IT'S a cycle most inquiry commissions go through. Indeed, the Liberhans commission of inquiry looking into the Babri Masjid demolition is likely to meet the same fate as the controversial Jain panel. The term of the commission, which has been receiving periodic three-month extensions ever since it was formed in 1992, is due to expire on June 30 and information available with Outlook shows that the Union home ministry has for now decided against giving it a fresh lease.
However, there are indications that the panel, entrusted with investigating the sequence of events leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the role of the Uttar Pradesh government, is in the process of putting together its report. And, in case it does not manage another extension, Justice M.S. Liberhans will meet his deadline.
It is believed that Liberhans' report will be a veritable blotter of charges against members of the ruling BJP government and will also contain a damaging revelation of attempts made by various governments in the past five years to thwart the panel's functioning. But the crucial issue is that the BJP-led government will have to make the report public within six months of it being handed over and that the home ministry, headed by L.K. Advani, will have the ignominous task of submitting an action taken report (ATR) on it.
Technically, this means that the ministry will have to set up a special committee of senior bureaucrats to implement the recommendations of the inquiry commission. Given the fact that almost all senior members of the BJP are likely to be indicted in the report, this is going to be no mean task. Sources close to the commission fear that, as in the case of the Srikrishna Commission, this one too might just be permitted to carry out its work with yet another extension and that the final report will not be published nor any action taken on it as long as the BJP is in power.
What perhaps makes the situation more tricky is the fact that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which was roped in to probe the demolition, has already filed a chargesheet in the case. Among the 49 individuals implicated are Advani, Bal Thackeray, Ashok Singhal, Murli Manohar Joshi, Vijayaraje Scindia and Kalyan Singh. The framing of charges, after which a formal trial will begin in special judge J.P. Srivastava's court, is to take place on May 27. The trial could not begin earlier since the accused obtained a stay against personal appearance by a higher court.
But insiders are sceptical of the CBI chargesheet. The case comes under the specially constituted Ayodhya cell in the home ministry, which is functioning under one of the prime accused; hence, the commission fears that the agency will not be permitted to pursue the trial.
Interestingly, the Liberhans commission has been functioning largely in his absence as he has recently been elevated as chief justice of the Chennai high court. And it is far from clear whether his findings will have the same impact as the Jain commission report, which resulted in the downfall of the UF government. For, curiously enough, the history of the five-and-a-half-year-old panel is replete with constant court battles and vehement government opposition.
For one, the Narasimha Rao government, which set up the commission in 1992, ensured that its terms of reference were limited to the role of the state government alone and did not extend to the larger issue of acts of omission or commission by the Central government. And six months after the commission became operational, the home ministry circulated a note to the Prime Minister's Office seeking to wind up the commission. The explanation offered was that the case was already being investigated by the CBI.
Further, the commission's work has been seriously hamstrung by a stay order obtained by 17 RSS-BJP-VHP leaders from the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court against notices served by Justice Liberhans. Insiders in the commission say that despite repeated requests to counsels of the Central and state governments and the advocate general, no steps were taken to get the stay order vacated. "We are dismayed at the inaction of the Central and Uttar Pradesh governments in their inability to get the stay vacated even after four years," Liberhans complained at a hearing recently.
In effect, this has resulted in a situation where none of the 41 individuals summoned by the commission on the basis of depositions by 53 witnesses have been available for cross-examination by the panel. Prominent among these are Advani,Joshi, Uma Bharati, Ashok Singhal, Giriraj Kishore and Vinay Katiyar. And given the positions of power that these individuals currently occupy, in all probability the status quo will continue.
Says Gautam Naulakha of the Peoples Movement for Secularism (PMS), which has been actively pursuing the progress of the commission: "What is most galling is that the inquiry has been thwarted at every possible step. It is called a political case and this has just become a euphemism for victimisation and killings."
Yet, on another level, the pressure is really on the Sangh parivar. Given prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's stand on not permitting chargesheeted ministers to continue in the cabinet, the case has the potential of providing fodder to political detractors who will now be better positioned to press for the resignations of the indicted ministers. And what can hurt these BJP leaders—apart from facing the ignominy of a trial under charges of a criminal conspiracy, intentional defilement of a place of worship and attempts to obstruct dispensation of justice—are the revelations in Justice Liberhans' report.