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11:59, 19 June 2018 Tuesday
Update: 15:15, 27 December 2013 Friday

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Between/Beyond Derrida and Mandela: Reading our fractured societies
Between/Beyond Derrida and Mandela: Reading our fractured societies

The ‘meeting’ of Derrida and Mandela is intersection of two events, two sides of our political reflection; this ‘meeting’ is a meeting of experience and reflection in all possible sense....

Musab Iqbal 

In just less then ten year’s time Nelson Mandela left this world, after Jacques Derrida. Derrida met Mandela in 1998, eight years after his release from the prison but Derrida’s interest in him was from his prison days. Derrida edited a volume with Mustapha Tlili entitled ‘For Nelson Mandela’, and he pays tribute in the chapter “The laws of reflection: Nelson Mandela, in admiration” raising some important question and reflecting on the nature of Mandela’s politics and it’s importance in our time, in 1986.

In this very moment when we see the world with grief paying homage to great leader of liberation; from America to Syria, from Ukraine to Bangladesh we see societies struggling within for their liberation and freedom. In times of extreme crisis we see our societies divided like never before, violent towards their other, lacking sheer sense of hospitality, devoid of forgiveness. This is in this very time Mandela’s death remind us of our lost cause, his ‘meeting’ (meeting of two streams) with Derrida forces us to think on some fundamental question of otherness, violence, law, forgiveness, hospitality.

Derrida was impossibly obscure, complex in his arguments, a philosopher of other side of reason and a laborious thinker while Nelson Mandela was a lawyer, political activist, man of action, social visionary. The ‘meeting’ of Derrida and Mandela is intersection of two events, two sides of our political reflection; this ‘meeting’ is a meeting of experience and reflection in all possible sense.

When I read somewhere that Mandela was not a revolutionary but a radical, I found explanation in Derrida’s understanding of (his) Mandela. If for a revolutionary to break and abuse law is an act of rebel and beginning point of revolution, for a radical challenging the law with another, with something not present, imagining an impossible law is the beginning.  As Derrida notes about Mandela that ‘He presents himself in his people, before the law. Before a law he rejects, beyond any doubt, but which he rejects in the name of a superior law, the very one he declares to admire and before which he agrees to appear.’ [i]

In Derrida’s reading of Mandela, the law was not broken but challenged with a superior law, a law which is not just a force of authority but in turn delivers justice, which Mandela thinks is not possible until this law is supplemented. As for Derrida law is illegal in its origin it self, its not forged to deliver justice. He observes that ‘ the justice of law, justice as law is not justice. Laws are not just as laws. One obeys them not because they are just but because they have authority.’[ii]

The question of law and its relation with justice is intricate one, and it cannot be imagined without understanding of force. As for Derrida ‘ The very emergence of justice and law, the founding and justifying moment that institutes law implies a performative force, which is always an interpretative law implies a performative force, which is always an interpretative force: this time not in the sense of law in the service of force, its docile instrument, servile and thus exterior to the dominant power but rather in the sense of law that would maintain a more internal, more complex relation with what one calls force, power or violence.’[iii]

This is in this reading we see the nature of force acting against the other, the other which is threat to any law, to that other is this force is dedicated at first instance. The Apartheid laws were designed by few to keep the other out through force, it was in South Africa that a western discourse of law takes a racist form and defines itself in a way, which turns to be tyrannical for the majority. Although this is not just the case with South Africa but in country like Pakistan where by law citizens are discriminated, there is a force of law acting against the minority. In very eyes of law then everybody is not equal. If we consider this as originating point, then we see the radical self of Mandela in more clear sense. What perhaps Derrida reflect on later, Mandela tried to make it a living experience.

The post Apartheid South Africa envisions to have a rainbow nation, which accepts difference with hospitality and address past through reconciliation and forgiveness. Derrida later on takes it as his political muse and reflect on forgiveness as what can be forgiven.

The question of forgiveness and justice is also intertwined not just in Derrida’s thought and Mandela’s politics but also in any situation of conflict and difference, at the same time this relationship is not settled and remains an impossible one.

In time of violence and revenge can we imagine a pure forgiveness, an unconditional reconciliation, and a hospitable reception of heterogeneity as a true tribute to our ideals of difference and acceptance?

