With every story of cruelty, there emerges a story of kindness

Fear and Forgiveness: the aftermath of massacre
Harsh Mander
Penguin, 2009,
pp 218, Rs 299

“Since 1969, my home has been looted and destroyed five times in communal riots. I am working so that it is not destroyed a sixth time.” With these words, Usman Sheikh of Gujarat rationalises why he shuttles between villages in Gujarat, working as an aman pathik. Nine years after Gujarat, Usman Sheikh is one of the many ordinary people who are working to heal the wounds of the communal carnage that shook the state then. Many activists allege that the wounds still continue to fester and refuse to heal, as justice is still awaited. This is the premise of former bureaucrat-turned-activist Harsh Mander’s Fear and Forgiveness.

Although much of the country has moved on, including victim survivors in Gujarat, Mander contends that it is very important that justice be done to assuage the humiliation and pain of the victim-survivors.

In Gujarat today, “a counterfeit peace, based on a resigned and social acceptance of settled fear, unequal compromises and the culture and practices of enforced second-class citizenship” prevails. An imposed peace is simply part of the problem, not the solution; “... the construction of an enduring peace requires both the healing of remorse and compassion and the demonstration of justice done.”

Citing activists, witnesses, narratives of victim-survivors, quoting extensively from legal documents, records of non-governmental organisations and the National Human Rights Commission, he concludes, “Little has changed for the survivors of the Gujarat carnage of 2002, despite the passage of more than seven years and a major change of regime in New Delhi.”

The book revisits the horror of the communal carnage in Gujarat in 2002. The macabre stories — of rape, mutilation, incineration of countless men, women and children and the destruction, loot and burning of properties — we are all familiar with. The author, however, does not stop there.

He also draws forth the untold stories of numerous men and women who reached across the divide and put out a helping hand to the other — “For every narrative of cruelty and oppression... there are at least two or three untold stories of luminous kindness of ordinary people.”

It was among these ordinary people that “... there are spontaneous individual efforts of reconciliation.”As a way forward towards reconciliation, forgiveness and genuine peace, Mander proposes a four-component formula: truth and acknowledgement of the crime, remorse for the crime committed, reparation and justice.

Fear And Forgiveness is evocative and poignant, and brings home afresh the ghoulish nightmare that had descended on Gujarat in 2002. Simultaneously, it generates questions.

For instance, was it only the hate machine of the Hindu fundamentalists that polarised Gujarat and created a communal divide that seems so hard to be bridged even today? While the violence certainly is to be attributed to the hate machine, isn’t it rather simplistic to attribute the wide chasm between communities to it too? Why should rights to convert be advocated for some communities and denied to others, even when they adopt methods similar to the former? While members of the Muslim community are always identified as Muslims, why are those of the Hindu community often identified according to their caste?

Such questions will need honest answers and can, to a great extent, be addressed by a truth and reconciliation committee that the author proposes. Suggestions for such a committee are increasingly being mooted by activists and scholars. This has its merits, as it is quite apparent that the ghosts of partition refuse to be laid to rest, and come back to haunt us from time to time. 

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