“Before you ask for justice – make sure that you won’t get it, just by accident.”

— Paavo Haavikko, “Fifteen Epigrams in Praise of the Tyrant”

The word, the concept, the demand, which haunts the claims of any nation, is justice. It is through the measure of justice alone that we may measure the promise of a nation. Can a nation be just? How do we measure a just nation? A nation is considered just by the promise of justice it grants its people.

I say “people” and not citizens, for the nation is ethically bound to help even those it considers non-citizens, i.e. migrants and refugees who are caught in territorial demarcations which violate the human rights to land and livelihood. How is justice given? Not simply by laws and court verdicts, though these are a fundamental part of the system of justice.

Apart from the justice system, there is also the promise that lies in allowing people freedom – freedom to speak, think, criticise and break the strangleholds of prejudice, freedom to speak against violence and to remind people of the promise of justice. If this freedom is denied to the people, the nation is not only going against its ethical duty, it is destroying its promise.

Freedom and justice are thickly entwined with each other.

Under ideal conditions, those who aren’t suffering the plight of the migrant or the refugee raise their voice in solidarity. If the nation is not promising for some, it can’t be promising for all. But the nation’s most pampered and privileged are reluctant and indifferent when it comes to issues other than inflation, corruption or law and order. They are not interested in matters which affect the underprivileged sections of society.

This social division is not merely the doing of a nation, but a proliferation of historical and social differences, which the nation acknowledges but does not erase. The constitution has the limited promise of safeguarding our rights and directing the state to grant special rights to the underprivileged. A larger sense of promise lies with the people themselves, for they alone can voice what they lack and suffer.

A promise, paradoxically, comes from lack. The privileged, attached to the self-serving structures of cultural and economic ownership, lack the promise born out of lack. Democracy lives in the promise of people overcoming their privileges and attending to other people. But such a spirit rarely manages to stir the utilitarian lethargy (and logic) of the privileged. A promise is not something external, something that reduces people to passive receptors, much like what the political parties offer as gift packages during elections. A promise is something more sacred and liberating.

The country’s liberation from colonial rule has not delivered the many freedoms people are still fighting for today.

It only ensured a promise, made by the nation to its people, of the freedom to come. For Thomas Hobbes and David Hume, freedom meant the absence of external obstructions. This is what Isiah Berlin later termed in his lecture Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) as “negative liberty”. By “positive liberty”, Berlin meant the freedom to act or decide without threats and compulsions. In his essay On The Jewish Question (1843), Marx had already combined these two ideas. He described liberty as the realisation of human potentiality. But this potentiality, for Marx, was best served in relational terms, one that led towards an emancipatory community.

The reservation policy in India may serve as a good example to bring together these ideas of liberty. Dalits and other backward castes want reservations to be able to minimise the social prejudices against them and reach the level of confidence and mobility enjoyed by the privileged castes. But this liberty is not enough for the “positive liberty” they seek, which is the capability to assert their political and cultural aspirations. Both liberties work, in different ways, to ensure two different modes of capability and ways of being free.

It is the combination of both which forms the background for Ambedkar’s idea of “social justice”. For Ambedkar, the Hindu religion fails the “test of justice” from the point of view of the untouchables, as it fails to offer them freedom. The same question may be asked of the nation: Has the nation ensured Dalits the freedom it ensures others? There is no justice without freedom. Can there be freedom without justice?

In the provocative lines of this chapter’s epigraph, which accident of justice is the Finnish poet and aphorist, Paavo Haavikko, warning us against? We may consider the date of liberation from colonial rule an accident that had serious consequences. It was motivated by various historical and political factors that gifted us freedom and Partition in one stroke. The “stroke of the midnight hour”, which Nehru eulogised, was also the midnight of horror for many. The vultures preying over dead bodies in Bengal and Punjab offered a stark contrast to the doves flying from the Red Fort.

When a date is reason for both jubilation and grief, can such a date simply define freedom?

How can the birth of the nation be just if Partition was unjust? It isn’t about how we look at freedom and justice as mere ideas to be debated, but the actual cost of lives that pose limits to those ideas. Ideas cannot be free from the question of death – in this context, the deaths that followed independence and the Partition. Neither the British nor the Congress claimed sincere responsibility for the countless lives lost during the birth of the nation. It was a date they decided together, without anticipating the consequences. One accident often triggers another.

The Greek term hamartia, discussed by Aristotle in Poetics, covers a broad spectrum of meanings, including ignorance, error or accidental wrongdoing. Though based on the frailties of human character, we may reasonably extend it to talk about a community or “national character”. What if the nation’s character is constitutively flawed, accidental, beginning with its madness for dates and the shortcomings of justice?

To say that Independence/Partition produced our moment of hamartia would be to acknowledge a congenital flaw in the nation’s character. Perhaps the worst proof of this lies in the fact that Partition enhanced and hardened communal prejudices. This flaw remains ignored and unacknowledged by another trait of national character for which also originates in Greece: hubris, or foolish and dangerous self-pride.

The communal nature of the Assam Movement is a good example. Such sub-national movements fall into the trap of communalising society, where the original sin of the nation (ie, Partition) is replicated in the name of securing the demands (economic, social and political) of a territorially determined linguistic majority. India is a country of not only religious but also linguistic minorities, spread across its many states. To harass these minorities in the name of identitarian aspirations of any majority community is undemocratic. Political campaigns based on language and ethnicity will have to draw an ethical line between ambition and fraternal reconciliation.

Excerpted with permission from Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, Speaking Tiger.