Modi, media and the theology of apology

BY Sankrant Sanu| IN Media Practice | 25/04/2014
The Indian media narrative has followed the Christian script of the West on the apology-redemption track while Modi is responding from an Indian cultural lens.
SANKRANT SANU explains the difference.

The Economist in its justification of not “endorsing” Modi, cited the latter’s refusal to apologise for the 2002 Gujarat riots. Indian and other international media have also clamored for an apology. In a recent ANI interview, Modi said that “if the charges against him are true, he should be hung in the public square” but again did not apologise. What are we to make of this? Wouldn’t it just be easier for Modi to apologise? The discourse on apology is best understood from the lens of cultural difference. 

In Christian theology, man is a sinner. He is saved into eternal life through the confession of his nature as sinner and his acceptance of Jesus Christ, the redeemer, as his savior. Salvation does not depends on “works”, that is on a person’s karma or what he does, but on “grace.” Belief in Jesus and its profession is essential for man to be saved. The secular variant of Western culture follows the same—confession-redemption pathway. Celebrities and political actors alike are redeemed in the public eye through public confession and apology. A recent example is New Jersey governor Chris Christie, on his knees in the public confessional in this New York Times report, “He kept finding new ways to flagellate himself, ticking off his “mistakes,” owning up to his “failure” and repeatedly declaring, “I was wrong.”” This, as Christie knows, is the path to public redemption. 

In the Indian culture context we have no easy apology. We don’t even have an equivalent to a lightweight word like “sorry.” We have prayaschit and paschatap. When Dashrath accidentally kills Shravan Kumar, his profession of his sin to Shravan Kumar’s parents is not enough. He must bear the consequences of his action. He is cursed to die in the grief of separation from his son, in the same way that he caused grief to Shravan Kumar’s parents. 

This holds in lesser transgressions as well. When Arjuna enters Draupadi’s chambers to retrieve his weapons when she is with Yuddhistra, he breaks a pact. Even though the circumstances were extenuating, it is not enough for him to say— “Sorry bro, won’t happen again.” Transgressions have consequences that cannot be waived by uttering palliative words. Arjuna has to undergo exile as part of the prayaschit

The culture difference is that in one case profession of belief atones for all sins and, in the other, actions have unavoidable accountability. Members of the Italian Mafia, most of them church-going Roman Catholics, have a greater chance at heaven because of their profession of belief in Christ the savior than the Buddha, Gandhi, Tagore or Rumi who do not accept this belief. In the Indian case, words or belief or apologies are not sufficient for redemption, bad karma must be accounted for. 

The critics that want Modi to apologise for the Gujarat riots, have called him a “mass-muderer”, guilty of “genocide” and at best, “complicit” in the violence. As Modi said in his interview, if even a fraction of those charges is true, he should be hung in the public square. What good is an apology? And if those charges are not true then what is there to apologise for? 

The Indian media narrative has followed the Christian script of the West on the apology-redemption track while Modi is responding from an Indian cultural lens. We are having a culture gap in our own discourse. Perhaps journalists need to go back and read the Mahabharata. The current Indian election has all the makings of it.

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