PERSPECTIVE
SHOULD CONGRESS APOLOGISE FOR 1984?
SAY SORRY: Understanding the Idea of a Political Apology
- S Pal
SAY SORRY: Understanding the Idea of a Political Apology



ONCE AGAIN, the 34th anniversary of November anti-Sikh massacres saw sporadic voices asking the Congress to apologise for the murder of nearly 3,000 Sikhs in the national capital, and of many others elsewhere. Some time back when Rahul Gandhi tried to proffer that his party was not involved in these massacres, he faced a lot of opprobrium and was told that the Congress should, in fact, apologise.

The demand for apology is not new. For a good number of years, we have been hearing demands that Sonia Gandhi should apologize for Operation Bluestar or that the Indian Parliament should apologize for the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. 

The demand for political apologies has a long history, and contemporary traction. When things were bad in Sri Lanka, Colombo was rife with voices that New Delhi should apologize for the blunder of IPKF in Sri Lanka. Countries have been told to apologize for the use of "comfort women” during World War II. Someone still owes an apology for making Socrates drink from the poisoned chalice. 

What is an apology? What good does it do? Will Sikhs really be helped if they do make the Congress president some day to utter words seeking forgiveness?  How many and which words will amount to an apology? 

Leaders in several countries have sometimes spent many years in the wilderness asking that their rival/opponent must apologize for some denigrating act. Time came when both sides found enough common ground to claim unity. Was forgiveness a sub text? Can an apology be offered on behalf of another? Is it only for the victim to forgive? Since Socrates is not there, can someone else accept the apology? 

A large number of 20th century crimes are receding from human memory very rapidly because the collective guilt and shame of those crimes will be so much that any composition of demography will find it shameful. So guilt ensures forgetfulness. 
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What is an apology? What good does it do? Will Sikhs really be helped if they do make the Congress president some day to utter words seeking forgiveness?  How many and which words will amount to an apology? 
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That is why the concept of an apology for these crimes is not on the syllabus of anglophone moral philosophy. Christ taught that those who ask forgiveness must also grant it, and enshrined this maxim in the prayer that his disciples repeat each day. The love-one's-neighbour idea, which Jews and Christians believe to be the core of morality, is unintelligible without the context of mutual forgiveness. 

Let us engage with a more engaged, nuanced view on the subject, and ask if there is something for the Sikh community to ponder on? It was a Hungarian exile, Aurel Kolnai, who, in 1973, first talked of the subject when anglophone moral philosophers were analysing the "logic of moral discourse", and wondering whether it was different from the logic of "booh!" and "hurrah!". 

The idea that moral philosophy was really about moral emotions and their place in human fulfilment, was an idea that Kolnai – steeped in the phenomenology of Max Scheler, the German philosopher who delved into the world of ethics and philosophical anthropology – had never doubted. 

Of course, forgiveness does play a role in repairing psychic damage. The idea is personified in the form of a Forgiveness Institute at the University of Wisconsin. It also merited a great discussion in "Exploring Forgiveness,” the book edited by Robert D. Enright and Joanna North (1998) and introduced by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who perhaps did more than any other public figure to emphasize the necessity for forgiveness in the healing of communities. 

Archbishop Tutu’s idea of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, often cited by the Sikhs for a possible replication in India to deal with the years of the terrorism, greatly influenced the anglophone moral philosophy. Adam Morton's On Evil (2004) was a result of exactly such influences.

But let’s go back slightly in history and to Adam Smith's account of the moral emotions and of their root in sympathy. Also, Butler, Aristotle and Hegel too considered the idea of offering an apology or showering forgiveness as a strong one. One can, and must, mention E. R. Dodds's The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) and Bernard Williams's Shame and Necessity (1993) as having a significant impact on the formation of the idea of forgiveness. 
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There is a feeling that in the real world that some things will always remain unforgiven and that forgiveness must be distinguished from forgetting, condoning or turning away in defeat. 
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Forgiveness is both a process, whereby two people cope with an injury inflicted by one upon the other, and a virtue. But of course it is necessary that one understands virtue in the Aristotelian way, as a disposition, turned towards the good, and promoting the fulfilment of the person who possesses it. 

But there is a feeling that in the real world, some things will always remain unforgiven, and that forgiveness must be distinguished from forgetting, condoning or turning away in defeat. 

Forgiveness is not achieved unilaterally: it is the result of a dialogue, which may be tacit, but which involves reciprocal communication of an extended and delicate kind. It can happen either way. The one who has assaulted can go back and seek forgiveness, admitting the mistake, realizing that a wrong had been done, one that is often impossible to undo, and then, even then, seek to be accepted into a community of the respectable. Or one who forgives goes out to the one who has injured him, and his gesture involves a changed state of mind, a reorientation towards the other, and a setting aside of resentment. 

