During an interview at the University of Cambridge earlier this year in May, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was asked a question about the death of his father Rajiv Gandhi and how one adopts the political ideology based on the "Gandhian" principle of Ahimsa (non-violence) and lives with it at a personal level. Rahul, who was 21-year-old when Rajiv was assassinated, said that the death of his father had a profound effect on him.
"The single biggest learning experience of my life was my father's death. There is no bigger experience than that," said Gandhi, now 51, after several minutes of pause. For those few moments, the reluctant Gandhi scion was not just a politician but a son who had lived through the pain and the (in his case very public) trauma of losing a parent.
But Rajiv Gandhi was not just a father to Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi or husband to Sonia Gandhi. He was the Prime Minister of the nation, a man loved and revered by thousands at the time he was killed. When he died, thousands mourned with the Gandhis. So does the Gandhi family have the right to "forgive" Rajiv Gandhi's killers?
The question has been simmering ever since the Supreme Court released all six convicts serving sentences for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi earlier this year.
Gandhi was killed at a poll rally on May 21, 1991, in a suicide bombing masterminded by the banned terror outfit LTTE. When Nalini Sriharan, one of the convicts who who was pregnant at the time of the assassination, moved court urging Indian authorities to reduce her sentence, Sonia Gandhi who was still establishing herself politically as the party’s chief, decided to pardon Nalini and even filed a clemency petition in 1999 which eventually led to the reduction of Nalini’s sentence in 2000. Sonia Gandhi was allegedly moved by the tragedy that had befallen her family and did not want any other child to face similar hardships.
Both Rahul and Priyanka have talked about their own personal journeys when it came to coming to terms with their father’s assasination.
In 2008, Priyanka Gandhi who was 19 at the time of the assassination, met Nalini in prison. “It is true that I met Nalini Sriharan in Vellore central jail on 19 March 2008. It was my way of coming to peace with the violence and loss that I have experienced,” she had said later.
A year later, in an interview with NDTV, Priyanka spoke in detail about the transformative experience of evolving from a “furious” teenager angry with the whole world for her father’s deaths to a “forgiving daughter”.
In the same interview, Priyanka had said that the “anger didn't last that longer”.
“The anger passes as you grow up,” she said. She also stated that she eventually realised that “victimhood” cannot lead to closure and that trying non-violence is the “absence of victimhood”.
The 2016 book Rajiv Murder: Hidden Truths and Priyanka-Nalini Meeting, revealed how Priyanka had asked Nalini why she did it and has said that her father was a “soft” man who could have been reasoned. Speaking of the meeting later, Gandhi, who reportedly cried during the meeting, said that despite letting go of the initial hate and anger, until meeting Nalini, she had considered herself in a position to “forgive” her. After the meeting, Priyanka claimed that Nalini herself was victim of her circumstances, just like her.
“The minute you realise you are not a victim and the other person is as much a victim of the same circumstances as you are...then how can you put yourself in a position when you are someone to forgive someone else?”
However, Priyanka had agreed that “a nation cannot react as Priyanka, the daughter of Rajiv, reacts”.
With the Supreme Court releasing all six convicted for killing Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress party seems to have reached an intellectual impasse with the Gandhi family. While the family has long chosen to forgive the killers and even empathise with them as victims, Congress has distanced itself from the family’s stand and opposed the apex court’s move.
Asked about statements of forgiveness by Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in the past, party leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi said that despite the personal views of the Gandhi family, the assassination of a party leader and former prime minister was an “institutional issue” and that the party’s stance on the matter has always been the same. Congress is set to file a review petition of the apex court’s decision. The Centre, under pressure from the Congress, has already moved court for a review of its decision. In its petition, the Centre contended that the Supreme Court passed the order without hearing its side.
The government cited procedural lapse as the basis for the Centre’s review petition, arguing that the convicts had not made the Union of India a respondent in the case despite the latter being a “necessary and proper party”.
In her 2021 review of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and researcher Rajmohan Gandhi’s book Revenge & Reconciliation: Understanding South Asian History, journalist Amrita Shah had noted that “compared to the brutal instances of revenge, the impulse toward reconciliation reveals sagacity, maturity, and innovation”. Nevertheless, Indian history is dominated by instances of revenge-seeking.
Despite being the land of Buddha and Gandhi - known the world over the spiritual symbols of non-violence, Rajmohan Gandhi’s book painted the picture of India as a “land not of release, but of violent retribution lit only fleetingly by the possibility of transcendence”.
In the Mahabharata, for instance, retribution and revenge are key themes. The story even involves a son avenging the killing of his father by murdering the children of the perpetrator. Just like the idea of non-violebce, these contradictory values of masculine power play are entrenched in India’s social ethos and inform its policy thought.
But while the Gandhi family can find peace in forgiveness, can the same be said for the nation? Can a nation forgive the killer if its leader? In a paper titled Can Nations Forgive, researcher Thomas W. Burkman noted that forgiveness was essential for reconciliation.
“In probing the matter of justice for wrongdoers, peace research would raise the distinction between criminal justice and restorative justice…In a criminal justice paradigm, crime is a violation of laws. Punishment is the legal satisfaction of that violation."
Restorative justice, on the other hand, is an approach to justice that seeks to “repair harm by providing an opportunity for those harmed and those who take responsibility for the harm to communicate about and address their needs in the aftermath of a crime.” Under restorative justice systems, one of the responses to a crime is to organize a meeting between the victim and the offender, sometimes with representatives of the wider community.
Through restorative justice programs, offenders are made to take responsibility for their actions and to fully understand the extent of the harm they have caused. The underlying thought is to give them an opportunity to perpetrators to redeem themselves. Unlike "retribution", which is the focus of the criminal justice system, restorative justice programs have been academically proven to help victims recover from the loss and trauma as well by making them active participants that can thereby help reduce the feelings of anxiety and powerlessness that victims may feel.
Can restorative justice be used to help heal a nation of its trauma and reverse feelings of injustice it might feel after losing a respected and loved leader to the throes of violence?
Perhaps the world should take a page out of the Gandhi family’s book. Lessons of reconciliation-dialogue, accepting the past, and the maxim "what we are for rather than who we are against”, as Amrita Shah put it, can not only help one deal with loss at a personal level but “could be applied fruitfully by the troubled nations of South Asia” to solve international crises and internal strife.
In an age where military muscle flexing is the hallmark of a successful nation, the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to give clemency and reform a chance gives the nation pause rethink its idea of power, justice and forgiveness and perhaps look at reconciliation not as crutch for the weak but as an acquired virtue of the astute.