Crime and forgivenessWe need to rethink reconciliation for peaceful coexistence in post-insurgency Nepal
When Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ early last week headed to the US for the treatment of his wife, Sita, social media was abuzz not with the usual anger against leaders travelling abroad for treatment. The debate this time was rather existential: Does Sita Dahal, wife of the architect of the Maoist insurgency that killed over 13,000 Nepalis, deserve medical care at all? When the Dahal couple’s son, Prakash, died of cardiac arrest in 2017 and their daughter, Gyanu, died of cancer in 2014, a significant section called these tragedies ‘divine retribution’ in the face of the juridical system’s failure to bring Dahal to book.
Such sadistic reactions to grief in the Dahal family emanate from a deep wound in the Nepali nation’s soul that has not healed 13 years after the end of the insurgency. They also point to the flaws in the peace process and the transitional justice mechanism that have failed to address the questions of truth, justice and reconciliation that form the backbone of a post-conflict nation.
Transitional justice mechanism
Although ‘reconciliation’ as a peace-building exercise has formed much of our public discourse in the past decade, the transitional justice bodies—Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Commission for Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons—have failed to fulfil their mandates. In the past four years, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has reportedly investigated 4,000 of the 63,000 complaints it received; the Commission for Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons, 2,200 of the 3,000 complaints received. With such poor efficiency, the commissions, to be reconstituted next month for a two-year term, are unlikely to finish their tasks.
The commissions, in any case, face a credibility crisis as victims, the singularly important constituency of the transitional justice mechanism, suspect that the justice mechanism might provide blanket amnesty to those accused of gross violation of human rights. The fact that leaders of the now fragmented insurgent party have come together to stall judicial proceedings of insurgency-era crimes shows that the suspicion of the victims is not unfounded.
Dahal has often expressed his misgivings about the commissions, claiming at least once that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had been a burden on himself. The events of yesteryears, he said, were to be ‘forgotten’ and ‘forgiven’. We’re only supposed to learn from those events and move ahead, he said.
Baburam Bhattarai’s attempts to obstruct legal proceedings, in lieu of the transitional justice mechanism in the past, against Bal Krishna Dhungel and Lakshmi Ram Ghartimagar and others for the murder of Ujjain Shrestha and Dekendra Thapa respectively adds to the suspicions of the victims. As recently as this week, Bhattarai tried to gloss over the Tikapur massacre, where seven policemen and a child were killed by a mob, as a political and not a criminal act.
If gross violations of human rights such as these are to be termed forgiveable and forgettable political acts, what remains of the idea of justice and reconciliation? To be fair to the former insurgents, they are completely wrong in advocating ‘forgive and forget’ and ‘political’ solutions to deal with insurgency-era crimes. But given their past insincerities, it is imperative to lay down the moral underpinnings such solutions entail.
German philosopher Hannah Arendt has said forgiveness is a prerequisite for new beginnings in human relationships. Without forgiveness, she writes in The Human Condition, we would all remain trapped by the pains inflicted and suffered in the course of our social lives. Forgiving, therefore “serves to undo the deeds of the past, whose ‘sins’ hang like Damocles’ sword over every new generation”. Unlike what Dahal would like to believe, the act of forgiving and forgetting, thus, implies letting go of the hatred emanating from a crime. But by no means does it imply an amnesia about the crime itself. To forgive, as Gandhi said, is not to forget.
The idea of forgiveness is preceded by the idea of truth. Without knowing the truth of what happened—and why it happened—victims or their families cannot come around the idea of forgiving their perpetrators. It is not for nothing that the families of the disappeared are asking the government and insurgent forces to at least tell them if their loved ones are dead or alive. Truth is, therefore, the foundation of the road to forgiveness and reconciliation. But in its broad form, truth also implies the essence of one’s inner quest for ethical living and personal liberation.
The call for truth, ‘satyagraha’ as Gandhi would put it, envisions that coming together of the victim and the perpetrator on a level playing field in a mutual, purgatory act of forgiving and repentance, memorialising and moving ahead without forgetting.
There are, of course, those who believe in the primacy of the modern justice system and refuse to participate in such purgatory acts. Since forgiveness is a purely voluntary and subjective act, how is it to be made a part of the transitional justice mechanism? Can a commission like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission forgive the perpetrators on behalf of the victims? For French philosopher Jacques Derrida, forgiveness is a purely bipartisan act between the victim and the perpetrator. This act presupposes a complete surrender of ego and power play between the two parties. The moment a commission is involved, it becomes an exercise at amnesty or reconciliation.
The very idea of forgiveness is to exhort two parties to the conflict—the wrongdoer and the wronged—to come together to a common ground of affectivity and think of a common future. But it can very well be a unilateral act, where the victim forgives the perpetrator even when no repentance is expressed. This was epitomised in the Indian politician Rahul Gandhi’s assertion that he and his sister, Priyanka, had ‘completely forgiven’ the killers of their father, Rajiv, and would have no objection if the killers were released. “The only way you can move forward after violence,” Gandhi said, “is forgiveness.”
Derrida would call Rahul’s radical will to forgive the purest form of forgiveness. Unconditional forgiving—the situation where forgiveness is offered to the unforgivable—is for Derrida the only way there is of forgiving. Contra Derrida’s radical ethics, the modern juridical system must take its own course barring exceptions such as the transitional justice mechanism. Even as Rajiv’s assassins serve time in jail, the ethics of forgiving helps Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, more than anyone else, purgate themselves of their will for vengeance and retribution.
The ethics of forgiveness, as an epitome of human possibility for reconciliation with a fellow human being, is essential to the transitional justice mechanism in post-insurgency Nepal. It thus becomes imperative for both parties to the conflict to resist shelving the memories of the crimes committed but rather confront them through an ethics of forgiveness and repentance so that such crimes do not repeat in the future.
Kafle tweets at @dineshkafle