The fad and flavour of the week is unsolicited advice to Rahul Gandhi on how he should have handled Arnab Goswami. I can therefore be forgiven the temptation to add something of my own. Except, I will confine myself to just one issue: 1984.
This was Rahul’s, and in fact the Gandhi family and the Congress party’s, best opportunity to come clean. But it was lost with the usual defensive I-didn’t-do-it, my grandmother was assassinated, and then, an unthinking stroll back into an indefensible past by suggesting that while some Congressmen may have been involved, their government wasn’t.A better way to answer this, in my humble view, could have been something like the following: “Those killings were horrific, Arnab. And though I was only 14 then, and you 11, and therefore we were too young to know what was going on, it is a blot on our generation as well. It’s such a pity that we have collectively failed to apply closure to this, that so few of the guilty have been punished. I am sure subsequent Congress governments take some of the blame for this. But they are not the only ones to have ruled India in the past 30 years. So it is the collective, shameful failure of our system.” Then, he could have concluded with a QED: “That is why we must change the system. It sucks if in thirty years, the families of three thousand Sikhs who were slaughtered in three days, within a one-mile radius of Rashtrapati Bhavan, cannot get justice.”
He only had to learn from his mother. Until 2004, her party had hidden from questions about another indefensible crime, and one for which there were no alibis or mysteries: the Emergency. But once our Walk the Talk conversation (at Allahabad’s Anand Bhavan, May 2004) drifted back to that darkest chapter in her party’s history, she was quick to seize the chance. She regretted the Emergency, and even said that at dining table conversations, Indira Gandhi herself would admit that mistakes had been made, excesses committed. There was zero effort to defend the indefensible, deflect blame, find justification in JP’s “destabilising” agitation, foreign hand or “but I was then just an ordinary spouse in an airline pilot’s household”. Because she did not miss that moment, her party has found it less inconvenient to talk about the Emergency afterwards. Because Rahul missed the moment, he has brought a three-decade-old calamity back to the centre stage of his most important election campaign yet.
It is unfair to blame only him for this. To steal an expression much in use — and abuse — these days, it is the fault of the System. But the system we blame here is not the usual one. The system here means the manner in which our minds collectively work, not just in India, but in the entire subcontinent. We are simply incapable of looking at the darker phases of our past, even our ancestors’ crimes, saying sorry, shedding a tear and therefore searching for closure. That is why all our tragedies, individual or collective mass crimes, become everlasting blood feuds, from Partition to 1984 to Ayodhya and Gujarat 2002. Could it be rooted in the usual subcontinental (don’t blame just the Hindus please) habit of taking a circular view of life, so everything, particularly anything bad, bloody, bitter or stupid, travels from generation to generation? It is complicated further by our dynastic politics.
Here is an example. The first four decades of socialism were the darkest phase for India’s economy. And while it was a Congress government that junked the idea in 1991 and even now goes to polls on the justified claim of 7.8 per cent annual average growth over 10 years, nobody has ever been willing to admit that what was done earlier was wrong, and that it was none other than the Congress that had the intellectual and political courage to correct it. How can we be disrespectful to the founders of our own dynasty? We must, in fact, hide their blunders and misjudgements as much as we glorify their patriotic courage and statesmanship.
Let me explain how this muddles even top leaders’ minds through two instances I witnessed as a reporter. In 1988, on the eve of her swearing-in as prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto waited outside her home in Islamabad to receive US Ambassador Robert Oakley. Americans were now Benazir’s and Pakistan’s most valuable allies, they had enabled her return from exile and the return of democracy. Benazir waited with a big smile and a bouquet to welcome her favourite ambassador. The big car flying the stars-and-stripes pulled up and a familiar slogan rent the air, “Bhutto ka qatil… Amreeka”. Embarrassed and redfaced, she screamed at the crowd in admonition: “Ab woh dushman nahin, dost hain.” The fact is, her late father had built a populist platform on fake, angry socialism and wild anti-Americanism, and she had never been willing to disown that part of “Bhuttoism”.
The second example is more recent. In the last Gujarat elections, to counter Narendra Modi’s boast of having industrialised Gujarat, Sonia Gandhi asserted, with justification, that the biggest industrial investments had taken place in Gujarat under her party’s watch. But she didn’t mention the really big ones in any of her speeches: Reliance, Essar, Torrent. They are the ugly private sector. She only mentioned ONGC, IOC, IPCL. No wonder Gujaratis were not impressed. And no doubt her decidedly more linear European mind had also been clouded by the circular, subcontinental weakness. The inability to say sorry, disown the past, and move on. PSUs, therefore, had to be more virtuous, because Nehru and Indira said so.
But it isn’t only about our ancestors. It is precisely because of the same mental block that Modi has been shy of, at the very least, saying sorry for the killings that happened under his watch. He can say a million times he didn’t do it, that he tried his best to stop them, called in the army, killed hundreds in police firing. It won’t convince India’s Muslims or even our vast liberal, pacifist Hindu middle ground. He is shy of even saying something like, “It should never have happened with me as chief minister, all citizens are equally my brothers and deserve the same security. That even if I wasn’t complicit in 2002, it was a failure. A real black mark on my CV. As I come to you seeking a much bigger job now, I want you to trust me with having learnt my lessons.” But no, the continuing discourse will be denial, evasion and a tough message to the victim rather than the perpetrator to forget, forgive, move on. That’s why the Gujarat blood feud also continues to escalate, radicalising young Muslims, launching many Indian Mujahideens. And leaving even millions of possible Modi voters suspicious.
It is risky in our society to use an example from the West to underline wisdom and good sense. Because we are supposed to have invented a real civilisation when Europe was still inhabited by barbarians. But to understand how to say sorry, seek forgiveness and also teach your children never to repeat your crimes, visit one of the Nazi concentration camps preserved as public museums in Germany. I walked around Dachau (near Munich) this summer. There is no effort to hide anything, nuance any crime. It is a big, collective German mea culpa. A board at the entrance implores the Germans: Lest We Forget. And busloads of schoolchildren are brought in and confronted with the truth, with the crimes their own grandfathers committed. Remember the words of Iris Chang, the author of the chilling The Rape of Nanking: “As the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned years ago, to forget a holocaust is to kill twice.” You want an example closer home? Remember David Cameron visiting Jallianwala Bagh in contrition. Dyer was not his grandfather. He wasn’t trying to win over South Asian votes in Britain either. He was only seeking closure on his ancestors’ most criminal excess to crush our freedom movement.
Instead of fighting over who killed the Sikhs, therefore, we should have built a memorial to the thousands of innocents killed in 1984, just as there is one for Indira Gandhi at 1 Safdarjung Road. Just as thousands visit it in homage, many would have gone to the Sikh victims’ memorial too, in remorse, apology or plain remembrance. And most would have come out saying, never again. We, on the other hand, get paranoid when the SGPC talks of setting up one in Amritsar. Similarly, the larger peace in Kashmir today opens a window for a truth and conciliation process, learning from Mandela. But rather than seek that large-hearted closure, we have closed Pathribal. Then you complain that another blood feud carries on.
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