‘Forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable. One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible in doing the impossible’ [iv]claims Derrida. This impossibility of forgiveness makes forgiveness even hard to imagine not just in terms of justice but also in terms of communicative idea. How the black majority is going to forgive the white minority for its excesses, when the excess itself is impossibility? Killing of less than a million Tutsis by Hutu in Rwanda, in just less than 100 days will be forgiven by whom? And what this forgiveness will bear? How it will manifest on our differences?                                                                                       

When a large chunk of educated and liberal people ask for abolishment of death penalty, we see a movement erupting in capital city, Dhaka asking for changing the life imprisonment into a death penalty for the war criminals of 1971. Some of the participants and propellant of the movement at Shahbagh believe that this is to fight or uproot religious radicalism from the society, but can it be uprooted by asking for more violence - a legitimate one?

Post war Bangladesh failed miserably to act on reconciliation; we see little or no attempt towards this direction. Even when Jamat e Islami(the Islamist Party whose leaders are now facing the war crime charges) came in power with Bangladesh Nationalist Party it pay no attention of imagining something which Mandela imagined.

Perhaps it was not easy but was it in South Africa?

Abdul QuaderMollah, the leader of Jamat e Islami was hanged to death on 12th of December, he is the first to be executed and there are more in row. Earlier he was sentenced to life imprisonment and the protest erupted in February, which lead to series of violence demanded death sentence for him and for other accused leaders.

This very tribunal is seen with cynicism among many; many analystssee it as a way of finishing the opposition. The recent development indicates A total of 154 candidates are set to be elected unopposed in the 10th parliamentary election slated for January 5, 2014[v] and a petition is filed in court challenging this as well.But beyond politics and legality lies some disturbing reality and urgent questions.

Bangladesh was part of Pakistan until 1971; the war of liberation freed it from the clutch of Pakistan with the help of Indian army, obviously. Those who were against it fought along side with army or on their own, Jamat e Islami is one of the most prominent whose military wing Al Badar and Ash Shams took part actively and there were Bangladeshi nationalist militias as well reciprocating the violence. While we see justice from a privileged and vantage point of nation state, we don’t see it in terms of suffering and loss. MuktiBahini fought for the liberation and is accused of excesses as well but it can’t be seen in opposition to Bangladeshi nationalistic imagination, as they are foundational element of this very nation state.

Lot of Bihari (People from North Indian state of Bihar who migrated in a large number in 1947 to east Pakistan, now Bangladesh) were killed, raped, displaced from Bangladesh, the justice is a lost cause for them, perhaps. The persecution of Bihari is a well-known fact and thousands were killed during this war of liberation. Some were blamed to be siding with Pakistani Army but most of them were killed for their ethnicity. The number of citizens killed also remains controversial as Sarmila Bose in her book ‘Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War’ challenges the figure of 3 million and sort of concludes that it’s not more than one lakh or so. Although figures can be contested but the complexity and division cannot be.

The violence is a memory; it’s a cycle and moves on endlessly until we interrupt it with forgiveness and reconciliation. This interruption is costly not because it may ask for blood but it may ask for a large heart, a giant step towards future, a more disturbing way of looking at past, remembering memory in a forgetful way.

If the Shahbagh movement, which started with people gathering in Shahbagh in February this year in Dhaka protesting against the leaders of Islamist party and asking for death sentences, is for eradicating radicalism then it cannot end up creating a radicalism which will then be encountered by another radicalism opening up a cycle of violence and hatred, a series of unending confrontation. The secular versus Islamic polarization will never resolve the crisis of four-decade-old nation.

While many leaders of Islamist party are locked up in holes and might be waiting for their turn and the streets are witnessing bloody clashes, we may wonder how hard it is to accept the difference not of language and culture, of race and color but of ideology and memory.

The case of Bangladesh stands out as a unique case of humanity’s failure to translate its ideal of tolerance into politics of daily life.

