An Inconvenient Truth: Kamal Nath Becoming Madhya Pradesh CM Will Not Erase His Role in 1984


An Inconvenient Truth: Kamal Nath Becoming Madhya Pradesh CM Will Not Erase His Role in 1984

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

After 15 years of BJP rule, Madhya Pradesh will finally get a CM not named Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The Congress managed to defeat the government in the state by keeping their options for CM open, a strategy which mobilised followers of both potential candidates – Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia. But now, with the BSP helping the Congress form the government, the time for subterfuge has passed. Kamal Nath can pop open the champagne, because Rahul Gandhi has anointed him as the next CM of Madhya Pradesh.

The election results were momentous, especially for those waiting for the BJP’s first clear slip-up since 2014. And in the afterglow of the victory, so many people were overjoyed to see the back of the BJP, they didn’t quite realise who they were letting back in through the door. The Congress might present itself as a secular party, devoid of the BJP’s communal trappings, but the presence of leaders like Nath in their ranks point to a darker history.

Indian liberals have an almost compulsive tendency to bring up the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, which took place under Narendra Modi’s watch when he was Gujarat CM, as a reason for why they’re unhappy with having the BJP at the Centre. So it is deeply ironic that a lot of these same people are celebrating the Congress’ win, when an outcome of this victory is the elevation of a political leader who allegedly played a central role in the violence that claimed the lives of hundreds of Sikh citizens of Delhi in the 1984 pogrom following Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Isn’t it surprising how most of the criticism aimed at Modi for 2002 comes from private citizens, and not the leader of the Opposition? It should surprise no one. It’s part of what seems to be an unspoken quid pro quo agreement between the two parties, where the Congress ignores 2002 in exchange for the BJP ignoring 1984.

And the soon-to-be-appointed CM of MP, Kamal Nath, might just be the latest beneficiary of this collective amnesia.

Nath’s political resume is a lengthy one; he has accomplished the rare feat of being elected to the Lok Sabha nine times, as well as held posts in the Union Cabinet and represented India at international stages like the World Economic Forum. By all accounts, he’s a tenured higher-up in the Congress, with close ties to the Gandhi family. Nath attended the Doon School as a classmate of Sanjay Gandhi, and has been close with every generation of the family, from Indira to Rahul. His staying power in his home state of MP, coupled with his storied political career would make him an ideal candidate for CM.

Except for the question of 1984.

The Nanavati Commission of 2002 found Nath’s explanation regarding his role in the violence on that fateful day to be “quite vague”.

Journalist Sanjay Suri, the author of the book 1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After, was present on the afternoon of November 1, 1984, when a 4,000-person mob burned two Sikh men alive and attacked the Rakab Ganj gurudwara in Delhi. He reported on Nath’s presence at the site of the violence, and the apparent control he was wielding over the mob, at that time, as well as repeating his claims before Justice Misra in 1986, and the Nanavati Commission in 2002. The Nanavati Commission in particular found Nath’s explanation regarding his role in the violence on that fateful day to be “quite vague”, but chose not to pursue the investigation against the Congress leader.

Public memory is short-lived, and Nath’s involvement in 1984 might have flown under the radar once again, had the Congress not attempted to appoint him as their party-in-charge for Punjab in 2016. The tone-deaf, insensitive move opened old wounds and prompted fresh protests against the Congress for shielding its members from justice.

Nath returned to his home state of MP, and rediscovered his relevance on this year’s campaign trail. With Jyotiraditya Scindia, he has spearheaded a campaign that has significantly dented the BJP on its home turf. With his installation as CM, the restoration of Kamal Nath seems to be complete.

For the Congress however, his continued association with the party – along with fellow leaders implicated in 1984 like Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar – remains a chink in their armour as they prepare for next year’s electoral battle. As the political editor of Caravan magazine, Hartosh Singh Bal points out in an article titled “The Cost of Convenience”, “[Nath’s] appointment as state party chief is an easy compromise that brings into question any claim that [Rahul] Gandhi makes of standing for any principles in political life.”

As Kamal Nath prepares to take an oath to serve his constituents, a line from Mel Gibson’s, The Patriot, comes to mind. As Gibson, a soldier-turned-farmer, finds himself in an ethical quandary as to whether to support his countrymen overthrow their colonial overseers, he laments aloud, “Why should I trade one tyrant a thousand miles away, for a thousand tyrants one mile away?” Just because they call it the lesser of two evils, doesn’t mean it’s any good.