Pseudo-Secularism

Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Riots & wrongs of commissions

by Gautam Siddahth,

A mystifying feature of Indian democracy is the creation of inquiry commissions, ostensibly to get to the truth - a presupposed panacea for major political/social issues or problems confronting the nation.

Every large communal conflagration, all serious instances of defalcation involving public funds or acts of transgression by authority, are sought to be uncovered or addressed with the 'institution' of the thing called 'inquiry commission'. Of course, this is not to lose sight of the fact that there are also commissions formed as sounding-boards for new government policies, for example the Mandal Commission or the Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution.

Commissions - much before the Government of India set it up as an Act of Inquiry in 1952 - are a legacy of British rule. The British, who had a deep interest in research particularly of regions they had colonised, established a very large number of commissions to improve their understanding of their subjects. Many of these were extensive sociological studies and documents. The other variants of these commissions, under the ambit of Royal commissions, came to acquire political colour with time, particularly during the struggle for independence. There were famous commissions sent from London with proposals to Indian leaders under British officials like Sir Stafford Cripps and Sir John Simon.

The word 'commission', it is obvious, has held our imagination ever since. After all, commissions then were these immense political documents which had the power to shape or reshape our destinies and even give the country freedom. Indeed, when Independence came, the 58th anniversary of which we observe tomorrow, it was itself a result of an Act of the British Parliament called the Independence of India Act. We won our freedom but the British would never fail to remind us that it was their House of Representatives under a Labour Government that passed the bill. But we digress.

Volumes have been written by our own brown sahibs on a range of issues. From the police to hawala scam, from job reservation to the Emergency, and from communal riots to defence deals, innumerable commissions and commissions of inquiry have been established. Reams of newsprint - and now the far more precious air-time on TV channels - have been consumed towards getting to the truth of the matters of public concern. Indeed, it can be safely said that there have been far too many commissions for comfort since public money is spent on them. Inquiry commissions are often appointed for partisan or political considerations. There is efficacy as well as irrelevance of such commissions.

Nearly all commissions of inquiry, if they were honest, would underline but a single reason for communal riots: That the law and order machinery collapsed or was made to collapse at the behest of the political leadership of the day. There is no way that violence in any area, howsoever disturbed, will continue to fester once clear orders to shoot at the blood-thirsty mobs are given. The commissions of inquiry probing the causes of riots unfailingly point at the dereliction of constitutional responsibility by authority. Yet after each riot the party in opposition, whether at the State or the national level, demands a commission of inquiry to be set up.

The party in power is usually only too willing to acquiesce in this sham. It is out of the simple expedience of deflecting relentless public criticism. Setting up an inquiry commission is an ideal dilatory tactic to sidestep the issue in question and indulge in a gigantic collective make-believe to lead the nation into understanding that truth will soon be out and that if the opposition is out on the streets protesting, its worthies had better return to their homes since the state has upheld its majesty and done the 'courageous' thing. Of course, the public and their representatives obediently retreat, somewhat dazed by the hypnotic appeal of the words 'inquiry commission'.

In the event, what usually happens is the commissions prolong their life-spans and go on - sometimes for decades. They consume too much time and money to zero in on some basic home truths. And at times, instead of making positive recommendations, instead of making use of the wealth of facts and information they have collected, their reports take recourse to sophistry by - as the Nanavati Commission has done - making ponderous observations on 'probabilities' and such. For the government, such findings provide the perfect opportunity for grandstanding. Does Mr Manmohan Singh really believe that the resignation of one of his ministers and a grand apology 'on behalf of the nation' is 'action' enough for those guilty of 1984 riots?

Commissions of inquiry can thus also be easily turned into an elaborate ruse. When the Congress ruled with its own majority and the executive was all-powerful, it never brooked even a minor departure from the laid down line. At the same time it deluded the people into believing that the findings of inquiry commissions could be carved in stone. Mercifully, those days are past and, ever since single party rule at the Centre became history, those heading inquiry commissions have often revealed a mind of their own. But there is no escaping the fact that most inquiry commissions into riots set out to find what is already known, and betray a rough sense of justice through delays and denial.

This is not an argument against the setting up of inquiry commissions. But surely these must be appointed only when they are found to be critically necessary, apart of course from being given a deadline without any provision for extension. As for communal riots, as said earlier, more effective deterrents ought to be built within the system - with the top police brass of the affected area being made finally accountable - instead of obfuscating the issues under piles of paper of an inquiry commission.

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