The Difficulty of Reconciliation
Rajeev Bhargava, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, India 1 June 2013

The morning of 16 August 1946 saw the beginning of what came be described as the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ in which about 4,000 people were killed and another 11,000 injured.[1] Trouble was already brewing for some time. “There was fear about, and fear in India means trouble’, Francis Tuker, a colonial army officer, had written in April. (Dalton 1970) But the magnitude of the tragedy caught everyone unawares. The ‘intensity of the hatred let loose and the savagery with which both sides killed each other’ surprised everyone. Soon people began redescribing the killing as civil war and the foreboding of ‘impending terrible disasters’ began to grip collective imagination. Statesman, the local English daily, in a lament claimed that Calcuttans desperately needed ‘psycho-therapy on a mass scale’.

Gandhi arrived in Calcutta in August 1947, on the very day of the first major sabotage of a train in Punjab and declared that his ‘head hung in shame at this continuos recital of man’s barbarism’. When, Suhrawardy, the Muslim League chief Minister of Bengal, pleaded with him to stay on in Calcutta and see it through in times of trouble, Gandhi insisted he would do so only if Suhrawardy agreed to live with him in a local, riot-hit Muslim bustee. Gandhi knew that the breakdown of trust between the two communities was the principal cause of the violence and therefore that this ‘experiment’ by him, a Hindu, would be crucial for winning back the trust of ordinary Muslims. Chastened by the violence he had personally witnessed, Suhrawardy agreed. Hindus, on the other hand, reacted to this proposal with horror. How could Gandhi live with a known Leaguee in the midst of Muslims who had had slaughtered Hindus? However, Gandhi’s argument and charisma eventually prevailed. Communal violence was halted. Hindus and Muslims flocked to Gandhi with their grievances, pleading innocence and pinning the entire blame for violence on members of the other community or on the goondas [hired thugs]. Gandhi predictably asked everyone to ‘turn the searchlight inwards’, and to accept collective responsibility for evil.

For a while the ploy worked. This experiment of rebuilding trust between two estranged communities had effected a remarkable catharsis. Collective ill will was not suppressed but Gandhi had succeeded in transforming it into mutual goodwill. The explosion of communal harmony was intense but short-lived, however, forcing Gandhi to undertake a fast unto death. Now people began to respond with greater resolve: peace demonstrations were held, resistance groups to prevent killings were formed, civil servants joined in the fast and even goondas offered to submit to any penalty Gandhi wished to impose on them. Peace returned but Gandhi did not stop his fast. His objective was to bring about not merely a temporary truce but a lasting peace dependent in his view on a real change of heart. Only when the worst offenders within both communities pledged to forgive one another, reconcile their differences, and vowed to lay down their lives for communal amity did Gandhi break his fast. Hindus who had earlier cried for the blood of Muslims now agreed to protect them. Calcutta began to witness a more stable peace. By all accounts, ‘a truly wonderful victory over evil had been achieved’.

Hidden within the narrative is the structure of one possible moral response in the aftermath of evil. Clearly, any society needs to pull back from barbarism when it has lapsed into it; it must immediately restore peace. After arresting the current round of violence, it must ensure a way out of the cycle of revenge and self-destruction, prevent the recurrence of evil. For Gandhi, this cannot be achieved by forgetting or repressing grievances. These must first be allowed full expression and then tamed by ‘confronting the goonda we harbour within’. We must own up collective responsibility for the evil that has been generated. Owning up responsibility for one’s misdeeds is hardly easy. It requires a change of heart, of attitude, even a deeper change of personality. Only when these occur are differences reconciled and the process of rebuilding communal harmony moves forward – our final objective. In Gandhi’s view, this then is the structure of moral action in the aftermath of evil:

BARBARISM — restoration of peace- expression of grievances-their truthful assessment-the acceptance of collective responsibility for evil – forgiveness – RECONCILIATION (A society where formerly estranged members are morally reconciled may be called a fully decent society)

Is reconciliation a realistic objective? It can hardly be anyone’s claim today that Hindus and Muslims in India are reconciled. The problem persists. Indeed, it has transformed into or transformed into a Indo-Pakistan problem. How feasible then is our goal to realize the Gandhian schema of moral action?

