The credibility of judicial commissions has got yet another body blow with the Vishnu Sahai Commission giving a clean chit to the Samajwadi Party government of Uttar Pradesh in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. The commission’s 700-page report, released partially on March 6, has lambasted the police and held that intelligence failure and the disinformation campaign launched on social media were responsible for the riots that left 62 people dead, several injured and approximately 60,000 homeless.
The commission was set up to ascertain reasons that led to the break out of riots and also suggest measures to stop the recurrence of such incidents in the future. But the commission seems to have abdicated the mandate in its anxiety to exculpate the state government.
The commission rightly observes that communal polarisation and the trigger for the riots came with three murders — first, the murder of Shahnawaz Qureshi, then the murders of two young men, Sachin Singh and Gaurav Singh — in Kawal town on August 27, 2013, but then gives the ridiculous finding that the riots took place as the then inspector of local intelligence unit, Prabal Pratap Singh, failed to give the exact figure of people going to attend the mahapanchayat at Mandaur on September 7, 2013.
The report also observes that the release of 14 people arrested in connection with the murder of two Hindu youths sent the message that the government was favouring a particular community. But, surprisingly, it is silent on how and why they were released. It has been reported in a section of media that the accused were released under pressure from Azam Khan, UP’s minister of urban development and minority affairs.
The report also mentions that BJP MLA Sangeet Som uploaded an old Taliban clip from AfPak, claiming that it showed how the two Hindu youths were hacked to death, but recommends that no action be taken against Mr Som until the investigation is complete. It also comes down heavily on the local media for contributing to communal polarisation.
The commission’s report, however, is totally silent on the role of the state government. It doesn’t venture into what the state government was doing when lower level police functionaries were engineering total breakdown of law and order in Muzaffarnagar. The report is critical of the transfer, on August 27, 2013, of Muzaffarnagar’s district magistrate and senior superintendent of police at the height of tension and adds that the transfers further accentuated the resentment among Jats as the two officials belonged to that community. Any nincompoop knows that such transfers, and that too in a crisis situation like the one in Muzaffarnagar, cannot happen without direction from the top.
It reminds me of the Ranganath Misra Commission appointed to probe the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Justice Misra, then a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, exonerated the Union government and Congress leaders against whom there was clinching evidence for leading the rioters. He also lambasted the police. The commission proved to be a big cover-up exercise.
In England, inquiries are held under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921. In India, the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, is broadly based on the English act though there are some differences. In England, an inquiry is set up after both the Houses of Parliament pass a resolution, whereas in India it is done by governments unilaterally — Union or state. Initially, this system worked. One of the earliest commission of inquiry was headed by M.C. Chagla for “Mundhra Inquiry” which led to the resignation of T.T. Krishnamachari, then Union finance minister. It was alleged that Life Insurance Corporation improperly invested some funds in a company owned by Haridas Mundhra under pressure from the finance ministry.
Though TTK passed the buck on to finance secretary H.M. Patel, Chagla concluded that as minister he was responsible for the decision taken by his department. Interestingly, the scandal was exposed by Feroze Gandhi when his father-in-law Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister.
However, gradually, commissions lost their credibility as governments started using them to target political rivals. The irony is that retired judges are available in hordes to oblige political masters for sinecure jobs. How different commissions appointed by different governments gave diametrically opposite reports on the train burning in Godhra is a pointer to the use of commissions to serve political ends.
On March 6, 2002, the Gujarat government set up a commission of inquiry to probe the Godhra train carnage on February 27 that year in which 59 Hindu pilgrims were burnt alive and many others seriously injured. The one-member commission was headed by K.G. Shah, a former judge of the Gujarat high court. The selection of Justice Shah faced searing criticism on the charge that he was close to then chief minister, Narendra Modi.
This led to its reconstitution into a two-member commission with former Supreme Court judge G.T. Nanavati appointed as its chairman. In September 2008, the commission submitted “Part I” of its report in which it upheld the conspiracy theory propounded by the Gujarat Police, that the train burning was a well-orchestrated plan. Cleric Maulvi Husain Haji Ibrahim Umarji of Godhra and dismissed CRPF officer Nanumiyan were named as the main conspirators.
The report concluded that the train was attacked by thousands of Muslims from the Signal Falia area and that 140 litres of petrol was was poured on the train. The Congress and other non-BJP parties cried hoarse over the absolution of the state government and the timing of the report as Lok Sabha elections were round the corner.
Before the Shah Commission presented its report, the UPA government’s minister for railways, Lalu Prasad Yadav, appointed former Supreme Court judge Umesh Chandra Banerjee to investigate the incident. In January 2005, Banerjee submitted his interim report, which ruled out any conspiracy and called it an “accidental fire”.
The report was criticised as an attempt to influence Bihar elections. Later, the Gujarat high court quashed the conclusions of Banerjee Commission and ruled that the investigation was “unconstitutional, illegal and null and void” by declaring that the setting up of the commission was a “colourable exercise of power with mala fide intentions”. It rubbished the argument of accidental fire and noted that it was “opposed to the prima facie accepted facts on record”. The high court also restrained the Union government from laying the report in Parliament.
Sahai Commission’s report reinforces the growing belief that commissions are set up with political motives, not to arrive at the truth.