Column: Just a matter of an apology

Written by Surjit S Bhalla | Updated: Sep 21 2013, 10:15am hrs
With the appointment of Narendra Modi as BJPs PM candidate, the election season has officially started. One issue has dominated the airspace in terms of Mr Modis candidacythe so-called non-secular nature of Mr Modi. The media, print and TV, Congress and its allies, Nitish Kumar and his band of secularists, civil society, assistant professors at the University of Pennsylvania, the list is long. Their contentionthat Modi is communal as proved by the fact that the bloody Hindu-Muslim Godhra, Gujarat riots of 2002 took place under his stewardship and that he has not apologised for the same. These are incontrovertible factsthe riots occurred six months after he became chief minister in 2002, and despite pressures, he hasnt apologised in the manner that civil society and the liberal intelligentsia wants him to apologise.

This lack of a communicable apology was noticed by everyone at the time of Modis ill-fated remark that he feels sorry for any death, even the death of a puppy, run over by a car in which he is sitting in the back. At best, a clumsy apology. It may be the case that Modi, given his vernacular Gujarati background, is somewhat uncomfortable in the English-speaking world. It may be the case that Modi does not fully appreciate the concept games that the smaller but far more powerful westernised intellectuals play in India. It may be the case that Modi thinks that he has already apologised for Godhra 2002, and did so as far back as 2004.

In his Walk the Talk interview with Shekhar Gupta, just before the May 2004 general elections, Mr Modi stated the following: Thats why I said in the (Gujarat) Assembly that if anybody has to be punished for what happened in Gujarat, it should be me I am also a human deep-down, but just because one incident happened during my governance, I know that I will have to carry the burden forever it (Gujarat riots) took place when I was in power so I cant detach myself from it. (emphasis added, reproduced in The Indian Express, September 17, 2013).

There are many shades of Modi admitting responsibility, and guilt (burden) and even asking for punishment in the above quotes. This was in 2004. The puppy remark came now, nine years later. But led by the Congress party, the civil media society (CCMS) is not satisfied. What they want is a Manmohan Singh-style apology for the 1984 Sikh pogrom: On August 12, 2005, as PM, he stated: I have no hesitation in apologising to the Sikh community. I apologise not only to the Sikh community, but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution.

It is correctly recognised by all that an apology does not make a difference to the horrors of a riot, but it does indicate remorse and responsibilityand thereby communicate a belief that such tragedies will not be repeated. Hence I feel that the demand of the CCMS for a no-lumps-in-the-throat apology is correct. But such demands, to have any merit and efficacy, should apply to all riotse.g. the Sikh pogrom of 1984, the Mumbai riots of 1993, the Godhra 2002 riots and now the Muzaffarnagar 2013 riots. Note that except 2002, all the riots were under the so-called secularists.

The Sikh 1984 pogrom, under the noses of the central government led by Ms Sonia Gandhis late husband, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, was possibly larger in scope, magnitude, and despicability than any previous, or since, riot in India. So what is most intriguing is the fact that none of the card-carrying members of CCMS have bothered to ask the Congress party, and its leader Ms Sonia Gandhi, to apologise for the organisation and execution of the Sikh pogrom of 1984.

The first explanation for Ms Gandhi not apologising is the followingshe was a mere bystander housewife, albeit the first housewife, at the time of the 1984 pogrom. Further, at that time, Ms Gandhi was very insistent about not being involved in politics. So why should she apologise If she has little political reason to apologise for the 1984 riots, she had even less reason to apologise for Operation Bluestarthe army attack on Golden temple in 1982. Yet, Ms Gandhi felt she needed to apologise for Bluestar when she said this in January 1998, Jo kuchh June 6 ko hua, uska mujhe dukh hua (I am anguished by the events of June 6). On the 1984 Sikh pogrom, Sonia Gandhi then said that she could understand the pain of Sikhs as she herself had experienced it, losing her husband Rajiv and mother-in-law Indira Gandhi that way. There is no use recalling what we have collectively lost. No words can balm that pain. Consolation from others always somehow sound hollow Three generations of my family have contributed in the fight for the countrys independence. I ask you on their behalf to ensure victory to their dreams. (

Not coincidentally, this was the time of the 1998 election and just like today, there was pressure on leaders to apologise for riots under their domain, reign, or influence. And note, somewhat shamelessly in retrospect, that Ms Gandhis apology ends with a plea to vote for the Congress.

Two years later, in a Tribune News Service story of December 1999, headlined Sonia Gandhi regrets 1984 events, one is hard-pressed to find any statement of regret. What one does find is an assertion by Ms Gandhi that she had already expressed deep anguish and regret over the 1984 happenings. After a visit to the Golden Temple, she is quoted as saying I have prayed at the shrine that such events must never happen again.

I am grateful for the help provided by Karan Thapar, but neither he nor I have been able to find the source of Ms Gandhis deep anguish and regret over the 1984 happenings. She obviously did say that she had expressed regret, but where is that statement of regret Perhaps such a statement exists and we have not been able to find it, in which case my apologiesalternatively, perhaps such a statement does not exist. In case of the former, if found, it could mean that the CCMS is right, that Ms Gandhi has genuinely apologised. If not, then the CCMS, in all fairness and objectivity, needs to start demanding an apology from Ms Gandhi, just as they are demanding an apology from Mr Modi. Isnt it incumbent on all of us not to treat one with knives and the other with kid gloves And wouldnt the nation be manifestly better off if political leaders, of all stripes, followed the leadership of Dr Manmohan Singh

Surjit S Bhalla is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior advisor to Zyfin, a leading financial information company. He can be followed on Twitter, @surjitbhalla