Two decades, 20 years, a fifth of a century; these words elongate time and, used in certain contexts, force into the dimness of memory matters that should never be forgotten. There have been, in human history, and most often in the last century, epochal periods of unspeakable horror, times when we seemed to have lost our humanity. We survived each—barely—and each time we swore never again, only to see the cycle repeat itself. To some victims we built memorials and monuments. For others, we concocted catch phrases and slogans. Then there were those that we let slip into the obscurity of a past because confronting the perpetrators and seeing justice through for the victims was simply uncomfortable. Time is not always a great healer; it is too often an excuse for timidity, and it can be the greatest betrayer of justice.

Mumbai, December 1992; Gujarat 2002. Two events separated by a decade. Both related to the same mosque, temple, town; both resulted in an unleashing of unspeakable violence. For both, commissions of inquiry were instituted and there were some legal proceedings. Yet, of the two, one resulted in some measure of justice seen and done, and the other did not. Were the two so different as to justify so varied a result? This is not only about Muslim victims. In both events, there were Hindu victims too, at Godhra in Gujarat and at Radhabai Chawl in Mumbai. But was justice even-handed to all segments and across time?

Mumbai 1992 exposed the myth of the city’s so-called cosmopolitanism, its capacity for tolerance and apparent gemütlichkeit. There emerged voices never heard like this before: voices of irrational hate, of religious and cultural differentiation, of political expediency; voices that sought self-definition for some based not on any sense of their worth or achievement, but only on the basis of what and who they were not. Those voices were the sound of our undoing, and in the years that followed, they would come to define us.

“...there is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organizing attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several leaders of the Shiv Sena from the level of Shakha Pramukh to the Shiv Sena Pramukh Bal Thackeray who, like a veteran General, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims. ... large-scale rioting and violence was commenced from 6th January 1993 by the Hindus brought to fever pitch by communally inciting propaganda unleashed by Hindu communal organizations and writings in newspapers like Saamna and Navaakal."

The Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission report is a damning indictment of a city that, as David Davidar wrote in The Solitude of Emperors, lost its way in December 1992. That report was a chance to redeem ourselves. We squandered that opportunity, and lost our way again.

Where we should have seen justice delivered, we saw abject surrender. The state showed no commitment to any prosecution. Of those it did pursue, Shiv Sena leader Madhukar Sarpotdar received a sentence of a one-year jail term in 2008. He died in 2010, having served no time at all. Against those who instigated, triggered and participated in the carnage, and ravaged forever the face of an entire city, nothing followed. Nothing, that is, except two decades later, a valorization of Bal Thackeray that is as perplexing as it is disquieting. Not because he had legions of followers, but because in accepting the elision of the past of people like him, we move ourselves closer to fascism and an acceptance of everything we should not aim to be, everything our Constitution demands we not become.

Some speak of “reconciliation", as if to suggest that the crimes of the past can somehow be bleached into acceptability. To achieve a true reconciliation—in the manner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa—requires a reversal of the polarities of power: The victims must first be placed in a position of authority vis-à-vis their historical oppressors, and this must happen by some valid process. Otherwise, all talk of “reconciliation" is only a demand to forgive and forget.

We should do neither. To suggest we “move on", or “let bygones be bygones" is to provide an alibi for a collective failure to see justice done. State funerals, large memorials, gushing hagiographies and awed voices on television blind us to our past failings. When we had the chance to act and chose not to, we betrayed our future. We let a poison into our system in 1992 and by our continued inaction and indolence over the years, added to it. Time has not flushed it. It has only made us more immune.

Gautam Patel is a lawyer in the Bombay high court.

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