OPINION
NETA DOING SEWA — FOR MISTAKES UNSPECIFIED
Deconstructing the Idea of a Political Apology
- SP Singh*
Deconstructing the Idea of a Political Apology



PHOTOGRAPHS OF TOP leaders of the opposition Shiromani Akali Dal doing penance-style sewa at the Golden Temple are making a splash in the media. Memes, sarcastic comments and outright derogatory messages are doing the rounds on the social media, and the message-managing backroom boys of the erstwhile rulers are at their wits’ end to find a positive spin.

The idea is to tell the people that the party has realised that it did commit some errors in the past, "knowingly or unknowingly,” and that it seeks forgiveness for the same. However, the perception problem remains because there was no public discourse of introspection and no transparent debate about why the Akali leadership finds itself in doldrums. 

People do not even know who, how and why reached this decision of a public-spectacle style sewa at the gurdwara. Clearly, it is an image management exercise as otherwise, a penance activity does not require live telecast and media circus.

A political activity is attracting political commentary, but we need to peel the layers of this very construct of political apology and understand where it comes from, where it is rooted, and why it has worked, and sometimes not, in the history of mankind. 
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The perception problem continues to dog the Akali Dal because people saw no introspection and no act of penance that could lead to atonement. The spectacle of sewa was seen as an image management exercise requiring live telecast and a media circus.
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People are familiar with the oft-repeated though sporadic voices asking the Congress to apologise for the murder of nearly 3,000 Sikhs in the national capital. 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 such a political 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? Are there any words or actions that can make the Akali Dal’s apology valid or more meaningful?

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? 
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The demand for political apologies has a long history, and contemporary traction. What is an apology? What good does it do? How many and which words will amount to an apology? 
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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. 

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. 

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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In the real world, some things will always remain unforgiven and 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 views the scenario as an 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. 
 
Had the Akalis tried to lay out a narrative, truthfully and with all its nuances, it would have put many other parties and leaders also in the dock. There was no attempt to harmonise the narratives. But then, that has become a defining feature of politics that only looks at the exploitative value of any issue. Has there ever been any effort at harmonising the narratives about what led to Operation Bluestar? Have the Congress and the self-proclaimed representatives of the Sikhs actually made any sincere effort at marrying, or even contrasting, the two highly different narratives? 

The obdurate stance that one side will own up its sins only when the other admits its unethical acts merely solidifies partisan thought processes for the inheritors of a legacy of bitterness. 

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. 

The half-hearted apologies that came from some top Congress leaders for 1984 and from Narendra Modi for 2002 fall in that trash box. If those did not work, then where do leaders find the gall that their latest shenanigan will? 

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 this latest case of reinstatement in public perception through images of big people cleaning shoes of commoners. 

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. 

But, of course, there is an interpretation of the idea of forgiveness that does not make the process of realization incumbent upon the act of granting an apology — you hear in this context the example of turning to God for forgiveness. But then, that is not equivalent to petitioning an injured party. 
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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 this latest case of reinstatement in public perception through images of big people cleaning shoes of commoners. 
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God cannot be injured, but He can and does forgive us. By seeking forgiveness from God, we seek to restore our relationship with Him. One can be generous and assume the possibility that the top leadership of the Akali Dal is merely repairing its relationship with the higher superior power. But then this also comes alongside confession, contrition, penitence and atonement — factors we did not see in play.

Not only the idea of a political apology is much more complex, there also 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 forgiveness seeking exercise mounted in full view of the cameras, or a resolution in Parliament 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. 
 

 

(*Author SP Singh is a senior journalist and anchor of the widely applauded television debate programme, Daleel with SP Singh. The original Punjabi version of this article was published by the Punjabi Tribune and can be read here.)

 


 

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