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Report on Lincoln Conference

Abraham Lincoln without Borders

19-20 December 2009


Syam Sudhakar

Project Associate

Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras


Every mention of the term democracy and its role in the building of the modern nation-states invokes the archetypal image of Abraham Lincoln. The monumental speech he rendered in Gettysburg is unforgettable, not merely because of its popular definition of democracy as something “for the people, of the people and by the people”, but also because of its implications relating to equality, rights and justice. However, relevance goes beyond the above mentioned speech and pervades every democratic space in modern times. It is with this intention of unraveling his enduring legacy that an international conference was held at IIT Madras from 19-20 December 2009. The two day conference, aptly titled Abraham Lincoln without Borders, was jointly organized by the Forum on Contemporary Theory, Baroda; the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras; and International Lincoln Centre, Louisiana State University, Shreveport, USA. It was an attempt to evaluate Lincoln’s contribution to political concepts like liberty, democracy and rights while reevaluating them in the present time. It is to be noted that this conference was the only one held in Asia during the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. Some forty participants from India and abroad participated in this two-day conference thus making it very exhaustive and engaging.

The serene campus of IIT Madras - popularly called the lungs of Chennai - provided the perfect setting for the conference. Some of the delegates were astounded that such a vast haven of flora and fauna could exist in the middle of a busy metropolitan city. The one day trip that was organized on 18th December to Dakshina Chitra (a cross cultural museum of art and architecture) and Mahabalipuram (a historical place on the Coromandel Coast facing the Bay of Bengal) provided the opportunity for informal discussion and interpersonal communication.

The conference began with a welcome note by Prof. V.R. Muraleedharan, Head, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras and the inaugural address by Prof. Shantakumar, Dean, Academic Courses, IIT Madras. In recognition of the contribution of IIT Madras, the International Lincoln Centre of Louisiana State University presented plaques to the Director of IIT Madras, Prof. M.S. Ananth (which was received by Prof. Shantakumar), Prof. Muraleedharan and Dr. Jyotirmaya Tripathy. Prof. William Pederson, Director, International Lincoln Center, Louisiana State University delivered the keynote address while giving a brief introduction to Abraham Lincoln’s multi-faceted profile, and identified him as an accomplished and groundbreaking statesmen. This was followed by an address by Dr. Prafulla Kar, Director, Centre for Contemporary Theory who saw Lincoln as “God’s gift to America”. He also pointed out that Lincoln, through his logical skill and precision, successfully brought in a new way of looking at conflict and peace. He also observed how Lincoln, at the time of crisis, used the American notion of tradition to reinvent the state so that America could go forward by looking to the past. Both the addresses were highly informative as they were analytical, and it was also interesting to note that one address was from an American perspective and the other Indian. Prof. Sura P. Rath, the convener of the conference, reiterated the impact of Lincoln on the democratic imaginary of the present time.

The conference revolved around six sessions. The first session entitled “Two Visionary Leaders: Lincoln and Gandhi” was chaired by Dr. William Pederson.  It was a kind of comparative study of these two revolutionary leaders, though it went beyond these individuals in addressing issues of sovereignty, consensus building and conflict resolution. Prof. Himanshu Bourai explored the concept of popular sovereignty as the basis of democracy by drawing parallels between the ideas of Gandhi and Lincoln. Nishikant Kolge, in his presentation, methodologically analyzed Gandhian and Lincolnian perspectives of the ‘Right of Revolution’ with an overview of their struggles against untouchability and slavery. Dr. Ratikanta Panda illustrated the relevance of the two great leaders - Gandhi and Lincoln - in the present context by focusing on their value system. Dr. S. Sridevi analyzed the ideas of rationalism and individualism of the eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophical thought of Kant, Rousseau, Emerson and Nietzsche, and how Lincoln and Gandhi borrowed their thoughts to address the social situations of their times.

