Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Moral Code of Indian Democracy

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: The Moral Code of Indian Democracy

The BJP and the NDA will have every right to taunt the fulsome apology by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for 1984 once they have familiarised themselves with the letter "A". It is not only the first letter of most alphabets but also the first letter of the word "apology". They should then apologise profusely for the macabre riots of Gujarat on the last day of February and March 2002.

They could do it individually, with master baiter Narendra Modi leading them. Or they could orchestrate their efforts to include the Panchratna of the NDA: Vajpayee, Advani, Joshi, Sinha and of course the ubiquitous George Fernandes, who regularly charged in where angels feared to tread.

Of the five, Vajpayee, then Prime Minister, did sound apologetic but heckled mercilessly by the bright young things of his own party, retreated ceremoniously to the peace and comfort of his chair. There was no hint of regret from the others. After Modi won the Gujarat Assembly elections, even the need for regret was forgotten.

The three major sequences of barbarism in the last 21 years have been the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the Babri riots of 1992 and 1993, and the Gujarat riots of 2002. Roughly the same numbers died while millions were traumatised. For the space of about three days mobs were permitted by a deliberately absent authority to kill Sikhs in 1984 and Muslims in 1992 and 2002. There was no official explanation offered for the barbarism. How could there be, for those in power were either perpetrators or abettors of barbarism. In each case the unofficial explanation, advanced through the party network (party is an obvious pun), was "spontaneity" before which the administrative machinery was apparently helpless. This was an utter, malignant, unforgivable, immoral and inhuman lie. In all cases the government deliberately fed the violence for political profit for a carefully calibrated period after which the same government ordered the violence to stop. The blood tap was switched on. And the blood tap was switched off.

God knows there was provocation in 1984. What could be more provocative than the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi after the seesaw of violence through which Punjab had suffered in the previous years culminating with the assault on the Golden Temple, known as Operation Bluestar? This was further aggravated by images of Khalistani Sikhs abroad — note the adjective, it is Khalistani Sikhs, not all Sikhs — celebrating.

But a government is not a mob, unless it chooses to become one. I was in Calcutta in 1984. Jyoti Basu was chief minister. The anger in Calcutta was no less than in Delhi, and incidents began to occur. Jyoti Basu did not choose to win his next election by washing his hands in Sikh blood. Instead he ordered the Calcutta Police to do its first and foremost duty, and protect every citizen of this country, just as he gave security and safety to Muslims in 1992 after the destruction of the Babri mosque under the watchful eye of P.V. Narasimha Rao (the same watchful eye presided over the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 incidentally, this time as home minister). The Calcutta Police is made up of the same Indians who man the Delhi Police or the Gujarat Police. They are not particularly angelic. They obey orders.

Jyoti Basu’s moral courage also gave the lie to the dangerous cynicism that has become a core philosophy of the BJP and the Congress, which insists that electoral victory justifies every immoral decision. The Congress victory in 1984 and the Modi victory later became "self-evident" exoneration. But Basu and the Left Front have won every election in Bengal without pandering to the barbaric impulse.

The irony is that the Congress would have won in 1984 without presiding over the "spontaneous" reaction. I cannot be certain but I daresay that Modi would have won Gujarat also without Godhra because he is an efficient administrator with little interest in the parallel disease of Indian politics, corruption. But both were tempted by the easy option since their backbone had been washed away along with any moral fibre that they may have once possessed.

Anger can be spontaneous. Organised violence is stage-managed. The Congress and the BJP, along with the Shiv Sena in 1992 and 1993, perpetrated deliberate violence against minorities. The system buys time for political parties through commissions. It bought the Congress 21 years after 1984. But those who suffer the truth and those who know the truth do not need commissions. One of the most wrenching moments of my life was to watch a Sikh being burnt to death in front of a gurdwara in Delhi. It happened on the second day of the 1984 riots, and not on the first "spontaneous" day. The howling mobs on that day were mobilised by Congress leaders who saw victory and ministerships ahead and got them too. Gujarat’s pogrom against the Muslims was ordered by local BJP leaders and implemented by local thugs.

Dr Manmohan Singh was an economic bureaucrat in 1984, but he was finance minister in 1992, and therefore bears far greater responsibility for the events of 1992 and 1993. But at least he has apologised and done so from the office of the Prime Minister of India. An apology may not seem enough, and indeed it is not enough, given the horrors of the crime for which guilt is being accepted. An apology may mean nothing to the thousands whose world was ripped apart by lust of mob-evil. An apology does not exonerate the maniacs who fed on the blood of minorities. Such is the cynicism within the Congress that it actually thought it could get away without taking any action against the few that the Nanavati Commission thought fit to name. The Congress thought it could fudge its way with the help of a helpful report and Dr Manmohan Singh went along with his party instead of taking action at the beginning, instead of waiting for Parliament and media to place a mirror before his face. But an apology is something and something is better than nothing. An apology is the beginning of a process and not the end of the story. I do hope Dr Manmohan Singh remembers that.

Two decades have passed since 1984. A Sikh child born after those terrible riots has already voted once. More than a decade has gone by since 1992. Less than three years have passed since the Godhra riots. Dramatically differing time spans — with one thing in common. In each case the Congress or the BJP or the Shiv Sena won an immediate victory. And in each case the "victorious" party did not know that this was the last trumpet on the way to doom.

The Congress lost in 1989 and has lost its role as a national party. These days 145 seats in Parliament are advertised as a heroic victory. The Shiv Sena has lost its moorings, and is slipping into a coma. And within three years of Godhra the BJP, which thought that Gujarat was the base of a triumphant relaunch, has discovered that Gujarat was the basis of a defeat that has decomposed into an inner stench.

Time has its own law of justice. There is a moral law that operates in India’s democracy, a moral law whose judge and jury is the Indian voter and whose accused is the Indian politician. It is the same moral law that keeps the Left Front in power in Bengal and which will give it an overwhelming victory in the elections next year.

I believe that Dr Manmohan Singh apologised precisely because he is a deeply moral person. But this apology is only a first step. He should not confuse it with the horizon.

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