On Memory and Surviving From Gujarat to Peru to Rwanda

23, Feb 2022 | Nandhana Sajeev

History is destined to be pleasure or distress…is capable to quarrying deep within us, as a consciousness or the emergence of a consciousness, as a neurosis and a contraction of the self”

Edward Glissant


There is the history that the State deems necessary and then there is the history of the people. German social psychologist Harald Welzer defines official memory as what the state seeks to instill in its citizens. This is distinct from the memory of the individual, family, or group (Nikiforov 2017).

CJP has been fighting for justice alongside the survivors of the Gujarat 2002 carnage for 20 years. The legal battle has moved back and forth between the trial courts and the Supreme Court. We have taken up, in all, as many 68 cases from the Magistrate Court upwards to the Supreme Court, and ensured 172 convictions at the first stage, with 124 being to life imprisonment. Though some of these have been overturned in appeal, CJP’s unique legal journey has pioneered criminal justice reform whether it is the right of Survivors/Victims to participate in criminal trials or Witness Protection. CJP is committed to continuing its quest for exemplary justice, so that the healing process can begin. To support us, please Donate Now.

On the 20th anniversary of the Gujarat carnage, we are coming together to reflect on this struggle for justice. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/cjpindia

Official memory then is a type of socialisation, a kind of fictional recreating or reframing of history. The State builds an official narrative, a national memory, that is both selective and symbolic. The State utilises this national memory as a way of imbuing its people with an identity and shared values. Thus, the national memory builds the citizenry around a shared identity and past. As democratic countries around the world grow increasingly fascist authoritarian and nationalist, the role of national memory grows more gravely pressing.

The official memory of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom in India is in itself contested. On one hand, the judicial system, including the Supreme Court, often took the unprecedented stance of convicting both “foot soldiers” and political leaders of the carnage (Communalism Combat, November 2012). This is crucial because in several cases, state justice was meted out through the mechanism of imprisonment, in some cases, life sentences. However, this is at odds with the Executive branch. The then-Chief Minister Modi’s alleged complicity, justification and encouragement of the pogrom is evident from allowing media to document and air footage of the Godhra victims, calling the Godhra train burning a planned terrorist attack committed by a foreign community, and “by legitimising violent “reaction” as an extralegal necessity to fight terrorism.” (Ghassem-Fachandi 2012)

The tension between the various sections of the State is even exemplified in Chief Justice VN Khare’s lack of confidence in the Gujarat government in carrying out fair and unbiased trials. Furthermore, testimonies of late-night meetings between Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders, including the then-Chief Minister Modi, and organised mob attacks elevate suspicions of malicious intentions of Congressional leaders. Later, the BJP party capitalised off of this ethnic tension and won political power in the following elections by running on Islamophobic platforms that painted Muslims as terrorists and outsiders (Wilkinson 2004). Instead of having a cohesive understanding of the pogrom, its origins and its victims, many political leaders were actually empowered by the Islamophobic violence.

Thus, the official memory, despite groundbreaking verdicts, refuses to acknowledge the violence the Gujarati Muslim community has faced at the hands of the State, its actors, and its complicit encouragement of the Hindutva mob brutality. While the Supreme Court and some lower courts were able to convict harm-doers, both architects and pawns, this justice is compromised as the larger political landscape does not recognise the scale of carnage as being more akin to ethnic cleansing, encouraged by various influential State actors including political leaders and police officers, than a mob riot. Without this basic recognition, justice, reconciliation and healing, not just for survivors of the pogrom, but for the whole of Gujarat, remains a distant wish.

Thus, the pogrom remains a contested, dubious, and bloody recent memory, despite leaders’ efforts to obfuscate. This becomes more bitter when we take into account the Prime Minister’s continued State-sanctioned Islamophobia juxtaposed against the realities of survivors today. Instead of accountability, survivors of the pogrom have watched the then-chief minister Modi assume the most powerful political position in the country and continue to embolden and uplift Islamophobic policies like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC), Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act of 2019, and so on. Instead of justice, survivors continue to languish in under-resourced relief camps and endure economic, social, political inequalities and injustice, unable to return to their homes for fear of their own safety and unable to escape poverty’s violence.

There is still that personal wounding, still fresh- fresher still the older it grows.”
Dionne Brand


What, then, can we make of the survivors’ surviving? How can we understand and contextualise their truth-telling and participation in justice-seeking? Consider the following passage from Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging, where she comments on V. S Naipaul’s, a Trinidadian British writer and descendant of Indian indentured servants, essay in The Overcrowded Barracoon.

