Path To Healing
We need structured modes of reconciliation for victims of communal violence to get a sense of closure and pick up the threads of life again. |
People of diverse faiths and cultures have lived together with peace and goodwill for millennia in India. However, when India won freedom in 1947, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were embroiled in a feverish bloodbath. This left the country torn into two; a million people were killed, and 10 times that number permanently uprooted from the land of their birth.
The people of free India adopted a Constitution which guaranteed to its minorities religious freedom, and equal protection under the law. The experience in six decades of freedom has been of a flawed, continuously contested but still authentic and enduring secular democracy. However, since Independence there also have been thousands of ‘communal riots', or episodes of mass clashes between people of Hindu and Muslim faith, and pogroms, resulting in the recorded loss, according to one painstaking estimate, of at least 25,628 lives (including 1,005 in police firings).
In my interviews with hundreds of survivors of communal violence of the minority Muslim faith, I learnt that the families of most had not suffered for the first time. Each had many agonising tales of losing loved ones, and the looting and torching of their homes in several successive riots. In fact, the saga of their lives seemed like the spaces between various communal riots, often starting with the cataclysmic upheavals of 1947. These spaces were almost stolen, tragically fragile, insecure interludes during which they struggled to lead full and happy lives before being overtaken and destroyed once again by the politics of hate.
Whenever they reflect on and talk of their futures, riots continue to dominate their mindscape. They speak repeatedly of their plans of what they would do for the protection of their families, not if a communal riot breaks out again, but when it does. (Their plans were usually of finding safety by shifting to Muslim ghettoes and sometimes by arming themselves and very occasionally in fantasies of bloody retributive violence.) On such tragic and hopeless certainties of recurrence of the trauma of periodically repeated profound loss and suffering in violent communal upheavals, no enduring peaceful future can be built. The ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation that I will explore in this and a subsequent column are a response to these sporadic but repeated hostilities. But most of all, to this heart-breaking perceived certainty of recurrence.
It is remarkable that despite this recurring communal bloodletting during and after the traumatic Partition of the country, there has been no systematic structured official (or even significant non-official) processes of ‘truth and reconciliation', to help perpetrators and survivors of hate violence come together; to see and speak to each other; acknowledge their crimes and failings, their hate and fear, their grievances and suspicions; to seek and offer forgiveness, trust and goodwill; and ultimately help bring closure and eventual healing.
Part of the problem is that the threats and grave peril, both of on-going communal violence and of subversion of justice to minorities, are not sufficiently acknowledged by the State, political parties and civil society organisations. Even where relations between communities deteriorate, and States are partisan on communal lines — and soft on organisations that are committed to destroy the secular democratic foundations of the nation — many continue to live in dogged denial. Secondly, much of the violence and injustice is not overt, it rages unseen in the hearts and minds of people. We attend to it only when violence actually spills on to the streets, when the dust and dirt of our pavements are soaked in human blood, when the bodies of girls and women are violated, and when the smoke of fires of homes and shops rises to the skies, leaving behind the burned rubble of vandalised hopes and dreams. We deliberately overlook the covert violence of the everyday. Thirdly, governments, political parties and social organisations in India are today most frequently equivocal, unsteady and reluctant in dealing with the intensely sensitive and potentially divisive issues raised by communalism. They no longer are prepared to stand up to be counted.
However, the Indian people have arguably had more experience than most through centuries of living with diversity, therefore even without organised processes of reconciliation, there are usually natural spontaneous processes of reaching out and healing that follow bouts of sectarian violence. In many communal conflagrations that I have witnessed and handled (as a former District Collector), I have observed that within days of such mass sectarian upheavals, persons of goodwill and compassion reach out from each community and others grasp their outstretched hands gratefully. There are spontaneous individual and collective expressions of remorse and grief at the loss suffered by the other community, and of compassion, through which processes of social and personal healing set in.
Need for closure
But without structured modes of facilitating reconciliation for survivors of the Partition violence of 1947, there has not been adequate closure for families that experienced the agony and permanent uprootment from and the loss of their loved ones and homeland. My own parents and their extended families lost their homes amidst hate, slaughter and arson in a region of the country that became a part of Pakistan in 1947, and their grief of loss remains dormant more than 60 years later, just below the surface. Perhaps we needed much earlier to bring together people who lived with the violence from both sides of the border, to share truth, discover their common burdens of suffering and privation, and thereby find the spaces for individual and collective forgiveness.
The paramount humanitarian and political challenge is of finding a path that leads to authentic reconciliation between the Hindu and Muslim people of India when they are estranged by violence or memory. The responsibilities for preventing and controlling communal violence and ensuring reparation almost exclusively vest with the State. The duties for organising processes of reconciliation are somewhat more broad-based: these obligations also vest primarily with the State, but people on both sides of the conflict and their own organisations also can contribute a great deal to both the success and the arrest of processes of reconciliation. The role of human rights and the social organisations committed to secular democracy and peace is optional, but if equipped with compatible values and skills, they can vastly facilitate the process.
There are no universal solutions to heal hurt, anger, betrayal and hostilities that have accumulated and been transmitted through generations in different societies and people. The content of reconciliation — as both process and goal — will inevitably vary in different cultural, historical and political contexts. The historical context of Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India is that these and other diverse communities lived together in relative peace through centuries, and it is largely after 1857 (when Hindu and Muslim soldiers and kings and queens fought the colonial rulers unitedly shoulder to shoulder, and together chose the last Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah Zafar as the symbol of the insurrection against the British East India Company), that the rifts between the two communities were engineered at least in part as an element of colonial policy.
The greatest hope is that among ordinary people in both communities, there are everyday lived ways of giving and receiving trust and respect. There is the courage and resilience of the survivors, and many acts of compassion by people of the majority community. In the daily lives of affected communities, as they struggle with the timeless challenges of finding food, work and dignity, hatred and fear are manufactured and sustained by organisations and the State, but also simultaneously these are resisted and overcome by ordinary people in the ways that they lead their lives. As Howard Zinn affirms, ‘Human history is not just a history of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will define our lives…' There are indeed the glimmerings of individual resistance, of courage and compassion, of love amidst slaughter.
Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali (Prince of Arcot) stressed on the dire need for Communal Harmony and knitting together people of India in an atmosphere of Love and Harmony which will be conducive for development and progress of the country.
Better Life For All: Let Peace take over Violence. Let Love take over Hate. We are all slaves of God. One day we have to go to Him. Should we have blood of His creation on our hands when we face Him.
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