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Power of truth

May 18, 2018

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IMAGINE spending almost 30 years in the jails of one of the most murderous and inhumane political regimes in history, and then choosing not vengeance but reconciliation after finally tasting freedom. Nelson Mandela did it, and spent the rest of his life urging black South Africans to forgive the white supremacists that had killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of ordinary blacks under the guise of the barbaric system called apartheid.

For Mandela, healing the wounds of white rule would only be possible if black (and other coloured) South Africans could pardon those functionaries of the apartheid regime that had brutalised the black majority. This meant first and foremost that that truth be uncovered, that the perpetrators acknowledge the crimes they had committed. Only truth could make reconciliation possible.

Twenty-five years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still burdened by its past. Black majority rule has been institutionalised but the white minority is still effectively the ruling class while cultural assimilation has been hard to come by. But truth and reconciliation, as painful as it was, allowed South Africans of all colours and creeds to collectively set into motion a process of change that was unthinkable when Mandela exited an apartheid jail for the last time in 1990.

Truth and reconciliation would appear an urgent imperative in many parts of the world today. As Gaza burns yet again, it is tempting to bay for Israeli blood, but as Edward Said recognised many years ago, ultimately the Israelis and the Palestinians will have to learn how to live together. One day, whenever that may be, the truth of Israeli crimes against humanity will have to be acknowledged so that reconciliation becomes possible.

Reconciling with centuries-old oppressors is difficult.

Could Bosnians forgive the Serbs? Will there come a day when Kashmiris are able to move on from the violence that has been visited upon them by the Indian state? Will the Rohingyas living out their lives as refugees ever be able to reconcile with the Burmese that pushed them into the abyss of statelessness? Have indigenous people everywhere moved on from the horrors of colonialism?

Reconciling with centuries-old oppressors is an extremely difficult thing to do. It requires political leadership that is courageous and far-sighted; it is often far easier to react to hate with hate.

In recent times a popular movement of young Pakhtuns has started calling for a truth and reconciliation commission in this country, particularly in the war-torn regions of the northwest. On the one hand, the rhetoric of these young upstarts sounds incendiary, but in demanding truth and reconciliation, they are actively displacing the politics of hate. Our state is still essentially a colonial apparatus and its essential impulse to control has reinforced deep divisions in society. Yet a politics of transformation requires the bare truths of our history to be acknowledged so that we can eventually move on.

Excavating the truth in a country where, to borrow the words of K.K. Aziz, history has been murdered, is itself a profoundly political matter. Look at the reaction to Nawaz Sharif’s rather blunt comments about the Mumbai attacks — we can debate whether or not the former PM’s comments were sagacious, but were they seditious?

Nawaz Sharif’s problem is that he hasn’t spoken enough truth; he claims to have changed but he has yet to acknowledge openly his chequered past as the blue-eyed boy of Gen Ziaul Haq. He has invoked the fate of Mujibur Rehman, but stopped short of uncovering the truth of what the Yahya regime did in erstwhile East Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif’s person is, in any case, irrelevant. Uncovering the truth about our state and the social forces that have visited untold violence upon innocents is something we must do collectively. It is not only for Pakhtuns from Fata to demand the truth about the ‘war on terror’, just as the rest of us must all call attention to what has happened to the Hazaras and Baloch in Balochistan. We must all return to the roots of this country and establish which of them have been based on oppression and hate. There is no way around this process, if we are serious about building a viable state and a social peace.

The real question is whether we actually want reconciliation. If those who are the biggest victims of an oppressive political order can be big enough to want to say they are ready to move forward together, so long as the truth is established, why are we still being kept in the dark? Why insist that Pakistan is always under siege from the ‘other’, when in fact the calls for reconciliation are coming from within? Who fears the truth?

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2018