Tragedies are known for leading to two contrary responses: vengeance and compassion. Vengeance, more often than not, overrides feelings of empathy on the part of survivors of tragedy. The reasons for this are not hard to see. Finding empathy and compassion for those we hold responsible for the tragedies that visit us is always a formidable challenge. One that most people are reluctant to face, especially when such tragedies involve episodes of violence and loss of life of loved ones. Enduring hatred, on the other hand, is an emotion easy to nurture.
In this context, at least three members of the Gandhi family – Sonia and her two children, Priyanka and Rahul – seem to have passed the litmus test for compassion. They have forgiven the assassins of former Congress prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia’s husband, and father to Priyanka and Rahul. This Sunday, Congress President Rahul Gandhi told the alumni of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Singapore that he and his sister have “completely forgiven” their father’s assassins: “We were very upset and hurt and for many years we were quite angry. But, somehow, completely… in fact, completely (forgiven).”
His words come at a time when the values of empathy and forgiveness have begun to symbolise weakness rather than courage. It is precisely because the world today is so rife with violence and unforgiving that we need to take note of Rahul’s remarks, and perhaps acknowledge the act of forgiveness as a mark of quiet courage.
Time is often said to heal wounds. But as history – both that which is long past and that closer to our time – reveals, instead of healing, time can also deepen wounds. It can deepen the desire for retribution long after historic injustices are committed. Long after the guilty are punished, the thirst for more violent punishment might remain unquenched. Such response is mediated by a tendency to overlook specific contexts in which tragedies and incidents of violence are grounded; a tendency that has sharpened in the 21st century. Overlooking context conveniently blurs situational differences and universalises the characters of victims and perpetrators.
On the other hand, context gives layers to narratives, foregrounds the question of taking individual or collective responsibility, instead of scripting a one-dimensional narrative. The ability to contextualise tragedy is an important prerequisite for reacting with empathy. Without empathy, there is no compassion. Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, who have witnessed and felt violence intimately – who have lost loved ones to violence – appear to have been able to contextualise their moments of loss and grief. Perhaps that ability to process their tragic experiences and the historical circumstances in which they unfolded has led them to something like forgiveness.
“There is a history that when one realises that when these events take place, it’s a collision of ideas, forces, confusion. That’s where you get caught. I remember when I saw Mr Prabhakaran on TV lying dead, I got two feelings – one was why they are humiliating this man in this way. And second was I felt really bad for him and for his kids and I did that because I understood deeply what it meant to be on the other side of that thing,” said Gandhi at the alumni meet.
Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, is believed to have masterminded Rajiv Gandhi’s 1991 assassination in a plot that involved several Tamil militants.
Ten years ago, Priyanka Gandhi met Nalini Murugan, the woman who is serving a life sentence in prison for her role in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. It was at the intervention of Sonia Gandhi that Nalini’s death sentence was commuted to life. In her statement, Priyanka said, “meeting with Nalini was my way of coming to peace with [the] violence and loss that I have experienced.” Nalini, on her part, told her brother P. S. Bhagyanathan, that she feels as if all her “sins have been washed off by Priyanka’s visit… I feel she has pardoned me by calling on me at the prison… I am indebted to her all my life.”
Paying attention to Rahul Gandhi’s remarks is important not because they ‘sound’ noble, but because our present social and political order is so deeply guided by the desire for vengeance and retribution. In this black and white universe, there is no room for the nuances of human relationships, complexities in political scenarios, or varying definitions of victimhood.
Against this background, Rahul’s reflective belief in the power of compassion to rein in anger may not be met with resounding applause. After all, the mood today, led by the shrill voices on social media, leans heavily towards anger and paying one’s opponents back in the same coin. All around us are angry men and women who want to correct real and perceived historical injustices by adopting the very methods that the perpetrators of these injustices used. Even as Gandhi and Buddha’s practices of non-violence are routinely invoked, lynch mobs in India roam the grounds with impunity, punishing who they believe to be the transgressors of politics, religion and culture. In Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks incite and resort to violence in the blink of an eye.
On a societal level, the unique Truth and Reconciliation Commission, initiated by Nelson Mandela in South Africa, comes to mind. Even after spending two decades and seven years behind bars, Mandela believed that only through a process of reconciliation would South Africa find enduring peace. According to a report in The Guardian, more than 7000 perpetrators confessed before the commission, which accepted 20,000 statements from victims.
Criticisms of such efforts notwithstanding, without experimenting with our capacity to forgive, to empathise, and see another’s point of view, we risk leaving the world burning in its present state.