India’s very own truth commission

We can learn from South Africa’s remarkable experience with a truth and reconciliation commission. Its idea of ubuntu, or communal fellowship, can create a path to peace.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

Sometimes news gets ignored or condemned to a little footnote. A piece of history disappears between news of G20 and IPL. On October 2, the Indian Social Institute in Bengaluru, a group of Jesuits dedicated to research, established a Peace and Reconciliation Unit for India. Such an announcement should have been accompanied by celebration and analysis, yet all it faced was silence. This column is an attempt to relive that event by discussing what a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) for India would look like.

There have been dozens of truth commissions worldwide, but most have been attempts at amnesty, as political acts of hypocrisy and compromise. A TRC in the authentic sense was only conducted successfully in South Africa. The commission that Bishop Desmond Tutu built was legendary and demands a different kind of storytelling.

The battle against apartheid in South Africa was fought by the guerilla and the satyagrahi. Individuals like Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani were militants, while Tutu, Albie Sachs and Albert Luthuli were satyagrahis. After his stay at the Robben Island prison, Mandela felt violence could not be the way of post-apartheid Africa. He asked his friend Desmond Tutu to set up a TRC.

Desmond Tutu was an extraordinary man. An exemplar. Part Shaman and part clown, Tutu realised that the TRC had to be a moral experiment of an unexpected kind. He had already received the Nobel prize; he deserved a second for this piece of creative morality. The TRC was literally met with hostility from the West. Lawyers claimed that it had no idea of punitive justice. They still advocated a repetition of the Nuremberg trials, but Tutu was confidently and affably plural. He did not deny the achievements of Anglo-Saxon law, but felt that South Africa needed a normative system embedded in the power of folklore to survive. He argued that the idea of ubuntu—togetherness of the community—could anchor the TRC better.

The TRC was a slow tentative creation driven by the genius of Tutu. He realised that the TRC was a polysemic entity seeking truth, justice and reconciliation. Therefore, it had to be built around a different set of rules, not the linearity of Anglo-Saxon law. Tutu sensed that justice in Africa needed the power of storytelling, and that storytelling in turn needed the full creativity of orality. Apart from English, the TRC as a moving panchayat was conducted in seven tribal languages, and it was here that the idea of reconciliation came into full play.

Yet the TRC as theatre is enacted at several levels. Firstly, it was an idea that challenged Western philosophy and political theory. It created a major crisis for political theory, which was met with responses from major intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt, Julia Kristeva, Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida. One should make Arendt’s argument central to the response.

A student of Martin Heidegger, Arendt was a political philosopher who was stunned by the presence of Adolf Eichmann. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, she asked how such a puny mediocre individual could be responsible for the genocide of millions. She coined the term ‘banality of evil’ to capture the ordinariness of Eichmann. She claimed that his originality consisted of being a complete bundle of clichés. She claimed there was nothing Shakespearean about him. The poignancy of theatre eluded him. At the end of her book, she claimed that Eichmann was guilty and deserved to die.

Philosophical problems have a way of returning to harass us. Arendt realised that the question of forgiveness needed to be addressed. She spent the rest of her life addressing it. She sensed that forgiveness could not be delegated to theology as was done by Enlightenment thinkers. Exploring the concept, she realised that neither the Greeks nor the Romans had a word for it. Only Jesus of Nazareth was the initiator and the epitome of it. Yet Judeo-Christian religions were uneasy with the concept.

Arendt eventually showed that the idea of social contract that anchored Anglo-Saxon law was politically inadequate. It was the vulnerability and breakdown of contracts in everyday life that invited vulnerability and forgiveness into social life.

Derrida, on the other hand, pointed out that forgiveness demanded the myth of excess and did not fit into the moral economy of political life. There was an abyss, an asymmetry between the perpetrators of the deed and the act of forgiveness. It was the very excess of forgiveness that anchored the creation myth and rationale of society. As Derrida argued almost mystically and paradoxically, the alleged impossibility of forgiveness virtually made it necessary.

Desmond Tutu understood this. At one moment in the TRC, a mother confronted the killer of her son. She told him, “As a murderer, you have lost your humanity. Only if I forgive you can we both recover our humanity.” Forgiveness provides for a new continuity. Forgiveness is the recognition that life can still surprise you. In another scene at the TRC, an ex-apartheid leader washed the feet of the man he had just tortured, in an act of contrition. But not every scene at the TRC was a success.

Probably the most puzzling encounter was between Winnie Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Winnie Mandela was seen as the mother of the anti-apartheid movement. She had her own following. She had a group of young bodyguards called the Mandela United Football Club hanging around her. These were a group of killers who assaulted both black and white. In the TRC, Winnie stood imperiously. When Tutu begged her to forgive, she was implacable. She answered, “If I forgive, I will forget myself and those around.” Tutu and Winnie faced each other in silence.

Despite failed attempts, the TRC stands as a moral monument to the anti-apartheid movement. It is probably the great satyagraha movement after Gandhian thought. One wishes we had an equivalent after Partition. India and many countries stand illiterate and helpless before the violence of wars. How does one create a rite of passage to peace? How does India move beyond the idiocy of security and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that condones rape and murder? These are questions activists and philosophers are confronting today.

India desperately needs a solution. One has to find a new folklore of forgiveness and a new exemplar of sanity. One hopes that the TRC for India would promise such a beginning.

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