The United States, has long taken pride in describing itself as a ‘nation of laws’, in the words of its sixth President, John Quincy Adams. Yet, under its forty-fifth President, Donald J. Trump, it’s more apparent than ever that it is also a ‘nation of flaws.’ The wild scenes that the world witnessed last week outside – and inside – the Capitol building in Washington are only the latest, most shocking manifestation of these ‘baked in’ flaws, as the Americans put it. For it is no secret that like the model Athenian democracy of the ancient Greeks, modern American democracy was founded on the decidedly un-modern and unsavory plinths of slavery and racism.
Nowhere is this racist history more evident than in the southern state of Georgia that has, since its inception in the 18th century, only now in 2021 elected its first-ever African American representative – Reverend Raphael Warnock, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Alabama. Small and unpretentious as it is, you might pass this church by without a second glance. But if you did so, you could be making a mistake – for this place of worship is, in fact, world-famous. Busloads of tourists visit it all year round; children come to its doors for lessons in history as well as in ethics.
Why? Well, because one of the earlier pastors of the church was none other than Martin Luther King Junior, as was his father before him. King made this modest red-brown building a nerve-center for the great American civil rights movement of the sixties and seventies that has led directly to the unstoppable ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement of today. For this inspirational reason, in Georgia for a conference in 2019, I too joined the long line of gawkers waiting to file into Ebenezer church.
The experience was revealing. Adjoining the church is a small museum, where I find that easily the most dominant presence is Gandhi’s. For example, the ‘six principles’ of his philosophy of non-violence are embossed in bold letters on the wall between the church and museum. Plus, a whole floor is devoted to Gandhi, Nehru and other Indian leaders of the freedom movement. In one glass cabinet, I spot a charkha, in another, various Indian memorabilia. Then, in a book by Martin Luther King prominently displayed in the museum shop, I find this passage on Martin and Coretta King’s historic ‘pilgrimage’ to India in 1959:
Some years ago, Prime Minister Nehru was telling me how his nation is handling the difficult problem of the untouchables, a problem not related to the American Negro dilemma. The prime minister admitted that many Indians still harbor a prejudice against these long-oppressed people, but that it has become unpopular to exhibit this prejudice… Moreover, the Prime Minister said, if two applicants compete for entrance into a college or university, one of the applicants being an untouchable and the other a high caste, the school is required to accept the untouchable.
Today, in hindsight, we recognize that caste prejudice is far from vanquished in our country, that religious divisions can be fuelled with awful consequences. We have had our terrible ‘mob moments’: Ayodhya, the riots round the Mandal Commission judgment, the list is endless. Thus, ample irony attends those stirring words of ‘law’ that Martin Luther King heard from Jawaharal Nehru nearly sixty years ago.
Nevertheless, three quick points can be made.
First, while laws in a democracy are usually made with the fine intention that they’ll keep injustice at bay, sections of the population inevitably remain unconvinced. They believe the law itself is flawed. For this reason, a mutinous, if mute, anger can simmer just below the surface and break out at any time. We witness this seething resentment in the way individuals in the ‘General Category’ even now complain bitterly off-the-record about ‘Reservations’ in our country. And we see it in the recent boiling over of ‘white rage’ in the US against what is perceived as ‘our country’ being ‘taken’ by those who have ‘stolen’ what is not rightfully theirs. Laws and courts alone cannot resolve these tribal antagonisms, only an investment in public trust can, as Gandhi and King both knew. Each literally took a bullet for these publicly displayed beliefs. So, in an age of social media, we should seriously ask ourselves if the very definition of political courage has changed today.
Second, describing 1963, the tumultuous year when he led his ‘March on Washington’ and Kennedy was assassinated, King wrote eloquently: “a need and a time and a circumstance and the mood of a people came together.” Today, we see another such compelling mood-moment in US history – and it may be time to remember that India was by no means an idle bystander at the time. Indeed, both of Vice President Elect Kamala Harris’s parents, Asian and Jamaican immigrants, were involved in exactly that civil rights movement inspired by Gandhi’s ideals.
Third, both King and Gandhi had a way with words that could bust guts. The final sentence of the famous book published by King in 1964 declares enigmatically:
Non-violence, the answer to the Negroes’ need, may become the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity.
King, a master rhetorician, leaves it to his readers to decide what that ‘desperate need of all humanity’ is. He is clear, however, that whatever the problem, ‘non-violence’ is a likely solution. Which brings us directly to the present era of Covid-19 where ‘all humanity’ does indeed share ‘desperate needs’, not just for vaccines but also for ‘healing’ and ’empathy’. What appears missing from this somewhat anodyne discourse, though, is the urgency conveyed by King’s book title, which reads: Why We Can’t Wait.
That’s the nub of it: the world cannot wait much longer for the vast democracies of India and the US, which together make up a good fifth of the global population, to take a stand and figure out the essential connections between ‘desperate needs’ and ‘non-violent’ ways of meeting these needs. Democracies may be flawed by definition because they privilege error-prone voter perceptions but, as King and Gandhi once proved to the world, they are at their glorious best when their laws vigorously grapple with the intrinsic flaws in human nature.
(Critical theorist and leading poet Rukmini Bhaya Nair teaches at IIT Delhi.)
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