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Mainstream, VOL LII No 1, December 28, 2013 - ANNUAL 2013

The Politics of Exoneration

Sunday 29 December 2013

by Vasundhara Sirnate

In leading discussions today in newspapers, political campaigns and on television, most party spokespersons opposing Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate use one standard argument that revolves around condemning the post-Godhra communal violence in Gujarat in 2002. In response, the spokespersons of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters on online forums respond: “What about 1984?” Both sides use this as a ploy. The Congress uses this ploy to pronounce itself as a guardian of the Muslim minority, and, the BJP uses it to deflect the attack back at the Congress by implicating the other party into standing with them in the witness box.

I seek to place this type of debate in the context of the general moral torpor that pervades Indian politics. The anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984 and the riots in Gujarat in 2002 both resulted in deaths of many citizens. The only agreed-upon facts we have on both incidents are these—that these were riots which involved people of one group hunting and killing people of other groups, many people died in these incidents, the police in many localised instances acted in a biased manner against the targeted groups and that the political machinery in both States didn’t/couldn’t do enough to stop the riots. Inquiry commissions and independent observers have repeatedly established these assertions as facts.

Both instances are equally condemnable. Neither is remotely praiseworthy. However, what is becoming increasingly hard to ignore is that these instances are used to balance out the badness of the Congress and the BJP by each of the parties and their supporters. The public debate around 1984 and 2002 reveals a lack of any universal ethic of respect for people and their lives. For a country that prides itself on being ‘argumentative’, the quality of this argumentation is definitely below the bar because it is willing to admit as a logical argument the idea that one incident of communal violence justifies another.

Take, for instance, the spiel on the Godhra incident. The Godhra train-burning was seen as enough reason to undertake the revenge killing of many Muslims in Gujarat. In the case of Gujarat, the Nanavati Commission presented a report on the train burning, but said next to nothing on the communal violence that followed. This had to be left to other organisations such as the National Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Watch.

Similarly, for the longest time, the Congress never apologised to the Sikh community for 1984, although several governments did set up ten inquiry commissions to investigate the matter, the reports of which sometimes did not even agree on the number of people that were killed. The Congress finally offered an apology for 1984. However, little has been done in terms of rebuilding the lives of those who were affected by the trauma or bringing people involved in the rioting to justice.

People who invoke such arguments that justify one instance of group communal killing on the basis of another (spokespersons and supporters of parties and/or media personnel) often miss the fact that this is not logical argument. This is puerile argumentation that five-year-olds undertake when both siblings have stolen some candy from the fridge and the parent only admonishes one of them. Blaming the other is a defensive strategy deployed to a) implicate another, b) exonerate oneself by calling the actions logical because someone else did the same thing, and c) placing the onus of bad judgment and one-sidedness on the admonishing authority. The end result of this process is that this has become the pre-eminent form of political debate in India on communal violence—why is the BJP so bad when the Congress is to blame for 1984?

The hard question that this country needs to ask is this: what is it about our society and socialisation that allows individuals to admit as argument that any sort of killing is justified? To answer this question, we need to take a cold, hard look at the levels of everyday violence in our country and the manner in which we have immense psychological barriers that disallow us from internalising any ethic of condemnation or even starting any broad condemnation of violence in general.

There is violence within the family, at school, on the street, and, for many people (like domestic help), violence at work. The state responds with violence in the form of outright coercion of people and bureaucratically in the form of non-response, humiliation and insults towards petitioners. In this landscape of violence, not only are we unaffected when communal violence occurs, but we even see it as entertainment (like we see reporting on rapes). It is this same nature that manifests in street driving where most drivers terrorise pedestrians across all cities in India, harassment and abuse of women and the violence done to the very poor by someone even marginally better off.

The Congress and the BJP’s battle about the other’s pogrommatic behaviour is a macro manifestation of a general psychology where violence is not unique. Instead, it is the main idiom through which we deal with things that inconvenience us, through which the state asserts its power over society, and, through which our debate occurs. I submit then that this is not debate. Instead what our leaders and partisan hacks are doing is more akin to justifying violence as the predominant mode of ‘fixing’ this country.

The problem is also that Indians don’t expect better from their politicians. We don’t engage them in meaningful debate. We don’t ask them to show up on the same platform to confront each other in a debate about economic and policy issues (like the Americans do). We launch movements about accountability but should any politician show up at our doorstep we are obsequious to an embarrassing extreme. Through this we allow cults of personality of politicians like Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi to develop, because we send the signal that we don’t require answers from them and this allows them to give speeches, lectures and talks without being asked a single hard-hitting question. Instead, even our Prime Ministerial candidates subcontract the answering of these hard questions for their actions to smaller spokespersons from their parties, who in turn end up taking hardline party stances because it means distinguishing themselves as party loyalists.

Even our television debates ask Manichaean questions—does campaign finance have black money, or, is the ordinance to relieve parties from the Right to Information Act (RTI) good or bad? The television debates place smaller spokes-person (never the PM candidates) on the hot seat, and that is where the debates between parties begin and end. Further, these are points over mechanisms and processes and not about morality. If politics is an exercise in the furtherance of a society’s morality then our public and politicians are surely failing at this task.

Campaign speeches by Prime Ministerial candidates and bigger players in future coalitions are peppered with witty attacks passing off as debate, where the walk, or style of dressing of opposing politicians is criticised (much like something from a Hollywood news show assessing a red-carpet appearance of a female actor). In most speeches, as the Election Commission is finally noticing, facts are wrongly presented by politicians and inciting or populist remarks are made. There is no standard that undergirds such debate, especially when it comes to foreign policy or security (which is still primarily decided by the Home Ministry), and even comments in speeches on social and economic issues of empowerment are more in the form adhering to a checklist for politicians that is probably titled ‘things that need to be said before I step off this stage’.

When I begin thinking of the “what about 1984” question, I am clear in this indictment of most of the Indian public. Such debate is permissible only in a society where the majority can see violence as a norm of social organisation, where such violence is almost ritualised and is used to settle disputes and issues, instead of institutional processes and recourse to language. It is a glaring symptom of a society where people are autocratic in their personal relation-ships, but masquerade as democrats publicly and politically.

Our politicians are a reflection of us. The people who rise to become prime ministerial candidates are those that know how to reflect what people want to hear. We turn them into political celebrities and benefactors; we allow them to auction the state’s resources. When politicians’ actions don’t match our expectations of them (however low these expectations are), we alter our expectations to reflect their actions, instead of forcing them towards being better at doing their jobs. We see someone with even a local legislative post as a “powerful” person, instead of seeing them as people with a job to do. We felicitate them, invite them to chair our meetings, inaugurate our schools and preside over our panel discussions to offer their opinions. However, we forget that politicians need to earn our respect and we shouldn’t give it so very easily. They get paid through our hard-earned taxpayer moneys and we forget that they need to rely on our vote. We support their lifestyles through our nine-to-five jobs and over and above that we don’t say much when they exact their routine bonuses through scams or appoint their kin to plum posts.

It is this mentality so annoyingly prevalent in India—the mentality to venerate political power—that is one of the key things that needs to change in the long run. Today, we offer our politicians captive audiences where they can make speeches and leave. We don’t force them into better debate with each other and more importantly we don’t force them to debate with us.

The author is the Chief Coordinator of Research, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai.

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