Laughing All The Way to the Inquiry

Dilip D'Souza

In the card catalogue of the Asiatic Library in Bombay, you can find drawers-full of cards for reports of inquiries into something or the other. There's the report of the Shah Commission which investigated the 1975-77 Emergency; the report of the Madon Commission that looked into the 1970 Bhiwandi riots; Justice Srikrishna's report about the 1992-93 riots in Bombay. There is even a report of an inquiry into an Alitalia plane crash in 1962, and one on -- this is true -- the improvement of marketing of fruits and vegetables in Bombay in 1932.

I found all these cards while searching for a report I need for something I am writing. When I asked for it at the desk, I got a surprised look from the man there. "You want an inquiry report?" he
asked. I nodded. Some minutes later, it was in my hand: dusty, but in perfect condition. I was the first borrower -- the first, I am not making this up -- of a report issued in 1950.

OK, so this was at a public library. Perhaps members of the public are not interested in reading such reports, or at least the one I had to refer to. But do you doubt that there are more copies of all these
Government-ordered inquiry reports sitting on shelves in government offices somewhere, much as they do at the Asiatic: unread and getting dustier by the day? In other words, is there a single report of any inquiry that has been read and acted on, not left to rot?

And if you answered that, as I suspect you did, try this: do you even want to believe that a new inquiry into 16-year-old events will be any different from those that have gone before? That it will succeed where eight previous inquiries have failed: to bring justice to the families of 3000 Indians slaughtered in 1984?

So when I read the news announcing this new inquiry, I could only conclude that the government authorities that ordered it must just be laughing at us. There is no other explanation. They are laughing at the gullible fools they have turned us into. They are laughing, because in response to our longing for justice, they can simply announce an inquiry -- yet another one, at least the ninth one by my reckoning. And while doing so, they even drum up the gall to say it was done in response to "Widespread demand."

The widespread demand is for justice. An inquiry is what we get.

So prepare yourself for one more farce masquerading as justice for the families of those 3000 Indians murdered purely because they were Sikh. It's 16 years since they died so horribly. If that massacre shames us all, it must shame us even more that in 16 years we haven't been able to hand out even one significant punishment for it. Not even after previous inquiries have told us in no uncertain terms who the powerful men were who instigated the killing. Yes, we know from those inquiry reports just what men like HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Lalit Maken and Jagdish Tytler were up to in November 1984. We know it, too, from the few private cases against some of these men that have made it to courtrooms.

Yet all these years later, Bhagat, Kumar and Tytler are not only free and unpunished, with no prospect of that changing anytime soon, they are even protected by taxpayer-paid squads of gunmen. And now we will have yet another inquiry, this one by ex-Justice of the Supreme Court GT Nanavati, to tell us what we already know. By "widespread demand", if you please.

By now, surely, anybody who is so much as awake in India, knows just what an inquiry is: something the government institutes when it does not want to actually act. Commissions of inquiry are long, expensive exercises in futility and distraction, which i s all. That's precisely why governments so like to order them: because they give the rest of us the illusion that they are taking action where there is none. Where governments fully intend to take none.

The Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, is itself the source of the futility, though I doubt its drafters could have expected governments to abuse its spirit so cavalierly. The Act gives commissions "the powers of a Civil Court" in various respects. Except for two. As a 1983 judgement commented: A "commission is only fictionally a Civil Court ... there is no accuser and no specific charges for trial [and] the government [is not] required to pronounce ... on the findings of the commission."

In other words, commissions of inquiry cannot prescribe punishment (though they can recommend it), and the government can ignore their findings.

So what purpose does an inquiry serve anyway? The Act tells us that it is supposed to restore "public confidence."

Try telling that to those 3000 shattered families. I'm sure they are feeling extremely confident today, and more so now that Justice Nanavati will conduct another inquiry.

Perhaps there was a time, many years ago, when they and all of us had faith that an inquiry would lead to penal action against those it found guilty. But today? After hundreds of inquiries have come and gone and been ignored? Only an idiot would keep that faith.

There's at least one reason the law has never caught up with Bhagat, Kumar and company: they are all powerful Congress leaders. Naturally, Congress governments were never interested in actually punishing them. Naturally, those governments were happy to order meaningless inquiries. Even if the inquiries recommended prosecution, which they did, they could be ignored. This protection of men who should be on trial is one reason for the massive disillusionment with the Congress that is so evident in the country today. As it should be. No party that shields such goons deserves a single vote.

But today, our government is decidedly not a Congress one. Over the years, the BJP has been among the loudest critics of the Congress failure to bring justice to bear on Bhagat and gang. Yet in power, they are exactly as uninterested in punishing them. Worse, they resort to the same ruse we have suffered for years: they order an inquiry.

Why this universal fondness for side-stepping actual punishment? Well, there's at least one reason for that, too. The BJP is acutely aware of the findings of still another inquiry: the one Justice Srikrishna conducted into the Bombay riots. In it, he is sharply critical of the Congress. But he is also critical of the BJP. And he leaves you in no doubt about the riot-time misdeeds of another powerful man and his party: Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena, Prime Minister Vajpayee's coalition ally.

All of which produces a fine quandary indeed. If this government actually initiates penal action, based on the earlier inquiries, against men like HKL Bhagat, there will be immediate questions about why there is no action, based on Srikrishna's inquiry, against Thackeray and his cronies. On the other hand, if this government's political predilections prevent it from bringing Thackeray to justice, how can it demand that Bhagat and Kumar and Tytler must be?

The answer to this conundrum? Simple: yet another inquiry. Which is what we have got. I tell you, they must really be laughing at us.

Meanwhile, the government has managed to get a man called Ranjit Singh Gill extradited from the USA to face trial here in India. Gill is wanted for the 1985 murder of Lalit Maken. And why did he murder Maken? Because like Kumar and Bhagat, Maken was also seen egging on mobs to slaughter Sikhs in 1984. Unlike them, Maken paid for his crimes with his life.

For that revenge, we call Ranjit Singh Gill a terrorist and have spent years trying to bring him to trial. Fine. But I cannot help wondering: what did men like Bhagat and Thackeray spread, but terror? Yet they are not in Canada or the USA. They don't need complicated extradition procedures to run their torturous course. These men are right here, right now, among us, unrepentant and unpunished. And, guarded by heavy security at our expense. Oh yes, they are laughing at us. I have no doubt.


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(PUCL Bulletin, July 2000)