A truth and reconciliation commission for India

The Muslim League obtained the Islamic state and  the Indian National Congress power and control over India. Politicians won. The people lost. 

Published: 27th February 2021 07:09 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th February 2021 07:09 AM   |  A+A-


Today’s communal tensions go back to 1947. (Representational Image)

Year 1947 was one of celebration for those who had dreamt of a free India. But it was also a year of mourning for those who lost their homes and families as partition ripped apart two ends of a subcontinent. The Muslim League obtained the Islamic state and  the Indian National Congress power and control over India. Politicians won. The people lost. 

Wounds do not heal easily. The victims of partition were waiting for justice which never came. Instead, all cries and voices of dissent were ruthlessly suppressed in a Nehruvian state which imposed the Leftist concept of secularism, ignoring the injustices and carnage. This was the first of Nehru’s many blunders. 
People have long memories when it comes to cruelty and injustice. Tipu Sultan’s depredations in Coorg and Malabar have not been forgotten.

The pillaging and forced conversions by Alauddin Khilji’s army and the destruction of the Vijayanagar capital by the Bahmani kingdoms are still remembered as if they happened yesterday. By suppressing voices, Nehru and his colleagues left a festering wound. There was no opposition party worth mentioning and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh founded by Dr Syama Prasad Mukerjee was a fledgling. Unfortunately, festering wounds become sores, exacerbating anger and making tensions rise. This was aggravated by vote bank politics favouring certain communities.

Today’s communal tensions go back to 1947. Over the past forty years, whenever I have asked taxi drivers and middle-class persons in North India the reason for communal tensions, they talk about partition, what their families lost and how the vote bank politics of most parties ignored Hindus. They also remember the abuses of 800 years of Muslim rule, a legacy left from parent to child over the ages. Whether this is right or wrong, the fact that so many people retain these memories is not good for a developing nation. 

I have often wondered what could have been done instead and remembered South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). No situation was as bad as South Africa where the black majority was oppressed by the ruling whites who created apartheid, imprisoning, torturing and killing black voices of protest.  When South Africa obtained its freedom the world expected a blood bath, but Nelson Mandela had a brilliant idea: he set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to avert a carnage. Victims of human rights violations could talk about their experiences, while the perpetrators could request amnesty from prosecution.

The work of the TRC was accomplished through three committees: The Human Rights Violations Committee which investigated human rights abuses; the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee charged with restoring the victims’ dignity and assisting with their rehabilitation; and the Amnesty Committee which considered applications for amnesty in accordance with the Act. Public hearings were held at several places around South Africa, attended by eminent persons like Desmond Tutu. Unlike the Nuremberg Trials which sought to pinpoint blame and effect punishment, the TRC’s goal was to let people speak and then effect reconciliation, the operative word. 

A register of reconciliation was established so that ordinary South Africans who wished to express regret for past mistakes could express their remorse. The commission could grant reprieve to the perpetrators of abuses during the apartheid era for politically motivated crimes, if there was full disclosure or ‘truth’. Both sides had to appear before the commission, which heard their stories and considered amnesty applications from both the White apartheid state and the liberation forces of the African National Congress.

The media was given full access to the hearings.  Radio, television, films, theatre, fiction and poetry were all vehicles to publicise the work of the TRC. The TRC was useful in “bringing out the truth” of what happened during the apartheid regime. The importance of reconciliation was emphasised. In the politically surcharged atmosphere, the TRC prevented more violence. Despite some shortcomings, it is generally believed to have been a success. At least, it prevented a bloodbath. Coming back to India, is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission possible here? We have swept differences under the carpet and left open wounds to fester. Instead, if people speak across a table, they may begin to talk rather than abuse and hate, a hatred that invariably ends in violence. 

Violence breeds more violence. If wounds must heal, I cannot think of a better pathway than a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for India. Following the South African experiment, over 40 nations established TRCs to bring out human rights violations and reconcile differences.  Canada, for example, established a TRC to investigate human rights abuses in the Canadian (American) Indian residential school system, while the TRC of Mauritius covered 370 years of “socio-economic class abuses” of indentured labour and slavery systems, offering solatium and redress. It’s never too late.

Nanditha Krishna
Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai


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