Blood and tears, instead of milk and honey

Blood and tears, instead of milk and honey

Poorva Paksha

Aakash Singh Rathore

Most people know jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron from his song The revolution will not be televised – and if you don’t, then you should. The song that I want to talk about, though, appears later on in his 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. That song, or rather poem read to music, is titled Comment #1.

Comment #1 is meant to express skepticism about the possibility of an alliance between supposedly radical white student groups with black power groups. Scott-Heron aims to communicate how activists from the white majority would never be able to truly fathom the struggle of the economically destitute, who are also socially discriminated and marginalised.

He wonders why I tell him that America’s revolution will not be the melting pot/But the toilet bowl.

He is fighting for legalised smoke or lower voting age…/All I want is a good home and a wife.

And her children and some food to feed them every night.

A related theme in the song is that of the relationship – or the lack of it – between the marginalised individual and the majority’s nation as a whole.

This ever-strained relationship between the dominant idea(l) of the nation, such as that we, in India, celebrated this 75th Independence Day, and the everyday reality of those it has discarded, was something that the chief architect of India’s Constitution, Babasaheb Ambedkar was rather intimately familiar with. Through independence, we sought freedom from an imperialist power, from external subjugation. But what promise did an independent Indian nation hold out for the socially stigmatised and marginalised? Would communities such as the Dalits not continue, within a nation free of external rule, to suffer under the empire of Brahmanism, to be internally subjugated?

Ambedkar referred to this as the ‘contradiction’ of Indian democracy and spoke of it recurrently in the Constituent Assembly. With the support of Constitutional Adviser B N Rau and Drafting Committee Member K M Munshi, Ambedkar thus sought to prioritise the dignity of every individual in India, irrespective of caste, over jingoistic demands of the nation. This is why the Preamble to the Constitution reads: “assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity [and integrity] of the nation.”

That is, the dignity of the individual comes first, always first.

But this is quite the opposite of what we have been hearing a lot lately from the top. ‘Nation first, always first’ has been a recurrent mantra, and newspapers faithfully churned out reports announcing that ‘nation first, always first’ would be the theme of India’s 75th Independence Day celebrations at the Red Fort.

By inverting the order from what the Preamble proclaims, that individual dignity comes first, the recent mantra declaring ‘nation first’ flies in the face of our Constitution’s words and spirit. At least, this is what the framers of the Constitution would have thought. The Drafting Committee had been asked by several nationalists within the Constituent Assembly to reverse the order of the terms. There was a Motion to amend the Preamble to read: “Assuring unity of the nation and the dignity of the individual”. This Motion, the Drafting Committee firmly rejected. As B N Rau explained to the Assembly: “The reason for putting the dignity of the individual first was that unless the dignity of the individual is assured, the nation cannot be united.”

In short, dignity first, always first. The nation depends upon it.

Gil Scott-Heron observed in his song Comment #1 that America’s revolutionary promise was made only to the dominant majority, at the expense of the black population and the marginalised. Forsaking individual dignity, America as a ‘nation’ opted for empire instead:

And America is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey.

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