“Beta Sorry Bolo”: Prashant Bhushan and India’s Apology Problem

Social Commentary

“Beta Sorry Bolo”: Prashant Bhushan and India’s Apology Problem

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Is it too late now to say sorry? The Supreme Court of India this week gave an answer to the rhetorical question posed by Justin Bieber to the world five years ago, in the ongoing contempt of court case against advocate Prashant Bhushan. Bhushan has long been a vocal critic of the court, and the case dates back to remarks he made in 2009.

More recently, when a picture of Chief Justice SA Bobde astride an expensive Harley-Davidson motorbike without a helmet or mask was circulating online, Bhushan tweeted a searing indictment of Bobde’s inappropriate conduct. The SC controversially declared that this, and another tweet Bhushan made against the bench in August, amounted to contempt of court.

Since the ruling, dozens of lawyers have petitioned the SC to reconsider, and even some of Bhushan’s harshest detractors have expressed disagreement with the decision. On the other hand, the court has pointed out that they as judges have no recourse to defend themselves in the press, and consider it unfair for Bhushan to make allegations about their motives to which they can’t respond. Now, the SC has gone a step further in demanding an apology from Bhushan.

“What is wrong in seeking an apology? Is it a sin to apologise? Will that be a reflection of guilt? ‘Apology’ is a magical word which can heal,” said Justice Arun Mishra earlier this week. Bhushan, however, has refused to apologise. He stands by his statements and insists it would be a greater insult to the court to issue a meaningless apology in a chamber that is meant to be governed by the strength of arguments.

Not all sorrys are created equal, and neither are the people who issue them.

“Chal sorry bol” 

It can’t be denied that the SC’s justification for seeking an apology — with Justice Mishra’s appeals to magic and healing — bears out those who have called the body thin-skinned for its judgment. While Bhushan believes an apology must be sincere, Mishra characterises it as a balm for wounded sentiments that has nothing to do with who is in the wrong. It’s a typically Indian way to view the simple but loaded “sorry”, a word that has a unique meaning in our country.

Like Justin Bieber, I am Canadian, and apologies were part of my social fabric growing up. On several occasions, I have succumbed to the most stereotypical Canadianisms: Apologising to inanimate objects for bumping into them, or for someone else stepping on my foot. According to the Mishra school of thought, these are the apologies rendered for the sole purpose of smoothing over uncomfortable situations and ruffled feelings.

But not all sorrys are created equal, and neither are the people who issue them. I also heard apologies from teachers who got a wrong answer in class or showed up late, and from high-level politicians. Who can forget PM Justin Trudeau’s public apology for doing blackface, where he not only took responsibility for a picture that had caused an uproar, but admitted to another instance of blackface that no one had yet picked up on?

I even saw parents apologising to their children — a concept unheard of in my own Indian household. And when I moved to India, the liberal application of the apology that I was accustomed to no longer existed. Every Indian kid has known the experience of a parent or elder trying to show remorse by force-feeding you with ladoos, or buying you a new kurta. (“Immigrant Parents Shocked to Discover a Plate of Cut Fruit is Not a Substitute for a Constructive Apology,” blares this recent headline from parody news site Reductress.) But the elusive apology, that admission of regret or culpability, is impossible to wring from their lips. Somehow, every apology becomes a battle of egos, and every conciliatory act is a way to re-establish cordial relations without ceding an ounce of power.

Whenever sentiments are outraged, it becomes a justification to lash out and call for retribution rather than reconciliation.

Are apologies a sign of weakness? 

For Indians, an apology is not an expression of remorse and growth, but an admission of weakness. While it’s common to hear apologies from those who are lower on the totem pole of status, like service workers and college juniors, we can never expect them from authority figures, no matter how they might have wronged us.

In schools, “sorry bol” is meted out as a punishment that’s met with smirks from the one to who is receiving the apology, not a means to resolve conflict — and certainly not an opportunity for self-reflection. In some situations, like a fender bender in Delhi, an apology is more likely to be met with aggression and mockery than mutual peace.

Is that why so much of our thinking around power in India is limited to one-upmanship? While Gandhi may have said that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, our country today often operates on a tit-for-tat system of justice where two wrongs inexplicably make a right. Whenever sentiments are outraged, as they so often are in a diverse and emotional population, it becomes a justification to lash out and call for retribution rather than reconciliation. And in this context, when the highest court in the land feels they are owed an apology over hurt sentiments, it’s hard not to see the move as a scramble to regain the upper hand.

In India, saying sorry is rarely about the person who is issuing the apology: their acknowledgment of a mistake, their sincere attempt to learn and do better, their commitment to a more perfect understanding. This is the transformative power of a true apology, and I can’t help but wonder what we’re missing out on when we only wield it as a tool for maintaining the status quo.