Three Score and Eleven Years Ago
By Anoop Kumar
At the outset, there are a couple of admissions to make; Firstly, I have a Romantic outlook towards… pretty much everything. Which is why I find myself often enraptured by seemingly grandiose concepts; for in my mind, I favour what could be, rather than what is. It is also probably why I feel that certain words spoken in a different era, under different circumstances, hold relevance today.
For the reasons stated above, I shall revisit a speech delivered on November 19th, 1863, in Gettysburg, in a somewhat different light. I have shared my thoughts on this speech, 5 years ago and to those who have read that version, apologies for the apparent lack of innovation; my take on each sentence has however, changed since then and that, I solemnly hope, is motivation enough to read this commentary.
So here goes…
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Even to an Indian, brought up in a culture of unidimensional pedagogy, these words may strike as familiar. Reasons can be multiple; most probable is that you watch a lot of movies and heard this, in one featuring Daniel-Day Lewis. However, the romantic in me wants to believe that Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address transcends culture and time, the latter bearing more importance.
It is argued that the Preamble of Indian Constitution is inspired by that of the U.S. It makes sense, given the democratic principles both nations try to uphold through easy times and tough. Over time, majority of the Western historians have had a pessimistic outlook regarding Indian Republic’s continued democratic existence given its history (rather a lack of it) and utter diversity amongst her citizens in all conceivable aspects of living. Not surprisingly, this outlook of India’s impending doom gained currency during The Emergency, perhaps rightly so. But here we are, defying the odds, 4 years at a time.
Why digress along these lines however? Because this is something else that we share with the U.S.; doesn’t their name itself mean a union of states, i.e. lacking a history of being one nation? Granted, the diversity India is challenged with, is on a scale far more superior to theirs, but then I didn’t claim we are the same. Merely similar. Still, why mention all this here? Well, with this context, let’s rephrase the words; Three score and eleven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Did they not?
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.”
For those who don’t know of the context of the original speech, it suffices to say that it was delivered four months after the fall of the Confederate Forces of American Civil War, which in turn was fought over abolishing/continuing slavery. After the conception of Indian state, there has been a national Emergency, some notable mass movements, several communal incidents and secessionist movements. At the risk of being accused of ‘trying to fit the pieces’, I’d say — not a civil war per se, but we’ve had our share of civil skirmishes. I do not have any political leanings — Left, Right or Centre — but it supports my ‘pieces fit on their own’ claim, when I summarise certain Leftist sceptics’ beliefs, that any economic or social progress in our country will have a peasant or peasant-worker revolution as its precursor.
That revolution never occurred, but progress did take place, and conveniently those sceptics have been branded naysayers. But were they totally wrong? The main problem our founding fathers had in mounting an effective freedom struggle was the immense diversity along cultural, linguistic, social, economic, religious and geographic fronts; what if these very same barriers, insulated the country from a nationwide civil war? A secessionist demand in, say North India, could arise due to any of the reasons sufficient of inciting a national movement; lack of government attention, perhaps few men with countercultural views fuelling them and so on. However other regions of the country do not feel the same way, not because the problems aren’t similar there, but probably because it is nearly impossible to generate similar thinking process in such diverse pockets of the country.
However, once these notions and movements have been quelled, the net effect across the country is pretty much similar. Time and again when the democratic and political integrity of the country has been challenged, though bloodshed has been limited to certain regions, the sentiments have resonated across the entire Indian state. And this almost constant struggle has slowly developed the Indian’s psyche. Every objective individual knows the perils of communal riots and condemn those who are responsible, every responsible citizen knows the genesis of Reservation and the pros and cons of its continued existence and every time a new state is carved out of an existing one, people have understood what drove those demands. No two armies faced off against each other, but the Indian minds have grappled with the forces threatening the democratic pillar of Indian existence. It can be rightly said that we have been engaged in a civil war, testing whether this nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. And right now, we are meeting, you and I, on the great battle-field of that war. This is the purpose of this remembrance — echoing those immortal words, from a cemetery in Pennsylvania in 1863, more than 150 years later, in a new light, to a new audience.
“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
We have established that in our context, the battlefield is metaphysical. Perhaps the most significant battlefield is our minds; where sometime or the other, we’ve all fought against the aforementioned challenges. We live in a country where politics is inseparable part of our decisions, so it’s not unlikely that every one of us, haven’t at one point or other weighed the merits of both sides of ‘our civil strife’. We’ve probably argued for and against Reservation, formation of Telengana, censoring of press, freedom of expression and speech and the list goes on. By no means does the article favour one side or the other, it merely draws attention to the fact that we do have the arguments in our heads. And if progress stems from such heads, then these battlefields do indeed call for dedication of a portion for the men who have laid down their lives for what they believed to be the right thing to do. Simply put, we do a disservice by not remembering those people who have died furthering their vision.
And truly like Lincoln says, we cannot consecrate or hallow these grounds, those who paid with their lives have done so much that we cannot add or detract.
Let us take an example, the contemporary issue of gender inequality. There are, surprisingly proponents and detractors in this issue. Fundamentally, this shouldn’t even be so; both sexes have an equal say in everything. Period. And for the longest period of time, it was believed that at least urban India is far more advanced than its rural counterpart in this regard. Until Jyoti Singh died in the December of 2012. Doesn’t ring a bell? Can’t blame you, as for the longest time she was only known as Nirbhaya. No one could possibly argue in favour of rape. But the defendants and their lawyers did something barbaric; they didn’t open the Pandora’s box, it blew the box up. Down went the façade of equality, as they put forth, well for the want of a better word, with such sick arguments, that everyone knew things were wrong. Her death was a result of inhuman brutality that has no justification, but the judicial proceedings pertaining to her death made her a martyr of this civil strife of gender inequity. We cannot bring about a higher change than her, but it would be outright wrong if we were ever to forget why and how she died.
It is merely one example, of one issue, of one martyrdom. There are several. And when we lay it all out, we realize that indeed, this nation as a whole has grown out of these seemingly isolated incidents which had nationwide ramifications. These struggles have been publicized, but never connected to the holistic progress that the nation went through due to them. In closing, I need not change a word of Lincoln’s address as it somehow makes perfect sense in our context too. Those words are the advice to all the democracies across the globe, across generations and cultures; for they embody a universal truth. Remember how we used to learn in elementary grammar, that ‘Sun rises in the east.’ , is always written in present tense because it is a universal truth, similarly -
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
About the Author:
Anoop is from the Batch of 2017–19. You might find him with a novel, a Rubik’s cube, pondering over Sicilian Defense or listening to Linkin Park on repeat. His diverse tastes are probably a result of confusion in his childhood, as to what to do in life.