1984 Sikh riots: Apology cannot replace demand for justice

The 1984-2002 bookending of the debate about riot, massacres and the ‘politics of apology’ revolving around these, has once again assumed self-attained prominence with the focus now conveniently shifting to whether a leader should have apologised or not, from Delhi to Ahmedabad.

It also brings into focus the entire notion of a political apology, given that neither side of the argument that has been put forth demands to reconcile the narratives. After all, between Delhi’s 1984 riots and Gujarat’s 2002 riots, our politicians have escaped with ease the hard work that a Nelson Mandela or an Archbishop Desmond Tutu did with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

A few years ago, prime minister Manmohan Singh apologised for the 1984 pogrom, and Congress president Sonia Gandhi also uttered words of regret. Demands for political apologies have a long history, extending from asking the Japanese to apologise for the use of “comfort women” during World War II, to asking the Canadian government to say sorry for Kamagatamaru ship episode. And any young person who has watched “12 Years A Slave”, set to make its mark at the upcoming Oscars, would want to know whether Americans finally apologised for slavery, or not.

The question was direct to Rahul Gandhi, rather too direct, and the issue of 1984 too sensitive. When official data exists about nearly 3,000 members of a community having been killed- - mercilessly beaten, maimed, and burnt alive -- the least of the demands from the affected that could come, and that too, three decades after the pogrom, is to ask the political party under whose watch it took place, to say sorry, to apologise. After all, that's what Rahul Gandhi would ask Narendra Modi to do for 2002.
The Akali Dal in Punjab is making a lot of noise of Rahul’s “denial” of the apology in the media and New Delhi over 1984. The apology is back in demand, albeit the justice still is awaited. New Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal weighed in with the AAP government’s move to set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) for yet another probe into the pogrom, and Outside Broadcasting (OB) vans and media corps were back in the streets of Trilokpuri in the national capital from where the state went missing during the days it was needed the most in that November of 1984.

Justice denied

No apology can replace the demand for justice, which today stands delayed and arguably denied, especially in the case of 1984 Sikh riots. In fact, a political apology may have the potential to bury it. Nevertheless, the politics in Punjab is back on the burner with demands for apology galore.

Now, British prime minister David Cameron too owes an apology for his country providing ‘limited help’ in planning Operation Bluestar. The SAD, SGPC have already made its demand for an apology from the British government public. Congress leaders, especially in Punjab, have worked overtime this week trying to explain why Rahul -- a kid just 13-years of age when the bloodbath took place on the streets of the national capital -- has nothing to apologise. Of course, the politics of righting the wrongs must use the idea of forgiveness and justice as a process through which the people live and cope with the hurt, but when all of it looks appears a far cry, an apology may prove rather cosmetic.

The case of 1984 riots assumed much of what was required earlier arguably because the BJP saw a political capital in the 1984 issue, post its “wrongs” of 2002 in Gujarat. For long, the anti-Sikh riots have remained confined to an election issue. The rhetoric of the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi propped up largely as a counter allegation by the BJP to blunt Congress allegations on the Gujarat riots. But for a widow in Trilokpuri in Delhi or a widow in Godhra in Gujarat, the apology may be meaningless sans justice.
Here come the more complex questions, questions that a NaMo-RaGa bookending of any debate arguably fails to engage with, or escapes with utmost ease: What good does a political apology really do? Can the leaders of today apologise for the wrongs of yesterday? Then, someone must apologise for what was done to innocent men, women and children in their thousands, millions in 1947 on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. Who, must one ask, owes an apology to whom, for 1947? It hasn’t happened, neither will. 

The trick with the kind of political apologies that a Modi or a Gandhi scion are being asked to proffer is that these have the potential to be perceived with political motives as an admission of guilt that could be construed or misconstrued as politically incorrect.

But even after the most ideal of the apologies, given and accepted, there will still remain the question of whether collective acts can be forgiven by their victims, particularly when justice has eluded for decades. In times when high raking officials generally flaunt event heir errors and wrongs, remember Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defence, did apologise for the debacle in Vietnam. You don’t remember? Well, that to an extent proves the point.

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