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Politics of forgetting and forgiving

Wednesday 9 August 2006, by KHARE*Harish

A society ought to move beyond the politics of memory. Justice Nanavati has given enough ammunition to those who want to keep the pot boiling.

TILL THE Gujarat Riots of 2002 the anti-Sikh Riots of 1984 were the most horrible moment in the life of the Indian republic and constituted the total collapse of the state order. Till the Gujarat riots, they had also remained the cause celebre that defined and divided the political parties, forces, and actors. For two decades, political correctness insisted on pronouncing the Congress party and its leadership as being actively and collectively involved in fanning the violence against the Sikhs.

The anti-Congress forces, especially the BJP and the Akali Dal, have used the memory of the 1984 violence for sustaining the emotional support of their coalition in and outside Punjab. The Congress, on the other hand, had been keen to suggest that it could not be held responsible for the criminal acts of its errant members. The Congress would not permit any dilution of the emotional and political symbolism of Indira Gandhi’s martyrdom, just because a few Congress leaders’ behaviour was suspect.

More than pressing the demand that "justice" be meted out, it became a battle over the memory of the 1984 riots that dictated the political parties’ stance and various governments’ response. Therefore it was only natural that when the Vajpayee Government came to power it should have appointed a commission of inquiry, both as a sop to its ally, the Akali Dal, and as a stratagem that "its" very own Commission would finally provide the "smoking gun" to shoot the Congress down.

After 20 years a polity should be able to decide on the culpability of this or that individual or organisation. The Nanavati Commission was expected to pronounce definitely the guilt or innocence of "the Congress leaders." It has come as close as it could to giving a clean chit to the "Congress" as an organisation:

"It was suggested that Shri Rajiv Gandhi had told one of his officials that Sikhs should be taught a lesson. The Commission finds no substance in that allegation. The evidence in this behalf is very vague. ... There is absolutely no evidence suggesting that Shri Rajiv Gandhi or any other high ranking Congress (I) leader had suggested or organised attacks on Sikhs. Whatever acts were done, were done by the local Congress(I) leaders and workers, and they appear to have done so for personal reasons." (page 182)

Though for a liberal polity it is comforting to know that the country’s chief executive did not act irresponsibly, it does not look like the Nanavati Commission report would end the politics of 1984. Apportioning of guilt and blame is the staple diet of the political class. It is interesting that since 1984 so many of the personalities concerned have changed their political affiliations. For instance, P.C. Alexander, who was a key functionary in the Indira Gandhi establishment and the Rajiv Gandhi regime, is now a member of the BJP. S.S. Ahluwalia, who was a Rajiv Gandhi ally in the post-Operation Bluestar "management" of the sullen Sikh clergy and was later a member of the "shouting brigade in the Rajya Sabha, is now a BJP whip. Ram Vilas Paswan, who had accused then Home Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao of indifference to the riots, is now part of the Congress coalition. I.K. Gujral, who also attested against Narasimha Rao, is closer to the Congress than to the BJP-Akali Dal combine. Yet the politics of memory would not permit them the luxury of forgetting and forgiving.

A society is entitled to put an end to the politics of memory over any organised violence. A whole generation has lived with the periodic reminders of the 1984 violence. Young reporters, for instance, who covered the violence in the city are today senior editors in their news organisations; for them, the 1984 violence seemed particularly abhorring because till then they, like all citizens, subscribed to the comforting assumption that the Indian state consisted of a well-oiled efficient police force, a competent and caring bureaucracy, and a wise and vigilant political leadership. All those assumptions came apart in those three days of anti-Sikh violence in Delhi. But, since then, the country has witnessed so many breakdowns that the 1984 violence no longer looks a simple case of black and white, guilt and innocence of one set of decision-makers.

Collectively, a society ought to learn the right lessons from a major happening like the 1984 violence, steel itself against future outbreaks in law and order, examine and reform institutional procedures that come in the way of timely and effective containment of mobs.

Above all, a society ought to move beyond the politics of memory. Justice Nanavati has failed civil society. Rather than firmly close the book, he has given enough ammunition to those who want to keep the pot boiling. For its part, the Congress has expiated its guilt by elevating a Sikh to the high office of Prime Minister of India.

See online : The Hindu

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