Why sorry continues to be the hardest word for Mamata Banerjee and most Indian leaders

In what has become a rare gesture these days, Nicholas, a former cricketer, was quick to issue a detailed and heart-warming apology on ESPNCricinfo for his earlier remarks:

I would have made the same apology whatever the results of the day, but I do so now in the knowledge that the people of the Caribbean will be celebrating long into the night and well into tomorrow. The spirit of the romantics will be with them and from thousands of miles away the rest of us can almost taste the rum, feel its punch and dream of the day when we return to the lapping shores of those incomparable islands.

The “no brains” phraseology is meant to hurt deeply, with racial overtones as it is mostly used by the privileged classes against the oppressed – particularly and historically against the blacks.

Nicholas’ initial comments were no different, although he now claims that they were made in the specific context of the West Indies throwing away matches against Australia. Nicholas said he had made a “throwaway” comment, but agreed that he had no business making it.

As for Sammy, he managed to transform the World Cup victory into a riposte to historical slights. It wasn’t just a case of being petty instead of being magnanimous. Sammy needed a podium to do that.

National repentance

But now that Nicholas has graciously apologised, it’s time to accept it and look at the larger issues involved. The question is how many people actually have the courage to apologise? The truth is that apologies don’t come easily, especially in India.

The World T20 final was staged in the backdrop of a gruesome tragedy that took place just a few kilometres from the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, where an under-construction flyover collapsed and killed more than 25 people. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee did not bother to apologise or take responsibility for the tragedy. That is because she, like many Indian leaders, lacks the character and courage to say sorry.

Such small-mindedness and cowardliness is embedded in our national character. No leader takes back a “throwaway” word that was actually meant to sting like a scorpion’s tail.

The only recent instance of national repentance was when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh apologised to the nation in Parliament for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Like other prime ministers from the Congress party before him, Manmohan Singh too could have chosen not to apologise and hide behind the great Indian strategy of letting time be the great healer. This has taught us as a nation to bury our deep hurt within our collective memory, and blurt it out only during occasions of collective wailing.

Manmohan Singh was showing courage and grace as a leader, even though the riots did not happen under his watch. In contrast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to apologise for the 2002 Gujarat riots which happened under his watch, showing once again the Indian leadership’s shallowness and lack of courage.

Difficult ask

It is at once the grandeur and humility of leadership that teaches the country how to behave, but have we been given any such lessons? How many news channels have apologised for showing videos? How many newspapers have said sorry for publishing half-truths.

Mahatma Gandhi, who was often a symbol of repentance, has easily been dislodged from our conscience by a growing sense of entitlement, assertion and misplaced sense of pride. What Gandhi said about war is true of our inability to apologise as well: “It outrages every beautiful canon of morality.”

That is why India remains a country so full of hurt and grievance – both imagined and real. We haven’t grown enough as a society to apologise. Sorry doesn’t come instinctively to us.

It is not a reaction that we love to nurture. A written apology is even more difficult, for that has to come from deep within, where a sense of humility has to coexist with an understanding of our own frailties. An apology cannot be “whipped into existence like cotton candy at a fairground”, like American journalist Margaret Mead said in another context.

Apologies are difficult. “I have torn this letter in half so many times. It’s because I felt that no words fit what I really want to say. I wish I could take my actions back,” reads one such apology letter from a convicted US felon.

Small gestures

What sense of frailty does Mamata Banerjee have, though in dress and footwear she exhibits a close alliance with those struggling to survive? Nationally, our frailty is reflected in our mock defiance, our put-on bravado, and gross rhetorical flourishes that make our everyday headlines.

These attributes were exhibited by the usually self-deprecating and humble Indian captain MS Dhoni last week, when he invited an Australian journalist to the press conference podium with the sheer intention of humiliating the reporter for asking an oft-repeated question about retirement.

Nicholas’ apology was a personal act for a violation not requiring the English commentator to summon historical guilt. Yet it was brave. Such small gestures in public life add up to much.

In a nation’s life, pomposity and bravado mean little. An apology could mean a lot. It could slowly erase years of rancour and hurt; it could rebuild bridges. But when and where in India have destroyed bridges of love and trust been rebuilt? Who has stood up to take the hit and say sorry?

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