Seldom does a person get a chance every year that is apposite for repenting and atoning for the past, for setting sail on a new course. Such a chance stares at Rahul Gandhi yet again on Saturday, as we grimly commemorate the 31st anniversary of the assassination of Indira Gandhi and, in its wake, the deliberate triggering of riots targeting the Sikhs in Delhi. Might not Rahul think of apologising for the complicity of the Congress administration in the macabre riots of 1984?

This question has acquired a greater urgency than before because of the rising tide of intolerance in the country and the perturbing return of religion to the commanding heights of Punjab politics. In both, the memory of 1984 riots will be harnessed to achieve insidious goals.

Punjab: The ghosts of 1984

In Punjab, the mysterious desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib has deeply roiled emotions. In response, the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, which manages places of worship of Sikhs in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, has declared there will be no customary display of spectacular fireworks at Amritsar’s Golden Temple on Bandi Chhor Divas, which coincides with Diwali. Sikhs celebrate this festival to mark the release of Guru Hargobind Singh, the sixth guru, from prison by the Mughal emperor Jahangir.

There were two previous occasions the Golden Temple, or Harmandir Sahib, did not have the fireworks display. "Black Diwali" was observed in 1984 to protest Operation Blue Star, which saw the Army storm the Golden Temple to flush out the armed followers of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the religious leader who became the most dreaded militant leader of his times. This form of protest was again adopted when the assassins of General AS Vaidya, who was the army chief at the time of Operation Blue Star, were hanged in Pune in 1992.

Are these three incidents of protests linked seamlessly in the popular psyche?  It is said the desecration is a strategy to distract the people from their woes arising from corruption, declining agricultural productivity, and the epidemical menace of drug and alcohol abuse in the state. Religious fervour trumps temporal worries, it is argued. From this perspective, 1984 is likely to become a tool in mobilising the Sikhs around their religious identity.

This has already been happening over the last three years. We have seen a memorial to the terrorists, as also civilians, killed in the 1984 Operation Blue Star built in the Golden Temple. A plaque at the memorial dedicates it to Bhindranwale. The Akal Takht has also bestowed the title of “living martyr” on Balwant Singh Rajoana, who was convicted for his role in assassinating Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh.

Then again, the Badal government has secured the return to Punjab of two Sikh militants who were convicted and incarcerated in jails of other states. It wants the same treatment extended to another eight. Indeed, Bhindranwale, terrorism, the 1984 riots and the Gandhis together constitute the collective memory of Punjab’s bloody past.

The memory of 1984

However, the memory of 1984 has acquired new salience in Indian politics, which is replayed every time the Sangh Parivar is criticised for pushing its Hindutva agenda, for tacitly encouraging Hindu vigilante groups. The Sangh’s response is typical: Why wasn’t secularism deemed to have been under threat in 1984 as rampaging mobs went around in Delhi killing Sikhs with impunity? These were precisely the charges Finance Minister Arun Jaitley flung against the writers who returned their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest against the government’s silence on acts of intolerance and hatred.

It is true the stain of 1984 should not be Rahul’s. He was, after all, a 14-year-old then, agonising over the assassination of his grandmother, whom he is said to have loved deeply. Perhaps his age and sequestered existence didn’t give him any inkling into the role of Congress in the riots. Perhaps the narrative of riots he heard was the construction of the family elders and their friends.

Yet, Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister was as much responsible for the riots in Delhi as Narendra Modi was for the 2002 mayhem under his watch as chief minister of Gujarat. Then there was the unforgivably unconscionable remark of Rajiv about the 1984 riots: “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” Those who were accused of fanning the communal conflagration were assigned party tickets for the 1984 Lok Sabha elections and allocated ministerial responsibilities.

But should a son bear the cross of his father? The answer ought to be a resounding no. But Rahul has to be an exception to this rule. This is because he is to the Congress what, say, the Japanese prime ministers are to their country. Even though having no personal role in Japan’s devastation of neighbouring countries during World War II, they still apologised. They understood they embodied the Japanese nation, as the Gandhis do the Congress.

