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Invoking Invictus

The verse is from ‘Invictus’, a stirring poem of pain and endurance from late-19th century England. In a Bollywood-style movie of the same name, American actor Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela, who uses the poem as a vehicle for reconciliation in a bitterly divided nation, writes Samar Halarnkar.

india Updated: Mar 18, 2010 02:27 IST
Samar Halarnkar

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
- ‘Invictus’, William Ernest Henley

The verse is from ‘Invictus’, a stirring poem of pain and endurance from late-19th century England. In a Bollywood-style movie of the same name, American actor Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela, who uses the poem as a vehicle for reconciliation in a bitterly divided nation.

In events that unfolded after the end of apartheid in 1994, Mandela, now 92, inspires South Africa’s wary, white Afrikaner rugby captain Francois Piernaar (played by Matt Damon) to lead his no-hoper team to the World Cup. In so doing, he uses a hated symbol of white rule as a signpost to the road of unity.

All true, except that Mandela did introduce Piernaar to ‘Invictus’ as part of an extract from a 1910 speech by US President Theodore Roosevelt that the South African president presented to the rugby captain. Invictus fits the era’s spirit of fortitude better, I suppose. The movie was inspiring. How does a man imprisoned for 27 years free his soul from hatred and set his nation on a path of (admittedly uneasy) coexistence?

When I saw Invictus on a Sunday morning, there were seven people in the hall. The movie disappeared within two weeks. This is surprising. Invictus was stirring but simplistic, very black and white in its message, like most Hindi movies.

Why then did it not strike a chord in India, a nation urgently in need of a reconciliatory spirit?

India’s rise is dangerously obscuring its innumerable wars and mistrusts within. The growing middle class shows little interest in the poor and oppressed. It is willing to deny democracy to those who menace its world. But unless we address these deep divisions, a new India will always remain beyond the horizon.

In Narendra Modi’s Gujarat, there is peace. It is a false peace, marked by distrust between Hindu and Muslim. Even the Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court finds its impartiality questioned. No probe can succeed when the state and the majority align against a cowed minority and attempt no amends.

In Srinagar, teenagers carry bitterness so deep that they hurl barrages of stones at the police almost every day. We hear this is meticulously organised ‘gun-less terrorism’, paid for by Pakistan. No matter. With no union of minds, India and the Valley are further apart than ever.

In Manipur, more than 10 years have passed since a determined 38-year-old woman called Irom Chanu Sharmila began a fast-unto-death after security forces shot dead 10 people waiting for a bus, one of them an 18-year-old winner of a national bravery award.

Locked away in a hospital room and force-fed through her nose, Sharmila’s overriding agenda is the suspension of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or the AFSPA, a law that sparks great anger and pain on India’s unseen margins.

Since 1958, the AFSPA has given India’s armed forces the power to detain, shoot and destroy, with immunity from prosecution, in ‘disturbed areas’. Parts of the North-east, like Manipur, have endured it for 52 years. Punjab got a bitter taste in the 1980s. Jammu and Kashmir has lived with it for the last 20 years.

Last year, a series of extra-judicial killings in Manipur indicated how easily security forces cross the line when they know they can. In Kashmir, that line is commonly crossed: of 38 state requests to prosecute soldiers for human rights violations, Delhi granted none.

In 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to a committee under Supreme Court judge B.P. Jeevan Reddy to review the act. Justice Reddy’s conclusion: “The AFSPA should be repealed.”

An amended AFSPA is now with the home ministry. But the very existence of a law best suited to a dictatorship indicates a democracy unsure of its security operations and judicial processes.

Laws that do not accept and fix responsibility imperil a free India. Without responsibility, there can be no remedy, no justice. Without remedy, there can be no reconciliation.

The new Communal Violence Bill, due to be tabled in Parliament, appears to share this failure to fix responsibility. Conceived after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, the law’s intention is noble: providing federal forces under ‘unified command’, meaning independent of local authorities, when a state government asks. What if a state doesn’t ask? Another provision says Delhi can directly declare a riot-ravaged area ‘disturbed’. That lands us back in AFSPA territory.

It is time to reconsider these laws and simultaneously begin a national process of reconciliation.

Young people from the North-east are spreading out across Indian cities, putting their education and stellar work ethic to good use in the service economy. But prosperity through happy coincidence will never be balm enough when fires burn and injustice festers at home.

South Africa made reconciliation official by setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, promising immunity to police who tortured and killed in exchange for a cathartic process of open confessions. Did it work? Well, it didn’t fail.

Reconciliation takes many forms. It is up to civil society and the government to give them shape. It would be naïve to believe they can always work. But try we must.

Above all, reconciliation is an idea that must come from the top. We don’t have a Mandela, but Manmohan Singh does believe in songs of reconciliation. Since he is more scholar than communicator, we don’t hear the verses.

Maybe we could start by seeing Invictus.