Gujarat: Justice or Forgive and Forget?

In view of what is going on in Gujarat where victims have been denied justice for more than ten years, a debate has started that one should forgive and forget and march forward and engage oneself in economic development which is taking place there. For how long the victims will keep on wailing over what happened in 2002, however disastrous it might have been. Sometime ago Maulana Vastanvi too, who runs several madrasas and other high level secular educational institutions, expressed similar views and advised Muslims to join the developmental stream in Gujarat and benefit from it.

It is, in my view, a very important debate and one must understand all its implications thoroughly. It has both moral and legal implications quite serious in nature. At one level it might have moral appeal that one should forgive the killers of Muslims in Gujarat and forget the whole incident. But, at another level, one may argue, it has equally serious legal and constitutional implications. First, let us understand the difference between forgiving and forgetting. We often use the two words together and in one breath.  However, there is a significant difference between the two. One belongs to morality (forgiving) and the other to psychology. It is easier to forgive (though not so easy for those who seek revenge) but much more difficult to forget.

Gujarat genocide was traumatic in nature and it is nearly impossible to forget the trauma it caused to thousands of its victims in Gulbarg society, Naroda Patia and other parts of Ahmedabad and North and Central Gujarat. There have been countless incidents in which women were raped and brutally done to death in the presence of their close relatives and many relatives were killed in front of their eyes as in the case of Bilqis Begum.

Can such traumatic experiences ever be forgotten, however hard one tries?  Even an ordinary rape incident is traumatic enough for a woman to forget, but one committed during communal riots and accompanied with other violent barbarities, is much more so. Also one’s memory is selective as it forgets selectively. It is a psychologically selective process. What is remembered is helpful for psychological reasons, and what is forgotten also plays a healthy role. Certain memories will make life a hell and are thus selectively forgotten and at another level remembering an incident plays a healthy role. So it is a very complex process.

Forgiving, on the other hand, is a conscious moral decision which a person has to take overcoming lots of initial resistance from within. One is programmed by nature to take revenge for the wrong done to an individual by another individual. But then often seeking revenge leads to continued bloodbath and hence religious scriptures exhort us to forgive the enemy in order to break the cycle of violence. The Bible even advises us to offer the other cheek, if one slaps us on one cheek -- a most difficult moral decision to make. The idea is to put the enemy to shame for his/her act of violence.

But forgiving has other conditions. Forgiving, as already pointed out, is moral in nature and is primarily meant for change of heart. It should succeed in bringing about reconciliation. If it fails to bring about reconciliation and a change of heart on the part of the perpetrator, such forgiveness is infertile and wasted though morally it may still be desirable. And in the case of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, he has not even once owned up to his responsibility as head of state government (if not as active perpetrator though it is alleged by many that he was).

Many had suggested that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission be set up on the South African model but the idea was rejected outright. That means there was no sign of repentance on the part of the perpetrators who are ideologically motivated and consider what they did to their victims in 2002 was fully ‘justified’ by their Hindutva ideology. Thus even the act of forgiveness on the part of victims does not move their hearts, let alone change their hearts. Thus, the act of forgiveness will not achieve anything in Gujarat. The perpetrators and their patrons think their party is in power and hence no one can touch them. The Best Bakery and Bilqis Bano cases had to be tried outside Gujarat state at the direction of the Supreme Court in order to give justice to the victims. Not only that, these perpetrators keep on threatening their victims to withdraw cases against them, else they will not be allowed to come back to their villages from where they had to flee during the Gujarat carnage.

Had these perpetrators shown any sign of repentance it would have been worthwhile to forgive them and bring about reconciliation. Forgiveness, when the perpetrators show signs of repentance and reconciliation, is good for the moral health of the victims who will be able to successfully resist the feelings of revenge. In a way, it compensates the victim for the spiritual suffering due to the violence and humiliation inflicted on them.

Now let us take the question of justice. The question of justice is no less important. It is perhaps more important. The mighty and powerful should not get away with what they do in subjecting the weaker sections to oppression and violence. The whole basis of democracy is on the rule of law. And when the head of the government who is responsible for running the state on the basis of the Constitution and maintain law and order not only fails to do so but justifies violence by citing “Newton’s law of action and reaction” publicly in the midst of violence, the matter of justice becomes even more important.

To strive for justice in a constitutional democracy is most essential for the health of democracy as well as for the moral compensation to the victims. The idea of justice, though it basically falls in the legal category, has a victim’s point of view, which falls is in the moral category. If the perpetrators are subjected to the process of justice, it brings about an inner satisfaction to the victims and their faith in the system is strengthened. However, if ends of justice are not met, it may have serious implications for a constitutional democracy as indefinite wait for justice erodes one’s faith and the system’s credibility. Justice delayed is justice denied and victims feel this system favours only the politically powerful. But for the repeated intervention of the Supreme Court, no justice would have been available to the victims in Gujarat.  

What happened in Gulberga Society was utterly shocking. Former MP, Ehsan Jafri and 61 others were bunt alive and even the dead bodies were maltreated and despite all efforts of the widow of Jafri, justice remains denied. The Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court gave a clean chit to Modi though Raju Ram Chandran, amicus curiae, has clearly maintained that SIT has erred in giving a clean chit to Modi. The widow of Ehsan Jafri has not given up and her yeoman struggle clearly shows that after such a grave tragedy, justice is the only hope for the victims. Justice, not for revenge, as revenge could have been taken in other ways also, but justice for preventing such monstrosities in future and justice for relieving the survivors from the guilt that they did their best for those innocents killed in such a barbaric manner.

And it is not in Gujarat alone. What happened in 1984 with innocent Sikhs in North India is also equally shocking. The anti-Sikh riots culprits also have not been punished as they too are quite powerful. And what happened in Hashimpura & Maliana in 1987 is even more shocking. More than forty young Muslim boys were pulled from their houses, loaded onto trucks, taken to a canal on the outskirts of Meerut, shot point blank and their bodies thrown into the Hindon canal. It is more than 25 years since and yet the culprits have not been punished. One wonders whether there is rule of law in our democracy. Our administrative machinery and delay in dispensation of justice shows us in a poor light. What is worse is that our law and order machinery has been badly communalized and what is even more worse is that it is known to our political rulers and yet no effective steps are being taken to cleanse the machinery of this malaise. Some political parties openly provoke caste and communal violence for political benefit and go scot free.

Once justice is dispensed honestly, politicians and policemen would certainly be afraid of the consequences, and communal violence would not occur, at least not like what happened in Gujarat and elsewhere. It is for this reason that justice needs to be done, otherwise our democratic functioning will further degenerate and law and order will become a thing of the past.

Those who talk of “forget and march ahead” have to think seriously of the consequences of what they are saying. They may be giving such advice sincerely so that the community may engage itself in matters of education, development etc. But while this is important, efforts to get justice is even more important for reasons stated above. Efforts to get justice should not be under-rated in any case. Above all, obtaining justice has a cathartic effect for victims who otherwise suffer constant mental pain. (Secular Perspective)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 May 2012 on page no. 5

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