Thursday, December 13, 2012

When is forgiveness right?

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. His truth is marching on.” Reading the verdicts in the Naroda Patiya case, I found these words of the US Civil War anti-slavery anthem coming to mind. Truth is indeed marching on, even in Gujarat, thanks to the timely intervention of the Supreme Court and the fine work of its Special Investigation Team. Almost incredibly, given so many past failures to convict perpetrators of communal violence in so many other cases, and 10 years after the horrendous events, former minister Maya Kodnani and 30 others have been convicted and sentenced, many to life terms. Particularly welcome is the conviction of Babu Bajrangi of the Bajrang Dal, who boasted of his gruesome crimes on hidden camera. And welcome, too, was the recognition of the central role of violence against women in the Gujarat pogrom. Best of all, perhaps, was the fact that a criminal conspiracy was found, giving prosecutors a valuable weapon to use in future trials. As the US anthem continued (in 1861, well before victory over slavery could be a solid reality): “He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat./ He has sifted out the hearts of men before his judgement seat.” And now the Gujarat assembly elections are at hand, scheduled for December, with Narendra Modi campaigning, already, on an alleged record of economic success. The verdicts could not be a more timely reminder that Gujarat's government has had a violent communal face.
But what next? Discussions of the verdicts have already raised many pertinent questions. Will they facilitate other prosecutions stemming from the riots? (Almost certainly.) Will they deter others from perpetrating communal violence in the future? (Quite possibly, particularly in light of the conspiracy convictions.) Will they undermine the career of Narendra Modi as he tries for national leadership? (Let us ardently hope so.) Now, however, we need at least to begin discussing a larger question: What after that? Is there a role here for forgiveness and reconciliation? Nations all over the world have been discussing these concepts, and experimenting with institutions that might realise them. What room exists for such ideas in Gujarat?
I call as my witness the late Sir Peter Strawson (1919-2006), distinguished British philosopher and ardent friend of India. In a justly famous article entitled “Freedom and Resentment”, Strawson argued that the “reactive attitudes”, prominently including resentment for wrongdoing, are part and parcel of our freedom as human beings, and central to our social interactions. When we deal with others, we must expect of them a reasonable degree of “good will or regard.” Otherwise, social interaction is impossible. Resentment is appropriate when someone violates those conditions. But when resentment is appropriate, forgiveness is not -- unless and until the wrongdoers first acknowledge that their conduct was such as to be rightly resented and repudiate such conduct for the future. “To forgive is to accept the repudiation and to forswear the resentment,” Strawson concludes. In contrast, then, to those who (whether for religious or secular reasons) favour unconditional forgiveness, Strawson sees forgiveness as right only when conditions for the restoration of due regard and decent social reciprocity have been fulfilled by the wrongdoer's own apology and repudiation.