To return back to idea of forgiveness as political, Derrida insists that it should be ‘Unconditional but without sovereignty’[vi]He on the one hand praises Mandela for standing against the law and acting upon the reconciliation while on the other he criticizes the Truth and Reconciliation commission and his head Desmund Tutu for the very reason of forming such an institution, he cant imagine a pure forgiveness in presence of third. For Derrida ‘The representative of the state can judge, but forgiveness has precisely nothing to do with judgment’ [vii]

This is indeed a problematic area; if forgiveness is free of sense of judgment, to judge the crime and the criminal before the justicehas nothing to do with forgiveness then shall one conclude that forgiveness in its very essencemetaphysical?

I leave this question here for now but question of justice remain central in any post conflict society. While in South Africa after the Post Apartheid period an idea of restorative justice, which maintains victims are central to the process of resolving a crime[viii]. This model is focused on solving the problem, bringing two parties closer and creating a better future. In case of South Africa it was critical to mend the wall and deliver justice in a Post Apartheid Nation – state to make the idea of Rainbow nation a reality. But decades later one may critically see some fundamental problem and justice not getting delivered and apparatuses of Apartheid age repeating itself violently.

On 16th August 2012, South African state police massacred 34 workers, this massacre by state is important to understand the problem, which is hiding itself under the colorful carpet of rainbow. Without going into much detail of union politics, routine strikes and exploitation of the black workers, I must say that justice is still half way and those who were exploited by the system of discrimination are still in misery, the justice is not delivered not in terms of past but in terms of future. To conclude in words of CrispenChinguno ‘Mining in South Africa has been characterized by coercion and super exploitation of black workers from its onset in the late 1800s. The basic structure of this regime remains intact to date’[ix]

This is not restricted to the question of mine workers but its spread over the vision of non-violence, reconciliation and justice. This very tension is very clearly captured by Verne Harris of Nelson Mandela Foundation as he states ‘ Many of us have lost our hunger for justice; our commitment to importuning justice to come. And those of us who still hunger, I would argue, have become entrapped in an era forever gone.’ [x] He is tempted to conclude about the Rainbow nation ‘ the dream is shattered’ [xi]

Reconciliation may be the beginning of justice in a society mired by conflict, an inaugural event, but reconciliation is not just between victim and perpetrator but also with the idea of justice without which difference is a tension not a virtue.

Society like Rwanda which acted in terms of retributive justice after the massacre after the massacres by ethnic Hutu militia and soldiers of some 800,000 minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus in 100 days between April and June 1994.[xii]

The legal system was ruined and for reconciliation and justice, more than 160,000 judges were elected from among communities for this Gacaca court – the community based system [xiii] In 2012 the court completed its course but has justice been done? People fear for their lives again after giving witnesses.

In some way truth and reconciliation is not enough as it completes one cycle of justice but not all, the question of memory in such an act also remain very open.

To conclude I must keep it open. In case of Bangladesh where we see no reconciliation, in countries like South Africa and Rwanda where we see acts of reconciliation and in countries like Iraq and Syria which are deeply in conflict, we may wonder how an idea of forgiveness as a political force can work, how a space of deliberation and communication can take form?

If there is no third to make forgiveness happen then how the two ends will talk, how the sense of suffering be realized from the distance divided by memory of blood? The third may exist as part of both without making itself third to constitute a shared sense of loss and extending forgiveness without undermining the other.

The future of conflict rests upon how one imagine its own self in terms of future and how can memory be revisited without invoking sense of revenge but in sense of loss which may trigger sense of acknowledging the difference in order to build a future – a future which is always in making.

[i]  Cited in Foucault and Derrida – The other side of reason by Roy Boyne, Union Hyman, London, 1990

[ii] Force of Law, Jacques Derrida, 1990

[iii] Force of Law, Jacques Derrida, 1990

[iv] On cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Jacques Derrida, 2004, Routledge


[vi] On cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Jacques Derrida, 2004, Routledge

[vii] On cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Jacques Derrida, 2004, Routledge


[ix]Marikana Massacre and Strike Violence Post- Apartheid, CrispenChinguno

[x] Jacques Derrida meets Nelson Mandela: archival ethics at the endgame, Verne Harris, February 2010, Springer

[xi] Jacques Derrida meets Nelson Mandela: archival ethics at the endgame, Verne Harris, February 2010, Springer



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