This is true of Rahul as well. It is because of the family legacy that he has parachuted to the top of the party and has been anointed its leader. One who has reaped the advantages because of his birth must also harvest its disadvantages – and seek to overcome them.

The family and party stain

There are important reasons why the family and the party’s stain has also become his. The Congress harped on the 2002 riots to arrest the rise of Modi in Gujarat. Recall Sonia Gandhi dubbing Modi “maut ka saudagar”. The BJP’s riposte was to remind the Gandhis and the Congress about their role in the 1984 riots.

Since then, the fate of the Gandhis and Modi has become conjoined. As the popularity of Modi grew and he edged closer to becoming the prime minister, those opposed to him sought to challenge the new narrative that portrayed him as a changed man, driven by development rather than communal politics. In the public debate over Modi’s metamorphosis, the response of his opponents, including Congress leaders, was to ask: Why doesn’t Modi apologise for the 2002 riots then?

Of course, the BJP’s response was predictable: Have the Gandhis expressed remorse or accepted responsibility for the 1984 riots? This has established equivalence between Modi and the Gandhis, particularly Rahul, as he has been projected as the challenger to him, his foil, his antithesis. This is precisely why former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s unequivocal apology for the 1984 riots in Parliament hasn’t sufficed. He simply doesn’t embody the Congress.

But, more significantly, the politics of apology has been crafted to exclude all other than Modi and Rahul. As long as Rahul does not apologise for 1984, the BJP will draw sustenance and justification for its audacious pursuit of Hindutva, its rhetoric of intolerance. It will claim its behaviour is similar to that of the Congress. Why the outcry then?

The BJP’s argument has also acquired heft because Rahul has never tried to create a narrative of remorse around the 1984 riots. It has been, in fact, just the opposite. For instance, in an interview to Times Now anchor Arnab Goswami last year, Rahul said, “I remember, I was a child then, I remember the government was doing everything it could to stop the riots… In Gujarat the opposite was the case.”

This has created a situation in which the rivals justify themselves because of the alleged dereliction of duty of the other. Modi doesn’t apologise for 2002 because, as the BJP says, nobody has ever made the demand on the Congress (read the Gandhis) to do the same for 1984. Rahul doesn’t want to apologise because he feels his father’s government, unlike that of Modi in Gujarat in 2002, did try to control the rioting in 1984.

Chain reaction

Not only is Rahul’s attitude galling to the victims of the 1984 riots and conscionable citizens, it also shows he hasn’t tried to acquire a perspective different from his family’s. In a piece titled The Shattered Dome in the May 2014 issue of Caravan magazine, journalist Hartosh Singh Bal cites two sources – Indira Gandhi’s personal secretary RK Dhawan and journalist Kuldip Nayar – who claimed that Rajiv and his friends, Arun Singh and Arun Nehru, persuaded Indira Gandhi to undertake Operation Blue Star in Amritsar’s Golden Temple. This cataclysmic action set off a chain reaction which led to her assassination and the 1984 riots.

It is this dark past Rahul has to confront, overcoming his understandable fealty to his own father. This is important because the memory of 1984 will continue to be kindled in Punjab, where politics and religion are being mingled in a volatile mix. The 1984 riots will also continue to haunt the opponents of the BJP, as it has become an argument to silence them from criticising the BJP for spawning the politics of intolerance and menacing majoritarianism.

As the leader of a party repeatedly telling the nation that it is different from the BJP, it is vital for Rahul to distinguish himself from others through action. It is possible he will be asked to atone and account for other communal riots in the past – and there is indeed a long list of them. But none of these occurred in Delhi, under the watch of his family members. Apologies tendered sincerely do elicit an adequate response of the people. He has only to see how Arvind Kejriwal apologised to help the Aam Aadmi Party sweep the Delhi Assembly polls.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.