Before proceeding any further it might be helpful to distinguish two sense of reconciliation. In the first, weaker sense, ‘reconciliation’ gestures towards ways of living together despite past enmity. it does not mark the end of the old chapter. but it does hope to begin a new one. Past enmity is not forgotten, but set aside so that one can move on with collective living. This is reconciliation as resignation. A stalemate occurs and after realising that the price of continued conflict is far too great to offset the benefits that might accrue if conflict ceased, both parties lower their expectations of what they had earlier hoped and imagined. Here, reconciliation, in large part, falls in the laps of hostile groups. The parties merely give final touches to a process into which they have been ineluctably drawn. This kind of reconciliation was not what anybody aspired to but one that is more or less forced upon each.

Distinct from this is a stronger sense of reconciliation which one might say is an achievement concept – a condition that must be realized by collective effort of two or more groups which have previously been bitter enemies. Reconciliation, here, refers to the cancellation of enmity or estrangement, via the owning up of responsibility of wrong doing followed by forgiveness. Here moral parity and balance between two groups is restored. The alienation and fear characteristic of states of violent conflict are dissolved. New values are born and shared. Relationships between groups become congenial, the result of a process driven by moral agents.

The first problem encountered by its proponents is the argument that the idea of reconciliation in the strong sense is utopian, that a weaker notion of reconciliation is all one can achieve and that crucial to achieving this state is a great deal of forgetting of past wrongs. In short, the Gandhian schema overburdens us by asking us to do more than is necessary or feasible. Those who hold this view inundate the victim with advice to check emotions. Rather than tell publicly and remember past injustice, victims are exhorted to forget. They are asked to contain hatred, overcome resentment, in short to condone or immediately forgive. Revenge to which resentment may lead them, they are told, is unbecoming of civilized people, full anyway of terrible consequences for society. These critics draw a distinction between the felt needs of the victim and the real needs of the entire community and suggest that the two often run against one another. Instead of focusing on the past, the victim is told to think of the future. A concern with the past is dangerous or at best, unnecessary. Is this view correct? Is it more appropriate in these circumstances to forget?

Among former perpetrators, a motivated forgetfulness of their own wrong doing, accompanied with the hope that former victims will quickly forget past suffering is not uncommon at a time when asymmetries of power are in the process of being dissolved. In this context, calls to let bygones be bygones, to wipe the slate clean or start afresh, work unabashedly in favour of perpetrators of crime. In any case, most calls to forget disguise the attempt to prevent victims from publicly remembering in the fear that ‘there is a dragon living on the patio and we had better not provoke it.’[2] But it is doubtful if this is a good strategy for repairing wounds or achieving reconciliation. When a person is wronged, he is made not only to suffer physically but also is mentally scarred, the most injurious of which is the damage to his sense of self-respect, if he is left with any residue of it. As Jeffrie Murphy points out, when a person is wronged he receives a message of his marginality and irrelevance.[3] The wrong doer conveys that in his scheme of things the victim counts for nothing. Since self-esteem hinges upon critical opinion of the other, the message sent by the wrongdoer significantly lowers the self-esteem of the wronged. In these circumstances, the insult and degradation inflicted constitutes a deeper moral injury. The demand that past injustices be forgotten does not address this loss of self-esteem. Indeed, it inflicts further damage. Asking victims to forget past evils is to treat them as if no great wrong to them has been done, as if they have nothing to feel resentful about. This can only diminish them further.

Forgetting specific instances of past wrongs does not appear to achieve the desired objective anyway – a point to which Jeremy Waldron has drawn our attention: ‘When we are told to let bygones be bygones, we need to bear in mind also that the forgetfulness being urged on us is seldom the blank slate of historical oblivion. Thinking quickly fills up the vacuum with plausible tales of self-satisfaction, on the one side, and self-deprecation on the other.’[4] Beneficiaries of injustice then come to believe that gains accrue to them due to the virtue of their race or culture and victims too easily accept that their misfortune is caused by inherent inferiority. Waldron is on to something important here. The call to forget reinforces loss of self-esteem in the victim. Furthermore, moral injuries that are neglected putrefy demoralization in the victim. Under these conditions, past perpetrators feel that they can get away with murder and grow in confidence that such injuries can be inflicted without resistance even in future. Therefore, rather than prevent, forgetting ends up facilitating wrong acts. If so, it is difficult not to conclude that proper remembrance alone restores dignity and self respect to the victim.

