the outcome. The shape was just not right; I wish I had a bit more on top or maybe towards the east! But when leaders spoke of their respective country’s future, they enunciated similar dreams. The lines that divided them did not dramatically change their aspirations. Though their relationship with the past and present was different, each fighting a different set of demons using different rationales, what they sought for their people was interwoven. This is probably true of most neighbouring countries of the world. Yet, we keep drawing lines, again and again, splintering ourselves.
I am not talking just about international line drawings. We have states lines, district precincts and panchayat wards demarcated in a similar fashion. There is hope that, within these subdivisions, there will be some independence in functioning. But these are just words on paper; in reality, everything is done to limit thought and action. Infringement of the federal principle has been a tool of statecraft for decades. Within states, districts are prioritized on the basis of caste strength and vote power. Independence to govern is accordingly regulated. If the people of a state or region are not obedient, we trample upon them and strip them of all their rights. This is exactly what the current Parliament of India executed in Kashmir. Its people had agreed to be a part of the Indian union on terms memorialized in Article 370. By removing that compact, the pledge of relative autonomy to Kashmir that the Indian state had made was erased. It was shattered in the din of Parliament while we displayed the farcical nature of our democracy to the world. Kashmiris are crushed between multiple mega-forces. Pakistan provokes, China usurps and India refuses to respect.
In another part of the world, with a different historicity, Palestinians have been battling an oppressive Israeli state for over fifty years. Depending on our vantage position, resistance is seen as just or unjust. Each state aggressively claims the shaded areas within those thick lines, while the homes, cultures, faiths and lives within become irrelevant.
But how does one belong to a nation? I am unable to find anything specific that makes me Indian. Told history and linguistic evangelism become binding factors especially when nothing connects a villager in Chhattisgarh and a farmer in Manipur. Poverty is probably the only connecting truth. If the human condition was to determine our togetherness, the entire world would be one. That not being the case, nationhood is founded on selectively chosen homogeneity and the state establishes this ‘truth’ in its functioning. Textbooks, folklore, songs and selected quotations repeated through generations aided by the magic of time bring together a fragile unification. It is indeed ironic that we attempt to celebrate diversity when the survival of the nation and the state depends on consolidation.
But how can we deny that the feeling of belonging exists. As my friend Perumal Murugan eloquently put it, ‘I might not believe in god; but when the feeling enters my being, I do not deny it.’ In the smell of the earth, the noise of the streets, the colours of the clothes and the chatter of the people, I find my India; that feeling! It may even be irrelevant whether this is constructed or natural. But we have to be very careful while celebrating that moment, because all that brings us together also keeps others away. Whether it is the people of the neighbouring country or a marginalised section of society, the accepted norms of nationhood keep a certain section out. Those within, whom the majority do not trust, are threatened, even thrown out. People who come into our country or our state for work and contribute to our economy are looked upon with suspicion. We use the terms ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ creatively to manipulate minds so much so, that no one cares if the accusations are true. They are just relieved not to be suspected as one of ‘them’. Life becomes an emotional pendulum that swings between fear and anger.
It is, hence, imperative that we excavate patriotism from within the debris of nationalism. Let me be honest: I am not certain if I am truly patriotic because I prefer not to hold permanent alignment with any structure. Nevertheless, I know for certain that patriotism is imbued with humanity; that it seeks compassion above everything else. A love that is strong and so stubborn that it will not be cowed down by any establishment including the state. In what is an extraordinary act, the true patriot circumvents the state and embraces the nation.
At the bedrock of this entire discussion is democracy, enshrined as a philosophical, political, social and cultural constant within our Constitution. Without it resonating within our every action, the state becomes a violent force and the nation oxygen-deprived. The Constitution is not perfect; it has within it laws that crush the human being. But our founding people made sure that we could always find our answers in the Preamble and fundamental rights. If we use them sensitively as the basis of understanding, we can remove or amend any oppressive law. But for all this to fructify, every citizen needs to actively participate in democracy.
That moment when a first-time voter steps into the voting booth is precious. For the first time, an individual feels like a citizen; one who can make a difference. Voting is a beautiful act, an opportunity to be selfless and dissolve differences of identity with the press of a button. But this chance that democracy offers us to be better people will go begging if we do not engage in the politics of living. Adult suffrage is not the be-all and end-all of active citizenry; it is just one act in the theatre of democracy. And democracy itself is perennial hard work; work that will always remain unfinished business.
In this section, I try to negotiate my own sense of nationhood. Much like our nation, my nationhood is also a work in progress.
Excerpted with permission from The Spirit of Enquiry: Notes of Dissent by T.M. Krishna, Penguin (May 2021).