Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s penchant for foot-in-the-mouth remarks is low-hanging fruit for his political opponents. He does it all the time and winds up being lampooned on social media.
His statement in London last week, however, cannot be dismissed as just another Rahul-ism. In categorically absolving his party of complicity in the 1984 riots, he has done violence not only to the sentiments of the Sikh community but those of law-abiding citizens across India. Ironically, he described himself as a “victim of violence”!
“It (1984) was a tragedy, it was a painful experience. You say that the Congress party was involved in that, I don’t agree with that”, he said. Why this volte face? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Parliament in 2005: “I have no hesitation in apologising not only to the Sikh community but the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of (our) concept of nationhood…I bow my head in shame that such a thing took place”. The then PM went on to acknowledge the failure of successive inquiries to punish the guilty: “Twenty-one years have passed…and yet the feeling persists that somehow the truth has not come out”.
Rahul Gandhi has deliberately chosen to ignore overwhelming evidence of a state-sponsored pogrom against the Sikhs in 1984. That the Delhi police were complicit in the massacre and the Indian army was not allowed to check the violence, is a matter of record. That the then Home minister, P V Narasimha Rao, was a picture of helplessness, is well-established. That the eye-witness accounts of eminent journalists in the field — Joseph Malliakan, Sanjay Suri, Rahul Bedi (The Indian Express) and Alok Tomar (Jansatta), to name a few — were ignored and the policemen involved in the mass murders were subsequently promoted and decorated, is a fact. That the Ranganath Mishra Commission, set up six months after the riots, exonerated rather than penalised the perpetrators is beyond question.
The role of the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, is also a matter of record. He not only promoted the Congress leaders involved in the violence, but sought to play it down and effectively put paid to any hope of justice. Manoj Mitta’s seminal study on the 1984 riots, When a Tree Shook Delhi, in fact borrows its title from Rajiv’s infamous “when a big tree falls” remark. Mitta writes: “Empathising with their krodh (intense anger), Rajiv Gandhi commended the mobs for ending the bloodshed as they did in three days or so, even if they had killed 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi alone by then”.
The ‘Raja’s’ example, Mitta observes, was followed by sections of the praja and ed to the victimisation of the Sikh community, post-1984. His co-author, H S Phoolka, describes how the very landlord who risked the anger of the mobs to save him during the riots, threw him out thereafter.
It is no ones case that the sins of the father can be visited upon the son. As early as the 1990s, the Sikh community began to move on, even as the struggle for justice continued. Manmohan Singh’s 2005 statement in Parliament was read as an indication that the Congress, having acknowledged the mistakes of the Rajiv-era, was ready to script a new chapter based on old values. In putting his stamp on the grand old party, Rahul Gandhi should have done just that — admitted to past mistakes and assured us that his Congress would never, ever repeat them.
When Rahul refuses to acknowledge that the Congress had erred, any assurances he might have to offer have zero credibility. In so doing, he has ensured that his party cannot take the high moral ground vis-a-vis the BJP, because it stands tarred with the same brush. What’s more, he has given traction to his detractors, in an election year.
In the past, he has accused the BJP of trying to rewrite history. That is precisely what Rahul is seeking to do, by drafting a narrative on 1984 which absolves the Congress of accountability. As a son, he would naturally have a different and kinder perspective on his late father’s role. But as Congress president and a prime ministerial aspirant, he should have learnt to deal with facts and evidence, uncoloured by sentiment.
All Rahul had to do was stand by Manmohan Singh’s statement and leave it at that. The efforts at damage control by party veterans — who are privately appalled at his gaffe — may help soothe sentiments for the moment, but what is said cannot be unsaid. Rahul should know better than anyone that in Information Age, words live forever and will always be held against you.
Today, we live in the cozy certainty that the State, subject to oversight by a technology-empowered civil society, can no longer abuse its power to foster pogroms. Politics aside, Rahul has ripped open old wounds and brought us face-to-face with the sickening fact that the demons of 1984 have yet to be exorcised.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.
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