Pear S. Buck, the American Nobel Laureate, once wrote that “land is one’s flesh and blood.” This observation rang true as I witnessed the celebration of India’s Independence Day, August 15th, along the Rajpath, the central nerve of power in New Delhi designed by Edwin Lutyens.
On that auspicious day tens of thousands had gathered on the green lawns adorning this grand boulevard. A parade of elegant uniforms – of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and Parsis – made an east-west circuit. Above, a thousand and one cheerful kites miraculously fluttered in the airless heat. These homely diamonds were no bigger than a newspaper, but as a colorful multitude, moved by a common wind, they created a stirring site.
The cacophony of Delhi was still present: the sneering horns of motorcycles, rickshaws, and cars; the dreadful clamor of steely vendors and their victims; the nasally cry of the faithful and their innumerable hymns; the muted moan of poverty. But the open gardens of the Rajpath seemed to absorb these disparate voices and allow for a beautiful, if fragile, harmony.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
At the end was India Gate, a towering sandstone arch constructed in memory of veterans of World War I. An honor guard in crisp white uniforms stood over fresh saffron garlands and paid homage to soldiers fallen in “Mesopotamia and Persia, East Africa, Gallipoli, and elsewhere in the near and far-east.” In these faraway lands, the Great War had resulted in the gruesome death of trans-ethnic empires and the birth of new nations marked by boundaries drawn in the sand.
One hundred years later, the lingering corpse of World War I – the dead hand of Sykes-Picot – still rots and poisons the well of humanity in the Middle East. The Tigris continues to run red.
It was also during World War I that a certain lawyer and community organizer, Mahatma Gandhi, returned from South Africa to join a growing push toward independence. The moral imperative of Gandhi’s swaraj (home-rule) movement was not enough. It would take another world war, the demise of Imperial Britain and the blood-soaked partition of the subcontinent before India could reach its “tryst” with destiny, its independence, in 1947. Millions upon millions died first.
Why should such violence precede nationhood?
Political theorist Benedict Anderson posited that modern nations were “imagined communities” – peoples without face-to-face knowledge of other members, but nevertheless bound by a shared perception of identity. This relationship is formalized in a social contract, in the vein of Rousseau, and may be given expression through a constitution. The philosopher John Rawls further argued that when negotiating the ideal agreement we should start from an “original position” free from prejudice and inequality, behind a “veil of ignorance” where we are not conscious of our place in society, our class or social status, where we are not aware of our fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities.
The establishment of such social facts, to borrow from Emile Durkheim, is a necessary, but insufficient condition. To form a nation “state” this imagined community must be linked to the land. Indeed, a defined territory is one of the conditions for statehood under the Montevideo Convention (1933), a post-war invention that has become a customary norm in international law.
And land is tragically complex. Unlike patriotism, faith or ideology, land is a finite national resource – too often wrestled from the dying grasp of the prior owner.
The exceptional nature of the United States stems in part from the American frontier, a wild territory that allowed history’s most important democratic experiment to grow and mature. India does not enjoy the luxury of land with clean title or continental expanse. Instead, modern India descends from a compound lineage of ancient civilizations with multiple claims to her territory. Her sacred rivers – the Indus, Ganges, Yamuna, and Brahmaputra – have sustained competing lives as well as contending faiths. Instead of the veil of ignorance, there is the weight of knowledge. As Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore observed, India has traveled an “endless road” made “rugged with the rise and fall of nations.”
Given this diversity, whether it was Ashoka the Great (3rd century B.C.), a converted Buddhist, or Akbar the Great (16th century), a moderate Muslim, or Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (20th century), a British-trained lawyer and secularist, India’s most successful rulers have recognized the need for tolerance. It is truly indicative of India’s nature that an untouchable, B.R. Ambedkar, was entrusted with constructing its modern democratic constitution.
And because of India’s remarkable past, its payment on the lien hold of history, India may represent the most important democratic experiment of the future. The scale of India’s demography alone could support this conclusion: how can any political event impacting one sixth of humanity and one third of the world’s poor not be exceptional?
However, one need only consider the ongoing “nation-building” along the Islamic arc, from North Africa to West Asia, to realize the significance of secular democratic India. Even with the partition and creation of separate Muslim homelands in Pakistan and later Bangladesh, more Muslims are present in India (176 million) than any other country save Indonesia. There are more Muslims living in the subcontinent than the entire Middle East and North Africa combined. With its recent announcement of plans to expand in South Asia, al-Qaeda understands the stakes in India and the challenge of its pluralism to radical Islam.
For India to succeed, citizens of all shapes and sizes must continue to learn to share the land, to give to the other one’s flesh and blood. The new government has indicated that economic reform, down to the village level, is taking priority in the agenda. With success, India can serve as a critical alternative to the exclusive and violent nationalism that currently threatens international peace and security. This is a pivot worth noting as President Barack Obama welcomes Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House for formal talks today.
Roncevert Almond is an international lawyer and partner at The Wicks Group, a law and consulting firm based in Washington, DC. The views expressed here are strictly his own.