What will truth get us?

What will truth get us?

Earlier this year I gave a short talk on development to a group of young Kashmiris. All of them were in their twenties, well-educated young men and women, some of whom had turned their back on better opportunities in the US and the UK. They had made a choice to sacrifice monetary gain and all the advantages that more money could bring, for careers in the difficult situation that is Jammu & Kashmir. Our talk moved swiftly from development, to corruption, and inevitably to the Kashmir conflict.

In contrasting Gandhi’s method to militancy, I stated that one of the key differences was that non-violent protestors took responsibility for their actions in a way that militants cannot and do not. And one of the consequences is how deeply this damages the society. Nobody knows who killed whom, and on whose orders. Murderers and their victims are buried in the same cemetery, sometimes only a few feet away. A culture of fear and deceit becomes deeply imbued in the society.

“Finding out the truth,” I said, “is the only way that a society can heal and move forward from the deep hurts that militancy inevitably breeds.”

“What will truth get us?” asked one of the young men quietly. “We have found the truth many times, but have we ever received justice?” He had said nothing during the earlier debate, and would say little later. In fact, the debate swung on to another topic, and we all ended up arguing on another point entirely. Nevertheless it was these two questions and the complete lack of hope in his soft voice that I recall from that conversation. I argued with the rest of the people there, but I had no answer to give him.

It was only afterward that I found out that four of the young people in that gathering had lost their fathers during the conflict. These were not militants, but civilians, middle class people trying to make their lives and help their children. None of them knew the full details of the deaths. One of them had returned from Europe because the lack of closure about his father’s killing was unbearable and he had to pursue the court case to find out the truth, if only for his peace of mind.

The problem is not limited to Kashmir. In 1983 more than 2,000 people were butchered in the Nellie massacre in Assam in less than six hours. Unofficial estimates put the figure at close to 5,000. Many of the people killed were possibly illegal immigrants, but we do not really know because no accounting of the massacre has taken place. An inquiry was held, a report was produced, and nothing really happened. When the Asom Gana Parishad came to power in 1985 in Assam, it dropped all the cases. Think of that, thousands of people killed, and nobody guilty, nobody even accused.

It seems nobody is ever guilty of a massacre in India. In 1984 more than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi and northern India. And yet nobody of any consequence has ever been held responsible for this massive crime. In 1989 the Bhagalpur riots claimed (officially) more than a thousand lives. The commission of inquiry held (only) 14 government officials guilty. What happened? As you can guess, no action was taken. The campaign of threats, violence and intimidation that drove out the Kashmiri Pandits has never been properly investigated, and to this day neither the number of dead, or the manner of their killing, or the conditions of their expulsions has been adequately documented. No action was taken on the Srikrishna report on the Bombay riots of 1992-93. Ditto for Gujarat in 2002.

Why is this the case? How can the Indian state, with a Constitution that regards the citizen as the basic building block of the nation, value the life of its own citizens so little? To kill a citizen of this country is to kill a part of this country, and yet in case after case, in which thousands of our citizens are killed, the country does nothing. A human life should be priceless, but if we measure it by the amount of justice that our country extends to it, then it seems to be worthless instead.

It is very difficult to explain this. Maybe part of the reason is that we are a very poor country, and most of those that die in such riots are very poor people. They are not the policymakers of this country; they are not journalists, politicians, movie stars or even related to them. They are simply the poor and therefore they can be ignored. In a country with hundreds of millions of people living on less than Rs 32 a day the death of a few thousand of them does not seem to matter.

While this would be a horrible way of looking at things, there is an even worse argument. Some people say that this ability of the Indian state to carry on is an example of the success of democracy. They define democracy as the ability of a diverse society that is able to live together despite deep hurts and resentments, like some example of a particularly large and dysfunctional joint family. According to this view, reconciliation is far more important than justice. The question then becomes not whether we have murderers and thieves ruling us, but whether we can still continue moving forward together.

This is the view of the comfortable people. Those in positions of power, especially those with blood on their hands, would like us all to forget things and move on. No doubt that if a tiger could plead his case with a deer he would say, “Why do you run away? Just because I killed your father, and your brother, and your sister does not mean you should shun me. Let us all live together, and be reconciled. Why can’t we just get along?”
When presented like this we can easily see the problem. The answer to dealing with a person who can kill you at any time — as he has demonstrated with others — is not reconciliation. How can we be reconciled to somebody who has abused their power in the past, still hold that power, and that nothing stops them from abusing it again? It also exposes the deep flaw in the argument that somehow coming to terms with murderers is a ‘democratic success’. A Constitution is the willing coming together of people, a social contract based on the hope that together we can make our lives better for all of us.

At an audience after the installation ceremony of the Kalon Tripa, or Head of the Cabinet, of the Tibetan exile community, the Dalai Lama mentioned how relieved he was to finally devolve his political role to the Kalon Tripa. The time of religious rulers and kings to lead a people was long over, he stated, and only democratically elected leaders, who reflected the will of the people, could truly fulfil that function. As a leader of the Tibetan exile community he knows better than most how important the willing consent of people is necessary for political leadership. In today’s world each and every individual has become freer and more important. A false view that we have to learn to live with each other despite grievous hurts is not sustainable. Those who murder Indian citizens, and then argue that they should not face justice, commit double crimes. Not only have they destroyed a part of the Indian republic, they are actively destroying the hope of a better country that binds us together. They are destroying our future.

It becomes then an act of patriotism to hold the powerful to account. An honest reconciliation with our past, based on truth and justice, is the only way towards a future in which India can thrive. I hope that there are enough Indians that love this country to make sure that we reach that future by acting now, by raising our voices and demanding some truth, some justice, for all the dead that we have ignored for far too long.

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