Barefoot - Some paths to forgiveness

Is there a way to build trust, confidence and eventually empathy between previously embroiled people?

July 02, 2011 05:11 pm | Updated 05:31 pm IST

Enormous conspiracies of silence surround violence against women...

Enormous conspiracies of silence surround violence against women...

In most cultures, through many phases in human history, warring and bitterly estranged peoples have from time to time wearied of battles and hate, of destruction and fear. They have instead buried their weapons and collectively sought or rediscovered ways of living together with peace, faith and goodwill. In the wake of the violence of Partition, and innumerable communal pogroms which followed, this is a path which Hindu and Muslim communities in India must still traverse.

I continue in this column from last fortnight, to search for ways in which these sporadically estranged religious communities in India can be bought together. A peace activist friend — who has devoted the best years of his life to attempts to strengthen Hindu-Muslim unity in India — in a moment of dark despair said to me, “I have given up hoping that Hindus and Muslims will love each other. Today for me it is enough that they do not kill one another.” I seek reconciliation well beyond this, one that positively builds trust, confidence and eventually empathy between previously embroiled people; a genuine meeting again of hearts and minds.

Half-truths of memory

In Ludhiana in Punjab, India, speaking to an audience on the need for reclaiming and defending a secular India, I recall being confronted by an elderly man in the audience who wept painfully, “My family was uprooted from Pakistan in 1947, and it lost many lives in the hands of the Muslims. What can I tell my children? How do you expect me to tell them to forgive and forget?” I replied that my own family belonged to Rawalpindi and suffered in similar ways. I added: “But why should Muslim men, women and children today deserve hatred and, even worse retribution, for crimes that other Muslim people may have committed decades ago? And more importantly, why is your memory so selective? If you must recall to your children the crimes suffered by Hindus and Sikhs during Partition, should you not recount to them also the fact that their Hindu and Sikh ancestors committed exactly the same unspeakable atrocities against Muslims on this side of the border?”

The falsehoods and half-truths of memory rob the ‘other' of not just equal citizenship, but even elementary humanity. The extraordinary support of many women of the majority Hindu community in Gujarat in 2002 for acts of mass sexual violence suggests the potency of the toxins of hate that seeped deep into the souls of even women of the majority religious community. They stopped seeing Muslim women in their own likeness, as women and as human. It drove them to regard Muslim women as deserving of the same violence which, had it been instead targeted towards themselves, would have humiliated and crushed them.

Ideas of reconciliation and forgiveness — as well as justice — are intrinsic in varied but related ways to virtually every major strand of diverse religious and secular convictions that have impinged through the centuries on the consciousness of Indian people. These include various tribal faiths, Buddhist, Jain, Vedic, Islamic, Christian, Parsi, Sikh, reformist Bhakti, Sufi, agnostic, atheistic and sceptical philosophical traditions.

In an inconsolable country grieving bitterly for a million lives extinguished by Partition, homes and homelands lost forever and a country dismembered by the divisive politics of hate, Gandhi's last battle before his assassination in January 1948 was for the rights of the Muslim people, and not even those who had chosen secular democratic India as their home, but those who had opted for the religious state of Pakistan. The conviction that drove him all his life was “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way”. He spoke of peace as “a heavy downpour of rain which drenches the soil to fullness, likewise only a profuse shower of love overcomes hatred”. His comments on forgiving and forgetting are illuminating: “To forgive is not to forget. The merit lies in loving in spite of the vivid knowledge that the one that must be loved is not a friend. There is no merit in loving an enemy when you forget him for a friend”.

I propose that paths to authentic forgiveness and reconciliation must traverse at least four milestones: acknowledgement; remorse; reparation; and justice. The first, acknowledgement, is a public acceptance — by direct perpetrators, by State authorities, but also by people and organisations who openly or tacitly ratify the violence or were silent or indifferent as it unfolded — that grave and unjust violence and discrimination actually took place, causing unconscionable suffering to those who were targeted by the violence. The second, remorse, is a public expression of collective sincere regret or contrition for the hate, violence, injustice and suffering that transpired.

Reparation entails adequate and timely assistance to enable victim survivors to rebuild shelters, livelihoods, common resources, habitats and cultural environments that are at levels at least comparable (and, I believe, better) than what they enjoyed prior to the conflict. There can be no compensation for loss of loved ones, homes and valued ways of life. But reparation should still address, with humility and sensitivity, these losses to the extent that is humanly possible, to assist the survivors to heal and hope again.

Not just the impersonal State but also perpetrators or people who share the identity of the wrong-doers, should be actively mobilised in a process of rebuilding. In the aftermath of the Gujarat 2002 massacre, we made a call to Hindu village folk in the region surrounding Godhra, the epicentre of the upheaval, to contribute their voluntary labour to rebuilding the destroyed homes of their Muslim neighbours. That Hindus volunteered their labour through shramdaan in 80 villages was intensely healing for the battered survivors.

Justice involves application and protection of the law, so that those who committed hate crimes are punished, and public officials charged with preventing and controlling communal violence, are held accountable. It also entails restoring peace: a sustainable environment of harmony and amity founded on legal and social justice, guarantees of non-repetition, freedom from fear and distrust between communities, and strengthening of social, economic and cultural bonds between them.

Specious arguement

Those who oppose post-violence human rights struggles often suggest that efforts for legal justice, undertaken long after visible violence has ceased on the streets, only revive enmities and cause further unrest and tensions rather than encourage peace. These threaten the fragile peace that is constructed with so much difficulty in post-conflict societies. This argument reminds me of beliefs that a family in which a woman accepts repeated violence in the hands of her spouse without complaint or resistance is a peaceful one, and a household in which she is encouraged or supported (or instigated?) to be emboldened enough to speak out is one in which the peace and sanctity of family life is being imperilled and destroyed.

Indeed the pleas for shrouding throbbing pasts in suffocating silence are particularly unjust for women survivors of communal violence. There are even in normal times, enormous conspiracies of silence that surround violence against women, whether in homes, work places or on the streets. In all communal squalls, the bodies of women are specially targeted. Women's bodies are refashioned as the property of the hated ‘other' and as symbols of their honour, therefore attacks on these aim to humiliate the men who ‘own' them and help break their spirit. Imposed consent for silence as forms of spurious reconciliation are likely to muffle the unhealed agony of women survivors most of all.

It is only when the crimes of the past are acknowledged, and atonement made with public expressions of genuine remorse, when the State, the perpetrator and survivor all join hands to rebuild broken lives, and when justice is done and seen to have been done, is it possible for those who suffer to forgive, to heal, to trust and possibly to even love again.

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