When Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw a shoe at US President George W Bush at a press conference in December 2008, he was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison. He was released after nine months in jail.
When Delhi journalist Jarnail Singh threw a shoe at Indian home minister P Chidambaram in April 2009, he was taken to the police station for questioning and released the same day; the release was reportedly on Chidambaram’s orders.
Both shoe-throwers were motivated by their deep sense of hurt and pain at the suffering of their community and the way it was being ignored by the world. But in Jarnail Singh’s case, I think the government was aware of the depth of feeling on it, and the decision not to press charges was as much a pragmatic one to avoid inflaming an important section of the electorate, as a humanitarian gesture of forgiveness by Chidambaram.
Singh was, of course, motivated by the lack of action on the massacre of Sikhs in 1984, and in particular on the clean chit given to Jagdish Tytler, one of the prime accused in those riots. He has now written a book, “I accuse”, detailing those riots and the aftermath. I bought it intending to read it, but find I can’t read more than a few paragraphs at a time: it is too stomach-churning. Nearly everyone who matters is guilty of the murder of 3000 Sikhs in 1984. The local Congress party leadership — H K L Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler, and others — for leading the violence. The Delhi police, not just for abdicating their responsibility but for actively abetting the rioters and, in many cases (as documented by Singh), actually restraining Sikhs who tried to defend themselves, and even arresting them for murder if they happened to kill a few rioters (from a mob of thousands) in self-defence. The home minister, P V Narasimha Rao, for abdicating his responsibility and not stepping in for two days. The new Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, for apparently supporting the violence (“when a tree falls the earth shakes.”) The President, Zail Singh, for his utter helplessness. The media for ignoring it all: the state-run TV and Radio switched over to mourning mode, and the newspapers, except for the Indian Express and Jansatta, reported the riots minimally or not at all; the Times of India had an editorial by Girilal Jain declaring that “this is the result of end of patience on the part of the Hindus.” (Where else have we heard that recently?)
But one person who was not to blame for those events is Chidambaram (as Khushwant Singh points out in his foreword to the book). And, as Singh documents, the stone-throwing incident seemed to provoke some genuine expressions of contrition, and action, on the part of the ruling Congress party. In particular, Tytler and Sajjan Kumar were made to withdraw their candidatures from the upcoming Parliamentary elections.
Even earlier, after the Congress party returned to power in 2004, both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi had made statements condemning the violence, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said in Parliament that the violence of 1984 was a blot on the forehead of the country, and that he hung his head in shame for it. These and other gestures, belated though they were, had been welcomed by the Sikh community — in fact, Sonia Gandhi’s support for a Sikh Prime Minister was itself a significant gesture; but these seemed to be belied by the renewed patronage of Tytler and Kumar, Tytler’s exoneration by the CBI, and suggestions that it was a “closed chapter” and “the wounds have healed”.
Jarnail Singh’s shoe-throwing incident was to show that the wounds hadn’t healed. Chidambaram’s instant forgiveness was, I think, an acknowledgement of the still-open wounds. And now Singh’s book serves to remind us that, to this day, nobody has been held accountable for the horrific crimes that he details.
What about the open wounds from the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq in 2003? Perhaps that’s for people in other countries to worry about.