Does Gujarat have the resources to come to terms with its moral responsibility?
“Many things were then said and done among us; but of these it is better that there remain no memory.” —Primo Levi
IT WAS as if a burden had been lifted. I reacted to the news of the Supreme Court directive to the Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate the role of the Chief Minister, his cabinet colleagues, members of the BJP, VHP, the Bajrang Dal and senior members of the bureaucracy and the police during the violence of 2002, with almost gleeful joy. There was finally a possibility of justice; victims, friends and NGOs fighting for justice stood vindicated.
The list of those who shall be investigated reads like the who’s who of Gujarat. The Chief Minister, the present Speaker of the assembly, the Minister of State for Home, the former Chief Secretary, the former Home Secretary, the former Additional Chief Secretary, the then Police Commissioner of Ahmedabad, two former DGPs; the list of sixty-three persons from the ministry, the legislature, the bureaucracy, the police and the Sangh Parivar makes for scary reading.
As the initial sense of vindication passed, a new responsibility came to haunt. For all these years I had refrained from using that morally poignant word coined by the jurist Raphael Lemkin in 1944. I had spoken of it in private conversations, almost in a whisper, perhaps not wanting to own up to the moral responsibility that utterance would invite. Genocide. I write this with personal shame, with hazy awareness of what it means for us in Gujarat. Genocide is mass murder, deliberately planned and carried out by individuals working with the complicity of the State. Each individual is responsible, whether he (and she, in the case of Gujarat) made the plan, gave the order or carried out the killings. Genocide is made up of these individual acts, the individual chooses to participate in it. Even routine, mundane, banal, bureaucratic acts are acts of choices made. Hannah Arendt would insist that genocide is most ruthlessly effective when it is bureaucratised, made banal and hence routine. An act as routine as closing a relief camp is genocide, where a closure of a file snuffs out lives. It was RB Sreekumar, IPS of the 1971 batch, who through his meticulous records submitted before the Justices Nanavati- Shah (now Mehta) commission brought out the complicity and collaboration of the high functionaries of the police and the civil administration in bringing about what sociologist Shiv Visvanthan has called ‘normalisation’ of the genocide.
The Supreme Court order questions Narendra Modi and his team’s hasty and premature exoneration
In the last seven years Gujarat has used every available means to prove that the state is normal and that what happened was not a genocide but a ‘Newtonian’ reaction to the burning of the Kar Sevaks at Godhra. We questioned the statistics and tried to minimise the loss of lives and the scale of displacement, we claimed that the processes that were unleashed were out of control of the state and the party in power, we blamed the victims, attacked and sullied the motivations of the truth-seekers, justified denial in favour of greater economic interests and claimed that moving forward, being pragmatic was more important than blaming people.
It is technically and legally premature to state that all those under investigation are guilty in the court of law. But never before in the history of modern India has the role of the state, the police and the bureaucracy come under interrogation at this scale. It is not a case of mere ‘highjacking’ of the state by the party in power; it is not a case of a sole, supplicant bureaucrat pleasing the all-powerful political master. What is under investigation is active and wilful participation and abetment of the functionaries of the state in an act of mass murder.
This order of the Supreme Court also brings under question the premature and hasty exoneration of the chief minister, his council of ministers and police officials by the Justices Nanavati-Mehta commission of enquiry. The order is also an indirect indictment of the judicial processes in Gujarat where hundreds of cases were declared as closed by the courts by granting a plea of summary for lack of evidence or non-availability of the accused. What this indicates is a large scale systemic failure of both the criminal investigation and justice delivery system, cognisance of which must be taken. The process of criminal investigation and trial of the accused will take its due course. It might result in punishment of some as well. But justice is not merely a legal, technical term. It is a moral universe, which sometimes eludes codified law.
An act as routine as closing a relief camp is genocide, where a closure of a file snuffs out lives
THE QUESTION is: how does one act in the face of genocide? How does a society come to terms with its moral responsibility? The first is acknowledgement. We must acknowledge that some of us participated in this act, some of us condoned it, many of us became willing spectators. But acknowledgement is primarily an act of memory. We must keep alive the memory of the act and the dead alive. It is not a memorial that one seeks. An act of memory is an act of bearing witness. One can bear witness only to truth. Let us remind ourselves that testament and testimony bear the same root. As individuals and members of the society we must bear witness to truth and realise that no act of genocide is possible without a large section of the society seeking to have selfwilled amnesia about it. Only then can we move towards truth and reconciliation. Reconciliation requires both atonement and forgiveness. It is one act that binds both the victim and his aggressor in a moral universe. This requires that we as societies have the capacity to recognise pain, have the language of compassion and justice and are capable of atonement. It requires penance that leads to self-purification and recovery.
It is morally a large task. Do we have the cultural and moral resources for it? And it is this question that makes me immensely sad. A few weeks ago one of Gujarat’s foremost poets and cultural activists, Saroop Dhruv published a book, Umeed Hogi Koi,on the memories of 2002. She chose to write it in Hindi. One suspects that she felt that the Gujarati language had lost its capacity to bear witness to truth, to capture pain and pleas for justice. We are a society where Gandhi has become a burden that we would rather shed. We wear masks given to us, not because they allow us to hide who we are, but because the mask allows us to express those parts of ourselves that remain inarticulate and repressed. The mask is us.
And yet, one knows that every society is capable of virtue, without which no society can be. Each of us is capable of being moral, just and compassionate, no matter how frayed the societal possibility of it. And it is through individual acts of testimony that we shall move on the long path of self-recovery.
Suhrud, author of Writing Life, is a social scientist based in Ahmedabad.