Priyanka’s Good Friday message
It is a typical forgiveness from Calvary which the towering American writer Mark Twain put it in those memorable words: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
By Joe Palathunkal
Though it took place on 19th March 2008, since it was a closely guarded secret everything got into the glare of media only by the middle of April, that too because of a demand put forward by someone under India’s Right To Information Act (RTI) which makes it mandatory for the government to reveal certain information to the people pertaining to matters of public importance.
19th March was the eve of Maundy Thursday when that closely guarded revolutionary socio-spiritual meeting took place between Mrs Priyanka Robert Vadra or Priyanka Gandhi and Mrs Nalini Sriharan at the Vellore Central Jail, Tamil Nadu, India. Nalini was one of the conspirators in the brutal murder of Priyanka’s father Rajiv Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India who was killed at Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, by a suicide bomber on May 21, 1991.
Nobody can ignore the significance of the timing of this extraordinary meeting – the Passion Week. Maundy Thursday, the greatest day when Jesus had his last supper with his disciples to teach them the innermost meaning of Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) and then the Good Friday when from the top of Calvary that soul-stirring message of forgiveness reverberated across mankind’s history.
Apparently there is no religious tradition in the world that emphasizes forgiveness as much as Christianity. That is why when Pope John Paul II forgave his would-be assassin Mehemet Ali Agca many around the world lauded it as an exemplary Christian act. Perhaps Priyanka’s Catholic mother and mother-in-law had an influence on her to imbibe this Christian spirit. It was Priyanka’s mother Sonia Gandhi who took the first initiative to forgive Nalini and to commute her death sentence to life imprisonment on humanitarian grounds for the sake of Nalini’s five year old daughter.
However, it must be admitted that this extraordinary gesture comes at a time when forgiveness is at the lowest ebb in India and the world. Pope Benedict XVI in his first encyclical letter “Deus Caritas Est” (25 December 2005) reminded us of the reason for that: “In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty to hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant.”
The Pope has remarked rightly. We live in a world now which is on a dangerous course of converting God into an icon of violence, vengeance and hatred on apparently good reason. God and violence is today associated with either the protection of faith or the rights of a particular group.
Priyanka’s gesture of forgiveness in this context is indeed a revolutionary step. That is why many people appreciated this from various parts of India. Wrties a certain Sandeep Kalra from Rajkot, Gujarat, in a letter to the editor (The Times of India, April 18, 2008): “It clearly shows that the power of forgiveness not only enables the affected person to come to terms, but also helps reforming the wrong doer. It is really commendable on the part of Priyanka and Gandhi family. This gesture should touch the heart of even hardened terrorists.”
In fact, Jesus forgave his tormentors (Luke 23: 34) from the cross, a symbol of utter powerlessness. That is why I see this forgiveness of Priyanka as a revolutionary way of introducing to a mindset something that it cannot even comprehend. It is a typical forgiveness from Calvary which the towering American writer Mark Twain put it in those memorable words: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” The people who crushed Jesus on the cross got that fragrance and Nalini the heel that crushed Priyanka by being a party to murder her father Rajiv Gandhi got that fragrance when she was forgiven.
Though Priyanka does not endorse power as an instrument to rule over, she endorses power as strength that should be with every citizen of India especially the powerless and the ordinary. This is evident from what she said during an interview on 2009 election trail: “My ideal is that every single Indian should feel empowered to be able to change this country.”
Love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek – all these are strange pronouncements for many in India. So it must be admitted that what Priyanka did was a sort of ethical earthquake. “In this world of tit for tat and blood for blood, we are really happy that Priyanka came to meet my sister. Our family has huge respect for Sonia Gandhi.” Through these words Nalini’s brother Bhagyanathan was clearly indicating the far reaching implications of Priyanka’s boldest step for India and the rest of the world.
Being children of India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, grandchildren of another Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and great grandchildren of the illustrious first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when Priyanka and Rahul emphatically opposed hatred, violence, anger and vengeance, it was a volcanic explosion against a civilization that endorsed hatred and vengeance in the name of religion and politics.
“It is true that I met Nalini Sriharan in Vellore Central Jail on March 19. It was my way of coming to peace with the violence and loss that I have experienced,” says Priyanka. Later Nalini said that her sins were washed away by this gesture of Rajiv’s daughter. Though this meeting was a “shock” for many for obvious reasons, for Priyanka it was the corollary of her life’s conviction. It was quite evident in her own words which she expressed later to a leading Indian newspaper: “I do not believe in anger, hatred and violence and I refuse to allow these things to overpower my life.”
A great admirer of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, by this act of forgiveness she was anchoring herself in the time tested Christian theological roots like freedom, responsibility, and reconciliation. Says she: “I can make a difference by bringing up two good children. I can make a difference by treating my staff well, by going to Mother Teresa’s and spending three days a week there.” It is said that some years ago she used to spend a lot of time in a Mother Teresa Home in Delhi caring for the destitute and the orphan.
“Both my sister and I do not believe in violence. Her meeting with Nalini was in this context,” said her brother Rahul Gandhi supporting his sister’s world vision of forgiveness reminding India and the world of the attitude of Rajiv Gandhi’s whole family regarding this commonplace Christian virtue. Rahul Gandhi reiterated the same during this Lent of 2017 also: “I had forgiven my father’s killers long ago.” Whether the children imbibed this Christian attitude from their mother Sonia Gandhi who was born and brought up a Catholic in a Catholic atmosphere of Italy or they imbibed it on their own is a matter of intelligent conjecture. However, the leading English daily “The Times of India” (April 16, 2008) editorially commented under the title Letting Go: “Her mother, Sonia Gandhi, might well have inspired Priyanka to meet her father’s killer.”
Don’t you think it is a wonderful Good Friday message from Priyanka Gandhi?
(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living in Faith)
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