What should matter more — how a report on an undisputed moment of national shame ‘leaked’ its way into the public domain or what its findings are? So far, politicians across the divide have mostly huffed and puffed about how NDTV and The Indian Express were able to access the contents of the Justice Liberhan Commission report before it was tabled in Parliament. But given that we aren’t quite talking about state secrets or national security here, isn’t it time to stop diverting the debate to the non-issue of the leak? How about some real questions? What does the commission amount to after 17 years and 48 extensions beyond a waste of taxpayers’ money? Does the judge tell us anything we didn’t know? Doesn’t the platitudinous nature of both the commission’s recommendations and the centre’s action Taken Report (atr) make a mockery of the issue? And will the din over the report give L.K. Advani a new voice within his party?
Frankly, the report is a dud. Yes, it punctures a hole in the BJP’s protective shield by crushing the party’s claim that the demolition at Ayodhya was ‘spontaneous’. Declaring that the “demolition cartel” could have been stopped by Advani had he done more than make ‘feeble requests’, the commission concludes that the kar sevaks went in to Ayodhya with their pickaxes and shovels with the specific intention of bringing the dome down. And in a humiliating irony for the BJP — given the recent crisis within the party — Liberhan decides that the RSS is the principal and the BJP a pliant student. But here’s the problem — most of these sweeping summaries, even if held true by history, read like an extended magazine article that didn’t get the benefit of a good editor. Surely, a judicial commission is meant to use the clinical tools of investigation and not the weapons of rhetoric? But while traversing through the history and geography of the Ayodhya dispute in his report, the good judge doesn’t empirically explain how he arrived at his destination.
I’m not arguing that his conclusions are necessarily incorrect. For a movement whose war cry was, ‘Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid tod do’, and whose deadwoods have come crawling out of oblivion this week to claim that December 6 remains the ‘proudest day’ of their lives, it’s not hard to believe that the demolition was planned. But a fact-finding commission that has the luxury of a 17-year single focus needs to clinically prove its hypothesis; not merely opine and grandstand. Sadly, Liberhan has taken almost two decades to write what most journalists could have written in the immediate aftermath of 1992.
Ironically, the other gap in the report connects two men on opposite sides of the political trenches — Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Both were politicians who converted ambivalence and silence into a fine art of political strategy and thus remain opaque figures in many ways. History remains divided on the omissions and commissions of both in the shame of Ayodhya. The inclusion of Vajpayee and the benign forgiveness of Rao remain two other problem areas in the Liberhan report.
While in active politics, Vajpayee, labelled a “pseudo-moderate” by Liberhan, often managed to straddle ideological contradictions by locating within them an affable philosophical vagueness. Those who know him say he may have taken the odd ride on Advani’s Ayodhya rath, but was never a constant traveller on a journey that made him distinctly uncomfortable. Others point to a speech he made in Lucknow on the eve of the demolition, in which he seemed to hint at the ensuing storm by asking how long “bhajans and kirtans could be sung standing”. So, why wasn’t this speech made a basis for summoning Vajpayee before the commission? Ironically, a Lucknow-based lawyer, I.B. Singh submitted the video clip before the commission in 2004 and asked that Vajpayee be questioned. The plea was rejected. So on what legal basis then does Liberhan list Vajpayee among the 68 “culpable” for “communal discord?”
The worst that is said about Rao, on the other hand, is that he was “day dreaming”. If the commission is to be believed, Rao was so naïve that he was “lulled into inaction” by the BJP’s “false promises”. Once again, Liberhan makes a faulty legal formulation. He argues that Rao could not have dismissed Kalyan Singh’s government before the demolition because the UP governor had advised against it. But doesn’t Article 356 mandate President’s rule based on the governor’s recommendation ‘or otherwise’? Madhav Godbole — who was Home Secretary at the time — has
gone on record to say that a Cabinet note was ready on sacking the UP government, but it never got the thumbs up from his political bosses. Interestingly, the Congress today seems keener to condemn Rao’s inaction than Justice Liberhan does.
In effect, the commission’s findings seem to lack any robust consistency. The Home Ministry’s ATR is vague and wishy-washy, but not much else could be derived from the judge’s own over-generalised recommendations. Despite Liberhan’s sweeping condemnations, it’s peculiar that the report does not propose punitive action against any individual.
So, what the BJP needs to worry about is not what Liberhan says or how his report leaked. Yet again, the party’s dilemma is ideological. Will the contradictions within take the party on another yatra into an anachronistic past? Or will it finally shed the cobwebs and realise that ironically, on the day the masjid/disputed structure fell, Ramjanmabhoomi died as a cause. And the India of 2009 just doesn’t care.
One thing though is certain. We will never see anyone taking responsibility for the Ayodhya demolition — a black swan moment in the country’s history — or for the communal riots that ensued and claimed thousands of lives. Will Parliament focus on that during the debate next week? Probably, and tragically, no.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal.