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  • Published 9.06.11

In 1997, when Bill Clinton, as the president of the United States of America, apologized for slavery, he — like the Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who apologized to his country’s indigenous population in 2008 for past wrongs — believed that saying sorry is relevant even when the repentant is several generations removed from the abuses. This is true of intractable conflicts. Take the example of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, or the June 2008 apology offered by the Canadian prime minister to the indigenous people of his country for the generations of injustice done to them. Indeed, the past decade has seen a spate of apologies; a bursting of the floodgates, as it were, in voicing regret for past harms. The former British prime minister, Gordon Brown, apologized to child migrants sent to Commonwealth countries since the 1920s. The president of France apologized for the misdeeds of the Vichy regime in handing over Jews to the Nazi exterminators. The Czech government apologized to the Germans for the mass expulsion at the end of World War II. Germany apologized to the Jews for the horrifying crimes of the Holocaust, and even Israel made a feeble attempt to apologize for the discrimination against the Oriental Jews.

Closer home, apologies recently made headlines when the banned Ulfa went to Dhemaji in Assam, where it had triggered a blast on Independence Day seven years ago, killing 13 persons, including 10 schoolchildren, and sought pardon. Two days later, its chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, publicly apologized at Majuli for the killing of the social worker, Sanjoy Ghose, in 1997. While an apology is the key to healing wounds and injustices, what distinguishes the Ulfa’s apologies from those of other leaders is the unavoidable question mark that looms over the genuineness of the gesture. Norman Schultz of the University of Colorado says, “Sometimes apologies are offered rather disingenuously, as mere placating or begrudging compliance to expectation.” A large faction of the Ulfa is treading the path of peace after decades of violence. It realizes the need to assuage the sentiments of a people whose hearts have hardened against the banned outfit for past violence that has killed scores of innocent civilians.

The doubts about its intent swirl even more intensely because President Pratibha Patil has just rejected the mercy petition of a death-row convict from Assam, who is to be hanged for having killed a man 15 years ago. One cannot help but wonder, going by the extent of the brutality and the number of killings, where the Ulfa stands on a comparative scale. If an apology can guarantee forgiveness and restitution, should the convict, Mahendra Nath Das, not apologize to Hara Kanta Das’s family and be pardoned by the same yardstick?

According to the Canadian restorative justice advocate, Margot van Sluytman, “Forgiveness is a very troublesome word in that it can be handed off to God. Who decides if an apology is authentic?” This is precisely what Sanjoy Ghose’s widow, Sumita, once a student of conflict transformation, said when contacted: “Only the Almighty has the power to forgive. I am just a human being and I want justice to be done.” Those who have lost children, parents, spouses, relatives, even friends to mindless violence know forgiveness is tied to healing and is excruciatingly difficult to cope with. This was the case with Padmeswar Borgohain, whose little daughter, Manashi, died in the Dhemaji blast. When Rajkhowa met him seeking pardon, what could a grieving father say? “Our loss is irreparable. We pardon them, but only under the condition that the peace process will continue… there should not be any more Dhemaji episodes in Assam.” Would other victims be as magnanimous? The Ulfa ought to realize that it is doing no one but itself a favour by shunning the path of violence. A genuine apology requires that reparations be made to earn trust and acceptance. Despicable criminals in political garb may be spared the noose, but are just as deserving of our utter contempt.