Finding ‘fraternity’

Omair Ahmad | Updated on February 05, 2021

Front-line spirit: Through Chhotenanajaan’s experiences in the army, I saw something of how fraternity is both created and destroyed   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

How do we create a State where the rights of one citizen are defended by another — simply because both are citizens of the same State?

In 1949, in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly, BR Ambedkar said, “Without fraternity, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them.”

It seems a simple enough statement, but it begs the question of how we create that sense of fraternity. For Ambedkar, at least in the speech mentioned above, some of the challenges that stood in the way of creating fraternity was the lack of equality in society due to casteism, and also sharp economic differences. While some had great wealth, most others lived in poverty.

More than seven decades later, we are still puzzling over this. How do we create a State in which people feel a sense of belonging to each other, where the rights of one citizen are defended by another simply because both are citizens of the same State?

Some part of it became clear to me in 2019 over a conversation with my mother’s uncle, Afsir Karim. Both he and his elder brother, Anwar Karim, had been my heroes since my childhood. Anwar Karim had served in North Africa and Italy during World War II, and then in the post-Independence army. He opted for a somewhat early retirement as a Lieutenant Colonel after he had made sure that his siblings were taken care of. They’d lost their parents at an early age, and the two eldest siblings — Anwar Karim and my grandmother — had to look after the younger ones. Afsir Karim, too, joined the army; he was among the first few batches that trained at the then new National Defence Academy at Khadakwasla.

It was a complicated time for Afsir Karim.

The army was like home to him, through the association with his elder brother and other relatives. But those were the days just after Partition, and a number of refugees from what had become Pakistan had also joined the forces. Chhotenanajaan, as I called him, told me that some of them still carried the marks of the Partition violence on their bodies. And the memories, of course, left scars that were invisible. These recruits asked Chhotenanajaan if he were a “Mian sahib” — a term often used to refer to Muslims.

“I was from Lucknow. We never used such a term, I did not know how to respond,” he told me. The military, though, had a fiercely utilitarian ethos. While issues cropped up, now and then, they were buried under the work and discipline of creating a united force.

These very cadets, who were initially suspicious and even hostile towards him, later stood by Chhotenanajaan — as he rose to the rank of a Major General, serving in the 1965 war, the 1971 war, in Sri Lanka, and along the Line of Control.

The experience of the 1971 war, where my grand-uncle commanded a paratroop battalion in what is now Bangladesh, stayed with him. “The Pakistani army was well supplied, they were capable and competent men, but they collapsed. They had been tasked to suppress civilians... Morale is necessary for an army to be an army, otherwise it is just men with weapons.” He always insisted that the military should not be used against civilians and berated junior colleagues who did so.

Through Chhotenanajaan’s experiences in the army, I saw something of how fraternity is both created and destroyed. But the military is a small part of the larger country, and the lessons of the military are for it alone; they do not translate well for the larger civilian sphere, and should not. Nevertheless, in my own way I was intensely jealous of the experiences Afsir Karim had had — being among people from disparate backgrounds, some of whom with experiences that should have made them “natural enemies” became close comrades, people who built something together.

When we laid Chhotenanajaan to rest, with the battalions presenting arms, I tried to count those bits of my life that he took with him. But I do know what I kept — the aspiration to honour, and a sense of fraternity towards fellow citizens. It is something that he was proud of.


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas;

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

Published on February 05, 2021

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