The second session had “Lincoln and/in the Indian Constitution” as its theme and was chaired by Dr. Christine Henderson. Dr. Ruma Guha contextualized a constructive study of Lincoln’s legacy on India’s constitutional fabric and examined its evidence in the political development of contemporary India. Dr. Sudarshan Padmanabhan in his paper studied Lincoln’s emphasis on justice as supported by the constitution of the United States of America and the similar Gandhian emphasis on political freedom. His study also explored the major limitations of both the Lincolnian and the Gandhian ideas of justice which resulted in the return of social and political turbulence. Prof. James H. Read talked about Francis Lieber, Abraham Lincoln and the American contribution to International Law. He focused on the Lieber Code as an important precedent to the Geneva conventions and the major contribution of the United States to International Law. It was emphasized how the Bush Administration, after September 11, treated the Geneva Conventions as an “un-American” standard. The paper recommended rediscovering the moral roots planted by Lincoln and Lieber. The last session of the first day had “Lincoln’s Rhetoric of Humanism” as its theme and was chaired by Prof. James Read. Recognizing Lincoln as the only President who produced a significant amount of important writing, the presenters in this session explored his influence on humanism and his rhetorical style.

The second day of the conference had three main sessions and an open forum. The first session of the day was chaired by Prof. Digambar Mishra and had “Lincoln’s Legacy in Asia” as the topic of discussion. Matthew L. Perdoni’s paper examined the influence of Lincoln and Hamilton on Sun Yat-sen, and his promotion of the messages of human dignity and freedom inherent in every aspect of Lincoln’s philosophy. Prof. William Pederson and Prof. Sura P. Rath explored Lincoln’s legacy in Asia, pointing out how Lincoln represented the Western non-ideological alternative to Marx. The paper highlighted the way China’s nationalist leaders initially offered lip-service to Lincoln’s ideas, and how the embers of democracy sparked after Mao’s death, and later fanned to flame by Chinese students waving banners honoring Lincoln in Tiananmen Square. Piyush Raval presented a report of the empirical research done by him in studying the legacy of Abraham Lincoln in different parts of India and how it continues to inspire people.

The following session was chaired by Prof. Sudhir Chella Rajan and had “Uses and Abuses of Lincoln’s Legacy” as its subject.  Mandakini Jha attempted a study of three cases in South Asia (from Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) where Lincoln’s legacy has been used and misused. Ms. M. Kala explored the representations of slaves and the untouchables in the context of America and India and made an attempt to examine the role of representatives in parliamentary democracy. The paper presented by Prof. J. N. Baliya led to an analysis of the constructivist approach adopted in Indian class rooms which have reflections of Abraham Lincoln’s principles of abolishing slavery in every walk of human life including school life of a learner.

The next session was chaired by Prof. Shreesh Chaudhary. The paper presented by Balaji Ranganathan undertook an analysis of how the media covered Lincoln’s assassination. His study included different newspapers and their coverage of the event according to their ideologies. Ms. Betsy Paul discussed the relevance of Lincoln’s democratic values in the contemporary scenario. The paper pointed out the various democratic spaces provided by different mediums like newspapers, television, internet, mobile phones etc. and explored the evolution of the concept of the democratic state in twenty first century India in the light of Lincoln’s Gettysburg definition of democracy.

The concluding session which was an open forum and it focused on the future of Lincoln Studies, particularly in India. Almost all the participants showed their interest and commitment towards the subject and came forward with some dynamic suggestions. One of the main proposals developed in the discussion was that Lincoln Studies need not be necessarily a biographical survey or the ideas propagated by Abraham Lincoln, but the larger issues connected to his thought like multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, rights, liberty etc. This would help to expand the horizon of such studies and would provide a critical space to explore several new areas.

In the end, the vote of thanks was delivered by the coordinator of the conference Dr. Jyotirmaya Tripathy. The conference was a memorable event not only for the brilliant papers and academic discussions, but also for providing space for personal chats, harmless jokes, and some casual twitting among the delegates.

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