A proper remembrance is critical if wounds of the victim are to be healed. It is also necessary to fulfil the collective need of a badly damaged society. This view comes up against a pervasive social condition as well as against a famous argument by Hobbes. It is an uncomfortable fact that while societies remember their heroic deeds they suppress memories of collective injustice. Recall Ernest Renan’s remark that nations are constituted by a great deal of forgetting. In a perceptive essay, Sheldon Wolin wonders if collective memory is an accomplice of injustice and whether by its silence on collective wrongs, it does not signify the very limits of justice.[5] But he also asks if a society can ever afford to remember events in which members feel tainted by a ‘kind of corporate complicity in an act of injustice done in their name.’ Can France remember the Saint Bartholomew massacre, America, its civil war, or India, its partition? Can these horrific events be remembered by being represented in civic rituals? One philosopher who thought collective forgetting necessary was Thomas Hobbes. Suppression of memories of past wrongs was essential because if society is treated as a building made of stones then some stones that have an ‘irregularity of figure take more room from others’ and so must be discarded.[6] Hobbes’s covenant was a device to incorporate social amnesia into the foundation of society. Commenting on this, Wolin remarks that for Hobbes a necessary condition of social amnesia is the dehistoricization of human beings.

Is dehistoricization possible? I think not. ‘Muslims’ invaded India in the 12th century but for many Hindus, Muslims continue to be invaders who may kill, destroy and convert them. The conquest of Quebec by the English happened more than two centuries ago but for Quebec nationalists their nationalist project ‘involves a reconquest of the conquest.’ A large part of nationalist agenda all over the world, Ignatieff rightly reminds us, is about settling old scores.[7] (Ignatieff 1994) In so many countries people remarkably similar in essential respects appear to go at each other’s throat simply because once upon a time one ruled over the other. A simple strategy of forgetting has simply not worked. Only an appropriate engagement with the past makes then for a liveable common future. It is true of course that one must guard against cosmetic remembrance. An engagement with the past must take place simultaneously at the level of gut, reason and emotion. If not properly addressed grievances and resentments resurface. Oddly, animosity between groups is sustained even when it goes against their current interests. This happens because emotional reactions ingrained in the human mind remain insensitive to altered circumstances and are bequeathed from generation to generation. (Hume 1991) Like property, animosities are inherited too!

Nonetheless, former victims and fragmented societies eventually need to get on with their lives rather than be consumed by their suffering. Perhaps victims need to forget just about as much as they need to remember. People who carry deep resentment and grievance against one another are hardly likely to build a society together. Therefore, to ask people to forget is not entirely unreasonable. I believe timing is the essence of the issue here. Forgetting too quickly or without redressal, by failing to heal adequately, inevitably brings with it a society haunted by its past. One can’t forget entirely, too soon and without a modicum of justice. Clearly, while some forgetting at an appropriate time is necessary, a complete erasure is neither sufficient nor desirable for healing or for the consolidation of a minimally decent society. Moreover, while specific acts of wrongdoing need to be forgotten eventually, a general sense of the wrong and of the horror of evil acts must never be allowed to recede from collective memory. Such remembering is crucial to the prevention of wrongdoing in the future. I conclude that without a proper engagement with the past and the institutionalization of remembrance, societies are condemned to repeat, re-enact and relive the horror. Forgetting is not a good strategy for societies recovering from prolonged barbarism. The recognition of this is the raison d’être and virtue of the Gandhian schema, and one reason why we must hold on to the stronger notion of reconciliation.

