Remembering 1984

BY Dasu Krishnamoorty| IN Media Practice | 13/08/2005
At the Hindu, the editorial writers at Chennai promptly rushed to contain the Khare damage. Its editorial the next day isolated the Congress party for blame.

Dasu Krishnamoorty

The Gandhian forbearance with which the Sikhs absorbed the 1984 tragedy should be a lesson to all warring groups in the country. Barring the first burst of anger, they have contained their pain for two decades. Their resurrected rage shows the power of information, of the printed word and of images. Such responses emphasize the need for media restraint in times of turmoil. The Nanavati report has generated an overdue media catharsis. Not a single newspaper dismissed the report as the work of a commission appointed by an unfriendly government. Every commission is appointed by some government and if its report should suffer a crisis of credibility for that reason, all reports must be consigned to the dust bin. The country luckily had no satellite TV in 1984 and the newspapers remained above the pulls of communalism/secularism. Otherwise, the country would have had another minority problem on its hands.

There is hardly a newspaper that tried to politicize 1984. Yet, they demanded prosecution of individuals named in the report. The exception was Harish Khare, Delhi editor of the Hindu, who asked the people to forget and forgive. His earlier articles betray his emotional proximity to the Congress icons. That surfaces in his defence of that party. He wrote (09 Aug. 05): ?The 1984 violence no longer looks a simple case of black and white, guilt and innocence of one set of decision-makers. Above all, a society ought to move beyond the politics of memory. Justice Nanavati has failed civil society. Rather than firmly close the book, he has given enough ammunition to those who want to keep the pot boiling. For its part, the Congress has expiated its guilt by elevating a Sikh to the high office of Prime Minister of India.?

Keep the pot boiling is what Khare and his ilk did in the case of Gujarat.  Nanavati has failed civil society. No newspaper said that. A distinction unique to Khare. It is interesting to see how he has contradicted his colleague Kalpana Sharma who made a fervent appeal to people not to forget Gujarat because that would encourage its re-enactment. She wrote (28 Dec.03): ?Is it ?collective wisdom? to endorse amnesia? Can we as a country afford to bury and forget the terrifying messages that last year`s massacres in Gujarat carry?? In response to Ms. Sharma, the Statesman pointed out how the massacre ?does not take place in some remote hamlet, it occurs in the national capital, under the glare of parliamentarians, judges, bureaucrats, journalists of at least a few dozen newspapers, and a few million citizens. Does nobody see anything? The massacres don¿t just touch ordinary Sikhs; the flames embrace bureaucrats and top businessmen, too. Do all of them suffer from amnesia??

All credit to Shekhar Gupta for setting aside the ¿secular¿ lenses. The Indian Express correctly saw the Nanavati report as an attempt to ensure justice to the survivors of 1984 riots. This reaction was along expected lines because ?not one of those who masterminded or spearheaded this carnage has had to face punishment? and that it would remain an affront to the nation; an unfinished business that mocks the government¿s democratic pretensions. The Action Taken Report is evidence, if one was needed, of the UPA government¿s utter despair in rushing to clutch technicalities to save face. In that it was not successful. The government failed to show its human face when it was critically needed.

At the Hindu, the editorial writers at Chennai promptly rushed to contain the Khare damage. Its editorial the next day isolated the Congress party for blame. ?Over four fateful days, more than 3,000 Sikhs were hunted, humiliated, and massacred in an organized killing spree carried out with the active involvement of the police and Congress leaders and with the tacit approval ? if not worse ? of those in charge of the country at the highest level.? The Hindu made the same point as did the Statesman asserting that the massacres took place not in some dark and distant corner of the country but in Delhi ? the very seat of political power and a place where the reins of national security and law enforcement have always been tightly held. The Hindu asked Congressmen whether they would look the other way if the Nanavati-Shah commission in Gujarat were to come up with a similarly caveated indictment against Mr Modi.

