Drawing parallels between 1984 anti-Sikh riots and post-Godhra killings in 2002 specious; the two are different tragedies
When members of the Hindu Right answer questions about 2002 by bringing up 1984, they ignore salient differences between the two genocides
The BJP, Shiromani Akali Dal and AAP are doing an admirable job in holding the Congress accountable for 1984. Even three decades later, the Justice Nanavati Commission Report makes for chilling reading. 1984, more than any other riot, leeched the Congress party of its moral standing in India’s violent political landscape. It opened the door for comparisons between it and other pogroms and political riots. Whatever investigations can be vigorously and independently pursued must be followed through to their conclusion, and in this matter the appointment of a Special Investigating Team is welcome.
Whether Kamal Nath was involved or not, is a difficult question to answer. Part of the difficulty is the fact of the Nanavati Commission being constituted so many years after the incidents in 1984. The Commission itself found it difficult to prosecute Nath, citing evidence from a few eyewitnesses who said Nath was actually trying to placate and not incite the mob outside Gurudwara Rakab Ganj, but it did not fully absolve Nath either, stating that “In absence of better evidence, it is not possible for the Commission to say that he had in any manner instigated the mob or that he was involved in the attack on the Gurudwara.”
Nevertheless, Nath’s presence in the mob cannot be disputed; as mentioned by Manoj Mitta and HS Phoolka, this was unprecedented, as no leader of a political party had been spotted with a mob and by journalists until then, including top accused like Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. Nor can it be denied that it took the NDA government to appoint the Nanavati Commission, and its findings to lead to then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s apology. Singh’s words are evocative; he said, “Four thousand people were killed in this great national tragedy that took place in 1984 … I have no hesitation in apologising not only to the Sikh community but the whole Indian nation … On behalf of our Government, on behalf of the entire people of this country, I bow my head in shame that such a thing took place.”
There are some similarities between 1984 and 2002. The first has to do with two of the most shameful statements made by politicians in Indian history. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi justified the riots by saying, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” In July 2013, Narendra Modi equated victims of the 2002 riots to a puppy, saying, “if … someone else is driving a car and we are sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will we not feel pain? Of course we will.”
The second has to do with failures to accept party involvement in the massacres. Narendra Modi has consistently refused to take any responsibility for the events in 2002, except for one statement in April 2013 when he apologised for failing to protect the lives of innocent victims. “For that failing of the state government, I offer my unequivocal apology,” he said. But it is hard to take this apology seriously when just three months later he was making the puppy comment.
In the same vein, Rahul Gandhi has failed the victims of the 1984 tragedy by denying Congress involvement in the riots in the face of overwhelming evidence. In fact, it is probably because of his statement in August that the Kamal Nath controversy is raging this strongly. Rahul Gandhi’s statement reflects very poorly on the sincerity of the Congress party’s apology in 2005.
But when members of the Hindu Right answer questions about 2002 by bringing up 1984, they ignore salient differences between the two genocides.
The first and most salient difference is that the Congress party did not come to power on the back of anti-Sikh sentiment. In fact, the assassination of Indira Gandhi occurred because she refused to replace her bodyguards; she said, “I would not be worthy of being a daughter of the Indian revolution if I were to start suspecting people on the basis of their religion or community.” This is not to minimise the atrocities committed during the Punjab insurgency, but it can be unambiguously said that the atrocities were not based on the demonisation of Sikh identity. Indira Gandhi proved this when she lost her life to her Sikh bodyguards.
Nor has the Congress party made targeting Sikhs or blaming them for the problems our country faces into a political platform. It has not erected entire machineries of propaganda, featuring fake news, rath yatras and incendiary speeches to attack the Sikh community. These machineries, like radioactive materials, have a long half-life. Riots, too, have long half-lives, the trauma living on in communities across decades — Rahul Gandhi’s statement has re-victimised those affected by the violence, over 30 years later — but the difference is that the propaganda machineries carry within them the seed of fresh violence against new victims.
Lastly, we have to consider the political consequences of an apology. Rahul Gandhi’s error is egregious in that there appear to be no benefit in maintaining an innocence no one else believes; Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, and even Rahul himself have apologised before and not faced any political consequences. His failure to do so slips into the territory of obstinacy and blindness.
The difference between 1984 and 2002 is that an unequivocal apology by the BJP for 2002 will alienate the small but vital chunk of its base that believes 2002 was justified, that its victims deserved the harms done to them, and that the violence was a necessary political act that they are ready to repeat in the future. Even if the party leadership wanted to, and there is no indication that they do, it would cost them too much to apologise. It is this bind that has to be loosened so that victims in India can get the bare minimum — a sincere apology — and so that violence ceases to be a valid tactic in our country’s political landscape.
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