Other obstacles exist to block the road towards the realization of stronger reconciliation. Recall that here reconciliation involves both owning up collective responsibility by perpetrators and forgiveness by victims. Both constituent ideas are challenged by critics. Some argue that the very idea of collective responsibility is incoherent. Others question the moral desirability of forgiveness.

I do not find the notion of collective responsibility incoherent. Nor is the idea of forgiveness morally unworthy. A victimised group can forgive former perpetrators if they own up collectively responsibility for wrongdoing and repent. Allow me to elaborate this point. In my use of the term, ‘responsibility’ does not amount to a legal liability for an act.[8] It is linked rather to what men and women decide to do. I believe that most of our acts and decisions are irreducibly social, and therefore, responsibility for them is social too.[9] Three things follow, if this is true. First, the domain of moral responsibility spills over beyond what is directly caused by an individual. Second, an entire collectivity can be held responsible for harm to others.[10] Third, guilt and blame must be seen to lie on a continuum which also contains shame, remorse, regret, and the feeling of being tainted.[11] In short, groups may be held morally responsible for wrongs and individuals can partake that responsibility, be guilty or feel tainted.

It might, however, be argued that it is improper to have forgiveness even as a long-term goal. One well-known argument against forgiveness is that it bypasses the act of wrongdoing. However, to forgive is not to convert a wrong into right. It is not to justify the wrong done. Nor is it identical with excusing the wrong done, as when one excuses a child for causing some harm on the ground that he can’t really be held responsible for it. The process of forgiveness begins only after proper recognition of wrongdoing and is conditional upon it. Since the wrong is not simply white washed, to forgive is not to compromise with evil. Nor does forgiveness entail amnesty. Forgiveness is not to be confused with mercy.[12] Reasons for forgiveness are not automatically reasons for mercy. A victim may forgive the wrongdoer but not be entitled to free him of legal accountability. Conversely, we may out of mercy reduce punishment for the wrongdoer but not forgive him. To act out of compassion is not to forgive, though the two may be related. Finally, forgiveness is not a virtue in all contexts and is appropriate only when it is consistent with the dignity and self-respect of the victim. One cannot forgive for the future good of the society no matter what it costs to do so. The good of the community cannot provide reasons for unconditional forgiveness. A perpetrator cannot be forgiven if he neither acknowledges nor repents for his crime. Nor is the victim ready for forgiveness if he retains the feeling that his suffering is not properly acknowledged. Without proper repentance, the person who has killed or tortured may repeat his crime. If there is no forgiveness from within, ‘then the door is open to private acts of vengeance and retribution.’[13]

A more important objection is that forgiveness is morally inappropriate. Forgiveness implies forswearing resentment towards the person who inflicted moral injury.[14] It is hard to take the view that the forswearing of resentment is always morally appropriate. After all, there is nothing intrinsically wrong in resenting perpetrators of evil. Indeed, since such emotions are woven into one’s sense of self-respect, a person who does not resent wrong done to him invariably lacks self-respect. Under what conditions then is it morally justified to forgive? Clearly, only when the self-respect of victims is enhanced by forgiveness, or at least is not undermined by it. This in turn happens when former perpetrators admit their wrongdoing, distance themselves from the wrongful act and join the victims in condemning the act as well as their own past. they also admit to their role in a collective wrong. This is not something they always know of before matters are brought in the public. An individual may not have a sense of responsibility for wrongdoing when in reality he should. Alternatively, he may feel exclusive responsibility and therefore excessive guilt for a wrong of which he has only shared responsibility. The act of making something public is not merely to reveal what is known already to each person in private. It is to come the realization of a fact about ourselves that was not properly known at all. Normally, the recognition of such collective responsibility is accompanied by feelings of shame, regret or remorse. People qua members of a group may also feel morally tainted. Ignatieff makes the telling Freudian point that something may be confronted in one’s head without it being confronted in one’s heart or guts. This self-confrontation which takes place at the level of feelings is critical for a deeper change in one’s attitudes. Since such encounters with the self are painful, they may be referred to as punishment of the soul, a form of deeper punishment neither noticed by the penal system nor by standard conceptions of retributive justice. Punishment of the soul is critical, affective self-confrontation before radical conversions in identity occur; an acknowledgement not of the wrong one has done but the wicked person one is. It is only when such changes take place on a large scale, and the moral climate of a whole society is altered, that people, particularly former oppressors, shed their prejudices, and former victims begin to regain a deeper, more stable sense of self-respect. Surely this is necessary for reconciliation.

