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Liberhan’s footnotes

Because we think of Vajpayee with warmth and nostalgia, it’s difficult to accept that he could also have played a different, disturbing role, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Dec 12, 2009 22:30 IST

I sometimes wonder how balanced and judicious we are. More often than not, we swing to extremes, ignoring the valuable territory that lies in between. I fear that much of the parliamentary and press response to Justice Liberhan’s report is another example of this rush to easy, populist, but mistaken, judgement.

My point is simple: just because the good judge has erred in holding Atal Bihari Vajpayee culpable without giving him a chance to depose and explain for himself, as the Commission of Inquiry Act requires — and despite the fact he appears to exonerate P.V. Narasimha Rao and overlooks the full grounds on which President’s rule can be applied — doesn’t mean that his whole report should be dismissed. It may have errors, even grave and inexcusable ones. But it still does invaluable service. Alas, we’ve lost sight of this. In fact, we’ve failed to spot it.

If we open our eyes and clear the cobwebs from our mind, we can’t ignore the fact that in three critical areas Liberhan has focused a sharp, piercing and badly-needed light. First — through the Kalyan Singh government’s handling of the build-up to and the actual events of December 6, 1992 — he has shown how state governments treat civil servants and police personnel to undermine their independence and, instead, promote partisan loyalty to the ruling party over the ethics of good administration.

Second, through his analysis of the Rao government’s failure to act, he’s shown how central governments sometimes need to act pre-emptively and their reluctance to do so can lead to catastrophic developments endangering the country’s harmony.

Third — and most importantly — he has illustrated the wider responsibility of leaders who may not have physically played a part in the demolition but contributed, through their speeches and behaviour, to the creation of an atmosphere that facilitated it.

The last point leads directly to Vajpayee and, of course, several others in a similar position. Because we think of him with warmth and nostalgia and usually remember the liberal side of his amiable and striking personality, it’s difficult to accept that he could also have played a different, disturbing role. This is, no doubt, why both the BJP and some members of the Congress have recoiled from Justice Liberhan’s comments. But pause and consider what he says carefully.

The report states: “It cannot be assumed even for a moment that Mr L. K. Advani, Mr A.B. Vajpayee or Dr M.M. Joshi did not know the designs of the Sangh Parivar … [however they] could not have defied the mandate of the Sangh parivaar (sic), and more specifically the diktat of the RSS, without having bowed out of public life as leaders of the BJP.” Many would agree.

The truth is Vajpayee’s public image is of a man who carefully walked a tight rope between secularism and the Sangh parivar. For much of his career, this was his great strength. But during the 2002 Gujarat killings, when he kept shifting his position, it was also his weakness. In which case, isn’t the term ‘pseudo-moderate’ accurate and telling?

My hunch is if the judge had heard Vajpayee before commenting on him, few would have disputed such views. Now this and other lapses will forever colour his findings. But, surely, we can and should separate the two.

The views expressed by the author are personal