Pope Francis
Pope Francisap

Atonement diaries

However, modern colonial history is rife with hundreds of such episodes of injustice, which the nations responsible are yet to acknowledge.

NEW DELHI: In the backdrop of Pope Francis’s six day pastoral visit to Canada last month, the Pontiff agreed that the attempt to eliminate Indigenous culture in Canada through the establishment of a church-run residential school system amounted to a cultural genocide. The Pope’s penitential pilgrimage, which had been dubbed by the media as the ‘apology tour’ saw him seeking the forgiveness of generations of Native peoples for the injustices and abuses they suffered, in an attempt to reconcile their relationship with the Catholic Church. The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission had stated in 2015 that the forced removal of some 1.5 lakh Indigenous children from their homes, between the late 1800s-1970s, followed by their placement in government-run boarding schools to assimilate them into Christian and Canadian identities, constituted a “cultural genocide.” Apart from being beaten for speaking their Native languages, the children were subject to physical and sexual abuse, which was rampant in such schools.

The Pope’s apology has set in motion a delayed process of healing and closure for thousands of families, something Canadian PM Justin Trudeau had attempted to initiate through his apologies to indigenous communities in the past. However, modern colonial history is rife with hundreds of such episodes of injustice, which the nations responsible are yet to acknowledge. Over 77 years after dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US has stuck to its narrative that the attacks were necessary and justified, and that there was no need to apologise to the victims. Not a single US President has tendered an official apology. Former president Obama, during his historic visit to Hiroshima in 2016, stopped short of an apology even though he presented the Hiroshima Peace Memorial with two paper cranes, a symbol of peace in Japan.

Such refusals are viewed by observers as the US’s attempts to justify that the atomic bomb had ended the War, a narrative parroted by its education system. Children are taught that the bombing helped avert the US invasion of Japan that would have entailed millions of casualties involving US soldiers. The list of nations seeking reparations for colonial abuses is growing.

Spain, whose centuries-long dominance of the New World, resulted in the obliteration of Mexican culture, and people, was caught in a diplomatic row three years ago. The Mexican President had written to the King of Spain, demanding an apology for crimes committed against Mexico’s indigenous people around 500 years ago. The Spanish government rejected the request. Earlier in March, a British MP had called for Britain to apologise to India for colonial atrocities such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.

A few first world nations are reconciling with their former colonies. In 2008, the Australian parliament made its peace with indigenous Australians through an apology to address the removal of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. France’s President Emmanuel Macron in September 2021 sought forgiveness from Algerians who fought alongside the French Army in Algeria’s war of Independence. And in June last year, over 100 years after colonising Namibia, Germany officially apologised for the genocide that took place under its watch. Germany also offered Namibia $1.3 bn in financial aid.

Reparations do not wipe the slate clean, as far human rights abuses are concerned. All they do is assign accountability, and hold the nations involved culpable for their actions, whether directed by the Head of a State or a foot soldier. But these acknowledgements are necessary in a world that is growing increasingly fragmented, not to mention, highly skewed in terms of economic and social well-being, something that colonialism was hugely responsible for. And it is said that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

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