Under altered circumstances, when evil and suffering is publicly revealed, remembered and even acknowledged by the perpetrator, should the victim respond with forgiveness? What precisely is the moral justification for forgiveness? Is acknowledgement of responsibility of the crime sufficient for forgiveness? What is it anyway to forgive? It is a fact that victims experience deep, enduring hatred and resentment towards the wrongdoer as well as feelings of revenge towards him. Commonly viewed, forgiveness is the forswearing of these resentments, a determined overcoming of hatred and anger towards a person who has inflicted moral injury. (Murphy and Hampton 1990) One frequently cited reason in favour of forgiveness points towards the negative qualities that inhere in the very emotions of hatred and resentment. A decent, morally upright person, it is said, simply shouldn’t have such emotions, in part because by holding persons rather than being held by them, these emotions inhibit proper judgement and undermine autonomy and, by virtue of their raw motivational power, are likely to drive a person to commit an equally immoral act. For instance, one may be swept, it is argued, by feelings of revenge inconsonant with moral systems in the modern world.

Reasons that require forgiveness because of its productive role in eliminating such emotions are unconvincing, however. For a start, there is nothing wrong inherently in feelings of hatred and resentment. ‘Proper self-respect’, observes Jeffrey Murphy, ‘is essentially tied to the passion of resentment. A person who does not resent moral injuries done to him is almost necessarily lacking in self-respect.’[15] It follows that resentment is valuable by virtue of its link with something we all value, namely self-respect. It is terribly odd for a self-respecting person not to resent violation of rights or the seizure of unfair advantage of his labour. Likewise, there is nothing wrong in hatred towards those wholly identified with an immoral cause or responsible for an immoral practice. Distinguishing it from simple hatred – an intense dislike for a strongly unpleasant object, accompanied by an equally strong desire to eliminate it, Jean Hampton calls this moral hatred.[16] Hatred is moral when moved by moral indignation, conjoined with the desire to defeat the ideology of the offending person in the name of a fundamental moral principle. Such moral hatred may be experienced towards neo-Nazis or towards those South African whites who perpetrate or justify violence against blacks. These retributive emotions are essential not only for the preservation of self-respect but also for the stability of the moral order in society.[17] If the only ground for forgiveness is that retributive emotions are intrinsically wrong or harmful, then surely forgiveness is unjustified.

If victims who experience moral hatred and resentment must not feel in the wrong then why in the first place overcome these emotions and forgive? The answer is that a refusal to forgive often betrays insensitivity to altered circumstances, to a change in the condition or character of the wrong doer. Murphy lists five grounds for forgiveness, three of which are relevant for our purposes.[18] When the perpetrator repents, undergoes humiliation or has in turn suffered enough, it may well be appropriate to forgive him, especially since such forgiveness does not diminish the self-esteem of the victim. Indeed, under these circumstances, the act of forgiveness may enhance the self-respect of the victim and contribute towards precisely the kind of healing required in such circumstances. When a person acknowledges the wrongness in his act and the role it played in causing harm to the victim and when, in admitting its immorality he ceases to endorse it, indicating thereby that he is with the victim in condemning all acts of this kind, he initiates the process of restoring parity with the victim. It may become morally appropriate now to forsake hatred for the person and resentment towards his past actions. Likewise, subsequent to punishment and suffering the perpetrator may be sufficiently humbled to cause the victim to alter his view of the wrong doer. Much the same is true for someone who admits guilt through an apology. In short, if restoration of a moral parity between self-respecting individuals is desirable and if forgiveness contributes to its realization, then it is morally appropriate to forgive.

