Reflections on reconciliation and forgiveness

The following is a guest blog post by CJP graduate Sanjay Pulipaka.  A short bio can be found at the end.

Sanjay Pulipaka Photo

Often Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been initiated as a response to mass violence. It is interesting to note that the phrase “reconciliation commission” is used in responses to mass violence but not ‘forgiveness commission.” Why is that so?

What is forgiveness? When a victim stops feeling anger, resentment, and/or refrains from seeking compensation for crime/misconduct/misdeed perpetrated by an offender/individual, then it is deemed that forgiveness has come into play. Forgiveness is essentially an act of a victim. Forgiveness can be unilateral wherein an individual or group of people may bestow it on others without an explicit request for it. Sometimes, forgiveness is initiated when an individual acknowledges that their actions may have resulted in unwarranted infliction of pain/suffering and seeks normalization of a relationship.

Forgiveness necessitates that the anger in a relationship should be addressed. However, does transcending grief constitute an essential component of forgiveness? Is it possible to grieve and yet forgive? Is there a possibility that sustained grief may prompt individuals to rescind their forgiveness? I don’t have answers for these questions.

Normalization of relationship as a consequence of forgiveness does not necessarily imply that a relationship will revert back to the state where it was, before a rupture occurred. Forgiveness may restore some balance that has been lost in a relationship. Absence of bitterness or anger between two people or group of people does not necessarily mean that richness in a relationship has been restored. ‘Restoring balance’ and ‘restoring richness’ of a relationship are two different things. This distinction should be noted to have better understanding of reconciliation.

When and why do people seek reconciliation? If individuals or communities value a relationship, then it becomes imperative for them not to let a wound fester. Sometimes, reconciliation becomes necessary as the individuals need to share same social space. A human being is not merely collection bones, liquids and chemicals. A human being is also a collection of memories. Our memories (good, bad, pleasant and painful) determine our actions and approach to relationships. Reconciliation is a mechanism of addressing memories which are not pleasant and healthy.

Often, in the daily usage, the word ‘reconcile’ is deployed to mean that an individual(s) or community(ies) should accept the state of affairs as they are and must learn to live with it. To subsist with pain caused by broken relationships indicates a life not fully lived. Therefore, to reconcile should mean something more than to plough through life with a collection of painful memories.

Reconciliation mandates restoration of richness in a relationship, after a crime or a misdeed or occurrence of an unpleasant event. Forgiveness is a component of reconciliation. However, reconciliation goes beyond forgiveness. Reconciliation not only requires acknowledgement of consequences of action but also shared understanding of events leading up to the event which created rupture. It is not merely based in responding to past events. It entails shared aspirations and/or the need to create a shared future. Restoration of compatibility and shared vision of future can never be unilateral actions. They require all the parties to invest in a relationship with intent to nurture it back to its original state before the occurrence of a destabilizing event. Restoration of an original state in relationship may not be possible but there should be a commitment to restore or enhance the richness of a relationship. For this to happen, the parties in conflict/disagreement should have shared narratives, and addressing grief becomes important.

Coming to a shared narrative can be an extremely difficult process, as it entails unveiling the masks that we wear. Stark emotional unmasking requires genuine commitment and a caring environment that address the sense of vulnerability that an individual or community tends to experience. In the absence of safe spaces, people may hold on to their masks tightly resulting in increased divergence in the narratives, which may in-turn sow the seeds of retribution.

There are two limitations to the above analysis. First, the analysis is event focused. The above analysis presumes that events or a rupture that resulted in infliction of pain can be clearly identified. However, that may not be always the case. When two individuals or communities have an extended relationship and there tends to be an overlap of multiple events and multiple ruptures, as a consequence there are no clear offenders or victims and there are no clearly identifiable causes and consequences.

Second, actions of individuals sometimes are consequences of larger social structures. Therefore, making individuals accountable for actions which have strong structural subtext is fraught with challenges. More dangerously, in order to demonstrate their loyalty to ethnic kin, individuals may refuse to recognize the impact of larger social structures on their actions and may claim full responsibility for their violent actions. Such instances, along with focus on victims, require considerable work to educate and liberate the alleged offender.

Given the above complexities, individuals or communities seeking reconciliation should recognize that it is a process that will compel all the stakeholders to look intensely at, and rework, their self-identities. Reworking identities is tough, and yet rewarding as it enables healing.


Sanjay Pulipaka is currently a Fellow at the ICRIER-Wadhwani Chair in India-US Policy Studies, ICRIER, New Delhi. Previously, he was a Fellow at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS), Kolkata. There he worked on political transition in Myanmar. He was also a Pavate Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK, and a former Fulbright Fellow in the Conflict Transformation Programme (CJP/EMU), in the United States. Sanjay has published extensively and has two co-edited volumes to his credit. His areas of interest include international politics, South and Southeast Asian politics, political transitions, conflict transformation, and Indian politics. He also has considerable work experience in strengthening democracy at the grass-roots.