How to apologize for a riot

Politicians need to realize that an effective apology requires acknowledging that a mistake has been made

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

If you’ve been caught cheating on your girlfriend,” says the jester at our business school, “don’t express remorse all at once. You have to give her time to cycle through rage, retaliation, and comprehension of what happened before you say sorry. You need to time it right. Like a stand-up artist waiting to deliver a punchline.”

Turns out, there’s a science to this. In his book, On Apology, Aaron Lazare, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts lists the four stages of an effective apology: acknowledging you did it, allowing the wronged party time to assimilate the news, expressing remorse, and making amends.

Politicians appear to have special need of this science. Perhaps only because they carry out their business in the unflinching gaze of history, they seem to periodically commit “unforgivable” transgressions—from the horrors of a Holocaust, to the clumsy cunning of a Watergate, from the embarrassment of verbal gaffes, to the callousness of riots. Apart from this are their personal foibles, which figure much less in Indian national discourse, but are the stuff of much entertainment in the West.

More than 30 years after the Holocaust began, Willy Brandt, Chancellor of West Germany, widely respected for his role in the Resistance during World War II, spontaneously dropped to his knees at a commemoration of Jewish victims of the Warsaw ghetto and wordlessly offered his homage. The identity of the person making the apology, the timeliness and sincerity with which it is made and acted upon would appear to be critical to its acceptance.

British prime minister David Cameron’s recent statement about the “deeply shameful” nature of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, was a classic case of an apology that did not qualify as such. Rajnath Singh, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), speaking to a group of Muslims, added to the list of apologies that were too clever by half, offering to apologize in the future, if there had been any mistakes committed in the past—the political version of a financial call option.

A democracy is not merely a five yearly ritual of voting, but a continuous process of national deliberation, a “government by discussion”. In such a system, people should be protected from grave injustices and therefore, not in need of effective apologies in this regard. Amartya Sen and others have persuasively argued that the absence of famines in functioning democracies is not on account of possible electoral repercussions from the minority affected by a famine, but due to a national consensus that famines must not occur in the presence of the capability to combat them. Sadly, this consensus does not extend to daily deprivations that several Indians must face or to frequent “natural” disasters such as floods and earthquakes.

What of the national discourse on riots? Hundreds of riots have taken place since independence, which was itself stained by the blood of Partition. In most cases, the Congress was the party in government. The Supreme Court recently pulled up the Samajwadi Party government for mishandling the situation in Muzaffarnagar, even as the Gujarat chief minister expressed “deep sadness” over the 2002 riots in his state, and fielded those accused of abetting the Muzaffarnagar riot in the national elections. Does our collective conscience rebel, or even stir, at the thought of innocent people being killed in the name of religion and caste, usually with state complicity? One could ask Sen, why riots continue to occur in our democracy when famines do not, even though both may be equally tractable?

Examining the process of apology in the aftermath of a riot, using Lazare’s four-step framework may reveal why India is subject to riot after riot. The process of reconciliation and repair gets blocked at the very first stage of acknowledging responsibility. Hardly ever is the last stage of bringing the guilty to book and making amends reached. Every alternative from denial that riots happened, to justification based on which community made the first move, to shifting blame to other political parties is elaborately explored. If all fails, standard practice requires appeal to the occurrence of another riot, engineered by a rival political party. The comparison of the Delhi riots of 1984 and the Gujarat riots of 2002 has spawned a mini-industry of mandarins. If there had indeed been even a single famine after independence it appears, going by our logic on riots, that we would have had many more, for then multiple wrongs would make for an unassailable political right to inflict famines. In drawing room conversations, that reflect the deliberations that determine our democratic choices, we hear that sometimes an entire community has to suffer on account of the deeds of a few miscreant members. We hear that the path to power is not always pretty and some things have to be done which are better not spoken of. Far from a national consensus against riots, we are in a situation where, for politicians, the gains from engineering a riot every now and then, and then sitting pretty, continue to be comparable if not greater to the losses. Till this remains a reality, our democracy will be unable to check periodic outbreaks of sectarian violence. One awaits the emergence of a political party and a polity that exhibit zero tolerance for this national scourge.

Rohit Prasad is an associate professor of economics at MDI, Gurgaon.

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