Justice, forgiveness, and the call to forget

Forgiveness can play a reparative role provided it is seen as complementary to justice, not a substitute for it

Published - December 23, 2018 12:15 am IST

Post-Partition, India has witnessed innumerable acts of collective violence of which three clearly stand out as the most barbaric: the Nellie massacre in Assam in 1983; the horrific slaughter of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984; and the diabolical pogrom in Gujarat in 2002.

Need for retributive justice

No society that calls itself civilised allows such mass atrocities, and if, as an aberration, such ghastly events do occur, its criminal justice system ensures swift punishment to those found guilty. But India repeatedly permits these catastrophic transgressions. And when the process of retributive justice begins, it is reluctant, painfully slow, and susceptible to political manipulation. Yet, whenever retributive justice has worked, as in the recent verdict on Sajjan Kumar, it has brought some ‘ sukoon ’ to survivors. It is unbelievable that justice delayed is still seen as justice affirmed.

The reception of the recent judgment 34 years later once again demonstrates that victims of one-sided collective violence desperately need retributive justice, and not be deviously nudged to move on without it, to let bygones be bygones, to forget and forgive. Not surprisingly, it is perpetrators of violence or insensitive bystanders who say this. But forgetting is neither possible nor desirable. Traumatised survivors may be forced into silence but they can’t forget their loss or suffering. For a start, forgetting can’t be brought about intentionally; no one can wilfully strive to achieve amnesia. The more one goads oneself to forget, the more one remembers the brutality of the act and the loss of loved ones. More importantly, such a demand can’t be morally justified. Imagine that someone close to you was lynched in front of your very own eyes. Wouldn’t you be haunted by images of this gruesome act forever? Can the intensity of the initial trauma diminish with the passage of time if, for instance, you lost your only child to this collective insanity? Can the wound ever be healed? How preposterous it is to be asked to move on! Even when friends and family urge you to stop grieving, to try loosen the grip of this nightmare, they don’t expect you to forget what has happened but to find ways of rebuilding your life. To my mind, an appropriate form of remembrance is the only partial remedy for this lifelong ailment.

Resentment and self-respect

Forgiveness is more complex. To forgive is to forswear resentment towards the person who has caused you grievous harm. Now, no one can seriously argue that renunciation of resentment is always morally appropriate and that one must always forgive. To begin with, one can hardly fault people for resenting those who have seriously harmed them because resentment is interwoven with self-respect. Only those without an iota of self-respect, completely self-estranged or benumbed will fail to experience resentment towards the offender. So, the relevant question is not whether or not to forgive but rather under what conditions is forgiveness appropriate. And the answer is: only when it restores the self-respect of victims. And when can that happen? Only when perpetrators publicly acknowledge their wrongdoing, distance themselves from the wrongful act, and join victims in condemning their own past actions.

All this is mighty difficult, because it can come about only with a profound moral and spiritual transformation in the perpetrator’s personality. The experiential process of owning up responsibility begins with the gradual realisation that the wrongful act sprung from the deepest recesses of one’s being, that there is something deeply wrong with what one is. This requires a genuine confrontation with one’s self, not just in the mind but at the level of gut and feeling. Such honest, moral self-appraisal is gut-wrenching. As one undergoes this long-drawn-out, painful process, one punishes one’s deepest self, or, as some might say, one’s antaratma, or soul. Only such punishment of the soul generates a profound transformation in one’s identity. No perpetrator is ready to seek forgiveness without it. And no victim can be ready to forgive unless this transformation is personally witnessed. Genuine repentance may pave the way for forgiveness. The victim can then say ‘he has suffered enough, let the perpetrator go’. This call to forgive has to come from within. It follows that no one can forgive under compulsion, nor can anyone forgive on behalf of the victim.

Understanding forgiveness

It is sometimes claimed that forgiveness has the effect of erasing wrongdoing; that it is an invitation to reconcile with evil rather than conquering it. But this is mistaken because appropriate forgiveness follows an honest acknowledgement of the wrongful act by the wrongdoer and repentance before his victim. To forgive then is not to convert a wrong into a right. Nor is it identical to excusing a wrong, as when one excuses a child for causing harm on the ground that he cannot really be held responsible for it. Since the wrong is not simply whitewashed, to forgive is not compromise with evil.

Forgiveness must not be confused with mercy. Out of mercy, punishment for the wrongdoer may be reduced without forgiving him. Conversely, a victim may forgive a wrongdoer but not be entitled to free him of legal accountability or seek a reduction in punishment. Indeed, sometimes it is the legal progress or outcome that triggers ‘a punishment of the soul’. When it does, it may be morally appropriate to forgive, should the victim choose to do so. Forgiveness indicates an alteration in the victim’s attitude towards the offender, not a change in the legal course of action.

Victims or survivors can’t forget the wrong done to them. Justice is necessary to address the wrongs and alleviate suffering. But forgiveness too can play a reparative role provided it is seen as complementary to justice, not a substitute for it.

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