Forgetting slaughter


Seven years after the engineered communal hate and carnage, Gujarat remains a bitterly divided society…

Only when there is remorse and healing, ‘they’ and ‘we’ will together be able to authentically ‘move on’.

Seven years have lapsed since blood spilt on streets across Gujarat and fires rose to the skies, in a terrifying inferno of engineered communal hate. Wounds refuse to heal, people of diverse faiths live side by side or in segregated ghettoes but in an uneasy, brittle truce, without the restoration of genuine trust and normal social and economic intercourse. The State remains openly hostile to a segment of citizens only because they belong to a different faith from the majority. Muslim youth are picked up almost randomly on charges of terrorism, and their deaths in so-called “encounters” or extra-judicial killings are explained away by State authorities with rarely even the façade of any credible evidence. An ominous subtext characterises re-engineered social relations: new realities of settled hate, settled fear and settled despair in all villages and urban settlements that were torn apart by the gruesome mass violence of 2002. Gujarat continues to be a society bitterly, and some now grimly fear, permanently divided.

But, at the same time, many senior BJP leaders and police officers are on the run, pursued by a special investigation team appointed by the highest court of the land. It is often suggested that there is a self-evident conflict or disconnect, some would suggest even a contradiction, between the goals of justice (particularly legal justice or justice delivered through the formal and impersonal instruments of the modern State), and reconciliation. In the aftermath of Gujarat 2002, there are many who argue that the efforts of human rights groups (including those that I am engaged with) which strive to secure justice for the survivors, are actually blocking efforts at reconciliation, or the spaces for forgiveness. Such enterprises are seen to be akin to scraping the scab off old wounds and not letting these heal naturally: they are seen as not letting the survivors forget their suffering. Those opposed to such efforts dispute: “What is achieved by reviving memories of what is done and over with? We should let the people affected by the admittedly unfortunate mass violence move on, without being constantly pulled into the quicksand of a painful past”.

What cost reconciliation?

It is significant that rarely do such suggestions emanate from those affected by the violence themselves, or from those who belong to the Muslim community and suffer intensely even if only vicariously from the continuing injustice and persisting gruesome outrages like mass graves and evidence of killings in false encounters in Gujarat. There are some among the affected communities in Gujarat — usually traders or better-off victims and mostly men — who choose not to fight for legal justice, but this is not because they do not value justice or because they suffer no anguish for the injustice and betrayal of the past, but as a practical act of individual survival by surrender and compromise, in a climate of persisting hate and fear. The suggestions for hastily closing the past come mostly from people of the majority community who have not suffered directly or even vicariously the torment of the survivors of the carnage, or from persisting insecurity and contested citizenship rights, or indeed from the impact of a drift into a re-moulded majoritarian social and political order.

Of course as a nation and as a people, we need to move on, pushing decisively behind us chapters of collective shame and tribulation, such as what unfolded in the killing fields of Gujarat in 2002. But the decision to impatiently surge ahead without looking back cannot justly be imposed on women and men, boys and girls who live with not only with the memories of the trauma of unspeakable loss and violence, but the daily lived realities of continued persecution, boycott, expulsion, fear and hate. They should not feel coerced into a spurious amnesia, imposed on them by those who did not suffer and by their absence of remorse and compassion. It is only when the survivors are able to deal voluntarily with this painful past, and when they are assisted to rebuild their homes, livelihoods and social relations, that they will be able to look to the future with optimism and confidence. Traditions like the annual ritualised mourning of Moharram or the commemoration of the Holocaust in gut-wrenching museums acknowledge the importance of remembering, even while forgiving and letting go. Only when there is remorse and healing, it is possible that hand in hand, “they” and “we” will together be able to authentically “move on”. Else, as philosopher Santayana wisely prophesised, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. We have repeated the history of communal violence and pogroms too many times already in India to risk its further repetition through forgetting the unhealed wounds of our recent history.


A survivor of apartheid in South Africa famously and tellingly reminded members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the great imbalances of power that are implicit in alternate notions of reconciliation and justice. “Reconciliation is only in the vocabulary of those who can afford it”, he agonisingly countered them. “It is non-existent to a person whose self-respect has been stripped away and poverty is a festering wound that consumes his soul”. I have found nothing in what members of the Commission said that adequately responds to his anguished challenge.

Those who oppose post-violence human rights struggles also 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 again and again 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, workplaces 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 hard for me as a man to even speculate what reconciliation means to women who survived rape. And even more so to those who continue to face the torments of their rapists, and the shame of surviving rape in their own communities. Feminist observers perceive a change in “rape cultures” in Gujarat following the brutally gendered violence of 2002, even in relation to Hindu women, and the increased trafficking of women and girls in marriage and on the sex market. In the painful stoic or muffled silences of the survivors, the questions still shout to be heard about whether there is an impossibility of reconciliation for survivors of rape, especially when the rapists and those who instigated them walk free? Who can speak to them of finding spaces in their hearts for forgiveness, and who indeed should? Do such paths exist at all for the women who carry burdens of the pain and humiliation such as of 2002? If such paths exist, they must I believe traverse also the daunting treacherous journey of justice.

Persistent hate

In my interviews with hundreds of survivors of the Gujarat carnage of 2002, I learnt that the families of most had not suffered for the first time in the carnage of 2002. Each had many agonising tales of losing loved ones, and the looting and torching of their homes in several successive riots. In fact, the saga of their lives seemed like the spaces between various communal riots, often starting with the cataclysmic upheavals of 1947. These spaces were almost stolen, tragically fragile, insecure interludes during which they struggled to lead full and happy lives before being overtaken and destroyed once again by the persistent politics of hate. Whenever they reflect on and talk of their futures, riots continue to dominate their mindscape. They speak repeatedly of their plans of what they would do for the protection of their families, not if a communal riot breaks out again, but when it does. (Their plans were usually of finding safety by shifting to Muslim ghettoes and sometimes by arming themselves and very occasionally in fantasies of bloody retributive violence). On such tragic and hopeless certainties of recurrence of the trauma of periodically repeated profound loss and suffering in violent communal upheavals, no enduring peaceful future can be built. This, to my understanding is crucial, that all notions of authentic reconciliation relate to a situation when the moment of atrocity can be relegated to a past. But for the Gujarat survivors, the persecution is repetitive: what can then be reconciliation in these situations of sustained boycott, segregation and hate?

In these circumstances, what are the ethical ways of remembering the past in order to forge a better, kinder, fairer shared future?

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