Indian Politics — Memory Versus Forgetting

Posted on 09/20/13
By Ajaz Ashraf | Via Nepali Times
Gujarat pogrom started after the burning of a train at Godhra in 2002. (Photo by V. Malik, Creative Commons License)
Gujarat pogrom started after the burning of a train at Godhra in 2002. (Photo by V. Malik, Creative Commons License)

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,’ novelist Milan Kundera wrote.

Indeed, those who wield power often try to efface the imprints of their despicable past, recreating on the slate of a cleansed public memory an endearing image of themselves. Yet, their darkled past returns to haunt them because of individuals who want to hold the powerful accountable for their misdeeds. Occasionally, though, it is also because of the self-serving compulsions of their comrades-in-arm with whom they shared a common past.

The air brushing of history has a long tradition. Here in the subcontinent, the battles rage between memory and forgetting in Sri Lanka and Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In many countries we have to remind ourselves not to forget.

In India last week, Deputy Inspector General of Police DG Vanzara released a resignation letter in which he fulminated against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. For those late on the story, Vanzara, once Modi’s trusted cop, was arrested, and now faces trial for killing people in allegedly fake encounters in the months following the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

Vanzara’s missile-like missive establishes a connection between the riots and encounters alleged to be fake, declaring as he does that the atmosphere following the burning of a train at Godhra and mayhem of 2002 encouraged Pakistanis to harness the discontent among Indian Muslims to carry out terror attacks in Gujarat. The BJP doesn’t like linking riot to terror testifying to the inability of the powerful to shape memory as they wish.

Might not his letter inspire other canaries to sing about the Modi government’s connivance in the 2002 riots? Vanzara goes on to argue: Since the CBI investigators claim that he and other officers were engaged in fake encounters, then those who formulated anti-terrorism policy should also be arrested.

It’s a logic which should have an inherent appeal for, say, former minister Maya Kondani, who has been condemned to spend her life in prison for her role in the 2002 riots but the person who benefitted most from it is now being projected as a prime ministerial candidate. You can’t but wonder through whom the past might decide to whisper its secrets next.

Obviously, Vanzara’s intercession on behalf of memory wasn’t for upholding the principle of justice, but to protect himself. For Modi, the past has been squeezed of all its benefits, he wants to reinvent a new persona. For Vanzara, this could mean years of languishing in prison. He must, therefore, not let Modi or the public forget the riots and encounters, the memory of which civil society activists have anyway kept alive.

The summons a United States federal court issued last week to Congress President Sonia Gandhi for allegedly shielding those who triggered the 1984 riots in Delhi was another reminder of the power of memory.

The memory of 1984 returned because of a law suit filed by the Sikhs for Justice (SOJ) demanding compensatory and punitive damages from Sonia for shielding those accused of triggering the 1984 pogroms. You’d probably think it is an act aimed to harass Sonia.

But ask lawyer HS Phoolka, who has been tirelessly working to secure justice for the 1984 victims, and he has a different take. For instance, an FIR was registered against Congress MP Sajjan Kumar in 1987 for his involvement in the murder of four Sikhs. After five years of investigation, Delhi’s Nangloi police station prepared a charge-sheet in April 1992, saying that there was enough evidence to try Kumar. Usually, after a charge-sheet is filed a trial happens within three weeks. But 22 years later, the charge-sheet against Kumar hasn’t been filed.

Again, journalist Sanjay Suri filed an affidavit with the Mishra Commission, which probed the 1984 riots, saying he had seen Kamal Nath lead a mob which burnt down a Sikh temple and set two Sikhs ablaze. Not only is there no FIR, the Congress has rewarded Kamal Nath with important cabinet posts.

Until justice is done and the ghosts of the past buried, India together with other countries in the region including Nepal, will be doomed to witness the struggle of memory against forgetting.

This article was first published in Nepal’s leading weekly Nepali Times. Click here to go to the original.

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