The past few days are witness, particularly on social media, of a phoney debate on whether the Congress and the BJP ought to apologise for 1984 and 2002. And the course of this phoney debate has taken the usual tract: The faithful from both sides speaking out their beliefs.
An apology is indeed a moral act and indeed an act that calls for a lot of courage. Announcing his decision to suspend the first of his mass actions, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, called his decision to start the non-cooperation movement a Himalayan blunder. He was accosted, then and there, by Jawaharlal Nehru, who would emerge as his chosen heir in the years to come, asking the bapu to explain whether the tragedy at Chauri Chaura was of so much importance in a movement of the scale that the non-cooperation movement was? Gandhi held it was.
Following the Mahatma, many years later, the anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela and his comrades announced the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after South Africa liberated itself from apartheid. The new nation, founded on the stones that Gandhi first threw, almost a century ago, went about setting a new jurisprudence. It was a radical departure from the conventional legal theory on criminal law – the state prosecuting the accused and a long rope for the latter to prove not guilty – or the principles followed in the Nuremburg Trials where the burden of proving not guilty weighed heavily against the accused.
The conventional scheme as much as that at Nuremberg were, without doubt, formulations of legal theory that emerged out of what we know as the Enlightenment. The process, one may stress it was a process, involved several experiments, including the experience during the age of terror that ruled France between 1793 and 1799 during which Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoniette and also Robespierre, the revolution’s father were sent up for beheading on the guillotine.
The enlightenment era and the counter-reformation, however, threw up new paradigms and the concept behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was indeed the most important. The horrors of the second World War, even while Hitler and the Nazis were held guilty, also threw a challenge before the world: To ensure that things did not go back to where the world was in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles and the humiliation of Germany laying the foundations for the rise of Hitler.
All human beings are born free, with equal dignity and rights:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was the most appropriate response to the challenge. Recall Gandhi’s counter to Nehru in 1921. Responding to Nehru’s concern that only 23 were killed and that too during a movement involving many thousand people across the country and whether it warranted the suspension of the entire struggle, Gandhi had maintained that each of the 23 men killed had a family to whom the loss was irreplaceable. Gandhi, indeed, had anticipated the core principle – human right as indivisible to the individual and there was no scope for the utilitarian idea of larger common good there – of the UDHR as early as in 1921.
Excurses in history are not a pleasant experience always. But then a bit of unpleasantness is indeed helpful to gather sufficient mass to locate a debate and see through its phoney nature. It helps now in the context of the scramble demanding an apology and whether 1984 and 2002 belong to the same league. And in the meanwhile we are also reminded of Bombay 1992-93.
Lest it is misconstrued, let me make it clear that all these were instances of pogroms and none of them belonged to the same league as the Chauri Chaura incident. It is also necessary to add that none of these belonged to the same league as the Nazi crimes enacted in Germany and across Europe during the late 1930s and until 1945.
October-November 1984 and February-March 2002 and also the pogrom across Bombay in 1992 were instances where the state let lose marauders and gangs to terrorise a community, identified on religious denominational basis to serve a political goal. It is important to stress here that these were NOT instances of a plan having gone wrong. In other words, while the protestors at Chauri Chaura and the policemen and others in the thana did not plan and execute their plans on that day in February 1921, those who went on a rampage killing people and looting property in November 1984 and February-March 2002 had planned their acts with a lot of details.
The South African experience and the resolution of all the anger, the vow to avenge and the wounds were, on many instances, the consequence of a chain whose beginning was not easily identifiable but rooted in the historical experience of apartheid, a regime that ruled the people over many generations. The violence and the wounds they inflicted left victims who were black and white. And if things were left to the criminal law it was possible that large section of the blacks too would have ended up guilty as were the whites.
Well, 1984 and 2002 call for the criminal law to be brought in. Some of them also warrant a the principles invoked for the Nuremberg and cannot be compounded only because one or another leader saying sorry. This is not to say that those who basked in the aftermath of such crimes as 1984 and 2002 ought to be banned from admitting guilt in the open. Doing so is a moral act and calls for courage. Such courage, however, cannot and must not be held as immunity against punishment; or as the cliché is that the law must take its course.
This, indeed, is why I call the debate phoney. The law could have taken its course, even without following the Nuremberg principles, insofar as the 1984 carnage was concerned either in the 11 months when V.P.Singh was Prime Minister in 1989-90 and even more so between 1998 and 2004 when the BJP-led NDA was at the helm; or between May 2014 and a week ago!. In the same way, the law could have taken its course between May 2004 and April 2014 against the perpetrators of 2002 when the UPA ruled India.
Apologies do not make any sense in this context and hence the phoney debate ought to be shunned.
V Krishna Ananth is Professor of History, SLABS, SRM University AP, Amaravati.