February 19, 2020
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Melancholic To Melodramatic

A revival of pacifism. A showoff. The Priyanka act invites responses straddling extremes.

Melancholic To Melodramatic
Melancholic To Melodramatic
It may have been Priyanka Vadra's way of dealing with her personal pain, but many prominent figures in our civil society say news of her poignant meeting with her father's killer, Nalini Sriharan, in Vellore jail last month injects some much-needed humanity into our public life and will hopefully engender a culture of reconciliation. "For the first time, a public leader has tried to wipe out the memory of public violence instead of trying to avenge it through courts," says psychoanalyst and sociologist Ashis Nandy. "Her gesture will inspire victims of violence to make peace and get on with life in a more healthy state of mind." Nandy hopes "something like this would happen in the case of the perpetrators and victims of Partition violence."

Agrees author Gurcharan Das: "There's too much hatred and revenge in our society and I think we need such magnanimous gestures because they can serve to bring about national reconciliation and help heal some of the wounds in our polarised society." It's time, Das says, "to give forgiveness a try, especially in Gujarat." Last December, Das points out, Gandhian and civil rights activist J.S. Bandukwala asked Muslims in Gujarat to forgive the 2002 killings because "forgiveness will release Muslims from the trauma of the past and may also touch the conscience of Hindus." But this can only work, according to Das, if Gujarat's newly re-elected chief minister Narendra Modi takes the first step and "apologises in return for forgiveness."

There are the sceptics, of course. "While I can understand Priyanka's need for personal closure on her father's death, it's sheer mockery to try and build her up as a Nelson Mandela or a Mother Teresa. There's a legal system, the blame has been laid where it is deserved and Nalini is suffering the consequences. Where does forgiveness come in?" scoffs nda leader Jaya Jaitly. Besides, she says, "By asking Nalini questions about the assassination, Priyanka is either very naive or making a mockery of the many inquiry panels that went into the killing. The other question is how she managed to circumvent the normal legal process by meeting the prisoner."

Priyanka's once-estranged aunt, writer Nayantara Sahgal, begs to differ. "I don't know about the nation, but I for one think she did a very good and moving thing. That tradition of refusing to nurse anger and vengeance is something we learnt from Gandhi and his freedom struggle. This family still believes in that tradition and we were brought up on it." The reason why Priyanka's visit moved the nation, according to Sahgal, was "it was a simple gesture. More than ever, we need such acts of non-violence, which in my view is the only ultimate deterrent in our race towards self-destruction."

It is a tradition, agrees Nandy, "which is not entirely lost, but is increasingly pushed under the carpet and being marginalised in our public life. But this gesture will have a lasting effect even on those who claim it is of no significance."

"There's a certain amount of nobility in her gesture," says Khushwant Singh. "This is bound to stick in people's mind." Something similar happened in his own life, Khushwant recalls, when he discovered two failed attempts by Khalistani terrorist H.S. Jinda to assassinate him. Khushwant says his one overwhelming desire when he discovered the plot was "to go and see Jinda and ask him why he wanted to kill me". But authorities turned down the request to meet his would-be killer, who had just been arrested for killing Gen A.S. Vaidya.

Sceptics see this as another reason for discounting Priyanka's gesture as a "celebrity thing". "Only someone from that family can walk into a prison, misusing official machinery," says Tamil writer Ashokamitran. "I found the whole thing very melodramatic, as if it was out of a 19th-century novel. " According to him, "such dramatic peace-making has no real impact on our society. Only time will heal the wounds in our polity."

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