“The dread he feels in the essay and the urge to escape are even more interesting. It is the dread of the unknown, the unfamiliar, the possibility of rejection… the possibility that in fact one is unwanted back home, perhaps hated, perhaps even forgotten. The wound of forced exile generations ago is made more acute by indifference, by forgetfulness. No one in India remembers him or the experience he           represents. Yet he carries within him this particularly accursed ancestral memory and this crushing dislocation of the self which the landscape does not solve.” (Brand, 2002)

Brand reads Naipaul’s experience of visiting India as a feeling of dread and fear, borne from his ancestral outcasting. This dread and fear stems from the unpredictability of Naipaul’s reception; will he be accepted? Will he and his familial history even be remembered? While those who may have incited his family’s exile may not need to remember the impetus of his arrival or departure, Naipaul himself can never dis-remember his dislocation in his supposed country of origin. Brand reminds us that violence, especially when it is ignored by its perpetrators, lives on for generations. It is insidious and pervasive, manifesting havoc on the macro political-institutional level but also embedding itself into the personal histories and narratives. If we refuse to remember the wrong, we are at the very least complicit in engendering inter-generational trauma.

The Gujarat pogrom wreaked havoc all across the state, its immediate tensions boiling to mob violence over the course of many months. Yet, 18 years later, the Gujarat pogrom is not over. Its violence lives on in the Prime Minister’s continued weaponized policies, in the lack of acknowledgement of the state’s complicity, and of course the lack of meaningful and widespread justice and reparations. Its violence is evident in the forced exile of Muslim refugees, displaced from their own homes. The survivors remember, despite the State memory’s purposeful obfuscation, its indifference and supposed forgetfulness. Survivors are the living ancestral memory, a living contradiction to the political leaders’ concocted innocence.

The Indian state is resistant to acknowledging its violence. To do so would require that the official memory must disentangle itself from its own idealizations. It requires a true reckoning with the national consciousness. Nikiforov suggests to do so would be damaging to “national self-awareness and the nation as a whole” (2017). I am suggesting that such a rupturing might be necessary.

Without acknowledgement, there can be no justice, no reconciliation, no healing. Without a genuine commitment to justice for the survivors, this violence repeats and dis-remembers its origins for the sake of its own propriety. The lack of meaningful justice for survivors of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom is necessary for the continued rise and cementing of Hindutva Nationalism. In other words, Chief Minister Modi’s complicity and passive encouragement of“Hindu revenge” in 2002 paved the way and set the scene for today’s increasingly more systematic and pervasive attempts at marginalising and oppressing Muslims, among other communities, in India.

The reckoning that Nikiforov speaks of is threatening to the state and insinuates impossibility and/or disembowelment of the state. I instead turn to Febres’s more inclusive and perhaps forgiving understanding of humanity.

We are, we must recognise, two-faced beings, each contrary and unrecognisable to the other. On the one hand, we are capable of acting in a spirit of solidarity and charity: undertaking the great deeds which pave the way for moral progress, achieving stunning advances in the development of science, which in turn have led to answers to the grand questions about our nature and universe. On the other hand, however, we have demonstrated time and again a capacity for becoming the most dangerous threat to our fellow men, perpetrating spectacles filled with indignity and ferocity.”


If we recognise that humans are multi-faceted beings, capable of both great good and harm, then it also makes sense that the state can also operate in similar dualities. Instead of fearing for the ego and perseverance of the state, one based on the subjugation of a minoritised population, it might actually be in both the interest of the state and its peoples to be concerned instead with the healing and dignity of all of its people. We might then move towards contending with survivors’ memories which challenge the state memory. We might sit with that discomfort and dissonance, and begin to unravel its whys and hows.

Nikiforov suggests that a true reckoning with the national consciousness will result in damaging the national self-awareness. Instead, I argue that this reckoning could potentially open a path toward radical transformation of the state and society, one that would lead to healing and genuine justice. To, some, this may be the same, for better or worse.

This means that the justice process can be not only a restorative but also a transformative act, Justice, and especially transitional justice, can question the bases and make visible the injustice in laws and systems” (Febres 2020)


This type of transformative/transitional justice requires society to understand why violence and marginalization occur. What prompted the attack in 2002? Is it the manifestation of a structural and societal pattern? In what ways did the Indian political system, its leaders its courts its police officers, uphold, perpetuate, and even encourage the pogrom? If communal violence requires silencing and forgetting, then communal healing must require acknowledgement and reconstruction of memory. We may not even be able to accept anything less than a total transformative justice.

