Emory Report
July 5, 2005
Volume 57, Number 34


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July 5, 2005
Celebrate your independence

Tavishi Bhasin is a doctoral student in political science and will begin a fellowship in the Office of university-community partnerships this fall

National flags fly everywhere. There are speeches by national leaders and special screenings of patriotic films. This national holiday provides a great excuse to gather around family and friends. Does this sound familiar?

All these happenings also are familiar to those of us who will celebrate “Independence Day” here in Bombay, India, in August. Both India and the United States, among other nations, celebrate national holidays to mark the attainment of their freedom from foreign rule and the right to self-government.

Independence Day for me is one celebration where even the greatest skeptics of nationalism and its misuse by political leaders can participate without guilt, without worrying (as we academics do) about giving in to a nationalist agenda or jingoism—or a host of other “isms” I have learned to fear in the course of my graduate work.

It is a day when we honor generations, one or several before us, depending on the country to which we pledge allegiance, who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today. It is a celebration of an underdog’s victory, a day when the oppressed took over and said, “We can govern ourselves quite well, without help, thank you very much.” Who can argue against such a worthy cause for celebration?

Independence Day celebrations also are important for me personally. My family’s role in India’s struggle for independence from British rule shaped my world view from early childhood, my identity as an Indian and the role I see for myself as an academic today. I learned early that freedom is a privilege, fought for and won by my grandparents’ generation and many before them. It is to be cherished and handled with great responsibility, never to be taken for granted.

My most vivid childhood memory is of sitting in my grandparents’ room, listening to stories about India’s struggle for independence and about their lives before the partition into the separate countries of India and Pakistan. Nostalgia for a lost era made the streets from the city they knew a little wider, the homes larger, the trees bear more fruit and that fruit sweeter every time a story was retold.

We would listen, wide-eyed with rapt attention, clamoring for more details: names of great leaders my grandfather had met and worked with during the freedom struggle—names we knew from our history textbooks at school, blow-by-blow accounts of meetings of the Indian National Congress my great-grandfather attended, yet another drawing of the house my grandparents lived in, and, of course (like any good story), the romance that my grandparents brought with them to India, traveling with other Pakastani refugees in a truck, across the border to a brand new country.

As the grandchildren got older, my grandparents shared more painful stories. Stories of separation: my grandfather lost contact with his brothers for a full year—there were months my grandmother thought my grandfather was lost, when he had slipped across the border one last time to see if there was anything he could salvage from his former home.

She waited alone, expecting their first child. Stories of the first postcard my grandfather received from his brother that led to an emotional reunion of the extended family and a move yet again to Bombay, the city they still call home after 57 years. My understanding of freedom, a privilege that carries great responsibility, has been shaped by these stories of loss and sacrifice.

As I write this piece here in Bombay, in the same home my grandparents moved into when they first relocated, I can’t help but think of the freedoms my generation enjoys today and those we have to work together to achieve. Along with the freedoms that larger democratic societies guarantee, we enjoy as members of the academic community the most sacred of freedoms, one that I know in our busy academic semesters we sometimes place above the pursuit of happiness.

In our pursuit of knowledge, we have the freedom to choose our methods and individual paths toward the advancement of this collective body of knowledge. Jokes apart, I acknowledge that this is no small freedom we enjoy. Not only are we able to pursue this knowledge ourselves, but we also are entrusted with the responsibility of transferring this collective knowledge to generations that follow.

I am spending this summer in India doing fieldwork toward my dissertation on political protest in democracies. I study violent and nonviolent forms of protest, asking why some democracies experience more violent protest than others. I will spend the next weeks traveling across India to speak with representatives of several movements throughout the country that each have demanded the creation of a separate state for their constituents within India’s borders.

Each group feels its members have not been equals in their current Indian states and want self-government within the larger Indian federal system, so that they may steer their own course toward economic development.

As I speak with these groups—some of which have met with success and others with failure—the larger question for me is one that looks at democratic institutions: How do we build and maintain them so that we can encourage and ensure participation for a maximum number of societal groups? How do we ensure that groups we have not yet encountered will have space to participate in the political process and feel invested in tomorrow’s institutions? How do we design those institutions to encourage more groups not only to participate in institutional politics but also to work together to resolve conflict?

These questions are relevant for all democratic states as we take these special days, such as Independence Day this week, to ask ourselves if we successfully guaranteed the same freedoms and opportunities for all our citizens. If not, how do we achieve this goal? These questions are extremely relevant to new democracies and countries that are on the path towards democratization.

We may struggle as an international community to find consensus over how we can encourage other countries to democratize, but perhaps most of us will agree that once on this path—in order that newly adopted institutions endure—these countries will need to be suitably equipped to handle the severe challenges posed by ethnic and religious diversity as well as the persistent legacy of non-democratic regimes.

This is not only an incredibly vibrant area for research but also an area where we need more than ever to bridge the gap between our collective knowledge in academia and the resources available to practitioners of political development.

Answering these questions is my one of my generation’s great responsibilities and hopefully will one day be our contribution to a struggle toward ensuring freedom—not only for ourselves and the democracies in which we live, but for our peers in new democracies and democratizing countries, as well.

Having talked of freedom and responsibilities, I want to say that the value of taking time out for celebration should not be understated. Another commonality between the region I know best in India and the Southeastern city of Atlanta I have called home since joining Emory’s graduate program in August 2000 is the overwhelming hospitality that comes so naturally to both places.

When I think of July 4 celebrations I have had the privilege of participating in, I have learned a rather important lesson. Whatever one’s preference—whether gas or charcoal, or and whatever your favorite food—on this finest of days for firing up the grill, the international language of barbecue is a great medium for cross-cultural conversation.