The failure of the government to take action against those the commission identified as having played a role in the riots shows how fictional is the line between secularism and communalism. The guilty must be punished, the Tribune roared. Not satisfied with the ATR, the Tribune editorial observed, ?The Congress may have succeeded in helping some of its leaders but has in the process compromised its credibility. Its secular credentials suffered a blow in 1984. It has been trying to retrieve its image after that; but its reluctance to punish the guilty can only bring condemnation for it.? The Telegraph attacked the government for its delay in taking action against Tytler. In an editorial, the newspaper said, ?There has even been an attempt on the part of the government to gloss over the evidence presented before the commission and the conclusion that Mr G.T. Nanavati drew from that evidence. The initial response of the government was that no action could be taken against Mr Tytler because the evidence against him was not certain and incontrovertible. This can only be interpreted as a ham-handed attempt at a cover-up.?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reclaimed some political ground by offering an apology to the nation.  The Congress undid all that by asking for evidence of its involvement. What more evidence is needed than the hundreds of widows and orphans nursing unhealed wounds of the 1984 riots? The Asian Age ridiculed the Congress for demanding proof of its guilt. It said, ?The UPA government¿s response to the Nanavati Commission Report on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and its Action Taken Report have once again exposed the political and moral bankruptcy of the Congress party. When the report has spoken of ?credible evidence,? does the government need a video-clipping to convince it about the guilt of these leaders who were seen leading murderous mobs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi??

Contemporary political fashion discourages any damaging references to Rajiv Gandhi. That is why Khare took some pains to cite page 182 of the Nanavati report where it absolves Rajiv of any role in the 1984 riots. That is somehow a sentiment that both the Asian Age and Khare¿s own newspaper the Hindu have refused to share. The Asian Age argued that Rajiv Gandhi had virtually justified the massacre of the Sikhs by ¿grandly¿ proclaiming that after the fall of a large tree, the earth is bound to shake. The Hindu came dangerously close to comparing Rajiv¿s ¿fall of big tree¿ thesis to Narendra Modi¿s Newton¿s Third Law logic to justify the ¿retaliatory¿ killing of Muslims in Gujarat by Sangh Parivar-led mobs in 2002.

From the Nanavati document emerge several features common to both the 1984 holocaust and the Gujarat carnage. The glaring inertia of the police in both cases is one such to which only the Pioneer and the Statesman referred. The saturation-point coverage the Gujarat riots received overshadowed similar communal conflicts of the past, creating a false sense of euphoria that what happened would never repeat. The Pioneer refreshed the memory of the readers by recapitulating the Kanpur riots, the Bhagalpur killings, the Nellie massacre and how the police had failed on each of these occasions to protect the life and property of innocent people. The Statesman was angry with Nanavati because his report had failed to recommend any action against policemen despite the strictures the commission had made. I am glad that the Nanavati report provides us an occasion to disabuse ourselves of any illusion that barring Gujarat, the country had a half century of peaceful and riot-free history.

Compared to Nanavati report, the Ranganath Mishra report was clearly partisan, a point both the Statesman and the Deccan Herald made. But who knows Nanavati would not do the same thing when he submits his report on Gujarat. The Herald found fault with the Mishra report for exonerating the Congress party and its leaders, including Rajiv Gandhi, P.V.Narasimha Rao, Kamal Nath and Vasant Sathe. The Statesman too came to the same conclusion that ?some like Ranganath Mishra not only exonerate the accused but go out of their way to say who is not involved.? In fact, these reports are most of the time an execution of the briefs the panel chiefs get from the government at the time of their appointment. To think that they would flout the brief is the height of naiveté® 

The Nanavati commission is the last of nine such commissions asked to probe the 1984 riots and to identify the guilty. These nine are only a miniscule fraction of the hundreds of commissions appointed to mollify the Opposition and cheat hapless victims of the riots. People have lost faith in these knee-jerk exercises. Reflective of this pessimism and agony, the Statesman made the most significant point: the utter futility of appointing commissions. The Statesman described the endless cycle of communal conflicts, governments naming probe panels, ATRs presented to Parliament, change of governments, fresh conflicts, fresh panels, fresh ATRs? Hardly anyone of stature is punished. Such state inaction is unpardonable but manages to survive media criticism. 


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