Saturday, February 02, 2008

Forgive and move on, Dec 30, 2007

A few weeks before Narendra Modi’s re-election, JS Bandukwalla asked Muslims in Gujarat to forgive the 2002 killings. He said, “Forgiveness will release Muslims from the trauma of the past. It may also touch the conscience of Hindus, since the crimes were committed by a few fanatics in the name of Ram. Most important, it may give Gujarat a chance to close the tragic chapter of 2002 and move on.” Is Professor Bandukwalla’s magnanimous gesture a viable alternative to retributive justice? My first reaction is “No, the guilty must be punished”. But something inside me says that forgiveness might actually work better than revenge. Punishment is, after all, revenge sanctioned by the state.

In her book Forgiveness and Revenge, Trudy Govier argues that revenge damages the human core when one exploits others’ suffering to satisfy oneself. It is also obsessive and escalating. Forgiveness, on the other hand, establishes a new relationship with a wrongdoer. After the war in the Mahabharata, Yudhisthira forgives Dhritarashtra instead of punishing him. With that he releases Hastinapur from the burden of resentment, bringing closure to the old enmities. Emperor Ashoka walked the same path. Gandhi found forgiveness empowering since it made one see the wrongdoer in a new light.

Revenge is a sort of wild justice that runs in the human heart. If a good person suffers, then the bad one must suffer even more—this idea is embedded in one’s psyche. Consciously one denies it, proclaiming, “I'm not that sort of person”. Yet unconsciously one applauds when a villain gets his due. Literature is full of examples--Achilles’ rage in the Iliad, Ashwatthama’s reprisal in the Mahabharata, Chillingworth’s cold, calculated vengeance in Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter. In the movies people are always trying to get even—see Kill Bill. Retribution also drives politics--Dalits in India and Blacks in America want to right the catastrophic wrongs of untouchability and slavery. Revenge fulfills a legitimate human need, bringing a “profound moral equilibrium when people pay for the harm they have done,” says Susan Jacoby in Wild Justice.

Human beings have long wrestled with the right relationship between crime and punishment. When we lived in tribes, collective vendetta was the only justice. But as we moved into civil society, crimes became an offense against society which only the state was allowed to punish. In the 19th century, Utilitarians campaigned to rehabilitate criminals. But in the past fifty years public opinion has turned in favour of retribution because rehabilitation programs failed in prisons. The U.S. Supreme Court also brought back the death penalty in 1976. Today’s debate in America is more modest--about ensuring that judicial sentences are fair and proportional to the crime.

Although forgiveness is of limited value in individual criminal justice, it sometimes works in the case of collective events like riots, wars, and historic wrongs. Hence, it is worth giving Professor Bandukwalla’s idea a try. Those who believe in legal accountability will disagree, arguing that healing and communal trust will only be restored in Gujarat once the guilty are punished and victims’ right to reparations have been fulfilled. But I think that just as Nelson Mandela’s South Africa was healed through reconciliation, so might Muslims wounds in Gujarat and even Sikh wounds from Delhi’s 1984 riots. With one caveat, I think--an apology from the other side must accompany forgiveness. Having just been re-elected, it would be fitting for Modi to apologise to Gujarat’s Muslims in return for forgiveness. After that he should focus on rehabilitating victims and bring a tragic chapter to a close. Now, here’s a hopeful thought for the New Year.


Unknown said...

I am not sure if Modi's re-election is because of his own accomplishments, it is because the people have no other choice. Modi has cashed the economic boon that has happened more by default than his own actions. It is also because Gujarat is very well supported economically, by millions of Gujarati's living and prospering all around the world, who love their country and their state and invest there to maintain the connection with their motherland.
Some days ago I saw in a sting coverage on Headlines Today, how Modi's own men had admitted killing Muslims brutally. Least he can do is take stern actions against these people who have been exposed, and indicate his true intentions of being a "Gujarat lover" before being a Hindu. And then an apology may win over the Muslims of Gujarat.

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