TO LIVE FOREVER in someone’s debt is to prolong the life of a good deed.
TO LIVE FOREVER with a sense of guilt is to prolong the life of an acknowledgement that a bad deed was indeed done, and that it must never ever happen again.
TO CARRY THE BEAST on your back, its arms dangling around your neck, is to reiterate that there was a time we had made friends with the beast within us, and now we have gained enough sense to admit that we shall no more be beastly.
Every time a German kid visits the Auschwitz museum, he looks the beast in the eye, and knows he must never allow it to overpower him.
An apology can have many meanings for different people, but the one most dangerous that it can hold for large sections of masses is that due solatium has been paid, the victim has been recompensed in precious non-tangible currency, and that no further guerdoning is required.
The demand for apology is not new.
The centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh has triggered a rather feverish debate on the subject, and there seemed to be an exertion of pressure upon the Theresa May government to make an official apology.
That’s exactly the problem with an apology.
We hear apology only when we hear the word ‘apology’. We demand apology basically because we want to claim that we made someone to apologise for a reprehensible action. That’s what explains our annual collective community cry to bemoan the fact that the Congress has not apologised for the Emergency, that it has yet to apologise for the murder of nearly 3,000 Sikhs in the national capital, that Narendra Modi hasn’t apologised for Gujarat riots of 2002.
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. We wanted to hear the word ‘apology’ from Rahul Gandhi’s lips, not even wanting to know if he as a person has engaged with the issue at any depth and grappled with where history and politics has placed him.
The demand for apology is not new. For a good number of years, we have been hearing demands that Congress 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? What exactly must Theresa May utter, and standing where should she say those words, that we can tell our future generations that Britain apologised?
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn demanded a "full, clear and unequivocal apology for what took place"
Do words, that clearly go much beyond an apology, uttered by Jeremy Corbyn and hundreds of others who represent the British people, of any comparative value? Are the words of Justin Rowlatt, great grandson of Sidney Rowlatt, the author of the infamous piece of legislation that had triggered the movement which brought those people together in the Jallianwala Bagh on that April 13 of 1919, not actually much more
than an apology?
Leaders in several countries have sometimes spent 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?
We are asking Britain to apologise. Presume that it does. So who will accept that apology on behalf of those who fell to the bullets in the April of 1919? Britain might seek forgiveness, but is it ours to bestow?
By revisiting Jallianwala Bagh a hundred years after the tragedy, we are engaging with our past, and our present. We are ensuring that forgetfulness does not triumph over what is sublime in our pain and struggle. 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.
Let us engage with a more engaged, nuanced view on the subject, and ask if there is something for us to ponder on? Have we engaged with the 1984 massacres enough? Have we engaged with the 1947 massacres enough? Have we began a robust journey into our inner self, asking questions that only an interregnum since the tragic happenings could have afforded? A hundred years after Jallianwala, 35 years after 1984, 17 years after 2002?
It was a Hungarian exile, Aurel Kolnai, who, in 1973, first talked of the subject of an apology and of forgiveness, 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.
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. Has Britain done so? 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. Have we done that?
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.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh after laying a wreath at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, India in 1997
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.
In case of Jallianwala Bagh, the British people and Indians have trudged some of that path, and that is progress. Crime is established, guilt is recognised, and penance is always a work in progress. Is that something that has happened in case of other crimes of humoungous proportions, such as Operation Bluestar, the 1984 Delhi Massacres, the 2002 killings? Have the Congress and the Sikhs actually made any sincere effort at marrying, or even contrasting, the two highly different narratives?
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.
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. For one, the streets of Delhi were Jallianwala Bagh. For the other, being a Muslim is to live in Jallianwala Bagh where a Dyer lurks around the corner, brandishing his saffron-dipped scimitar.
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. We are having a rational dialogue on Jallianwala Bagh. We are not having one on the Muslim question.
The failure of those having a rational dialogue on Jallianwala Bagh to have one on the other related questions hardly qualifies us to start seeking apologies. We need to question why India has allowed the Jallianwala Bagh to spread, expand and become so massive that our dalits feel trapped in it, our Muslim sisters and brothers seem muffled inside, and our tribals seem imprisoned in it?
Any idea of seeking an apology must come alongside confession, contrition, penitence and atonement.
The idea of a political apology is much more complex than the debate on it has brought out so far. 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?
Jeremy Corbyn addressing the Sikh community on Baisakhi 2019:
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 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 any such vacuous apology cannot be a replacement for the much more serious task of engaging with our deeper selves and vowing to execute justice that we felt was denied us.
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.
The inheritors of the legacy of Jallianwala Bagh must stay away from any guilt-edged political apology. It’s not very difficult to carry the beast on our backs, and to look it in the eye from time to time to know how it came to saddle us. Remember that 28 years after Ralia Khoon Hindu Musalmaan Aithe in 1919, the beast rode us in 1947. And we haven’t apologised for that to anyone, not even to our own selves.
Start from yourself; Britain, too will apologise some day.
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