Drawing from Dr. Salomon Febres’sMemory of Violence and Drama in Peru: The Experience of the Truth Commission and Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani-Violence and Dehumanization and Dr. Angela Ordonez-Carabano and Dr. Maria Prieto-Ursua’sReconciling the Irreconcilable: The Role of Forgiveness After the Rwandan Genocide, I consider the role of memory as we strive towards justice from state-sanctioned violence. First, we must recognise the dissonance between state and survivor memory. Then, it becomes necessary to know the history- of the attacked population, of the violence, how it is upheld and so on. Then we must do the hard work of reconstructing memory. In this, we center and trust the bravery, resilience and wisdom of survivors and participate in symbolic reparation as a genuine commitment towards further justice. Finally, we work towards understanding a shared history, one that recognises both harm doers’ and survivors’ narratives. It must be acknowledged that neither of these two cases are perfect, and multiple forms of trauma and violence still occur. I do not suggest that Peru and Rwanda have completely rectified and atoned for horrors that have occurred; only the survivors can name that. Instead, I uplift these two cases, and more specifically these articles, for how justice and memory are intrinsically linked and must be considered as we move towards transforming society away from patterns and systems of harm.  I consider how these cases may help us reframe our understanding of what is necessary to facilitate justice and healing in Gujarat.

Memory of Violence and Drama in Peru: The Experience of the Truth Commission and Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani-Violence and Dehumanization

Febres’s article, Memory of Violence and Drama in Peru: The Experience of the Truth Commission and Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani-Violence and Dehumanization offers valuable insight in the reconstruction of memory, especially through theater. In 1980, Peru was on its path to restoring democracy after 12 years of military dictatorship. However, an armed uprising was initiated by the Communist Party of Peru. For the next twenty years, Peru was engulfed in conflict between the Communist Party and the State which resulted in the grievous abuse of the people. Eventually, the elected president Valentin Paniagua led a transitional government. Under his directive, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was conceived; it was their responsibility to “study (of) the past from a variety of perspectives, but always with the aim of shedding light on the dynamics of the human rights violations and providing some relief to the victims of that abuse.”

Even in this brief set up, there are some critical takeaways. Peru was transitioning from military dictatorship to a democracy when the new wave of internal armed conflict began. This is decades-long state violence in various forms. Despite this, and a coup d’etat, an elected president was able to commit to a transitional government and, significantly, committed to a communal healing process. The State itself, through its leaders’ commitment, was an integral part of the transition from decades of complex violence towards the hopes of something safer and more stable.

Gujarat’s case is an example of communal violence in a democracy, not during a process of transitioning governments, coup d’etats, democratisation. However, it might be helpful to contextualise Gujarat’s case in the backdrop of the 1947 partition which of course relied on religious divisions. While there have been fact-finding missions powered by international organisations and NGOs of the pogrom itself, there has been no cohesive commitment from the Indian government to study the past in order to understand how these human rights abuses occurred. Therefore, a holistic approach to relief or reconciliation of the society cannot be achieved.

The Commission released a nine-volume final report that provided a “historical analysis of the violence process and state(d) the hard facts describing the extent of the tragedy experienced by the Peruvian people. The data let us sum up one of the main conclusions reached by the Commission that the violence decades served as opportunity for the manifestation of one of the cruelest patterns of contempt for a traditionally excluded population, that is, the indigenous population…Therefore this was a matter of people without a role of agency in the national drama.”

The Commission formally recognised, through data and a study of history, that the Indigenous people of Peru were seen as a barrier to Peru’s development, and thus devalued and seen as disposable. They were the subject of harm to both, the State and insurgents. The article goes on to say that because unthinkable atrocities did occur, traditional concepts of justice and mainstream understanding of history destabilised. In other words, the scale of violence required a redefining of justice and reworking of the historical narrative, one that would better understand the systematic marginalization, and eventual targeting, of the indigenous population.

This is crucial for two reasons; firstly, there is an understanding that despite the political conflict, the most marginalized group still endured the brunt of the violence from both sides, thus repeating a systematic pattern regardless of political instability.

Secondly, justice could not be solely met through institutional mechanisms, it demanded a cultural and societal shift, away from silence and forgetting. The concept of justice needed to be broadened in order to include a systematic and historical understanding of why and how those twenty years of atrocities occurred. Thus, the act of memory preservation, or rather reconstruction centering on the realities of survivors and victims, was taken on in order to “reestablish(ing) the social contract among Peruvians.”

