Journalist | Writer | Analyst
12 August 2005
Moral indifference as the form of modern evil
|India is the only democracy in the world where politicians and policemen responsible for mass murder, from Delhi in 1984 to Gujarat in 2002, are allowed to thrive while their victims live lives of penury and despair. It’s time we put a stop to this.|
RECOUNTING THE massacre of Jews during the First Crusade in and around the German city of Cologne in 1096, the anonymous authors of the 12th century Solomon bar Simson chronicle asked plaintively, “Why did the heavens not darken and the skies withhold their radiance; why did not the sun and moon turn dark?” The historian, Arno Mayer, poses the same question in his treatise on the Holocaust and `answers’ it with Walter Benjamin’s assertion, made on the eve of Europe’s tryst with genocide, that there is no philosophical basis for our “astonishment that the things we are currently experiencing should `still’ be possible in the 20th century.”
If many Indians were genuinely ‘astonished’ by the well-organised killing of Muslim fellow citizens in Gujarat in 2002 — by the fact that such evil was “still” possible in the 21st century — this was because they had chosen to forget November 1984, the one reference point which made that violence not just intelligible but possible as well.
Twenty-one years after it occurred, the genocidal killing of 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi, Kanpur, Bokaro, and other cities in November 1984 has been brought alive for both victim and perpetrator by the report of the Justice Nanavati Commission of Inquiry. Mr. Justice Nanavati’s labours have served to shake us out of our collective slumber and for that we should be grateful. But the learned judge’s report is also disappointing for he has pulled his punches at a time when the country needed a knockout blow to protect itself from a “riot system” that has become so well-entrenched and institutionalised that any ruling party anywhere in the country can use it with impunity. Above all, he has written a whodunit without an ending — at a time when the victims and the national conscience urgently need a sense of closure. He concludes that the violence was “organised” and involved “the backing and help of influential and resourceful persons” but then blithely states that there is “absolutely no evidence” to show high-ranking Congress leaders were involved.
Benjamin was German and Jewish and he wrote the lines quoted above in 1940, in a Europe overwhelmed by dictatorship and war. A few months later, he took his own life. The worst crimes of the Nazis were yet to come but Benjamin, who had witnessed Kristallnacht — the November 1938 pogrom in which SS and SA thugs torched synagogues and Jewish homes and shops across Germany because a German diplomat in Paris had been assassinated by a young Jewish man — understood what was about to unfold.
Like Benjamin, Rajiv Gandhi too counselled against astonishment but his was an argument informed more by moral indifference than by a desire to change the world. As Prime Minister of India, Rajiv had witnessed — indeed, presided over, if we accept the doctrine of command responsibility — events in his own capital that were even more ferocious than Kristallnacht. In a speech at the Boat Club in Delhi on November 19, 1984 to commemorate the birth anniversary of his assassinated mother, he told the country there was no need to be shocked or saddened: “Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji. We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed as if India had been shaken. But when a mighty tree falls, the earth around is bound to shake.”
A few months later, in an interview to M.J. Akbar in Sunday magazine (March 10-16, 1985), Rajiv again sought to rationalise the November 1984 killings by arguing that the violence was extensive only in those areas where Sikhs (allegedly) distributed sweets to celebrate his mother’s assassination. In other statements at the time, Rajiv elaborated on this morally corrosive line of reasoning, telling The Hindu , for example, that a judicial inquiry into the November 1984 massacre “would not be in the interest of Sikhs” (February 20, 1985). Apart from their ominous undertone, such statements were factually wrong, relying as they did on the canard about Sikh `celebrations’ and the `spontaneous’ outpouring of public grief. If the violence had been spontaneous, the bulk of the killing would have occurred on October 31, the day Indira Gandhi was shot, and not November 1. Clearly somebody high up in the government and party hierarchy planned something in that intervening night.
In an essay on the challenges posed by the Holocaust to philosophy, the German sociologist Rainer C. Baum described moral indifference as the definitive form of modern evil. Even if Mr. Justice Nanavati is correct in saying there is no evidence connecting Rajiv Gandhi or other senior leaders to the killings, their moral guilt is manifest from their behaviour both during the violence and after. At no time did either Rajiv Gandhi or any other senior Minister display the slightest interest in understanding how such a terrible crime could have been committed on their watch, in ordering an inquiry, in ensuring that forensic and other forms of evidence were collected in a timely fashion so that the guilt of the perpetrators could be established swiftly. This is the way a leadership that was genuinely unaware of what was going on would have acted after the event. Conversely, it is only a government that knew it had something dreadful to hide that could behave the way the Rajiv Gandhi Government did in the weeks, months, and even years following November 1984.
Shabby attempts were made to shut down the relief camps and send the victims of the violence back to their burnt-out homes within a week of the massacre (the High Court had to intervene to put a stop to this). A judicial inquiry was set up only in mid-1985, which began collecting depositions only the following year. None of the politicians against whom credible charges existed was cross-examined. Hearings were held in camera. Meanwhile, the Delhi police worked overtime to sabotage the few criminal cases they had been forced to register. Only the naïve or the politically motivated can believe that this was happenstance, the product of a few bad apples.
Dots not connected
Modern states do not allow small men like Jagdish Tytler, Dharamdas Shastri and Sajjan Kumar to unleash — as part of some sort of private initiative — murder on a genocidal scale. Modern states do not allow their police system to fall apart, except by design. Modern states do not allow Army commanders to say they do not have enough troops to do the job at hand. Littered through Mr. Justice Nanavati’s text are all the telltale dots of official guilt but these have been left unconnected, allowing the institutional rot to remain and infect our body politic again in the future. His philosophical approach — in which effects can exist without causes — does not augur well for the Gujarat violence inquiry report he will prepare next.
After initially prevaricating, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ousted Jagdish Tytler from his Cabinet. But this is, at best, a rectification of the error he made in inducting Mr. Tytler in the first place. Dr. Singh has also promised the re-opening of cases mentioned in the Nanavati report, including those in which his party colleagues stand accused. In fact, this process has to be more thorough. Every 1984-related case that ended in an acquittal — particularly those where Congress leaders or policemen were the defendants — should be re-opened using the Supreme Court’s Best Bakery judgment as legal precedent. A special court needs to be established with a dedicated prosecutorial team that enjoys the confidence of the victims so that these cases can proceed expeditiously.
Finally, the Government must introduce a well-formulated law to deal with genocidal or mass violence of the kind experienced in Delhi in 1984 or Gujarat in 2002. It is well known that the Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code, and the Indian Evidence Act are not equipped to deal with such incidents. Dereliction of duty should be considered as serious an offence in a situation of mass violence as active connivance with the mob. The law must enshrine the principles of vicarious criminal and administrative liability as well as the doctrine of command responsibility — both settled concepts in international humanitarian law. The failure of a policeman, bureaucrat or Minister to take “all necessary and reasonable measures” within his or her power to prevent or repress the commission of mass violence must render the individual concerned liable for prosecution and exemplary punishment. Unfortunately — but typically — the draft law prepared by the Ministry of Home Affairs — and now being considered by the Law Ministry — proposes none of these things.
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