September 28, 2020 6:15:08 pm
Written by Manvendra Prasad
The ceremony to start the construction of the Ramjanmabhoomi temple is now done with and except for stray voices of discordance, all have hailed this occasion. But is this the end of this dispute? Are all the parties irreversibly reconciled to this verdict? Will there be no revival of the disputes in Mathura, Varanasi and many others — despite the Supreme Court’s detailed explanation of this being a one-off case and that it does not set precedence for other such sites? Didn’t the All India Muslim Personal Law Board put out a statement (now retracted) claiming to reconvert the temple into a mosque citing the example of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul? We must also not forget that the demand of Muslim parties for implementation of the Religious Places Act, 1991, which mandated status quo for other religious places as they existed in 1947, was probably one of the key reasons why the Supreme Court-mandated mediation process failed.
There are no straightforward answers to these questions because like every society, India has faced historical wrongs. As long as unresolved historical injustices continue to fester, there will exist grievances and the desire for retribution. India’s failure to understand, acknowledge and resolve the historical wrongs is holding back the entire nation by creating opportunities for disharmony and schisms. Just as the Chinese have a collective memory of what they call the century of humiliation, India’s historical consciousness is alive to its collective victimhood.
To punish the current generation for the sins of their ancestors is a medieval mindset. In fact, a large number of the current generation are the descendants of the very people who were persecuted. Additionally, in the case of India, it is not a reflection of our civilisational values. We are a society where forgiveness is an attribute more of the mighty than revenge.
To be able to handle this intractable problem, we will do well to look at the experience of other countries in bringing closure to historical injustices. In many countries where there is an ugly, unresolved injustice pulling at the fabric of the society, it has been an opportunity to haul it out in public and deal with it through a reconciliation process. Over the past three decades, more than 40 countries including Canada, South Africa, Chile and South Korea, have established reconciliation commissions. The hope has been that restorative justice would provide greater healing than the retributive justice modelled most memorably by the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War.
Even though the effectiveness of commissions designed to resolve injustices in African and Latin American countries — typically held as those countries made transitions from civil war, colonialism or authoritarian rule — has been varied, India should establish its own version of a justice and reconciliation commission. It should run with the mandate to help communities and individuals move beyond injustices of casteist violence, forced religious conversion, of destroyed learning centres and religious places and other heritage structures and of the ignored historical contribution of leaders and the communities they come from.
India should set up a justice and reconciliation commission as an arms-length organisation to be run under the guidance of the Supreme Court and led by people of eminence, integrity and with representation from all communities. This should be a one-time exercise, with no similar effort being done again for the said period.
This commission should be tasked to create as complete a picture as possible of the most serious injustices and human rights violations faced by communities and individuals. It should make it part of the permanent, unassailable public record. The commission should gather evidence to allow the creation of a list that identifies the victims – individuals and communities. It should recommend reparations for the victims. It should emphasise preserving and exposing the true history of affected communities in all parts of the country.
The commission should embark on nation-wide tours to promote its activities. It should reach out to people, making itself accessible and its activities inclusive. It should hold seminars, conferences, workshops, and interdisciplinary studies to spread awareness of its effort.
It should collect all relevant archival documents relating to issues coming to the forum. The documentation should be done through intensive research as well as by analysing different perspectives. The research should be thoroughly reviewed and should be able to stand the scrutiny of experts outside of the commission.
The commission should explore oral histories and community tales to build historical records. It should provide affected communities and individuals an opportunity to share their experiences during public and private meetings held across the country.
The commission could consider establishing a national centre for reparations and reconciliation to provide ongoing assistance to victims. The reparations should, wherever possible, be symbolic or token in addition to any significant legal, financial, medical, and administrative assistance.
Is a Justice and Reconciliation Commission the panacea for all such issues? Of course not.
The Commission may fail to achieve reconciliation between communities. Justice in the form of token punishment or symbolic reparation might not be enough. For many, adequate compensation could be a prerequisite for reconciliation. This exercise could be seen as benefiting the government by legitimising the ruling dispensation’s campaigns of such emotive issues. Adequate safeguards and preventing a sense of victor complex will help manage such issues. The Indian ethos of ingrained respect for and tolerance of diversity and differences will also hold us in good stead.
While this exercise will come with pain, left to fester, these issues will not disappear. With every generation, political upheavals based on the demand to address these stubborn legacies will only grow stronger. This exercise is not designed to achieve some idyllic utopia. After centuries of injustices, that would be unrealistic. It is designed to make India more cohesive and stronger as it rises to claim its rightful place in the comity of nations.
Will India’s politicians choose to begin the difficult conversations now or will they kick the can down the road one more time, to the next generation? A good starting point would be a setting up of the Justice and Reconciliation Commission for Kashmiri Pandits and the Sikh victims of 1984.
The writer is a financial services professional
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