My party and the fall of the tree

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RECENTLY I was invited to a panel discussion on the occasion of the release of Roli Books title, The Tree that Shook India. Although it is flattering that the authors, Phoolka and Mitta, should have thought of me, it was also a cause of worry that they did not approach another of our party colleagues. The list of the panelists itself was indicative of what might be expected; they included Brinda Karat (CPM), Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa (Akali Dal), Ravi Shanker Prasad (BJP) and former Chief Justice Rajinder Sachar, with Yogendra Yadav as the moderator. The canvas of the discussion was not the theme of the book alone, but the recurrence of large scale violence against particular communities. So Gujarat and Nandigram were inevitably flagged. Yet in view of the book and the predominantly Sikh audience at the venue, 1984 had to remain the focus.

My co-panelists spoke along predictable lines: Yogendra Yadav had at the very beginning warned the audience not to expect startling formulations beyond the stated party lines. But he reserved a carefully worded caveat for me: the book he said was an indictment of the Congress on every page and that I was brave to have ventured into that meeting at all. In response I tried to be fair and honest without handing out a birch to the opposition to flog us with. The exchange at the event may be of interest to the general Congress worker as indeed to the public at large.

It is my considered and honest view that in taking the title of the book from late Rajivji’s speech at India Gate as India’s new prime minister, and suggesting that it was a signal for a massive cover-up operation to follow, the authors were unfair and harsh to the memory of a young patriot who fell to cruel machinations of the enemy of our people. The words in question were at best a description, not to speak of an explanation of the events that took place in the wake of the assassination of Indiraji. I told the gathered people that we knew Rajivji as a liberal, caring, compassionate man, who would himself have regretted the words if he were alive today and was told that they had hurt our Sikh brothers and sisters.

Having said that I would not for a moment argue that nothing went amiss and that complete justice has finally been done. There were serious failures then and perhaps failures later as well. But then how often do we citizens feel comforted at the conduct of the police even in normal times? Again, is the level of satisfaction with the judicial system anywhere near our legitimate expectation? There is no doubt that large-scale massacres and the collapse of the state machinery leading to untold misery are deplorable and deserve the strongest condemnation; however cynical agents and officials of the state destroying the life of a single citizen is morally no less unacceptable. Misery and pain of an individual does not become any less in comparison with large scale agony inflicted on many. There are many problems with the Indian state that we manage to live with but when the magnitude becomes unbearable we are compelled to protest. If we are to blame it must be for more than just failure to protect the citizen on a particular day and a particular place; we must take responsibility for what happens everyday. If we respect the loss of our compatriots we ought to work towards ensuring that such vile conduct never shatters anyone’s life again. Single mindedly pursuing retribution and vengeance alone will undoubtedly not get anywhere but of course waiving accountability will hardly help. Hoping that punishing the guilty will prevent future repetition is turning a blind eye to the reasons for the inhuman display.

Whilst there are no words to lessen the pain and helplessness of the victims and their families, the real worry is the inability or deliberate refusal of judicial officers to do their job transparently and without fear or favour. Chief Justice Sachar, often a beacon in an ocean of doubt, was left quite speechless on that issue, perhaps out of sheer decency. He and Chief Justice S.M. Sikri who lent his name and support to the citizens’ endeavour to seek truth and who sadly is no longer with us could not persuade their younger successors to adopt a style of functioning that would not lead to doubts about the substance. Politicians can be blamed for their narrow concerns (and the politicians present at the discussion might not be entirely immune) but when the judiciary leaves a bitter taste we are in real trouble. A retired Supreme Court chief justice was virtually put in the dock by a superannuated puisne judge and even the latter does not get full marks from the authors of the book. These are people who had the power to hang other people, yet minus their robes we are unable to trust them as human beings. Is that not a problem that will haunt us well beyond the time when the fumes and ashes of 1984 have settled?

How much relief and justice has been delivered to the victims of 1984 is now well documented but perhaps not publicised enough. How much accountability has been imposed judicially and politically is also well known. What is left of the alleged perpetrators of horror and crime after time has taken its toll is there for everyone to see. The lives that have been rebuilt are a glimmer of hope on the horizon. It is for the victims to decide how much longer they want to and how much further they feel emotionally obliged to pursue the wrongdoers. There is a line at which reconciliation must begin. I believe it has already begun. We can hasten the process or slow it down. But it will not serve any purpose to blame everything on a grand conspiracy that was done with surgical precision as Indiraji’s mortal remains were consigned to the flames. There were undoubtedly rabble-rousers and human predators on the prowl but they could not have succeeded if something had not been simmering for sometime. There was an unwholesome atmosphere of several years of trauma and it was provided a terrible detonator. Suddenly respectable and likeable persons one had known for years acquired images that are impossible to accept. Clearly our democracy is far from perfect and we need to set that right urgently. That means not just improving our institutions but also nurturing the right persons to manage them.

I feel that the book may well be a closure although its stated object is to continue the pursuit of accountability. The Sikhs who were present in the audience, from differing backgrounds and with vast and varied experiences, reflected the remarkable resilience of the community. It is no small matter that they have not only rebuilt what was so viciously damaged but also regained their place of pride in the national endeavour. One of the panelists complained that posters with a Sikh gentleman’s face were put up by Congress functionaries with a motif: ‘Can you trust this man?’ I cannot say if that is true but today we would certainly put up a poster of a Sikh face (Dr Manmohan Singh) and proudly ask the same question: ‘Would you trust this man?’ Such a poster would not be about party politics but to tell us all Indians that no fire of hate can burn our civilizational bonds and humane beliefs.

Salman Khurshid