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An elusive Indian-ness

The United States of India remains a work in progress

The United States of India remains a work in progress

On August 28,I joined thousands of Americans in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr in 1963. Despite the hot and rainy weather,people marched in huge numbers. They gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear three Democratic presidents — Jimmy Carter,Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. King’s son,daughter and surviving older sister also addressed the gathering,as did Congressman John Lewis,the only one of the six original speakers to still be living.

For Obama,the first American president of African-American descent and a fine orator himself,the moment carried a special charge. The country waited to hear how exactly he would both remind everyone of the great black leader,King,and his struggle against racism,and match the passion,drama and poignancy of King’s “I have a dream” speech,which ushered in the era of civil rights and racial equality in America. Some commentators billed this as Obama’s most significant speech to date.

As the 44th president of the US stepped up to the podium at the foot of the statue of Abraham Lincoln — America’s “great emancipator” from slavery — Obama had to have been supremely conscious of the joint legacies of Lincoln and King converging upon him. King’s stirring speech was less than 10 minutes long; Obama spoke for close to 30 minutes. After a sober and methodical start,his natural flair for oratory,perhaps his strongest point as a popular politician,kicked in. He succeeded yet again in marrying his professorial command over history and economics with the ringing exhortations of a preacher. He quoted liberally from Lincoln,King and the Bible.

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Over the years,I’ve observed the presidencies of Bill Clinton,George W. Bush and Barack Obama. As I stood listening that day,I realised I’ve never known America not to be at war. September 11 changed the meaning of America for me as for the entire world,not least,for Americans themselves. But until the afternoon of August 28,I never intuited this: America’s wars are the flipside of American patriotism at home. This may seem obvious once put so plainly,but it’s hard for an Indian to grasp what American patriotism is,because in India we’re simply not patriotic in that way.

For Indians,the grand narrative of nation-making had as its principal object the ouster of the British rulers and the achievement of swaraj,sovereign self-rule. To this end,a mosaic of anti-colonial and nationalist struggles of subcontinental proportions unfolded between the 1880s and the1940s. But 66 years after Independence,India has yet to construct a proper union — of north and south,of distinct religious communities,of territories that once stood in various kinds of relations to the paramount British Raj,of thousands of castes,indeed,of the almost infinite shades of identity that constitute the nation. All Indians achieved freedom together (that is,they became Indian at more or less one time),but they did not effect unification across fundamental differences in quite the same way as Americans have done.

It could be argued that in Mahatma Gandhi we had our Lincoln; in B.R. Ambedkar,our King. Nehru made better speeches than either but,in hindsight,fell short in both political grandeur and moral stature. However,for all kinds of historical,biographical and cultural reasons,these analogies go only so far.

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American patriotism is a type of love for the country that is only possible when the achievement of democracy goes along with a painstaking collective effort,initiated by great leaders,lawmakers and poets,but engaged in by millions of ordinary people,to close economic,social and political gaps and come together as one nation. That unity is not a function of similarities in identity but of solidarity regardless of differences; a willed,voluntary and wholehearted solidarity with one another as Americans and not as members of a single race,religion,ethnicity or any other type of community defined by a criterion apart from “American-ness” as such.

Indian patriotism began with the repudiation of foreign rule and the desire for self-rule. But the subsequent process of fashioning and strengthening that selfhood as a set of rights,liberties and opportunities equally available to all citizens — that process remains incomplete. For Dalits,the “I have a dream” breakthrough,the point when the nation truly breaks down the barriers between whites and blacks; in India’s case,between high and low in the hierarchy of caste,when segregation and inequality become unacceptable to the people,that tipping point has yet to come. Thus far India has not become what Ambedkar dreamed of: The United States of India. Our primary allegiances remain to our communities,defined along vectors of caste,religion,region,language and history.

Since American patriotism at home goes hand in hand with American aggression abroad,we should be grateful for the lack of the patriotic sentiment in Indians. But as I mingled with 1,50,000 Americans,it struck me that,without a shared and hard-fought journey towards genuine union undertaken by Indian citizens across the land,India can never hope to be what America prides itself as being: the world’s greatest democracy.

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Vajpeyi,a Kluge Fellow at the John W. Kluge Centre in the Library of Congress,Washington DC,is author of ‘Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India’

First published on: 09-09-2013 at 12:43:38 am
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