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Judicial omissions

The excitement generated by the leak of the Justice M.S. Liberhan Commission on the Babri Masjid demolition died down in 24 hours, when the report was tabled in Parliament.

india Updated: Dec 03, 2009 23:08 IST
Nagendar Sharma

"You cannot expect commissions (of inquiry) appointed by governments to be impartial and effective. An independent body should appoint commissions ... and it must be made mandatory for the governments to implement their recommendations."
Former CJI J.S. Verma.

"I feel that no judge should accept the responsibility of heading commissions of inquiry unless it is guaranteed that their recommendations and findings will be implemented."
Former CJI R.C. Lahoti (while in office)

The excitement generated by the leak of the Justice M.S. Liberhan Commission on the Babri Masjid demolition died down in 24 hours, when the report was tabled in Parliament.

The report revealed nothing new, and did not recommend any action against those guilty for the unprecedented "act of communal discord".

Further, the government's Action Taken Report (ATR) on the recommendations made by the commission, and not on its findings, was more disappointing than the report.

Questions are being raised on the utility of such a commission, which was granted extension 48 times, and cost Rs 8 crore (Rs 80 million).

The history of such probe panels has been dismal in India. Though led by some of our judicial luminaries, they have not done much.

It is difficult to think of a commission, barring exceptions, which completed its work in time and the recommendations were acted upon.

Jurists and civil society activists say the law dealing with inquiry commissions, the Commission of Enquiry Act, 1952, is outdated and needs to be changed.

All major riots, corruption scandals and political assassinations in the last three decades have been probed by commissions set up by the governments of the day, both the Centre and states. The end results have been far from encouraging.

"Except the Justice J.S. Verma Commission on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination in 1991 and the Justice Srikrishna Commission on the Mumbai riots in 1993, I can't think of a panel which did something respectable," said former Supreme Court judge P.B. Sawant.

Justice Lahoti's comments that judges should not be part of commissions of enquiry except with an assurance from the government came after the Maharashtra government in early 1999 had refused to accept Justice Srikrishna's recommendations. The then home minister L.K. Advani described the report as "anti-Hindu".

Justice G.T. Nanavati, a retired Supreme Court judge, probed two of the worst riots in India's history: The 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat. The Commission headed by him is still to give its final findings on the Gujarat riots.

Riots victims of Delhi have slammed Justice Nanavati's findings. "The report was a bundle of lies, which named insignificant Congress leaders and absolved the big fish," said Kuldeep Kaur, who lost her husband in the '84 riots.

If commissions that probed riots became a laughing stock, with the exception of Srikrishna Commission, the inquiry panels into corruption scandals have fared no better. The National Democratic Alliance government set up the Justice S.N. Phukan Commission to verify the authenticity of tapes in the sting by Tehelka into the alleged kickbacks in defence deals rather
than probing the politicians, officials and middlemen caught on tapes.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, on coming to power in 2004, wound up the commission.

The Justice R.S. Pathak Commission, set up by the UPA government to probe the allegations that former external affairs minister K. Natwar Singh and his son Jagat Singh received favours from Iraq in the United Nations' oil-for-food programme during the late Iraq President Saddam Hussain's regime, gave a clean chit to the Congress party.

The report had stated that Singh had misused his position, but the former minister challenged the findings in court and obtained a stay on the proceedings against him.

Former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma feels that the problem of credibility faced by such commissions can be resolved by making a law on how to appoint commissions.

"I don't disagree with the public perception that if you want to bury any inconvenient truth, then hand it over to an inquiry commission because the report will come only when the world would have long forgotten the actual incident," the former CJI said.

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