Posted on 1-December-2009
In the middle of the last week, some people in India decided to mark the anniversary of terrorist bombing and shooting on 26th November last year at different places in Mumbai. For those who lost members of their family in these incidents the grief must be genuine and the memory painful. Some may even need material support. For the police and security forces, which were lambasted for laxness and worse last year, the anniversary may well be an occasion for useful stock taking. The killjoy question is what those, celebrities and their followers, who organised candle light vigils and other manifestations and those who endlessly jabbered on television channels were doing other than indulging in self promotion. Others might have thought it a useful occasion for stoking fires of jingoism and for yet others the anniversary was an occasion for scoring political debating points. If when talking of the events of the last year they used words like sorrow, pain or loss, they were doing little more than play acting.
Individuals without exception remember past events and experiences in their lives in moments of quiet reflection, of idleness, of sadness or of simple companionship. Remembering past moments of joy and pleasure, of pain and sorrow, of exultation and depression can and often does arouse deep personal emotions. People deal with the memory of their past in different ways. There are those who like Edmund the Bastard in King Lear, nursing memories of past slights, scheme and plot, ruining every one around them or those who like Shylock in Merchant of Venice wish to take revenge against an innocent member of a group whose other members have inflicted injuries on him in the past. For yet others, remembering the past can be cathartic.
Contrasted with the purely personal nature of real acts of remembering, collective acts of remembering are hardly more than contrived social conventions. Many of these are simply occasions for social intercourse and for joy and mirth: birthdays, wedding anniversaries, "national days", the birthday of Jesus Christ or the day of his ascension, the day of the victory of Ram Chandra over Ravana, the day of Abraham's sacrifice, the feast of the Passover. Other acts of group remembrance have their origins in its wish for self preservation. For Jews, subjected to discrimination, pogroms and finally large scale extermination in Nazi Germany, Yad Vashem is important both for steeling their determination to ensure that such things do not happen to them again and for reminding those who brought such suffering to them of what they did. For Shi'ia Muslims, often victimised in majority Sunni Muslim societies, collective mourning for the death of Hussein at Karbala is an important act of reaffirmation of group solidarity. The very nature of the events such remembrances mark ensures wide and willing public participation.
Other days of remembrance are in course of time forgotten about or lose their significance--they continue to be observed more out of habit than any genuine enthusiasm or because they respond to the natural human love of festivities and pageantry: Guy Fawkes Day, Labour Day. Two other days still observed in Britain and Europe, both related to two of the most destructive wars of the twentieth century are unlikely to survive for too long: Remembrance Day and VE Day. With the death of the last British veteran of the war of 1914-18 the last direct link to the armistice of 11th November 1918 has been lost in the case of the first and with the increasing tendency of the victors and the losers of the 1939-45 war to jointly celebrate the second it is no longer clear what the celebrants are trying to remember. If the purpose of observing these two days is to remind everyone of the futility of war, that reminding has not prevented NATO and the USA from being involved in two unending wars in two Muslim countries in spite of the opposition of large sections of their own populations. It is unlikely that Remembrance Day and VE Day will continue being observed if different governments and official agencies stop organising them.
Nearer home, in India, the three most important days of remembrance in the national calendar are: Republic Day on 26th January, Independence Day on 15th August and Mahatma Gandhi's birthday on 2nd October. The first of these, initially meant to remind the people of India of the decision by the Indian National Congress in December 1929 to accept nothing less than complete independence from the British and later to mark the founding in 1950 of the Republic of India, is now marked most visibly in Delhi by a military parade to showcase India's military might. The second, devoid more and more of large public participation--it is difficult for anyone who has seen the grainy black and white film clips of the crowds celebrating independence on 15th August 1947 not to be impressed by their spontaneous enthusiasm--is reduced to the Prime Minister of India reading from behind a bulletproof cage a prepared speech which is more akin to an official report to parliament than to an eloquent outpouring from a man who has something inspiring to say about where he wants to lead the country. Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, marked in the early years after independence by important leaders, including the prime minister, spending some time plying the spinning wheel--one of the most visible symbols used by the Mahatma in his campaigns of mass mobilisation--and by the singing of some of Gandhi's favourite devotional songs, is now marked by stiff walks by those who matter in the country around the granite slab in Delhi which is Gandhi's memorial and by equally mechanical floral offerings there. But in whichever way these three days are observed, they should be sufficient for those whose hearts overflow with sentiments of patriotism. If such people make sure that these three days become a little more than merely official occasions organised by the government they will already have done a great deal for keeping theirs and other people's flames of nationalism alive. It is not necessary to invent new days of remembrance.