“Mourning,” Freud observed in his 1917 essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia,’ “is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as fatherland, liberty, an ideal, and so on.” As this is true for individuals, so it is for countries.
It doesn’t matter how a defeat, a reverse or a humiliation comes about, a country and its people will always anguish over it. A lingering sense of hurt and dejection outliving the leaders who caused them. Always remembered — and recalled too — are those who stood by them in their worst moments as the Japanese to this day believe the late Justice Radhabinod Pal did.
He was one of 11 justices trying Japanese leaders for war crimes, and stridently called for their acquittal. A memorial was erected in his honour by the Japanese in the Yasukuni Shrine for their war dead in 2005. When the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited India in 2007, he had high praise for Justice Radhabinod Pal in a speech he made to the Indian Parliament and went to Kolkata to meet his son.
The 1919 British massacre of innocents at Jallianwala Bagh is etched in the collective memory of all Indians as also are recollections of India’s rout in the 1962 border war with China. For Pakistan, even more than Kashmir, the surrender of over 90,000 of its soldiers in 1971 to the Indian Army rankles, no matter that India made a victor’s concessions at Shimla more generous than anything Pakistan expected.
The South Koreans found it unbearable to live with the huge General Government Building complex in Seoul, a symbol of Japanese imperialism and oppression. By 1996 they had razed it to the ground. The decision to install a statue of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose off India gate is driven by similar nationalist and anti-imperial considerations. To this day Hungarians mourn the Treaty of Trianon (1920) by which their country lost two thirds of its territory.
For China, the ‘Century of Humiliation’ is as much fact as it is fodder for propaganda. The shame of defeat and national disgrace in the successive wars with Western powers and also at the hands of the Japanese — the burning of the Summer Palace in 1860 by French and British forces, and the Rape of Nanjing being the most egregious examples — continue to smoulder in Chinese minds.
To call this victimhood is trivialising a series of humongous atrocities imperial powers inflicted on a hapless country through the 19th and 20th centuries. Going by what successive Chinese leaders — from Mao to Xi Jinping — have said, the message to the world is “Never Again!”
The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and the emergence of its successor state, Russia is a matter of deep sadness and hurt for all Russians just as partition has been for most Indians. So much of what all in the Soviet Union and striven to achieve and paid for with the blood and money of its people — predominantly Russian — is now are spread across Asia and Europe and disproportionately so in Ukraine.
Putin was not wrong in classifying the dissolution of the Soviet Union one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. Only we Indians living in a country so diverse and complex and economically integrated as ours has become can understand and visualize the devastating consequences of a breakup. The USSR was a very Russian idea, one that propelled a vast backward transcontinental empire into the modern age competing and frequently besting the United States in technological and scientific achievements.
That the West followed the tragedy of the USSR’s breakup by an insensitive expansion of NATO to its successor state, Russia’s doorstep, was something one of America’s most distinguished diplomats, George Kenan was deeply critical of. As he presciently observed in a 1998 interview in the New York Times with Thomas Friedman ''It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are -- but this is just wrong.'' India then is on the right side of history in not upbraiding Russia outright for its invasion of Ukraine
Many in the West, and quite a few Indians, attribute India’s tacit pro-Russian stand in the ongoing war in Ukraine solely to India’s dependence on Russian military equipment. What is forgotten is the fact that Russia and India have strong ties going back in time. Without Soviet backing India could not have so successfully prosecuted its war with Pakistan in 1971, especially in the face of a formidable American challenge.
Also unforgettable is the immense value of economic and military assistance India received from the Soviet Union — the largest it gave to any one country — through the 1950s and 1960s leading to the setting up of, among so many others, the Bhilai Steel plant and IIT-Bombay.
Even Chester Bowles, a former US ambassador to India, acknowledged this in a 1971 article in Foreign Affairs: “The U.S.S.R. has helped expand the production of steel and heavy electrical equipment and has provided close to one billion dollars to modernise India’s army, navy and air force.”
As Russia gets deeper into the Ukrainian quagmire India has enough reasons to stand by Russia and help it save face rather than outright condemn its actions at the ceaseless goading of the West.
Such support will be recalled with gratitude by a Russia we will still need after the war is over and Vladimir Putin’s time is well past. Not to do so will not only be unfair but unethical as well and contrary to all the lessons history holds. The western media is not one to go by on an unfolding tragedy steeped in a complex past.
The writer teaches at IISc. Views are personal