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Priyanka’s remarkable moral moment

There was something morally poignant about the way in which Priyanka handled the question of her father’s assassination.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | New Delhi |
April 27, 2009 6:05:40 pm

Whether or not you support the Congress,whether or not you admire the Nehru-Gandhi family,it will be difficult not to acknowledge that there was something morally poignant about the way in which Priyanka Gandhi handled the question of her father’s assassination. In a recent interview to Barkha Dutt about her remarkable meeting with Nalini,her father’s assassin,she said this:

“But the minute you realise that you’re not a victim and that the other person is as much a victim of that same circumstance as you,then you can’t put yourself in a position where you are anyone to forgive someone else. Because your victimhood has disappeared. And to me,people ask about non-violence,I think true non-violence is the absence of victimhood. The sense that somebody else is doing harm to you. Whatever is happening to you is happening because of your own circumstances,you are creating a lot of that suffering. And anybody else who does something overtly,like kill somebody you love,or hurts you,beats you,that is also an action that is happening because of their suffering.”

This is quite an astonishing response for a number of reasons. Its ability to empathise with Nalini seems very genuine. Its diagnosis of the moral psychology of violence in a sense of victimhood is profound. It is the purest distillation of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s insight about the links between abhaya and ahimsa. It makes a remarkable gesture at something even deeper than forgiveness. After all,forgiveness still presumes a sense of moral entitlement,that you are in a position to judge. For someone in our politics to make these statements with the moral clarity with which they have been made,is remarkable. After all,it seems the antithesis of almost everything our politics is conducted around: the inability to empathise,violence stemming from a perpetual sense of victimhood,and revenge rather than forgiveness,let alone something beyond it.

But what was even more remarkable about the context of this statement was the fact that,with great clarity she made the distinction between personal responses and the response a state needs to make in these circumstances. She understood that the narrative the state,or politics,would need to draw upon to deal with Nalini would,in a sense,be different; they could not be driven by the kinds of personal convictions she has. Again,the clarity with which a distinction was made between a gesture of personal conviction,and what political responsibility might require,was unusual. Those kinds of distinctions are the foundations of a genuinely liberal society.

Yes,on a whole range of other issues we can wish that she was questioned a bit more on the policy choices her party has made. For instance,in another interview with Rediff,she said in response to a question about Mayawati that “Yes,I understand what she does. It’s true that certain castes have been oppressed for centuries,and she has tried to empower them. But the way forward is to take everybody along,not to divide people on the basis of caste and religion.” It would have been nice to see a follow-up to this question in terms of Congress policies. If for no other reason,she seems the most capable of explaining them or articulating a response.

Of course,in a politicised context such as ours,any statement of hers,or any statement endorsing and acknowledging an unusual moral moment,will be misunderstood. And whether she can push politics in a direction that genuinely creates the conditions of people overcoming a sense of victimhood is an open question. But the moral sensibility at display in the manner in which she has handled Nalini is so unusual,clear,well articulated,and full of insight that recognition has to be given where it is due. Our politics would be a lot healthier if we took seriously both moral psychology,and a politics that moves beyond victimhood,to new levels.

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