Such an existential transformation is not always or easily attained, and can only be achieved through an effort of cooperation and sympathy in which each person strives to set his own interests aside and look on the other from the posture of the impartial spectator.

But any such step depends on how one has narrated the sequence to oneself about which the apology is to be sought. There has been significant work on "narratology" of this kind. Each side’s narrative is both an account of the injury, and an allocation of blame. There is a narration of the ideal and a realization of reality. Each side faults the other, expects to be exonerated. And all of this is intertwined. Forgiveness can only be the result of most sincere efforts to harmonize the narratives so that the story comes to an end in a new beginning. 

Is this something that has happened as far as Operation Bluestar is concerned? Have the Congress and the Sikhs actually made any sincere effort at marrying, or even contrasting, the two highly different narratives? 

No vacuous apology can measure upto these essential tests. During years of intra-Akali ferment in the late 1990s and early 2000s, incessant hammering by the late Gurcharan Singh Tohra pushed Parkash Singh Badal to land up at the Akal Takht with folded hands, albeit as a precursor to achieve the very vested form of so called unity.

Similarly, the fellow then in Sirsa and now in jail did proffer an apology of sorts to the top temporal seat of a community he had clearly hurt. Even now, the incumbent Akali leadership is mulling over the idea of putting up a huge show of seeking forgiveness as a counterweight to the crowd at Bargari. But does any of these actions pass muster as an apology in a real sense?

The injury and the action of seeking an apology is as important as the final forgiveness. Any view that the forgiveness is simply a gift is a negation of the idea of reconciliation through such a phenomenon. 

Archbishop Tutu would never have approved of it, nor can any sane human being. The half-hearted apologies that came from some top Congress leaders for 1984 and from Narendra Modi for 2002 fall in that trash box. 

No one can forgive if there is no recognition of the fault. No one can recognize a fault if there is an indifference to it, as is seen in the case of Congress’ relationship with the Sikhs, or the BJP’s ties to the Muslims. Resentment must be felt; but resentment is a moral emotion, founded in judgment, and can, in the course of rational dialogue, be "set aside". Without a rational dialogue, or without a dialogue at all, it cannot happen. 
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Forgiveness can only be the result of most sincere efforts to harmonize the conflicting narratives of allocation of blame and expectation of exoneration. That has not happened in case of Operation Bluestar or November 1984 pogroms. The narratives remain highly different.  
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There is heard some interpretation of the idea of forgiveness that does not make the process of realization incumbent upon the act of granting an apology. One often hears in this context the example of turning to God for forgiveness. But then, that is not equivalent to petitioning an injured party. 

God cannot be injured, but He can and does forgive us. By seeking forgiveness from God, we seek to restore our relationship with Him. But this also comes alongside confession, contrition, penitence and atonement.

The idea of a political apology is much more complex. And then there remains the question of whether collective acts can be forgiven by their victims. The University of Alabama offered apology in 2004 for its exploitation of slaves in the nineteenth century. Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defence, had apologized for the debacle in Vietnam. Were these forgiven? 

Sonia Gandhi did say some reconciliatory words about Operation Bluestar. Then PM Manmohan Singh had said some touching words about anti-Sikh pogroms. Narendra Modi came fairly close to regretting what happened on his watch in Gujarat.

These are classic Indian political "apologies.” Uttered into the void, a classic way of side-stepping responsibility rather than assuming it and seeking forgiveness. Missing are the acts of penitence. 

We must understand that such a vacuous apology, or a resolution in Parliament, or a two-minute silence for the victims of the 1984 pogroms, or a Sonia Gandhi someday deciding to pay obeisance at the Akal Takht, are no replacement for the much more serious task of setting the record straight and executing justice. 

Yes, forgiveness plays a part because human beings are made in such ways that the demands of justice may not be able to sometimes repair the damage. But in politics, a real apology should always have justice in mind. The language of forgiveness too often softens and sentimentalizes the issue. Forgetfulness of a wrong cannot be tagged as an apology and peddled as a political bargain chip. Then, it will only be a guilt-edged political security. And it is difficult to forgive anything edged with guilt, not even in times when politicians secure their future with gilt-edged securities. 
 

Disclaimer : PunjabToday.in and other platforms of the Punjab Today group strive to include views and opinions from across the entire spectrum, but by no means do we agree with everything we publish. Our efforts and editorial choices consistently underscore our authors' right to the freedom of speech. However, it should be clear to all readers that individual authors are responsible for the information, ideas or opinions in their articles, and very often, these do not reflect the views of PunjabToday.in or other platforms of the group. Punjab Today does not assume any responsibility or liability for the views of authors whose work appears here.

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