This approach may benefit how we understand Gujarat. What happened in 2002 is part of a larger pattern of harm that only becomes more entrenched in Indian society through the lack of acknowledgment, manifested in political impunity, narrow retellings, lack of justice and healing and so on. By naming the targeting of the Indigenous population and contextualizing it as a systematic pattern, Peru builds the potential to transform its society and systems. In Gujarat, some courts were able to convict aggressors. But did this halt Islamophobic violence? Did it stop 2002’s enablers from ascending to higher political power and constructing even more entrenched systemic harm? This suggests that our justice systems, as they stand, may not be wholly capable of transforming our societies towards a path of comprehensive justice, reconciliation, and healing.

In Peru, the social contract was renegotiated through public theater, in which victims spoke candidly about their experiences, without being questioned or debated, bringing reality to data. Febres says that “Art is a restoration of truth, and therefore stands in opposition to a contemporary culture which privileges the illusory.” Though there may be many ways to reconstruct memory, in Per, theater that was grounded in the lived experiences of survivors was utilized. It broke the patterned silence and the bend toward erasure and instead allowed for survivor memories to become the state memory. The symbolic in symbolic reparation is not performative but rather a gesture that recognised, as Febres says, a debt of justice and a commitment to repay. Because the violence that occurred was in the trajectory of a legacy of systematic violence and erasure, the debt of justice would require a transformation of society to rewrite the social contract, “away from racism and exclusion.” Perhaps, this sort of public theater of justice may be more inclusive of the various facets that led to the 2002 pogrom that could not always be allowed in the same courtroom.

The case of Peru illustrates the function of several ingredients towards reconstructing memory towards a justice that is both transitional and transformative, and therefore hopefully fuller. The State committed itself to this process, which recognised that the marginalized Indigenous population was subjected to a history of violence which particularly heightened during those two decades. Peru uplifted survivors by centering their stories in order to build that into the new state memory. Instead of having two realities, a state memory and then a people’s memory, Peru attempts to move toward justice by creating a new state memory that includes this survivor memory, through the symbolic commitment of public hearings and art. If we reflect back to Febres’s grasp of humanity, in which we are capable of both good and harm, then we can understand how Peru’s process towards reconciliation hopes to hold the complexities and potentials of humanity. As of now, India has not completely reckoned with the origins, contexts, and impacts of the 2002 pogrom. Perhaps with the explicit commitment of the state, a wider understanding of the historical background, centering survivors, the way we remember Gujarat might become more whole. This of course is no easy task. It requires bold imagination, capacity to hold complexity, and maybe even forgiveness.

Reconciling the Irreconciliable: The Role of Forgiveness After the Rwandan Genocide

Ordonex -Carabano and Prieto-Ursua’s article Reconciling the Irreconciliable: The Role of Forgiveness After the Rwandan Genocide offers the audience a psychological roadmap to dealing with duality of memory and reconstruction, and therefore another reconfiguring of how we may approach justice and memory after horrendous violence.

In 1994, over a period of 100 days, one million people were murdered by their neighbors in Rwanda, a result of colonial violence, resulting socio-political strife, civil war and more. Despite this scale of horror, society demanded justice and harmony.  Reconciliation efforts have varied all across the country; here we will focus on the Association Modeste et Innocent, an organization aiming to create sustainable peace by empowering people through Ubuntu philosophy and nonviolent solutions.

Firstly, it must be noted that aggressors served time for their crimes. Many were released and moved back to the communities in which they caused harm. It is important to note that imprisonment itself cannot be linked to transformative justice, as transformative justice operates outside of the state and refuses to participate in such punitive justice. It may even be impossible to adhere strictly to a transformative justice framework when the state is responsible or otherwise complicit in violence, as in the cases of Peru, Rwanda and Gujarat. In each of these cases, the state was involved in varying degrees in the accountability process. Peru’s TRC specifically aimed for some sort of transformation of society. Carabano and Usrua’s article provides us with an alternative to state mechanisms in order to transform relationships between aggressors and survivors in order to reconstruct memory.

The AMI creates a safe space for victims and aggressors to meet and speak with each other. In light of the atrocities that occurred, it’s critical to say that this is an incredibly brave and radical act. These are small group environments that operate outside of the state. The process focuses on two key aspects. First, both parties recognise each other’s narratives. This depends on some sort of willingness towards restoration, apologies and forgiveness. The aim here is not to dissuade either party or to claim either story is wholly true and the other not. Rather it is moving away from a divisive binary and toward “incorporating opposing narratives into common discourse of the past (acceptable or tolerable for both parties).” In other words, by speaking both realities, the survivor and harm-doers work towards reconstructing memory that acknowledges and understands both parties’ humanities. Secondly, the offense must be faced as a fact. Despite making space for complexity and the breadth of humanity, the survivor’s experience is still upheld, trusted, and believed. Their truth must not be erased when reconstructing memory.