If forgiveness is to result from the repentance of the perpetrator, to flow from the punishment of his soul, and if this is conditional upon the recognition of collective responsibility, then it follows that no person or institution can aim to bring about forgiveness. Reconciliation, dependent upon a deeper change in people’s identity, cannot be part of their stated objectives. It is of course true that such fundamental changes can eventually occur as a by-product of activities which might create conditions for future reconciliation. Nonetheless, it is too much to expect any person or institution to bear the burden of getting deeply estranged people to forgive or to reconcile with one another.

I have argued that only under certain conditions can the self-respect of victims be restored and enhanced. The crux of the problem, however, is that these conditions are difficult to obtain. Reconciliation through this process of collective acknowledgement of grave wrongs–cum–forgiveness is very hard because it requires a profound change in the identities of people – a deep, rather long, drawn out process. The experiential process of shedding prejudice and owning up responsibility for wrong done to others begins with the wrongdoer admitting the absence of a good reason for his act. This must turn into an acknowledgement that the bad reason for his action springs from the deepest recesses of his being, simply from the kind of person he is. Since a genuine confrontation of this fact takes place not just in the mind but at the level of gut and feeling, the acknowledgement that ‘I have hitherto been the wrong kind of guy’ is bound to be extremely painful. We might say of such a person that in such moments his soul is punished. This punishment of the soul must necessarily involve a profound change of identity which must be witnessed by the victim if he is to be convinced that forgiveness is appropriate. And it is just here that we come up against an obstacle that does seem very difficult to surmount. It is hard to know who or which institution can bear the burden of effecting or encompassing this fundamental transformation.

I do not know if it follows from my paper that we must aim for realizing only the weaker form of reconciliation. But it does show that much more thought and imagination is required to know how to reach reconciliation in the strong sense, particularly in the absence of moral saints such as Gandhi.


[1]Dennis Dalton, ‘ Gandhi during Partition: A case study in the nature of Satyagraha’ in C.H.Phillips and Mary Wainright (ed.) The Partition of India: Policies and Perspectives 1935-1947, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969.

[2]See Tina Rosenberg in Borain, Levy and Scheffer (ed.), in Borain, Levy and Scheffer, (eds.) Dealing with the Past, Cape Town: Idasa, 1997, p67.

[3]Murphy, Jeffrie.G and Hampton, Jean (1990) Forgiveness and Mercy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990, p 30-31

[4]Waldron, Jeremy, ‘Superseding Historic Injustice’, Ethics, 3, 1992

[5]Wolin, Sheldon, The Presence of the Past, Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press.1989, 32-46

[6]Wolin, Ibid

[7]Ignatieff, Michael, Blood and Belonging, Vintage, London, 1994.

[8]For a discussion of collective responsibility I rely entirely on See Larry May, Sharing Responsibility, (Chicago and London, 1992), 38,106. For my purpose, I do not, unlike May, distinguish collective and shared responsibility.

[9]My own views on the irreducibly social nature of human action is to be found in Rajeev Bhargava, Individualism in Social Science, (Oxford, 1992), 199-220

[10]Of course, this is entirely consistent with the view that members of such a collectivity are responsible in varying degrees, depending largely on the quantum of power exercised by them.

[11]May, Sharing, 34

[12]Murphy and Hampton, Forgiveness, 34.

[13]See Rosenberg in Borain, Levy and Scheffer (ed.), Dealing, 67

[14]See the excellent discussion of this issue in Murphy and Hampton, Forgiveness and Mercy.43 J L Mackie Persons and Values, (Oxford,1985), 206-219.

[15]Murphy and Hampton, p 16.

[16]Murphy and Hampton, p79-81

[17]On retributive emotions see J.L.Mackie, Persons and Values Oxford: Clarendon Press, 206-219

[18]Murphy and Hampton, op cit, p24

A version of this article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2011 (‘Overcoming the trap of Resentment’) that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2011.

This is revised and shortened version of my ‘Restoring Decency to Barbaric Societies’ in Robert Rotberg and Dennis Thompson (eds) Truth vs Justice, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2000.

The final/definitive version of Rajeev Bhargava’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 38 number 4-5 May 2012, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 369-377, Special Issue: “Overcoming the Trap of Resentment”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2011, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue