Sunday, Dec 04, 2022

When is forgiveness right?

As Gujarat’s assembly campaigns begin,the shadow of 2002 cannot be shrugged off

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. His truth is marching on.” Reading the verdicts in the Naroda Patiya case,I found these words of the US Civil War anti-slavery anthem coming to mind. Truth is indeed marching on,even in Gujarat,thanks to the timely intervention of the Supreme Court and the fine work of its Special Investigation Team. Almost incredibly,given so many past failures to convict perpetrators of communal violence in so many other cases,and 10 years after the horrendous events,former minister Maya Kodnani and 30 others have been convicted and sentenced,many to life terms. Particularly welcome is the conviction of Babu Bajrangi of the Bajrang Dal,who boasted of his gruesome crimes on hidden camera. And welcome,too,was the recognition of the central role of violence against women in the Gujarat pogrom. Best of all,perhaps,was the fact that a criminal conspiracy was found,giving prosecutors a valuable weapon to use in future trials. As the US anthem continued (in 1861,well before victory over slavery could be a solid reality): “He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat./ He has sifted out the hearts of men before his judgement seat.” And now the Gujarat assembly elections are at hand,scheduled for December,with Narendra Modi campaigning,already,on an alleged record of economic success. The verdicts could not be a more timely reminder that Gujarat’s government has had a violent communal face.

But what next? Discussions of the verdicts have already raised many pertinent questions. Will they facilitate other prosecutions stemming from the riots? (Almost certainly.) Will they deter others from perpetrating communal violence in the future? (Quite possibly,particularly in light of the conspiracy convictions.) Will they undermine the career of Narendra Modi as he tries for national leadership? (Let us ardently hope so.) Now,however,we need at least to begin discussing a larger question: What after that? Is there a role here for forgiveness and reconciliation? Nations all over the world have been discussing these concepts,and experimenting with institutions that might realise them. What room exists for such ideas in Gujarat?

I call as my witness the late Sir Peter Strawson (1919-2006),distinguished British philosopher and ardent friend of India. In a justly famous article entitled “Freedom and Resentment”,Strawson argued that the “reactive attitudes”,prominently including resentment for wrongdoing,are part and parcel of our freedom as human beings,and central to our social interactions. When we deal with others,we must expect of them a reasonable degree of “good will or regard.” Otherwise,social interaction is impossible. Resentment is appropriate when someone violates those conditions. But when resentment is appropriate,forgiveness is not — unless and until the wrongdoers first acknowledge that their conduct was such as to be rightly resented and repudiate such conduct for the future. “To forgive is to accept the repudiation and to forswear the resentment,” Strawson concludes. In contrast,then,to those who (whether for religious or secular reasons) favour unconditional forgiveness,Strawson sees forgiveness as right only when conditions for the restoration of due regard and decent social reciprocity have been fulfilled by the wrongdoer’s own apology and repudiation.

After the US Civil War,the need for reconciliation was so acute that Abraham Lincoln rushed ahead precipitately,violating Strawson’s condition. “Let us judge not that we be not judged,’” he said in his famous Second Inaugural,urging both sides to “bind up the nation’s wounds.” But they were not bound up,not really. The south was defeated,not changed. It has taken more than a hundred years of further struggle before racial justice and equality have even begun to be done,and even today one still sees the Confederate flag proudly flying in some establishments in the south — until recently atop one state capitol building. Forgiveness was inappropriate in the aftermath of the formal ending of slavery,because there was no apology and no real change. What was appropriate,as the US gradually and painfully learned,was a long tough struggle for more and more justice,and more and more truth. A great deal of this justice was secured in the courts,through the work of courageous,skilled,and patient lawyers and increasingly open-minded judges.

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What about Gujarat,then? Should the victims and those who care about them strive,now,for forgiveness? Many think this the morally superior attitude,and they have Gandhi on their side. But I would argue for a less exalted and more Strawsonian response. Forgiveness,as Strawson shows,is a relationship,not something the wronged unilaterally bestows. It requires an antecedent statement on the part of the wrongdoer. None of these wrongdoers is making such a statement.

Sometimes a perpetrator of racial or ethnic hatred will undergo a sudden change of heart and make that “repudiation”. US politician George Wallace,who stood at the door of an Alabama schoolhouse to prevent desegregation in 1963,offered a truly heartfelt apology in 1979,and subsequently went on to a further term as governor in which he sincerely sought racial justice. (The trauma of near-death by attempted murder and subsequent physical paralysis catalysed introspection.) Such conversions,however,are rare,and are hardly to be expected from Narendra Modi and his close associates — particularly when their “base” demands continued communalism. For Wallace,forgiveness was appropriate; for the perpetrators,abettors,and toleraters of communal violence in Gujarat,it is not. Certainly not yet,and perhaps,for those individuals,not ever.

What about an imperfect apology,such as a public statement of goodwill whose deeper sincerity is questionable? Well,that is certainly progress. Many US segregationists have bid for forgiveness in that way,and the BJP is so plastic that we can easily imagine a time when its public face might wear,similarly,an apologetic expression. Is this enough to make forgiveness right? Philosopher Adrienne Martin of the University of Pennsylvania has argued that in such cases the apology does not meet the conditions for forgiveness,but that it still might give us a reason to go on dealing with the person or people in normal social interactions. I agree with her — although in the case of both US racism and the BJP in India,we had better keep a very close eye on the people’s future statements and conduct.


For now,however,resentment is what the victims and those who share their outrage should continue to feel and express. And more and more justice,more and more truth,is what they should pursue.

The writer is a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago and author of ‘The Clash Within: Democracy,Religious Violence and India’s Future’,

First published on: 09-10-2012 at 02:51:08 am
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