June 05, 2020
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A Commission A Day...

Whenever in trouble, set up a probe panel. That seems to be the motto of all politicians.

A Commission A Day...

"Public servants and political opponents have natural misgivings against commissions appointed under section 3 of the Inquiry Commission Act 1952 as motivated, slow, ineffective and costly luxur y. The report is never submitted within time, seldom published, action rarely taken. The commission's report is binding on the government who may accept or reject the same. The commission can give no relief by punishment or damages which are left to the courts. Commissions are often appointed to allay agitation, to delay unpleasant truth or discredit public servants or political opponents."—Sarma Sarkar, former justice, Calcutta High Court, in his book 'Commissions of Inquiry: Practice and Principle'.

FOR every act of omission, appoint a Commission. There are sittings, a lot of noise and then the matter is dropped.The history of independent India is replete with numerous commissions of inquiry which have proved to be tools in the hands of ruling parties, whether at the Centre or the state. The Shah Commission, Jain Commission, Commissions of Inquiry into the 1984 communal riots,Thakkar Commission, Lentin Commission. The list is endless. All inconclusive, reducing the whole exercise to a farce, forget the burden on the exchequer.

What did the Jain Commission's interim report on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case achieve, besides enabling our politicians to thrust an election on the country? It got 12 extensions and took six years to complete the probe—Jain wasn't given an extension when his term expired on February 28. Now, more than a month after he submitted his final report, it's still with the government. Says Shanti Bhushan, senior Supreme Court lawyer: "Commissions have been used and misused for political purposes. They've been used to suppress a controversy rather than determine it, since the findings will embarrass the ruling party."

On February 16, Justice B.N. Srikrishna submitted the 700-page, two-volume find-ings of his five-year probe into the Bombay riots of 1992-93. Coming as it did on the eve of elections and while the Sena-BJP was wooing minorities who constitute 10 per cent of the population, Chief Minister Manohar Joshi kept the report under wraps. And despite repeated demands in the state assembly that the report be tabled, the government gave in just an inch, agreeing to file an action taken report.

But the Srikrishna Commission is not the only one which is struggling to see the light of the day. Most commission reports are tabled only after court orders. Take the Justice Thakkar Commission of Inquiry that probed Indira Gandhi's assassination. In his final report submitted in March 1986, Justice Thakkar wrote: "The Commission after due deliberation has formed the opinion that while there is no objection to the interim report being made public, the larger public interest demands that the present report (final report) may not be made public." The Thakkar Commission was not tabled in Parliament, till a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court. Ditto the Lentin Commission, which probed the deaths of 14 patients in Bombay's J.J. Hospital. The findings were made public only after a Bombay High Court ruling.

Former chief justice and NHRC chairperson Ranganath Mishra, who headed the controversial commission that probed the 1984 riots in Delhi, admits that the "whole purpose of a commission of inquiry is lost if the report is not made public."

 Soon after the Mishra Commission report was presented in Parliament in 1986, with its findings on whether the Sikh riots were pre-planned, it gave way to the appointment of the Kapoor-Mittal and the Jain-Renison (later Jain-Banerjee) panels in 1987 to probe other aspects of the riots. Two years later, the investigation by the Jain-Banerjee panel was stayed after a Delhi High Court order. In 1990, it was replaced by the Poti-Rosh Committee whose term ran out; then, the Jain-Aggarwal panel was appointed. Finally in 1993, the Jain-Aggarwal duo recommended registration of 333 cases and reinvestigation of a 129 cases to be taken up by a riot cell. In 1995-96, 11 years after the carnage, 136 persons were convicted; Congress MP Sajjan Kumar was sent to trial; Congress leader H.K.L. Bhagat was jailed but was later released on bail.

In the days of Nehru and the old Congress, however, inquiry panels had a better fate. The M.C. Chagla Commission, which took up the Life Insurance Corporation scam, is unique in more ways than one—it is the only Commission that submitted its report in less than a month. Then, the report led to the resignation of then Union finance minister T.T. Krishna-machari and the Special Police Establishment indicted Haridas Mundra, the wheeler-dealer businessman who masterminded illegal transactions of LIC shares, and handed him a 22-year prison term. This was perhaps the first, and till date the only, commission which fulfilled its objectives.

But why do the Commissions fail? Many times, the blame is put on officialdom which often doesn't part with documents citing 'privilege'. Take the controversial Jain Commission, probing the conspiracy angle of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. The Commission had complained that certain vital documents had been withheld by the government on the plea that they were highly 'sensitive'. Later, as it turned out, the information withheld included the minutes of a cabinet meeting held on February 10, 1994, under then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, where a proposal to wind up the Commission was discussed.

THE Srikrishna Commission's request to allow it to examine certain documents relating to the correspondence between the state government and the police was turned down. Asks former Union home secretary Madhav Godbole: "If the objective of the commission is to get to the bottom of truth, then what is the point of hiding vital information from the Commission?" Sometimes there are functional hurdles too. Before the Commission began its hearings, Jain wrote to the government that he did not even have an office.

The Verma Commission set to examine "official lapses" in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination held some key former officials of the V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar administration guilty—but long after the officials

There is also no uniformity on whether the tainted minister should continue in office when a Commission of inquiry has held him guilty. The only minister who resigned when indicted was former FM Krishnamachari. For others, it did not matter. In 1967, the Justice T.L. Venkataraman Aiyar Commission set up by Mahamaya Prasad Sinha indicted half-a-dozen ministers of the K.B. Sahay government in Bihar for financial irregularities. Two of them, Mahesh Prasad Sinha and Satyendra Narain Sinha, went on to become chief ministers.

Soon after the Emergency, when the Janata Party swept to power, several Commissions were instituted to deal with Emergency excesses. Prominent among them were the Justice J.C. Shah Commission to inquire into the misuse of power by then prime minister Indira Gandhi and the Justice A.C. Gupta Commission to probe into alleged irregularities in Maruti Udyog, a public sector undertaking. Once the Congress(I) bounced back to power in 1980, these Commissions fell out of favour. During its two-year term, the Shah Commission submitted an interim report—the panel was soon wound up. Nothing came of the Gupta findings.

In West Bengal too, when the Left Front government headed by chief minister Jyoti Basu assumed power, he appointed three Commissions for atrocities committed during the Emergency and the years leading up to it. The Ajoy Bose Commission set up to probe the misuse of official power between March 16, 1970 till April 30, 1977; the Haratosh Chakravarthy Commission to probe excesses of jail and thana officials; and the J. Sarma Sarkar Commission to probe the assault on democratic rights—all the reports continue to gather dust.

 "Commissions are effective in that they awaken public awareness—for that the media must be given credit—otherwise they are a total waste of time and money.Besides public memory is short," admits former Justice Bakhtawar Lentin, who headed the probe into the J.J. Hospital deaths. The two-year probe into the deaths of patients (who were administered glycerol adulterated with toxic diethylene glycol) highlighted the nexus between drug makers, politicians and the Food and Drug Administration.

The Lentin Commission report which was tabled after a court order in 1988 found the then state public health minister, Bhai Sawant, guilty. But without batting an eyelid, the state government recommended another probe. "In retrospect, they all got away except one person who was penalised because he helped the Commission." Says Lentin: "For Commissions to be effective, they must have the power of proceedings in perjury and the power to proceed in contempt." But who says a Commission has to deliver, in India that is?

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