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Inquiry Commissions Aren't Courts of Law

Computer scientist by training and free-lance journalist & author by choice., Jan. 4, 2003

[T]wo inquiries into Indian atrocities [are] going on as you read this, both of which, for now, are expected to produce reports sometime this year. One is an inquiry into the crimes in Gujarat in Feb. and Mar. 2002: the killing of 60 Indians on that train in Godhra and the massacre of a thousand or more Indians that followed throughout the state. The other is an inquiry into the slaughter of 3,000 Indians in Delhi in 1984, following Indira Gandhi's assassination. What is common to these two inquiries, you might ask. That is, apart from what is common to every such inquiry in India: they meander along at taxpayer-paid glacial speeds, cope with deliberate delays, are forced to ask for repeated extensions, eventually produce reports that nobody reads and governments refuse to act on, and are then forgotten. They are also the perfect screen for governments that have no desire to punish criminals and still want to pretend that they do. All those apply to these two inquiries, I'm positive.

But there's one more intriguing detail about these two. They are both headed by the same judge: Justice G.T. Nanavati. One honourable judge is simultaneously inquiring into two of India's most shameful episodes, two of our country's greatest crimes. I mean no disrespect to a judge I don't know at all. Has Justice Nanavati been saddled with two enormous tasks, in the knowledge that therefore both reports will be even slower in coming than either one would be? . . . [I]nquiry commissions have nothing to do with the law and justice in the first place. Among other things, that's because they are not courts of law, cannot punish people, and governments are not required to act on their recommendations anyway. Besides, with Nanavati, a small bit of news from a few days ago is a pointer to the hopelessness of both his inquiries and the cause of justice.

A man called Sajjan Kumar, a powerful Congress leader from Delhi, was acquitted in what was the last existing attempt to bring him to justice for his crimes during the killings of Sikhs in 1984. Sure, the wheels of justice turned for Sajjan Kumar, the law did take its own course. For 18 years the wheels turned. They turned and turned more till we reached, on Dec. 23, the dead end we could have predicted all the way back in 1984: the case against the man was dismissed. And this happened even though the guilt is down in black and white in inquiry report after inquiry report, and will no doubt figure in Nanavati's report too, when it makes its appearance. Oh yes, many bodies inquired into the slaughter of the Sikhs and issued many reports. Take a deep breath, now, and hold tight as I run quickly through them.

The first inquiry connected with the 1984 massacre was when police officer Ved Marwah headed a committee to investigate the role of the police in the massacre. Six months after the tragedy, the Rajiv Gandhi government appointed Justice Ranganath Misra to investigate 'allegations in regard to the incidents of organised violence.' Justice Misra submitted his report in Aug. 1986. Another six months later, in Feb. 1987, the government tabled his report in Parliament and, on Justice Misra's recommendation, promptly appointed three more commissions. Yes, three more. The Jain-Bannerjee commission was to look into cases that were not registered or not adequately investigated. The Kapur-Mittal commission had to identify guilty police officers. The Ahuja commission was supposed to come up with the exact number of people killed. (Six months later, Ahuja had the figure: 2,733).

Jain-Bannerjee's first recommendation was to register a case of murder against Sajjan Kumar. One of his accomplices, Brahmanand Gupta, immediately went to court to shut down the Jain-Bannerjee inquiry on legal technicalities; two years later, he succeeded. In Mar. 1990, the V.P. Singh government appointed the Potti-Rosha committee, taking care to correct the legal problems that had resulted in the Jain-Bannerjee fiasco. In Aug. 1990, Potti-Rosha issued recommendations for filing cases based on affidavits victims of the violence had submitted. There was one against Sajjan Kumar. A C.B.I. team went to Kumar's home to file the charges; his supporters locked them up and threatened them harm if they persisted in their designs on their leader. As a result of this intimidation, when Potti-Rosha's term expired in Sep. 1990, Potti and Rosha decided to disband their inquiry.

Within two months, the Delhi administration appointed the Jain-Aggarwal committee to resume Potti-Rosha's work. Over the next three years, Jain-Aggarwal recommended several cases based on the filed affidavits, including against Sajjan Kumar and other Congress leaders like H.K.L. Bhagat. In 1994, the Delhi administration appointed the Narula Advisory Committee to 'review the status' of the recommendations made by Potti-Rosha, Kapur-Mittal and Jain-Aggarwal. Among many observations, Narula specifically mentioned the repeated failure of the police to proceed against Bhagat and Kumar. In 2000, the Vajpayee government appointed the Nanavati Commission. By my count, that's the ninth official commission, over 16 years, to investigate the killings.

There were unofficial inquiries too. P.U.C.L., those now much-maligned 'human rights wallahs [people],' produced a searing expose of the slaughter titled Who Are The Guilty? The B.J.P. sent its cadres out to do a survey and concluded that 2,700 people had been killed in those few dreadful days. By the beginning of 1985, two more sets of human rights wallahs had produced reports severely critical of the Congress and its government: Citizens for Democracy under Justice V.M. Tarkunde, and a Citizens Commission led by Justice S.M. Sikri, once Chief Justice of India. And there was a Citizens Justice Commission - yes, still more human rights wallahs - that formed to help the Ranganath Misra Commission collect affidavits and evidence. If you are reeling from this list of inquiries, there is an even more egregious aspect to them. Not one resulted in even a single case filed and pursued against anyone, certainly not Sajjan Kumar.

Yet there were two cases, no thanks to inquiries, that actually brought Kumar to court. The police filed the first in 1984, accusing Kumar and 10 accomplices of instigating riots in the Sultanpuri area of Delhi, killing 49 people. In early 2000, Additional Sessions Judge R.C. Yaduvanshi dismissed that case, citing the police's failure to produce sufficient evidence against the men. The C.B.I. filed the second case in 1990, acting on a complaint by a Sikh widow called Anwar Kaur. She accused Kumar of leading the mob that killed her husband in Sultanpuri on Nov. 1, 1984. 'They were armed with lathis [staffs] and other weapons,' she told the judge in a 1999 hearing. 'They hit my husband with lathis till he died.' After that, the killers pulled mattresses from her house and placed them on her husband's body, drenched everything in kerosene and sent him up in flames. 'Sajjan Kumar,' Anwar Kaur said at that hearing, 'was standing there and instigating the mob.'

On Dec. 23, 2002, Additional Sessions Judge Manju Goel acquitted Kumar in Anwar Kaur's case. The C.B.I., Her Ladyship observed, had failed to produce sufficient evidence against Kumar. The witnesses the C.B.I. produced in court, she also observed, had many flaws in their testimony. So ended one more attempt to punish powerful men who instigate killing and looting; who subject us to the regular riots that are now an indelible part of our Indian tapestry. All because our law and order authorities are strangely unable, when it comes to powerful men, to produce 'sufficient evidence' in court.

Outraged at this perversion of justice, are you? Well, when I've shown signs of such outrage, several people have said to me: 'But think of the kind of life Sajjan Kumar and H.K.L. Bhagat have had to lead all these years.' That is to say, O.K., they haven't been officially punished, but they have lived a hunted existence since 1984. As if it must be some kind of comfort to know that taxpayer-paid police protection is the only punishment this man will ever get. Still, that's all the comfort we get. That's what we have to take.