It is perhaps entirely appropriate that we now herald August 15 with “freedom sales” and special Independence Day offers. It is also not surprising that political parties now market themselves as consumer products, replete with catchy slogans, clearly defined archetypes, and enormous advertising budgets.
Nationalism and consumerism are, after all, the two most dominant basis for our modern identities. Both have been refined by human beings to fill emotional voids created by untethered modern urban life, far removed from the tightly woven, interdependent social fabric of our not-so-distant past.
We recognise that ancient people invented stories to bind themselves together by trusting in ghosts, shamans, and superstitions. But we don’t always see the institutions that mediate our lives today the same way. As Yuval Noah Harari elaborates in Sapiens, “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings”.
We revel in the ease with which we criss-cross the planet, partaking in foreign cultures, and collaborating with colleagues across a globalised world. But we pay unwittingly for our hyper-individualistic, “Facebook-worthy” lives by worshipping at the altar of the two most perilous products of our imagination.
Nationalism and consumerism are based on imagined communities that make millions of lonely people feel like they know each other and have each other’s backs, when in fact, they don’t.
Independence Day is more than just a commemoration of the freedom struggle and its outcome. It is also a well packaged, carefully manufactured ritual that helps make the fantasy of the nation state real. It projects the nation state as a benevolent, hard-earned benefactor — an unquestionable force for good. Through such rituals, we internalise the visceral idea of belonging to a nation.
Nationalism propagates the false notion that what we have in common, through either land or blood, is a shared past, shared interests and a shared future. It indoctrinates us into the idea that unthinking allegiance to the issuer of our passports trumps our common humanity. Buying into this myth gives us the psychological tools to ignore refugees, justify “development” at the cost of the marginalised, hound minorities and turn a blind eye to state-sponsored terrorism. It allows Irom Sharmila’s sacrifices to go in vain, without the slightest prick to our collective conscience. It allows us to sleep well while the people of Kashmir and our men in uniform are pitted against each other in a seemingly endless blood feud with the blessing of the state.
Consumerism sweet talks us into similar and only slightly less dangerous traps. It tells us that by conforming to common codes of purchase and behaviour, we can gloss over inequalities, achieve narcissistic ideals (fair skin, size zero) and live in environmentally unsustainable ways. What it ends up doing more frequently, is providing additional bases for snobbery, prejudice and exclusion, in a society already chock-full with ideas for stratification. It gives us the psychological tools to confuse privilege with merit, ignore beggars outside fancy restaurants, and justify endless acquisition.
The reality is that the more atomised society becomes, the more we need to collaborate and understand our mutual interdependencies. Technology is already pointing us in this direction as evidenced by the disruption of consumer-facing industries, from taxi services to hospitality (Uber, AirBnB).
There are few interdependencies as inescapable as the one between countries that share borders. Birthed on consecutive days in 1947, India and Pakistan have been dysfunctional for almost 70 years now. Sections of civil society, sports persons and artists in both countries have recognised the futility of feuding with each other and have found ways to collaborate. Perhaps the time has come to formally recognise our interdependence at a political and institutional level. Germany and France, for instance, put to rest centuries of bitter conflict when they signed the Elysee Treaty in 1963. It has been called a model treaty for old enemies. Of course, it is naïve to expect any such progress in India-Pakistan relations, given the current context of terrorism and nuclear options in both countries.
Yet, maybe a day will come when we will be able to re-think the mindless, triumphalist rituals of our back-to-back Independence Days. Maybe one day, we will formally recognise that if nothing else, our shared geography and cultural similarities mean that we will forever be interdependent; for water, for oil, as markets for each other’s products, as separated-at-birth siblings who are familiar enough to be instantly loveable and different enough to be murderously despicable.
Perhaps a day will come when 14th and 15th August will be used to reinvent the imagined communities of our two nations in a more self-aware, empathetic and gracious way.
A new generation is coming of age in both countries that have not heard stories from ancestors who survived the horrors Partition. They are watching as Indians and Pakistanis cooperate in sports and culture, woo each other on campuses in the developed world and share each other’s worlds on social media.
Perhaps a time will come when we will use these 48 hours to commemorate our mutual interdependence. Imagine a carnival-like parade celebrating our similarities and eccentricities, hosted simultaneously in Lahore and Mumbai — to replace muscular shows of military strength that define most such displays of nationalistic fervour. Instead of reminders to shop for Independence Day bonanzas, maybe one day we will see full page advertisements that hail our Interdependence Day. We live in hope. As John Lennon dreamt “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion, too.”