Monday, 26 January 2009

republic day

today is republic day in india. until today, i really had no idea what that meant. i mean i knew it happened, but had no idea of the significance. but i had to give a speech at a republic day event here in hamilton, so i thought i'd better find out.

yes, i was born in india, so technically i should know this stuff. but i left when i was less than two, and the first time i went back, i was 12. since then i've been back plenty of times, but i can never think of the place as home. home will always be the rolling green hills of the waikato, the meandering river that's 5 minutes from my front door, and the quiet suburb where i live. home is here, and india is just a place i visit every now and then because i happened to have been born there.

hence no particular interest from me in indian politics or history. i didn't identify with it, and some of it is pretty gruesome, particularly the bits that left half of my extended family living in pakistan since the 40s (or maybe 50s). so my lack of knowledge has never bothered me, particularly since i studied nz history in both 5th & 7th form so feel like i know about the place where i belong.

as an aside, it was the strangest feeling visiting waitangi earlier this year. as our guide retold the history that i'd studied all those years ago, i really felt like it was my history, my heritage, even though actually my ancestry is so very far away from here. i felt so disconnected, belonging yet not belonging; but knowing in my heart that this soil is where my roots are even if my ancestors lie somewhere else.

but i digress. back to indian republic day. this is not independence day, which is the day that india was finally free of colonial rule. that happened on 15 august 1947 (i actually knew that one!). republic day is a celebration of the day, three years later, when india became a sovereign democratic republic. the day the indian constitution came into force. not a bad achievement after 3 years of independence. nz hasn't managed to achieve it after, well, closing in fast on two centuries.

i liked this explanation of the significance of the event (from the link above) even though it does tend to be a bit jingoistic:

... the constitution whose promulgation is celebrated is highly symbolic of the aspirations which ‘we the people of India’ cherish. It ushered in a social revolution silently by changing the status of the individual from a subject of a colonial empire to a citizen of a free country. It laid down the method of governance and established the relationship of the citizen to the state. It endeavours to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity and assures the dignity of the individual by conferring fundamental rights upon the citizen. With one stroke, it abolished all distinctions of status, rank, creed, colour and sex. It outlawed untouchability, an abominable social practice that had created discrimination and tensions in society.

which is all very good. it's a worthwhile thing to celebrate and commemorate. the birth of nationhood, the establishment of ideals, the shaking off of the yoke of colonialism. yes, these are things that should be remembered.

and yet, i feel a certain degree of discomfort in nationalism and overt manifestations of national pride. not just because such feelings can be used as tools for division and excuses for war. it seems to me to be much deeper than that.

i think it comes down to context. india's independence came at a time when the world was just recovering from a catastrophic global conflict. it was a time when many nations were gaining independence, when the UN was busy creating new nations and drawing random boundaries that would lead to some extremely bloody and painful conflicts. it was a time when, having gotten rid of their colonial masters, peoples could finally be proud of their own culture, heritage and identity. when they were free from rulers that looked down on them as native savages who were an inconvenient obstruction to the pursuit of even more wealth and power.

in that context, a sense of national pride was justified and in fact essential to bring a people together towards the common cause of rebuilding their country and creating a new identity.

but we live in a much different world today. a much more global world, where global-community-building is much more important than nation-building. it's time for us to feel more connected to each other across nations and continents, if we are truly going to solve problems like poverty, global warming and the like. it's time for nations to think of the common good of the planet and not just their individual good. because the common good will actually lead to individual good.

and i wonder how you can get that message across, without discounting the struggle for independence and without cheapening the value of the many lives lost in that struggle. i'm not sure i have an answer to that.


Anonymous said...

So I guess to you, the feelings you got on your visit to Waitangi weren't nationalism?

stargazer said...

yes, i guess they were in a sense. but not with the same degree of fervour; not that sense of national pride that makes you feel that your nation is better than any other, that your people are superior, and that your national interest rises above all other interests. my feelings at waitangi were more to do with a sense of place and belonging, more a sense of connectedness than of pride. i don't know if that makes sense?

Anonymous said...

It does make sense, but bear in mind that that sense of place and belonging is a necessary prerequisite for the sense of superiority.

stargazer said...

that may be so, it may be a pre-requisite but it doesn't follow that having a sense of belonging always leads to a sense of superiority. it's a natural human tendency to put down roots and to develop relationships with those in geographical proximity. i guess it's a matter of being careful that you don't let that overwhelm you to the extent that those who are far away stop mattering.