Apology cannot be absolution. There is no concept of absolution in the modern criminal justice system

In 1997, Queen Elizabeth paid a visit to Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, where, in 1919, a British army officer ordered his troops to fire at a crowd of unarmed Indians, leading to over a thousand deaths. Terming it as a “difficult episode,” the Queen said that “history cannot be rewritten.” It was the closest the British had come to an apology — until February last year, when the British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jallianwala Bagh and called the massacre a “deeply shameful event in British history.”

Mr. Cameron was more contrite than Queen Elizabeth. But it still could not be considered an apology. India had no other choice than to accept it. The massacre had happened almost a hundred years ago and, General Dyer, the butcher of Amritsar, had died in 1927, seeking to know on his deathbed from his maker whether he did right or wrong.

We have no way to know what General Dyer’s maker thought of him. But if one were to go by the biblical concept of hell, he would most certainly be burning in unquenchable fire. And those fires will not be doused even if Queen Elizabeth or Mr. Cameron were to apologise a hundred times. But in India, we seem to have strangely come to believe that tendering an apology for riots or pogroms is like taking a proverbial dip in the holy Ganges — the one that is supposed to absolve the perpetrator of all his sins.

From the 1984 Sikh pogrom onwards, we have been playing a yo-yo game of sorts with speculations of this or that leader apologising for his — or his party’s — complicity in an act of mass violence. We have turned demanding apology into a national pastime. We do not realise that such a proposition allows an easy escape.

Part of the system

Consider what the Congress’s probable prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi said in his recent TV interview to journalist Arnab Goswami. When asked if he would apologise for 1984, Mr. Gandhi said: “First of all I wasn’t involved in the riots at all. It wasn’t that I was part of it… I was not in operation in the Congress.” Somebody ought to remind him that in 1984, he was 14. So nobody is blaming him for the killings that took place when he was a boy. But, today, at almost 44, he is the party’s vice-president. That means, as Mr. Goswami rightly pointed out to him, he is the boss. He can refer to himself in the third person as much as he wants, but he cannot shrug off his responsibility. He keeps on mentioning his personal history, “the circumstances” in which he grew up. One may empathise with Mr. Gandhi just as one may have done with his father who he says was thrown, “because of circumstances,” into the political system. But once you are into the system, you are into the system.

As children when we played cricket and would sometimes get bowled out on the first delivery, we would often refuse to hand over the bat on the pretext that the first ball is meant to be a “try-ball.” But there is no try-ball in politics. That is why history will always judge Rajiv Gandhi for his “when a big tree falls, the earth shakes” remarks. It will do the same with Rahul Gandhi. He may say a thousand times that he wants to change the system, but history will judge him as an insider; history will judge him as “the system.” He may claim that in 1984 the government was trying to stop the riots. But the ghosts of Trilokpuri will always shout him down; a Tarlochan Singh will always bring to fore how the then President Giani Zail Singh tried to contact Rajiv Gandhi and how his calls went unanswered.

Ms Sonia Gandhi and Dr. Manmohan Singh may have already apologised for 1984. Rahul Gandhi may perform a penitent kar seva at the Golden Temple or get his party loyalists from the Sikh community offer him yards of the ceremonial saropa; the entire Congress party including those accused of leading murderous mobs in 1984 may apologise, but that should not stop the wheels of justice from moving.

An apology ought, at best, to be treated as a symbolic gesture. But the danger is that in our political discourse it is rather seen as delivery of justice to the victims. Apology cannot be absolution. There is no concept of absolution in the modern criminal justice system.

No absolution for hypocrisy

The principles of restorative justice do not apply to people who call themselves leaders, wear khadi and offer floral tributes at Rajghat, and then go on to lead murderous mobs burning people to death with petrol-filled tyres. They do not apply to men in khaki who take an oath of allegiance to perform their duty with integrity and impartiality and then end up serving the interests of their political masters. They do not apply to those who head a nation or a part of it and simply choose to remain passive during a riot or a pogrom.

That is why even if Mr. Narendra Modi folds his hands a hundred times in apology, Qutubbudin Ansari’s folded hands will always remain the emblematic image of the 2002 Gujarat riots. No matter how much pain he expresses at the idea of an imaginary puppy coming under the wheels of his car, and even though the judiciary gave a clean chit to him, he must be judged by how the guilty ministers like Maya Kodnani were rewarded with plum jobs.

Similarly, the Congress party will have to be held accountable for how leaders like H.K.L. Bhagat were rewarded with ministerial berths. If Mr. Gandhi is serious about empowering people then it is not enough to just acknowledge that the 1984 killings took place and that they were completely wrong. He cannot just mumble: “Gujarat happened. People died. But the real issue as far as I am concerned is […]” The real issue as far as anybody must be concerned is that people died. They died in 1984 in Delhi. They died in 1990 in Kashmir. They died in Bombay in 1993. They died in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. And that many responsible for these killings or abetting these killings are still roaming free.

Mr. Gandhi can wear his Asics sneakers, roll up his sleeves and tour the countryside as much as he wishes to. But the real test of his intent would be whether or not he supports Mr. Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to set up a Special Investigation Team to probe 1984.

Some day, Mr. Modi will also have to face the truth of 2002 even though for now he is busy flying kites with Mr. Salman Khan.

Meanwhile, let us stop asking for apologies. Let us begin by demanding that those accused of involvement in the 1984 killings be brought to justice. Let us begin from the other end of 2013 as well. Let us put the nails of Muzaffarnagar in Mr. Akhilesh Yadav’s path; let us force him to get down from his Mercedes cycle.

(Rahul Pandita is a journalist and author.)

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