Moral is political

Tridip Suhrud

Posted online: Tuesday, February 19, 2008 at 2304 hrs

The Kevin Rudd government’s apology to Australia’s Aboriginal people is an affirmation of the moral in the political realm. We in India have willed ourselves to forget its possibilities
On February 13, Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister spoke to the Aboriginal people of Australia. He spoke for himself, for his government, the Parliament and, as he hoped, for all Australians. He tendered a much-awaited apology to the country’s Aboriginal population citing the “profound suffering, grief and loss” inflicted on them by decades of abuse and mistreatment.

His words, contained in an Australian parliamentary motion, were directed to the ‘stolen generations’ — the tens of thousands of mixed race children taken from their families in a strategy of white assimilation that was abandoned in 1970. “For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry,” Prime Minister Rudd said. “To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry… And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.” He also apologised to the indigenous peoples of Australia still living on the margins of Australian society.

This profoundly moving act is reminiscent of the haunting image of a penitent Willy Brandt kneeling in prayer and atonement at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial. The Australian apology is not just an attempt to undo historical wrongs. Acts committed in the past cannot be undone. It is a promise for the future. But it seeks to go beyond a commitment. It is an act of recognition. It is a recognition of pain and suffering as also the shared memory of pain.

This was an act of ritual mourning. Mourning is an act of memory. Mourning is remembrance, it is longing, an expression of irreparable loss. It is cathartic and hence healing. But mourning allows one to move forward, while keeping the memory of loss alive. Such ritualised mourning also signals a closure. It sets the dead free and unburdens the living. Kevin Rudd not only allowed the dead to go on their onwards journey, he also freed the living from guilt.

Repentance requires capacity and possibility for reflection and recognition of a moral space within each one of us, howsoever fragile. In our times, repentance remains a personal moral category. It is a personal virtue. We have the politics of hatred, of memory, of historical injustices but not of repentance. But is it necessary, we may ask, that repentance too becomes a political category?

This apology is an affirmation of the moral realm. Kevin Rudd, and with him the entire Australian Parliament, by this act reiterated that the true basis of the polity and civilised conduct is morality. In terms of its moral innovativeness it has only one recent parallel, that of the Truth And Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The solemnity and poignancy of it communicated the power of symbolic acts in public realm. In a world which recognises and celebrates the power of ‘brands’ and is sceptical of symbolic acts it comes as a powerful reminder of the potency of acts — however symbolic — done with pure intent and clear conscience.

We, in India, are no strangers to either moral or ethical innovation or to the power of symbolic acts. Little over a hundred years ago, in the Empire Theatre of Johannesburg, a man rose to take a pledge. It was a vow taken in the name of God and with God as witness. This we recognise as the birth of satyagraha. It was the affirmation of the moral in the political realm. It was an affirmation that freedom was not only a political category, it was both moral and spiritual as well. It is, in fact, superior moral virtue. It was the morality of the idea of freedom that the Indian movement of independence sought to actualise. The same man showed us the power of symbolic acts when he along with a chosen band of followers walked to the coastal town of Dandi and by picking up a pinch of salt broke the power of an empire.

The plight of the Indian polity and public life comes in large measure from our inability to acknowledge that the realpolitik does not constitute the whole of the political realm. It stems from a misconception that the polity is superior to and larger than the public sphere. It was the public sphere, an amalgamation of happy polyphonies at that, which defined the political during the freedom movement. We have now relegated the public sphere to a space occupied by cantankerous NGOs and odd-ball dissenters. It is marginal to both our politics and our ethical imagination. We have created a gulf between the ethical imaginations and the imperatives of realpolitik. This does not allow us to understand that a tribal who cuts forest trees as a form of protest is not being destructive but is making a plea to be included in the nation’s memory by dismembering himself. Such distance permits amnesia, deepest of which is about the possibilities of the politics of the moral. This has blunted our innovativeness in the moral and the ethical spheres.

The writer is a social scientist based in Ahmedabad