Just a matter of apology

For India’s future,it is imperative that all political leaders be judged by the same yardstick.

Written by Surjit S Bhalla | Published: September 21, 2013 1:58 am

For India’s future,it is imperative that all political leaders be judged by the same yardstick.

With the nomination of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate,the election season has officially started. One issue has dominated the airspace in terms of Modi’s candidacy — the so-called non-secular nature of Modi. The media,print and TV,Congress and its allies,Nitish Kumar and his band of secularists,civil society,assistant professors at the University of Pennsylvania — the list is long. Their contention — that Modi is communal,as proved by the fact that the bloody Hindu-Muslim Godhra,Gujarat riots of 2002 took place under his stewardship and that he has not apologised for the same. These are incontrovertible facts — the riots occurred six months after he became chief minister,and despite pressures,he hasn’t apologised in the manner that civil society and the liberal intelligentsia want him to apologise.

This lack of a communicable apology was noticed by everyone at the time of Modi’s ill-fated remark that he feels sorry for any death,even the death of a puppy,run over by a car in which he is sitting in the back. At best,a clumsy apology. It may be the case that Modi,given his vernacular Gujarati background,is somewhat uncomfortable in the English-speaking world. It may be the case that Modi does not fully appreciate the concept games that the smaller but far more powerful Westernised intellectuals play in India. It may be the case that Modi thinks he has already apologised for 2002,and did so as far back as 2004.

In his Walk the Talk interview with Shekhar Gupta,just before the May 2004 general elections,Modi stated the following: “That’s why I said in the [Gujarat assembly that if anybody has to be punished for what happened in Gujarat,it should be me… I am also a human deep down,but just because one incident happened during my governance,I know that I will have to carry the burden for ever… it [the riots took place when I was in power so I can’t detach myself from it” (IE,republished September 17,2013,emphasis added).

There are many shades of Modi admitting responsibility and guilt (burden),and even asking for punishment in the above quotes. This was in 2004. The puppy remark came now,nine years later. But led by the Congress party,the civil media society (CCMS) is not satisfied. What they want is a Manmohan Singh-style apology for the 1984 Sikh pogrom. On August 12,2005,as PM,he stated: “I have no hesitation in apologising to the Sikh community. I apologise not only to the Sikh community,but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution.”

It is correctly recognised by all that an apology does not make a difference to the horrors of a riot,but it does indicate remorse and responsibility — and thereby communicates a belief that such tragedies will not be repeated. Hence,I feel that the demand of the CCMS for a no-lumps-in-the-throat apology is correct. But such demands,to have any merit and efficacy,should apply to all riots — for example,the Sikh pogrom of 1984,the Mumbai riots of 1993,the Godhra-Gujarat riots of 2002,and now the Muzaffarnagar 2013 riots. Note that,except 2002,all the riots were under the so-called secularists.

The Sikh 1984 pogrom,under the noses of the Central government led by Sonia Gandhi’s late husband Rajiv Gandhi,was possibly larger in scope,magnitude and despicability than any previous riot,or since,in India. So what is most intriguing is the fact that none of the card-carrying members of CCMS has bothered to ask the Congress party,and its leader Sonia Gandhi,to apologise for the organisation and execution of the Sikh pogrom of 1984.

The first explanation for Sonia Gandhi not apologising is the following — she was a mere bystander housewife,albeit the first housewife,at the time of the 1984 pogrom. Further,at that time,Sonia Gandhi was very insistent about not being involved in politics. So why should she apologise? If she has little political reason to apologise for the 1984 riots,she had even less reason to apologise for Operation Blue Star — the army attack on the Golden Temple in 1984. Yet,Sonia Gandhi felt she needed to apologise for Blue Star when she said this in January 1998: “Jo kuchh June 6 ko hua,uska mujhe dukh hua (I am anguished by the events of June 6)”.On the 1984 Sikh pogrom,Sonia Gandhi then said that she could “understand” the pain of the Sikhs as she herself had experienced it,losing her husband Rajiv and mother-in-law Indira Gandhi that way. “There is no use recalling what we have collectively lost. No words can balm that pain. Consolation from others always somehow sound hollow… Three generations of my family have contributed in the fight for the country’s independence. I ask you on their behalf to ensure victory to their dreams.” (http://goo.gl/kZwKdR)

Not coincidentally,this was the time of the 1998 elections and,just like today,there was pressure on leaders to apologise for riots under their domain,reign or influence. And note that,somewhat shamelessly in retrospect,Sonia Gandhi’s “apology” ends with a plea to vote for the Congress.

Almost two years later,in a Tribune News Service story of December 1999 headlined “Sonia Gandhi regrets 1984 events”,one is hard-pressed to find any statement of regret. What one does find is an assertion by Sonia Gandhi that she had already expressed deep anguish and regret over the 1984 happenings. After a visit to the Golden Temple,she is quoted as saying,“I have prayed at the shrine that such events must never happen again”.

I am grateful for the help provided by Karan Thapar,but neither he nor I have been able to find the source of Sonia Gandhi’s “deep anguish and regret over the 1984 happenings”. She obviously did say that she had expressed regret,but where is that statement of regret? Perhaps such a statement exists and we have not been able to find it,in which case my apologies — alternatively,perhaps such a statement does not exist. In case of the former,if found,it could mean that the CCMS is right,that Sonia Gandhi has genuinely apologised. If not,then the CCMS,in all fairness and objectivity,needs to start demanding an apology from Sonia Gandhi,just as they are demanding an apology from Narendra Modi. Isn’t it incumbent on all of us not to treat one with knives and the other with kid gloves? And wouldn’t the nation be manifestly better off if political leaders,of all stripes,followed the leadership of Manmohan Singh?

The writer is chairman of Oxus Investments,an emerging market advisory firm,and a senior advisor to Zyfin,a leading financial information company.

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