Shinde to Cameron: Why sorry seems to be the hardest word

You don't often hear expressions of contrition in politics, but on Wednesday,  quite remarkably, we heard two such - one from a visiting Prime Minister and the other from our home-grown Home Minister.

On a visit to Jallianwala Bagh, the site of the 1919 massacre of unarmed Sikh men, women and children by British colonial forces, British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged, in writing, that it was "a deeply shameful event in British history", one that must never be forgotten. It was, as Firstpost's Sandip Roy noted here, about "as close to a ringing apology as you can expect" from a sitting British Prime Minister for that particularly benighted blot on British colonial history, which happened nearly a century ago.

On quite another plane, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde expressed "regret" over his remark of a month ago in which he had claimed sensationally that the BJP and the RSS were organising camps to spawn "Hindu terror". In a statement issued on Wednesday, in response to the BJP's threat to disrupt proceedings in Parliament over his remark, Shinde said that his comment "has been understood to mean that I was linking terrorism to a particular religion and was accusing certain political organisations of being involved in organising terror camps."

'Sorry' is the hardest word in the English lexicon for politicians. PTI

'Sorry' is the hardest word in the English lexicon for politicians. PTI

But, in fact, Shinde said, "I had no intention to link terror to any religion." And since his comments had become controversial, he was "expressing regret to those who felt hurt by my statement." He would, he added, "continue to perform my duties... to ensure (that) harmony is maintained in (the) social fabric of India."

Both Cameron's acknowledgement of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as a "deeply shameful event", and Shinde's expression of "regret" were intended to be read as "apologies": the first as a call of the collective conscience on behalf of Britain, for the excesses of its colonial rule in India; and the second as an attempt to placate inflamed BJP sentiments and ensure smooth proceedings in Parliament, the budget session of which begins today.

Yet, in both cases, it fell short of a formal, full-fledged "apology". That word appeared to have been stuck in the throats of both politicians.

In Cameron's case, there had been a media build-up, in the run-up to his India visit, suggesting that he would offer a formal apology as an expression of goodwill with India in the hope of gaining access to its financial and defence markets - and its investments in British industry. But in the end, as Firstpost had noted, it was a "sorry apology", a "sales pitch dressed as a condolence message."

In fact, Cameron felt compelled to clarify later on Wednesday why he had stopped short of a full-fledged apology. The Jallianwala Bagh incident, had happened more than 40 years before he had been born. It would not, he added, "be the right thing to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for."

Likewise, with Shinde, his expression of "regret" falls well short of the "apology" that the BJP had demanded. In fact, Shinde appears to suggest  that a controversy had "been created" from his earlier remark, and that he is a victim of a misreading of his original statement. But in fact, Shinde's remark, made at the Congress chintan shivir retreat at Jaipur, was rather more deliberate than he now makes it out to be. Shinde had said at that time that he had proof that the BJP and the RSS were conducting "Hindu" terror camps. That's the kind of statement that doesn't lend itself to misinterpretation.

In any case, the BJP has accepted Shinde's expression of "regret" as more than adequate recompense for the original sin, and enough of a face-saver for it to allow parliamentary proceedings to continue, particularly since it believes it has political points to score against the UPA over the AgustaWestland helicopter scandal and the allegations surrounding PJ Kurien in the Suryanelli rape case.

In fact, Shinde's "clarificatory" statement was fashioned following a meeting among BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath and Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar on Wednesday, during which Swaraj indicated that given the gravity of Shinde's charge about "terror camps" organised by the BJP, the party should be kept out of Parliament and be probed - or he should withdraw the remarks and apologise.

Following Shinde's expression of regret, BJP spokesperson Nimala Sitharaman saw it as, in a way, a retraction of his earlier statement and a concession that the BJP and the RSS "do not train terrorists." Her party, she added, accepted the statement, and wished to get on with critical issues before Parliament.

But, in a larger  sense, Cameron's and Shinde's "non-apology" is, as Firstpost had noted here, part of a formulaic ritual that politicians in India and elsewhere abide by when they want to turn a page in history (or contemporary history) without making sufficient reparation.

Contemporary Indian history is littered with similar "half-apologies' and "non-apologies" that masquerade as full-fledged "apologies" that draw attention from larger failings.  Manmohan Singh's apology in 2005 to the Sikh community and the whole Indian nation for the anti-Sikh pogrom organised by Congress goons following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 was universally hailed, but a more clinical analysis of his "apology" shows it up to be far less sincere than is made out to be. Singh, for instance, couldn't even get himself to call them a pogrom: he merely alluded to the killings as something that "happened subsequent" to the "great national tragedy"  of Indira Gandhi's assassination. And in any case, it's striking that the apology came not from the Gandhi family, whose scion had in 1984 justified the killings as the earth-shaking tremors that are inevitable when a big tree falls.

Likewise, with Mulayam Singh, Mayawati and Narendra Modi. As Firstpost noted here, their expressions of seeming contrition are always laced with a streak of insincerity that shows up their "half-apology" or "non-apology" or an "unapologetic apology" as a mere rhetorical device to "move on".

A heartfelt "sorry", it would appear, is just about the hardest word in the English lexicon for politicians to unburden themselves of.

Updated Date: Feb 21, 2013 09:54 AM

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