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Gujarat Riots: Justice or Retribution?

February 29, 2012 21:12 IST

The tenth anniversary of the Gujarat 2002 riots comes at a politically importune moment for the process of justice inside the courts and for the process of reconciliation outside the courts, feels Shashi Shekhar.

The Cambridge Quarterly in 1999 carried an interesting review of two books one by historian Timothy Garton Ash and the other a compilation of legal reviews by James McAdams. The review was titled 'Justice or Retribution?' and opened with a quote from Ash 'The past is not quite past.'

The focus of both books is on how societies are coping in present times over judicial processes over past crimes being prosecuted in this case in Britain.

Both books, according to the review, delved into the ethical and legal complexities in societies in Latin America, South Africa and Eastern Europe with specific references to Poland's experience with the East German Stasi and Chile's experience with General Pinochet.

The review is very perceptive and timely as we in India debate the events of 2002, ten years on. In the review, Piotr Kuhiwczak points out why the process of reconciliation with the past requires two very different faculties, 'a cool head as well as intense feelings' as he puts it.

The challenge as Kuhiwczak points is that as one moves through the process, it is important to monitor whether one is using logic and reason or if one is being increasingly swayed by the emotions in one's heart.

A challenge we are all too familiar with as the debate in recent days on Twitter and in the blogosphere has swung wildly between the two extremes -- the coldness or reason and the warmth of a bleeding heart.

As we struggle to calibrate the right response to the reconciliation process over the 2002 riots, what Kuhiwczak has to say on such a process is very instructive.

While it may be easy for those outside the process to think rationally, for the societies themselves, where those memories still remain fresh, according to Kuhiwczak the victims often make the mistake of confusing revenge with justice.

To bolster this observation, Kuhiwczak goes on to quote the words of a survivor from Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp that for those who suffered unjustly, justice alone is not enough. They may want to see the guilty suffer unjustly too reflecting a deep rooted emotion for retribution.

It is remarkable that Kuhiwczak's observations from across these two books hold true to a great degree for the manner in which the judicial process on the 2002 riots has been conducted.

Kuhiwczak observes that to many in these societies the legal procedures are an inadequate substitute for what they actually desire -- 'a more thorough and cathartic form of dealing with past crimes and injustice.'

The challenge though as Kuhiwczak rightly points out is in ensuring that such radical reappraisals of the past don't fall prey to the temptation for retribution.

As one witnesses the orchestrated manner in which courts have been pre-empted over in the 2002 riots cases by leaks and prejudiced campaigns, the ethical and moral dilemma that Kuhiwczak raises in 1999 hold as much true of India in 2012.

The 'myriad practical considerations' that Kuhiwczak outlines must sound very familiar to anyone who has observed how the highest courts in India have for the past 10 years seen litigation on every minutiae even before a complaint has been filed, forget bringing the matter to trial or convicting the accused.

The bottom-line as Kuhiwczak very perceptively remarks is that there will be still many people for whom 'justice alone' is not sufficient as he quotes another victim on why moral satisfaction and legal requirements cannot always be reconciled.

The tenth anniversary of the Gujarat 2002 riots comes at politically importune moment unfortunately for the process of justice inside the courts and for the process of reconciliation outside the courts.

With one high stakes election under way and another yet to come later this year, politics is colouring both in almost a repeat of 2007.

Emotions are obscuring facts while clouding judgment. All of this is only resulting in more prejudice being bred as cries for justice are increasingly beginning to sound like calls for retribution.

There are many lessons in Piotr Kuhiwczak's observations from these two books as we struggle to sort out legitimate demands for justice from unresolved emotions rooted in a desire for vengeance.

The rest of the 1999 review in The Cambridge Quarterly by Kuhiwczak delves quite deeply on the Polish experience in prosecuting crimes by the East German Communist secret police, the Stasi.

One important point the review mentions is on why it is absolutely imperative that facts must be established before passing judgment for investigations to be seen as credible.

The review makes personal observations as well on the dilemma of having to interact and transact with those who could not be prosecuted for past ethical indiscretions for those indiscretions were not legal crimes.

As unpalatable as it may seem, Kuhiwczak's ethical dilemma holds equally true to the scarred victims of the Gulberg Society and Naroda Patiya as the moral question of how to deal with the past shifts to the former victims.

Piotr Kuhiwczak concludes his twin book review with an anecdote on how an anonymous tip-line constituted for welfare fraud was very successful as he resurrects the ethical dilemma between seeking justice and the pursuit of retribution, an ethical dilemma absent in our politically correct public discourse as some in India endlessly seeking conspiracies.

To them these words of Kuhiwczak may perhaps be most appropriate. '...When the evil other is gone, there is nothing but ourselves to curb our own follies...'

Shashi Shekhar is a social media commentator on Indian politics and public policy. His blog can be found at

Shashi Shekhar