When Everyone’s Guilty, No One is Guilty

What would have been the reaction of Indians if the shoe thrown by Jarnail Singh at Home Minister P. Chidambaram had actually hit his face? Sympathy is a sentiment best measured by mercury.

By M J Akbar (Byline)

Published: Mon 13 Apr 2009, 10:31 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:44 AM

A little shake of the thermometer and it can shoot off in either direction. Jarnail Singh did himself a great favour by missing. If the shoe had hit the Home Minister smack in the face, who knows, he may have shared some sympathy.

The errant shoe did far more damage than an accurate one might have done. It served Indian sentiment to a nicety, by delivering a sharp message without causing physical damage.

Singh claims that he had never meant to hit the Home Minister in any case, but I am not too sure that he was in control of his actions when he suddenly spurted into the national limelight and Sikh lore.

It was an involuntary gesture sparked by a deep, traumatic pain, a signal that the human spirit would not be defeated even when the hopelessness of an individual confronted a massive and even insolent cover-up by authority.

It would be a mistake to assume that this pain has only to do with the sight of two Congress candidates from Delhi who are believed to have been agent provocateurs during the three days of massacre in 1984. What is truly astonishing is the fact that not a single person has been convicted in twenty-five years.

The 1984 mayhem took place in full public view. But the police could not find any witness. The obvious explanation is that beneficiaries of the anti-Sikh riots were in power between 1984 and 1999.

V P Singh, who became Prime Minister in 1989, was a Cabinet Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s Government, and among his close confidants was Arun Nehru, who, according to his detractors, is alleged to have encouraged the rioting with a wink if not a nod. Chandra Shekhar, who toppled V P Singh, survived for a few months only with Rajiv Gandhi’s support. PV Narasimha Rao, who got his dream job in 1991, was Home Minister during the Sikh riots, and therefore directly responsible. The two Prime Ministers who succeeded him, HD Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral, were also in power with Congress support.

Jagdish Tytler, incidentally, is right when he wonders why the man who was Home Minister while Sikhs were being killed on his doorstep [literally] was never considered unworthy of being Prime Minister.

That takes care of the first 15 years. The NDA Government went through the motions, but either could not, or did not want to, prod the police too hard.

The police were safe in their stagnation once the Congress returned to power in 2004. The most important reason for their indifference was that the killings could not have taken place without the active collusion of the police, from constable to officer. Constables on duty literally directed mobs towards Sikh homes and localities in Delhi. Public pressure has ensured that there is some accountability for the Gujarat riots. There has been absolutely none for the Sikh riots, because the system collaborated with politicians to protect the guilty. When everyone is guilty, no one is guilty.

Sikhs have had to live with this harsh fact. They had begun to come to terms with it. Many of them voted for the Congress in 2004 and 2008. Jagdish Tytler was elected in 2004. Has the shoe ignited an old wound that might be forgotten but will never heal? The answers, as usual, are more difficult than questions. But this much is certain: the Akalis, who looked dead in the water, have suddenly revived in Punjab. Momentum is a decisive asset in electoral politics.

One problem with sympathy is sustenance. Rajiv Gandhi came to power in the elections after the riots with the most decisive mandate in electoral history. His victory was routinely attributed to a “sympathy wave”. The voter simply eliminated the Sikh massacre from his consciousness, or even condoned it as the inevitable upsurge of anger after the assassination of a national icon, Mrs Indira Gandhi. But once Rajiv Gandhi won, the sympathy evaporated all too quickly.

The electorate switched, as if it had paid its dues. The Congress began losing Assembly elections long before Bofors became a drumbeat and then a cacophony [one of the principal conductors of the cacophony was the Speaker of the last Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee].

The Indian voter is a tough bird. He knows his vote can turn an underdog into an overdog, but then waits to find out whether the overdog has become overbearing.

There is only one underdog in the 2009 election: Chiranjeevi in Andhra Pradesh. Conventional wisdom, of which we journalists are the unparalleled masters, places him a poor third in the results’ chart. But those who have seen the crowds swell with pride in his wake as he campaigns do not believe that they have witnessed a complete illusion. He doesn’t have to rent any crowd; people wait for hours in the blazing sun to see him pass. There is something happening which the beady, sceptical and perhaps even septic eye of the worldly wise cannot quite fathom.

Let us merely say that Chiranjeevi is one politician in the current mélange who need not be worried about a shoe hurtling in his direction at a press conference. It is noteworthy that some superstar politicians have already increased the distance between their dais and the first row of journalists. They used to dread the pen once. But so many pens have now been purchased that the only dread left is the shoe. The pen was generally considered mightier than the sword; the shoe is very definitely mightier than the pen.

In Britain, no election is complete without a politician being hit by an egg or a pudding on the campaign trail. But that would be passé. Eggs are a bit jokey. The shoe is evocative of thousands of years of popular justice, since it has been used to beat the errant. It projects an intended element of humiliation. The shoe is essentially a non-violent weapon, and we Indians love to believe that we are non-violent. Is throwing a shoe libellous? This could turn out to be a lucrative debate.

I wonder if fresh instructions have already been issued to the elite VIP security squads, and there is now a posse trained to pick the slightest movement of a Journalist’s arm towards a shoe at a press conference. No more bending, ladies and gentlemen of the press. You can kowtow of course, for that is what the high and mighty expect, but keep your hands in your laps, please.

MJ Akbar is a distinguished Indian journalist, author and commentator

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