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I have carried this sense of divided self: Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee. Illustration: R. Rajesh  

“It is through the measure of justice alone that we may measure the promise of a nation,” writes Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee in his book, Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India. This urgent and compelling book, coming at a time when toxic nationalism runs amok, has six essays where the poet and political science scholar weaves the voices of thinkers who have shaped modern history, and meditates on “another” idea of nation as he urges the reader towards a new politics based on trust. Excerpts from an interview.

The central theme of your book focuses on an idea of the nation. What is the idea you’re trying to turn the reader’s attention towards?

The phrase “idea of India” was popularised by Sunil Khilnani. In Khilnani’s book, it is a Nehruvian idea of India and how Nehru imagined the nation in The Discovery of India. Over the years, it has been understood as an idea that was perhaps not critical enough, or radical enough, to question certain assumptions it had made about what India should be. In the sense, India was understood as a Nehruvian idea within the framework of a secular and loosely socialist democracy, with an emphasis on industrialism. But if we look at Ambedkar, who was a constitutionalist and had a hand in framing the constitution, he was someone deeply involved in the idea of social justice that was not only limited to everything flowing out of the Constitution. It was an idea that needed a movement within Hindu society. The constitution does not promise you the annihilation of caste. So my ‘another’ idea of India flows from Ambedkar. It is not an idea that opposes Nehru’s idea of India, but takes it further and deeper.

Your arguments rely on several voices of leaders who helped shape the nation such as Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Aurobindo and Tagore. These voices are conflicting, yet they are also in harmony.

Yes, obviously, these people had conflicting ideas. Though they were so close, Nehru was uncomfortable with Gandhi’s religiosity. But he could also see that there was a certain ethics that could be drawn from Gandhi’s movement. People have interpreted a certain instrumentality behind Nehru’s using Gandhi because Gandhi had the people behind him. But I don’t think that is true. Nehru recognised that despite having arguments based in religion, Gandhi’s idea of the national movement was based on a very strong ethical notion of Satyagraha. Non-violence brought ordinary people together. Even though Ambedkar was a bitter critic of Gandhi, the idea of non-violence was equally dear to Ambedkar. He had his own idea of non-violence, which is more of a social idea, different from Gandhi’s more individualist idea. I chose the five political thinkers I am most familiar with. But there are other voices in the book: Ali Sardar Jafri, Saadat Hasan Manto, and Sukirtharani, among them. All of them are equally important.

Do you think that the Partition and the violence that ensued fractured the ideas that emerged from India’s freedom movement as soon as the nation was birthed?

When we argue on the positive content of the nation, we leave out or ignore how the violence of Partition, the mass migration, made independence an unhappy and unethical moment. How does one frame a state after terrible injustice is done to people? The birth is premised around violence, where people decided to part ways. This was not mismanagement, but terrible lack of judgement. This throws up ethical concerns on the birth of the nation. The Partition partitioned the idea of a nation-state. On one hand, you are writing a constitution, which is about justice. Yet you allowed so many people to die. So there is a contradictory commitment to the idea of justice at the founding moment. There is currently an attempt to encourage and manipulate an atmosphere of distrust between communities, taking us back to the moment of the Partition.

But is there hope? Where will it come from?

There is a suggestion of hope. But it is a hope for something new. Not the hope of finding something that is lost. It is the quest for the new, that there is something which can be retrieved. We were lucky that a Nehruvian idea of a nation lasted for almost 60 years or so. There must have been something strong about that idea. Somehow India managed with its liberal, secular pretensions but now, we are witnessing a major shift. The difference between the Emergency and today is, the people were against the government’s moves to undermine democracy. Now, people are with the government’s moves to curb dissent. That’s a more serious dent to democracy.

We always use ‘status quo’ in a negative sense. But ‘status quo’ is not to be understood negatively in all aspects. It is a Latin expression that means “the state existing before the war”. Today, one can desire status quo, for a semblance of liberal democracy, where we can fight against the language of war. We would like to retain an idea where our democratic rights as citizens are in order. Who belongs? Who can belong? Who doesn’t belong? Who is nationalist? Who is anti-national? This is the language of war and territoriality.

How did the experience of ‘not belonging’ add to your concerns about minorities?

It took time for me to realise that my experience of being called a ‘foreigner’ in Assam created a huge rift in my understanding of belonging. I have carried this sense of divided self with me since. Even though being a Bengali Hindu I am part of the majority community, my father coming from East Bengal also made me a second-generation refugee. I became keener to understand how minorities and migrants belong to the nation, how they cannot belong, and what are the accusations framed against them. Dalits and Muslims never found a proper place in this nation. I wanted to question the comfortable, national self and the citizen — the favoured child of the liberal democratic state.

Do you think there is cyclicity to history? Because these ideas that aim to divide people, and this upsurge of nationalism, seem to rise and fall repeatedly.

The history of history seems to be something that has always tended to the reconfirmations of prejudices, hatred and suspicions. People often want to destroy the unfolding freedoms and go back to older forms of prejudice. Transformative moments and ideas have not been able to overthrow old prejudices completely. They always resurface. One example, and the most ironic one, is of a liberating idea of human civilisation — communism. How after the Bolsheviks came to power in the Soviet Union, the promise of justice and freedom was gradually eroded. The ‘Bolshevik Bishops’, to use the phrase of Peruvian poet César Vallejo, created hell in the name of a socialist paradise. History is about power. No political ideology, apart from democracy, puts ethics above power. But democracies are run by people who believe in power more than ethics.

The interviewer’s novel, The Lamentations of a Sombre Sky, was shortlisted for Sahitya Akademi’s Yuva Puruskar 2017.


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