At home or abroad, 1984 relentlessly haunts Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Every time his supporters celebrate his emergence as a leader in his own right, the victims of the 1984 pogrom against Sikhs seem to rise, in the manner of Banquo’s ghost in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to torment Gandhi. At almost every general interaction at which he takes questions, the question of the Congress’ role in the 1984 riots following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards is tossed at him.

Unlike Macbeth, though, Gandhi does not lose his nerve and slip into confession mode. Asked the question again at a meeting with British parliamentarians in London on Friday, the Congress president responded with a poker face. “You say that the Congress party was involved in that, I don’t agree,” he said. “Certainly, there was violence, there was a tragedy.” Call it the revenge of the ghost of 1984 – Gandhi was back in the headlines for a wrong reason.

For Gandhi’s supporters, the intermittent demands that he accept his party’s role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots appear unreasonable and harsh. Unreasonable because he was just a 14-year-old boy in 1984, and harsh because such an admission would mean that Gandhi would have to implicitly criticise his father Rajiv Gandhi, who was the prime minister at that time.

Besides, as the Congress always insists, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh apologised for the 1984 riots in Parliament on August 11, 2005. His apology was made not only to the Sikh community, but to the “whole Indian nation”. Still, it is not clear whether Singh, through his apology, had accepted the charge that the Congress consciously stoked the 1984 riots.

Gandhi has repeatedly refused to entertain this suggestion, most disastrously in his 2014 interview with TV anchor Arnab Goswami. “I remember, I was a child then [1984], I remember the government was doing everything it could to stop the riots,” Gandhi said. The ghost of 1984 had promptly risen to mock him then too.

It is decidedly an insult to the nation’s collective memory for Gandhi to protest his party’s innocence with regard to the 1984 riots. There is ample evidence that some Congress leaders led or encouraged mobs to target Sikhs. For instance, a question mark hangs on Kamal Nath, who is now the chief of the Madhya Pradesh unit of the Congress. It is also true that the Union government slipped into a willful paralysis in Delhi. Worse, Rajiv Gandhi rationalised the violence with an aphorism, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.”

For sure, no son should be blamed for his father’s sins. Nor perhaps should a leader be asked to account for his party’s crimes that date to another era. But Gandhi, son of Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of Indira Gandhi, great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, heads the Congress because he belongs to arguably India’s most illustrious family. He frequently invokes the Congress’ historical role in winning freedom for India.

Gandhi cannot lay claim to the credit column of the ledger of the past without also accepting the liabilities. Like the Japanese prime ministers over the decades who have apologised for their country’s devastation of neighbouring countries during World War II, despite having no personal role in this, Gandhi too must bear responsibility for 1984.

The 2002 Gujarat riots

That said, the ghost of 1984 has a Siamese twin, so to speak – the ghost of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Like Delhi in 1984, Gujarat in 2002 witnessed the horrific brutalisation and murders of Muslims, their properties reduced to ashes. In Gujarat of 2002, like in Delhi of 1984, the administration had slipped into a wilful paralysis.

From today’s perspective, there is one crucial difference between 1984 and 2002. The person who presided over the Union government in 1984 was the father of Rahul Gandhi, who presides over an Opposition party. By contrast, the man who headed the Gujarat administration in 2002 is now the Prime Minister – Narendra Modi.

It is curious that no one seems to pose the 2002 question to Modi, whether at home or abroad.

One reason, of course, is that Modi does not give anyone the opportunity to ask him questions about the 2002 riots. He seldom takes questions from journalists. It is also true that journalists have willingly foregone opportunities to quiz Modi about 2002. Ghosts of riots, unlike that of Banquo in Macbeth, arise only when summoned.

This was not always the case, at least not when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat. But even then, it was unlikely for anyone to emerge any wiser for it or be unscathed in the long run. Take TV anchor Karan Thapar, from whose talk show, Devil’s Advocate, Modi famously walked away in 2007.

The walkout was triggered because of Thapar’s question: “Even five years after the Gujarat killings of 2002, the ghost of Godhra still haunts you. Why have you not done more to allay that ghost?” To this question, Modi replied, “This [task] I give it to media persons like Karan Thapar. Let them enjoy.”

But Thapar persisted. “Why can’t you say that you regret the killings that happened?” he asked. Modi responded: “What I have to say I have said at that time [2002], and you can find out my statements.” A few minutes later, Modi declared that he did not wish to continue with the interview. When Modi became prime minister, the BJP stopped sending bigwigs to Thapar’s show.

The experience of journalist Rajdeep Sardesai was somewhat similar. In his book, 2014: The Election That Changed India, Sardesai recounted many encounters with Modi. “My coverage of the riots ruptured my relationship with Modi,” he said. “Till that moment, we had been ‘friends’ (if journalists and netas can ever be friends!).”

During the 2014 elections, Sardesai could not get an interview with Modi despite making repeated attempts to secure one. According to Sardesai, Modi had assured him that he would get a slot and had even said that no questions were taboo. Sardesai quoted Modi telling him, “Arre, tumse koi dushmani nahi, Rajdeep – I have no enmity with you.”

Perhaps Sardesai was not granted the interview because he could not be relied upon to refrain from asking uncomfortable questions. By contrast, in April 2014, Modi appeared in Aap Ki Adalat, the show Rajat Sharma hosts for India TV. There were many who thought the show was stage-managed, not least because India TV’s editorial director, Qamar Waheed Naqvi, resigned in protest. Sardesai quoted Naqvi telling him, “No hard questions were asked…”

Certainly, questions regarding his state government’s inaction in 2002 would be hard for Modi to handle. So when the journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay contacted Modi when he was writing Narendra Modi: The Man. The Times, the politician made it clear that he did not wish to say anything on the 2002 riots beyond what he had said already.

Perhaps the last time Modi was asked about the 2002 riots was during the 2014 election campaign. The Reuters news agency asked Modi whether he regretted the 2002 violence. Modi replied that if “someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is.” The puppy symbolism outraged many.

Questions never asked

By the time Modi became prime minister, it was common knowledge that he hated questions about 2002. That became the principal rule for anyone wishing to gain access to Modi – no questions on 2002, no pointing out the Sangh’s role in it, no attempt at understanding his administration’s inaction at that time, no sense of puzzlement why RK Raghavan, who headed the Special Investigation Team that gave a clean chit to Modi in the 2002 riots, was later made the High Commissioner to Cyprus.

Questions on these issues have not surfaced in Modi’s recent interviews with the media, whether held face-to-face or over email. The ghost of 2002 does not arise because the media does not summon it. Nor have we heard someone shout a question on 2002 to Modi during his interactions with Non-Resident Indians or journalists abroad.

Journalists become timid before Modi because they know that a display of journalistic courage is very likely to earn them a termination notice from the owners of their organisations. By contrast, no mercy is ever shown to Gandhi. Because his party is not in power, he has no option but to court the media to disseminate his views. Gandhi is an easy target of journalistic chutzpah. Media owners know he is no position to scare away advertisers or to harm their other business interests. Gandhi cannot get away with a Modi-like answer, “I have expressed my views on 1984, I have nothing to add.”

Obviously, Gandhi cannot be condoned for refusing to admit to the Congress’ role in the 1984 riots. But even as the media excoriates him, the hypocrisy of those who fail to mete out the same treatment to Modi must be kept in mind. Poor Shakespeare, he did not know that there is a technique of banishing the ghosts of those killed for electoral advantages.