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Closure, yet so far

india Updated: Aug 31, 2009 23:09 IST
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Of the many failures that characterise the polity and society in contemporary Gujarat, probably the most dangerous is the unprecedented extent of the arrest and collapse of processes of authentic reconciliation, because of which wounds refuse to heal. People of diverse faiths live side by side or in segregated ghettoes but in an uneasy, warped, 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, reflected in raucous and openly prejudiced sectarian taunts in speeches of senior elected public leaders. They cast aspersions on the patriotism of Muslim citizens, parody their supposedly pervasive practices of polygamy and breeding large families, decry the alleged slaughter of the cow despite deep reverence towards her by Hindus, and claim their wide sympathies with terrorist violence.

Muslim ghettoes are routinely discriminated in public services, Muslim youth are picked up almost randomly on charges of terrorism and their deaths in ‘encounters’ or extra-judicial killings are explained away by State authorities with rarely even the façade of any credible evidence of their terrorist links and the circumstances in which it became necessary for the latter to take their lives without the due process of law. Their Muslim identity is accepted as reason enough to believe that they must have been terrorists, and terrorists do not deserve the protection of law.

There are few organised social and political spaces — official or non-official — in Gujarat today, for fostering forgiveness and compassion. There is instead a frightening communal chasm, accepted or actively fostered by the powerful political, administrative, business and media establishments. This engineered divide is growing exponentially between people of different religious persuasions. 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.

After the communal bloodbath that accompanied the vivisection of the country as it seized its independence, leaving a million people dead, there have been thousands of riots, or episodes of mass clashes between people of Hindu and Muslim faith, and pogroms, resulting in the loss, according to one painstaking estimate, of at least 256,28 lives (including 1,005 in police firings). It is remarkable that despite this recurring communal bloodletting during and after the traumatic partition of the country, there has been no systematic structured official (or even significant non-official) processes of ‘truth and reconciliation’, to help perpetrators and survivors of hate violence come together; to see and speak to each other; acknowledge their crimes and failings, their hate and fear, their grievances and suspicions; to seek and offer forgiveness, trust and goodwill; and ultimately help bring closure and eventual healing.

Given the enormity of contemporary threats posed by a deliberately fostered communal divide and violence to the very survival of secular democracy in India, fuelled further by the manufactured global ‘war on terror’, it is imperative today more than ever that systematic, sustained processes of reconciliation and justice in communal relations between sporadically embattled people of diverse faiths and ethnicities in India are established.

The Indian people have arguably had more experience than most through millennia of living with diversity. Therefore, even without organised processes of reconciliation, there are usually natural spontaneous processes of reaching out and healing that follow bouts of sectarian violence. There may be debates about whether without structured modes of facilitating reconciliation for survivors of the cataclysmic Partition violence of 1947, there has been adequate closure for families that experienced the agony and permanent uprootment from and the irreparable loss of their loved ones and homeland.

My own parents and their extended families lost their homes amidst hate, slaughter and arson in a region of the country that became a part of Pakistan in 1947, and their grief of loss remains dormant more than 60 years later, just below the surface. Perhaps we needed much earlier to bring together people who lived with the violence from both sides of the border, to share truth, discover their common burdens of suffering and privation, and thereby find the spaces for individual and collective forgiveness.

In other communal conflagrations that I have witnessed and handled in small district towns as a district administrator, I have observed that within days of such mass sectarian upheavals, persons of goodwill and compassion reach out from each community and others grasp their outstretched hands gratefully. There are spontaneous individual and collective expressions of remorse and grief at the loss suffered by the other community, and of compassion, through which processes of social and personal healing set in.

By contrast, the defining feature of Gujarat after the 2002 massacre is its frozen compassion. It is the determined absence of remorse both by the State and among many segments of the people, the conspicuous absence of social and political processes of reconciliation, and a resultant persisting bitterly unreconciled divide and distrust between the estranged communities. It is not surprising, therefore, more than seven years later, that what is most scarce in the parched earth of allegedly vibrant Gujarat is reconciliation and empathy.

Excerpted from Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre (Penguin)

Harsh Mander is Convenor, Aman Biradari. The views expressed by the author are personal.