The authors says that this process requires “knowing the truth, discussing the offense sincerely, listening, and allowing the other to express their experience.” This goes for both parties. The authors suggest that the aggressors’ truth is critical to victims; a confession needs to occur so that the victim can know the truth of what happened. Thus, when the offense is faced as a fact, there is rehumanization that is occurring for both parties, even when the survivor’s truth and trauma is cared for. The memories of harm doers (conditional on their integrity and honesty) become essential to reconstructing memory. Opposing narratives become a shared history in which no one is disposed. In Gujarat, we are missing this shared history. Instead, we have something more divisive, where the unaccountable executive branch has ascended to higher levels of political power, in which most leaders have escaped accountability despite troubling evidence. The judicial branch on the other hand has in several cases like the Best Bakery case and Naroda Patiya Massacre have been bold in its convictions and statements. This divide is representative of the tensions between state and survivor memory. Therefore, we have to ask if justice has been delivered, if one branch of the government has only grown more violent in the years since 2002. Have the people of Gujarat been rehumanized, both the aggressors and survivors? Have we reckoned with the violence and potential growth of humanity? Have we carved out a path towards a future more intent on healing, one that has learned from histories of violence?

Disposing of anyone, including the aggressor, is still violence and erasure, and may lead to the perpetuation of violence. Erasing peoples’, especially survivors’, narratives narrows our shared history and thus narrows our future possibilities. Reconstructing our understanding, and therefore memory, of 2002, through survivor narratives, theater reconciliation efforts and state commitment, does not disembowel society but rather dramatically transforms the relationships between the survivor and aggressor. What possibilities of violence, forgiveness, and future do we allow if we were to facilitate such a transformation? The confrontation with truth and memory here must be unbelievably challenging and frightening for everyone involved, and such efforts must be commended and uplifted. This work can result in transformative healing and thus transformation of society.

Violence is complicated. But it is evermore harmful when erasure and silencing are invoked to repress the truths of survivors. Reconciliation after such grievous violence is a brave and perhaps lofty challenge. It is not perfect. There is no one answer. It requires a deep understanding of humanity, of our capabilities to harm viciously and to grow, to live and be beyond the unforgivable. There is immense power if we were to make space and sense of how large human potential can be. Healing, reconciliation, and comprehensive justice are impossible if the official memory insists on oppressing the realities of the violence and its survivors. Silencing then becomes a continued act of aggression. In the cases of Peru and Rwanda, we observe attempts to reconcile and reconstruct memory. Justice, healing, and the After are not guaranteed in this attempt; rather, we are merely giving it a chance.

Author’s acknowledgments: I would like to thank abolitionists, leaders, and organizations like Mariame Kaba, K Agbebiyi, Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Thenmozhi Soundarajan, Leila Raven, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Dr. Sophia Azeb, Citizens for Justice and Peace and more whose work has not only greatly informed this piece but has continued to challenge and inspire my conceptualizations of justice and a more liberated world.

About the author:

Nandhana Sajeev is an Ezhava Malayalee-American writer, educator, and anti-violence worker. She was born and mostly raised in the United States and is currently living on Paugusset land. She cares deeply about justice and healing and is often thinking about the ways that marginalised communities create safety for themselves. She received a BA in Economics from University of Connecticut in 2017 and a MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2021. In 2020, Nandhana was a Research and Writing intern for Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and worked closely with the organisation to interview survivors of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and their advocates. These articles are a byproduct of some of what she learned from these conversations.


Brand, Dionne. 2002. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

Communalism Combat, November 2012. Justice Delivered: Excerpts from the Judgement of the Naroda Patiya Case. 19 (168)

Febres, Salomon Lerner (2020) , Memory of  Violence and Drama in Peru: The Experience of the Truth Commission and Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani-Violence and Dehumanization, International Journal of Transitional Justice, 14(1), 232-241

Ghassem-Fachandi, Parvis. 2012. Pogrom in Gujarat: Hindu Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Violence in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Nikiforov, Alexander L. 2017. Historical Memory: The Construction of Consciousness. Russian Social Sciences Review. 379-391.

Ordóñez-Carabaño, Á., Prieto-Ursúa, M., & Dushimimana, F. (2020). Reconciling the irreconcilable: The role of forgiveness after the Rwandan genocide. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 26(2), 213–216.

Wilkinson Steven 2004. Votes and Violence: Electoral Competition and Ethnic Riots in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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