The relative lack of interest, outside South Africa, in the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela is perhaps a sign of the times, a reflection of the fact that the politics he represented seems so out of time. One is reminded of an obscure episode in 2016 when a panel on textbooks in Rajasthan had sought to excise both Jawaharlal Nehru and Mandela from Class 8 textbooks. At one level, this was a piece of the parochial farce that often goes by the name of historical education. But there was perhaps more unwitting prescience in wanting to excise both Nehru and Mandela and declaring them irrelevant. After all, in this age of resentment, to use Pankaj Mishra’s phrase, their politics seems not just to be out of place, but almost unintelligible.
Nehru and Mandela were historically linked. Mandela read Nehru deeply in prison. There is a rather curious blending of the two figures. One of the most iconic quotations attributed to Mandela from his 1953 speech as head of the Transvaal ANC was a line from Nehru’s article “From Lucknow to Tripoli.” It goes “you can see there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again before we reach the mountain top of our desires.” The phrase “walk to freedom” also became the inspiration for the title of Mandela’s autobiography.
Nehru, more than Gandhi, was a philosophic kin to Mandela for a variety of reasons. Nehru was not a committed pacifist but a tactical believer in non-violence. After all, how could any state builder be a committed pacifist? Nehru was broadly a moderniser, loved the fullness of life and was sympathetic to socialism. Mandela’s iconic virtue, those deep reservoirs of personal and political forgiveness, was thoroughly original. That forgiveness is often read in a Gandhian vein. But it is worth remembering that Nehru, as much as Gandhi, wanted above all to avoid being consumed by a politics of resentment. Mandela often quoted another line from Nehru, one that needs to be put on every office wall in India, “Nationalism is good in its place. But it is an unreliable friend and an unsafe historian. It blinds us to many happenings and sometimes distorts the truth, especially when it concerns us and our country.”
For Nehru, the necessity of avoiding a politics of resentment came largely from one imperative: The will to avoid self-deception. In India the surest recompense for all our weaknesses, especially the sense of victimhood the powerful feign, was to move to a politics of blame. If anyone other than ourselves could be held responsible for our condition, life would be so easy. He dreaded, most of all, an India where Indians felt empowered only through their resentments, of each other or of even the British.
Mandela’s overcoming of resentment operated on a much tougher political and personal terrain. It had to deal with the enormity of personal torture in which so many comrades had perished. It had to deal with the vileness of a racial system that systematically dehumanised. So, Mandela’s forgiveness had so many layers to it. At one level, it was the deep realisation that bitterness and hatred imprisoned more than it liberated. As one of his iconic quotes goes, “As I walked out toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I did not leave my hatred and bitterness behind, I’d still be in prison.”
It was a great act of political statesmanship: Forgiveness was an imaginative gesture to avoid violence. It was born of a deep sense of practical necessity: The imperative of keeping a united nation. Forgiveness was a way of reclaiming agency in the face of an irreversible past. One could not change the past, but one could hope to change its tyranny over the present. Forgiveness is also a profound act of power: More calmly telling the oppressors that no matter what they intended, the oppressed did not let others define them. And finally it was a utopian gesture: That the injustices of the world should not take away the possibility of being able to create another and better world together.
We live in a world where these political sentiments are now deeply alien. Resentment is not seen as imprisoning, it has become almost synonymous with our idea of freedom; freedom is the freedom to hate. Political statesmanship is no longer considered necessary since there is no diversity to be acknowledged and brute assertions of power will suffice. The past is not something we want to overcome because we need it to construct narratives of blame, an excuse to target others. And finally, we have given up even the possibility of imagining a world together, where, as Mandela reminded us, the freedom of each depends upon the freedom of all.
Forgiveness is often invoked as Mandela’s great virtue. But what is our stake in celebrating Mandela’s forgiveness? Is it because we think that celebrating it is a pathway to genuine justice and fraternity? Or is it because, in retrospect, it made the lives of the privileged easier? Forgiveness is a difficult virtue to pull off since it requires a balance between two opposing elements. On the one hand, it requires full moral clarity and consciousness about the enormity of the crimes and oppression. On the other hand, it requires overcoming resentment about that keenly felt injustice.
Mandela wanted a discourse where the memory and its overcoming, the acknowledgment of the crime and the abjuring of punishment, could both be front and centre. But often forgiving is used to erase the memory of the crime, and the abjuring of punishment taken as a sign of relief. And what do we do in a society like India where we want to find a daily strategy to avoid questions of justice and responsibility all together. Turns out nationalist resentment is, contrary to what Nehru thought, a reliable friend: It can always be relied upon to produce a politics where all questions of ethics can be immobilised.
Both Nehru and Mandela had their deep political flaws, as all statesman do. In hindsight, their failures cast a long shadow in politics in India and South Africa. But as Bill Clinton said of Mandela, “every time Nelson Mandela walks into a room we all feel a little bigger.” Not a sentiment we can even begin to understand in an age where when most of our leaders walk into a room we all feel smaller.