We must not allow the pain and suffering of the Sikh victims to be transformed into a political instrument to mute calls for justice for the ‘other' victims of similarly orchestrated massacres.

More than a quarter century on, not much remains of ‘1984' — shorthand for one of the largest pogroms in India's postcolonial history when thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retribution for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination — in the public memory. The voices of victims and eyewitnesses one often heard in courtrooms have almost retired in exhaustion. The names of state-appointed serial commissions to establish the facts on ground have by now joined footnotes of history in a long line of ineffective judicial commissions of similar nature. And more remarkably, the miscarriage of justice through long-winded judicial processes where eyewitnesses routinely turn hostile due to threats, incentives, pressures exerted by fixers, or because of plain weariness has ceased evoking any mass outrage. In any case, the victims are supposed to have ‘got over' the event and ‘moved on,' precisely as enterprising and forward-looking communities are expected to do.

‘Moral retort'

Even as 1984 largely fades from public memory as a signifier of mass deaths, rapes, and the state's lack of will to protect its ‘minority' citizens, it has been resurrected within the political discourse in an unexpected new role — as that of a ‘moral retort'. In the past decade or so, we have witnessed its reappearance mainly as a moral counterweight that is dispassionately invoked from time to time whenever the BJP is confronted over its culpability in the 2002 Gujarat violence. In this functional incarnation, 1984 has been often described by L.K. Advani as the “greater shame and agony” than the killings that followed the destruction of Babri Masjid as well as the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. This memorial evocation of 1984 violence thus serves at least two entwined purposes. At once, it underlines the depth of suffering experienced by the victims at the hands of a high-handed state, and then in doing so, reduces the suffering of Gujarat victims by placing the victims of 1984 hierarchically above them. Probably the most unsettling aspect of this moral taxonomy is that collective suffering of a group of victims is used to minimise the claims of suffering of another victim group.

Consider the following: Mr. Advani has often painstakingly made a case for prosecution of the perpetrators of the massacre of Sikhs, while in the same breath he minimises or rather dismisses the Gujarat massacre. His much-favoured discursive device to achieve this dual objective is to imbue the 1984 violence with a kind of uniqueness that separates it from all other events of violence in India's recent history. In widely reported interviews, Mr. Advani routinely describes the massacre of Sikhs as a state-orchestrated pogrom while the Gujarat violence for him is merely a ‘riot' that happened spontaneously as an emotional response to the Godhra incident. It couldn't be more ironical and insidious than this: to claim to feel the pain and disenchantment of one group of victims of state violence only in order to dismiss the suffering of another group.

This malaise goes beyond one political leader and one party, however. Any quick search of various online debates would reveal how the collective suffering of thousands of victims of state violence is routinely utilised in the public domain. The most frequent theme that makes zealous online activists dig into the public archive of memory is that of Narendra Modi's chances of becoming India's Prime Minister. In the rough speak of online debates, contributors ask without hesitation if the Congress party can demand accountability of Chief Minister Modi given its own record on 1984? The online supporters of the Congress party similarly point to the moral bankruptcy of the BJP-RSS vis-à-vis their role in the 2002 pogrom. The point raised in this discourse is not about demanding justice for the victims of either 1984 or 2002; it is about cynically denying justice to one group because the other has not received justice yet.

The victims of anti-minority violence — the dead and the displaced, the widows and the orphans — have thus unwittingly become participants in what has to be among the most tragic and bizarre political theatres in contemporary India. Their pain, loss, and suffering have been transformed into a political instrument to mute calls for justice for the ‘other' victims of similarly orchestrated massacres. It is as if the two massacres somehow cancel out or make up for the horror and pain felt by the victims in Delhi and Ahmedabad. This moral retortion is intended to serve as an eraser on the nation's violence scorecard: ‘your victims' against ‘our victims' equals a clean scorecard.

Truth and reconciliation

Societies that experience violent ruptures, and are keen on repairing them, usually follow either the judicial system to seek redress — to identify, prosecute, and punish the guilty — or the more favoured path in recent years of post-apartheid type truth and reconciliation commissions where the focus is less on punishment and more on grieving, mourning, and forgiving. In many cases, for instance South Africa and Guatemala, both the justice system and the truth commission are invoked to heal the raw wounds. The most significant ingredient here is the willingness of the state actively to participate in the reconciliation processes. And this is precisely what has been lacking in the case of both the1984 and 2002 massacres. The state, if at all, has seemed less than eager to repair the breach of trust with its minority communities.

The much-favoured gesture of conciliation adopted by the Indian state has been the establishment of commissions of inquiry chaired by retired judges. The purpose and objective of such bodies is deliberately left unclear. The terms of reference are often weak, and the outcome is usually wrapped in an indecisive legal language that seldom makes any forthright and readily legible statements. The victims who are invited to narrate their stories of suffering in duly sworn and attested affidavits do so with the hope of gaining justice. Yet those hopes remain unfulfilled as commissions seldom have power to do anything beyond making non-binding recommendations. The 1984 violence, for instance, has been the subject of 10 commissions in the past 27 years; in one case the commission wound up with the suggestion that three new commissions be appointed instead. The commissions, it seems, grow and die in a life cycle of their own that eventually has little to do with the crimes they are supposed to investigate. They are neither proper courts where the accused can be tried nor are they truth and reconciliation type of bodies with an agenda to better community relations. The only trace they leave probably is a voluminous report, often diluted at the last minute, which may or may not ever be made public by the government in power.

A widely held belief among social scientists and activists is that victims of suffering most of all want to be listened to in order to heal their wounds. Indeed, the therapeutic effect of being able to narrate one's suffering — and to be able to reveal one's wounds publicly — cannot be underestimated. Yet what is often forgotten is that for the victims, the path to reconciliation and forgiveness is as much about seeking justice as about articulating their woundedness. The cheerful images of those accused of organising violence in news media — being felicitated by supporters, addressing election rallies, etc. — can surely neither be read as signs of justice nor reconciliation.

(Ravinder Kaur is a historian based in Copenhagen.)

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