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Sackcloth and ashes

The uncertain satisfaction of apologies from nations

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray   |     |   Published 16.12.17, 12:00 AM

One of several qualities Narendra Modi and Donald Trump seem to share is the inability to admit they are in the wrong. There is no likelihood of the current American president ever feeling obliged like Bill Clinton to say, "I'm having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness." It's even less likely that Modi will one day acquire the "gravitas and maturity" not to spread "falsehood and canards" to "score political points in a lost cause" as Manmohan Singh advises.

Nations cannot be judged by the same yardstick as individuals. A trait that indicates conceit and obtuseness in a person might suggest welcome pragmatism in a government. Those who clamour for institutions and authorities to cover themselves in the sackcloth and ashes of repentance for wrongs committed in a distant past or by some long-dethroned entity should remember that "the apology too prompt", quoting Milton's Paradise Lost, bears neither the imprimatur of sincerity nor the promise of effective redress. That is something that the few surviving Asian victims of World War II still fretting for a full-blown breast-beating confession from Japan must never forget. Nor should it be overlooked by Indians who raise a plaintive bleat about some real or imagined grievance from British times whenever a ranking visitor from Britain comes this way.

That they win applause in some sections of British society only highlights a quirk in the modern British psyche. As London's Speakers' Corner bears out, the empire has become a dirty word. The rush to egalitarianism is erasing race and gender. A foreigner - especially an Afro-Asian - who criticizes Britain is loudly cheered. The sharper his indictment, the louder the cheering. An English friend once called it Britain's "inverted colour bar". The rationale is "We taught him to speak, and look how brilliantly he's learnt!" A little-known ethnic Indian Labour MP proposed in the British Parliament that the government should "formally apologise" for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and inaugurate a memorial day before its centenary in 2019. As David Cameron rightly said, Jallianwala Bagh "does not represent modern British values". So why this confusing talk of apologies? When the ultra-patriotic were baying for an apology during Queen Elizabeth's 1997 visit, Inder Kumar Gujral warned there was so much to apologize for that it would be invidious to pick on individual incidents. No country wants or deserves to be subordinate to another. Yet, India has benefited richly from this particular accident of history. Far from seeing any need for an apology, simple folk can be heard to this day exclaiming in the face of the vexations of daily life, "It wasn't like this when the British were here!"

European Jewry provides the alternative to apologizing. As Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's chancellor, announced in 1951, "... unspeakable crimes have been committed in the name of the German people, calling for moral and material indemnity ... The Federal Government are prepared, jointly with representatives of Jewry and the State of Israel... to bring about a solution of the material indemnity problem, thus easing the way to the spiritual settlement of infinite suffering." Not content with extracting thousands of billions of dollars from Bonn, Zionists demonstrated the truth of the old adage that nothing succeeds like success by forcing Palestinians to pay with their homeland for crimes many hadn't even heard of. The concentration camps and gas chambers of Nazi-controlled Europe were cited to justify imperialism in West Asia.

Trump's gesture over Jerusalem is part of a process in which justice and injustice overlap. Would it have been made if recent American politics had not confirmed that the son-in-law also rises? Would it have been made if the Pew Research Centre's exit poll for the 2016 presidential election hadn't showed only 24 per cent of Jews voted for Trump, while 71 per cent supported Hilary Clinton? Acknowledgment, apology, forgiveness and reconciliation are part of the political shorthand of "non-apology apologies". Ronald Reagan's reference to the Iran-Contra scandal in his 1987 State of the Union address as "Mistakes were made" was another way of saying, "Bad things happened on my watch. But other people did them. I can't be blamed." Virtue is most attractive when it promises dividends. London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, thinks it "shameful" Britain hasn't apologized for Jallianwala Bagh not because he is of Indo-Pakistani extraction (asked if visiting Pakistan was "like coming home", he quickly retorted, "No, home is south London, mate") but because a Labour politician misses no opportunity of embarrassing a Conservative one. But not even those who believe with the Book of Exodus that the iniquity of the fathers is visited unto the children into the third and fourth generations can logically blame a Conservative prime minister struggling against mutineers in her ranks while her country seems to drift from pillar to post for what happened 98 years ago during the Liberal Lloyd George's womanizing in the high noon of empire.

The apology craze started in the 1970s as indigenous peoples struggled for the redress of past injustices. A flood of historical grievances was released when the Cold War ended and political relations were unfrozen. But as Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, told indigenous Canadians last month, "Saying that we are sorry today is not enough." He was echoing the view of the Washington Post that "issuing a national apology for slavery - beyond its symbolism - doesn't expand economic and educational opportunity, remove barriers to achievement, promote effective citizens, or build one America based on mutual respect and shared values". Trudeau followed the precedents set in Australia and the United States of America where apologies were accompanied by substantial material compensation. Massachusetts state supplemented its apology for the Salem witch trial with a day of fasting and prayer to atone for injustices, and gave victims financial compensation. General William Sherman granted 40 acres of land to newly freed slaves in South Carolina. Even if Theresa May apologizes for Jallianwala Bagh, what good would a string of words do to any Indian unless, of course, she offers a load of visas?

Otherwise, we need no largesse from Britain. Indians are not to be bracketed with Inuits and Aboriginals. Nor are we the Hindu Rights Action Force, a coalition of 30 non-governmental organizations in Malaysia, which was on a desperate warpath some years ago. The Hindraf (its preferred acronym) submitted a memorandum to the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur demanding international condemnation of the "ethnic cleansing" that it claimed was taking place in Malaysia. It also asked for $4 trillion as compensation for Indians being taken to Malaya as indentured labourers and denied British protection when Malaysia became independent.

These are the strategies of vulnerable dependent races, not of a self-confident nation of 1.3 billion people aspiring to Security Council membership and superpower status. As for the value of apologies, the 11th-century tale of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, says it all. Excommunicated for usurping Pope Gregory VII's authority and daring to appoint his own bishops, Henry had to trek across the Alps in 1077 to beg papal forgiveness. After he had knelt in the snow for three days, His Holiness condescended to emerge and place his foot on the bowed imperial head. Only then was the interdict lifted and the emperor accepted back into the Catholic church. Artists and writers immortalized the monarch's humiliation in paint and prose. His dramatic submission was regarded as a turning point in the centuries-long struggle between religious and royal leaders. But the imperial apology proved hollow. Less than three years later, Henry IV deposed the Pope who died in exile in 1085. So if Mrs May does concede New Delhi's demand for parity with Beijing in the matter of visas, there is no assurance the privilege won't be taken back once she feels less insecure.


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