Sonia for 1984 and Modi for 2002: Memory versus forgetting
Separated by 18 years, the 1984 and 2002 riots are deep gashes in our collective memory. The two riots are part of the debate over secularism between the Congress and BJP
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” novelist Milan Kundera began The Book of Laughter and Forgetting with this profound observation. Indeed, those who wield power are inclined to efface the imprints of their despicable, questionable actions of the past, for the purpose of recreating on the slate of the cleansed public memory an endearing image of themselves.
Yet, their darkled past returns to haunt them at times least expected, often because of the relentless struggle of individuals whose motivation is to hold the powerful accountable for their misdeeds. Occasionally, though, it is also because of the self-serving compulsions of their comrades-in-arm with whom they shared a common past.
Kundera’s struggle-of-memory-against-forgetting theme connected the two seemingly disparate incidents of last week: Deputy Inspector General of Police D.G. Vanzara’s resignation letter in which he fulminated against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi; and the summons a federal court in the United States issued to Congress president Sonia Gandhi for allegedly shielding those who triggered the 1984 riots in Delhi.
Separated by 18 years in their occurrence, the 1984 and 2002 riots are deep gashes in our collective memory, and a searing reproach on the political class. Over the years, though, the two riots have been appropriated as an argument in the debate over secularism between the Congress and the BJP. Allusions to Modi’s dereliction of duty during the 2002 riots inevitably invite a riposte from the BJP: what about the 1984 riots, which took place on the watch of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi? Ironically (but also thankfully), in their attempts to win debating points, the two parties have also ensured that neither 1984 nor 2002 is forgotten.
Vanzara’s missile-like missive establishes a connection between the riots and encounters alleged to be fake, declaring as he does that the atmosphere following the burning of a train in Godhra and the mayhem of 2002 encouraged Pakistanis to harness the discontent among the Muslim populace for carrying out terror attacks in Gujarat. The riot-terror link is one the BJP loathes accepting; it testifies to the resilience of memory and the inability of the powerful to erase from it what they wish.
More significantly, Vanzara says “the pro-active policy of zero tolerance for terrorism” was taken at the highest level of administration (read Modi). Might not his letter inspire other canaries of Modi to sing about his government’s connivance in the 2002 riots, a charge some police officers as well ordinary people have made? He goes on to argue: Since the CBI investigators claim that he and other officers were engaged in fake encounters, then those who formulated anti-terrorism policy should also be arrested.
It’s a logic which should have an inherent appeal for, say, former minister Maya Kondani or Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi, who have been condemned to spend their lives in prison for their role in the 2002 riots but the person who benefitted most from it is now being projected as a prime ministerial candidate. You can’t but wonder through whom the past might decide to whisper its secrets next.
Obviously, Vanzara’s intercession on behalf of memory wasn’t for ideological reasons such as upholding ideas of justice. His purpose was to issue a veiled threat to Modi that he shouldn’t, in his ambition to become prime minister, forget the officers who implemented his policy. For Modi, the past has been squeezed of all its benefits; he must move on to reinvent a new persona. For Vanzara, this could mean years of languishing in prison. He must, therefore, not let Modi or the public forget the riots and encounters, the memory of which civil society activists have anyway kept alive.
Last week, too, the memory of 1984 returned because of the summons a US district court issued to Sonia Gandhi in response to the Sikhs for Justice (SOJ) filing a law suit. The SOJ demands compensatory and punitive damages from Sonia for shielding those accused of triggering the macabre 1984 riots. Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi seemed shocked: “Summons issued almost 30 years after the event when the Congress president is on a medical visit is, to put it mildly, astonishing.”
But ask lawyer HS Phoolka, who has been tirelessly working to secure justice for the victims of the 1984 riots, and he will provide you a perspective contrary to Singhvi’s. For one, Phoolka said, Sonia could have ensured that a chargesheet against former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar was filed in court. An FIR was registered against Kumar in 1987 for his involvement in the murder of four Sikhs. After five years of investigation, the assistant commissioner of police and the investigating officer of Delhi’s Nangloi police station prepared and signed a chargesheet on April 8, 1992, saying that there was enough evidence to try Kumar.
Usually, a chargesheet once prepared is filed in court, which commits it to trial in two-three weeks. But the chargesheet against Kumar hasn’t been filed in court even 22 years after it was prepared. Couldn’t Sonia have prompted the government to initiate action on it, asks Phoolka, who in his fury kept citing other instances in which she could have interceded to ensure justice was meted out to the 1984 victims.
Thus, the feisty lawyer pointed out, the Central Bureau of Investigation has twice given a clean chit to Jagdish Tytler in the 1984 riots, yet the court rejected it on each occasion. Instead of being marginalized in the Congress, he remains an office-bearer. Equally astonishing is the case of Kamal Nath, against whom journalist Sanjay Suri, then working for The Indian Express, filed an affidavit with the Mishra Commission, which probed the 1984 riots. Suri said he had seen Kamal Nath lead a mob which burnt down Gurudwara Rakabganj, as also two Sikhs. We all know Kamal Nath has grown in stature over the last 30 years, often entrusted with sensitive ministerial portfolios.
The nub of Phoolka’s argument can be summed thus: Sonia has deployed her formidable clout to nudge the UPA into passing the RTI Act, NREGA, and very recently, the Food Security Bill. Couldn’t she have brought her weight to bear upon those intent on stonewalling attempts to send to trial those believed to have engineered the 1984 riots? Perhaps she hasn’t because it would mean implicating the Congress in the grisly riots. Or perhaps, like Vanzara, the accused could threaten to divulge the details of the conspiracy behind the 1984 riots.
Until justice is done and the ghosts of the past buried, we as a nation are doomed to witness the struggle of memory against forgetting.
The author is a Delhi-based journalist, and can be reached at email@example.com
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