Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Between Belief and Disbelief

Credibility is as much about a prejudiced target audience as it is about the trustworthiness of the person being heard. If the first part of the Nanavati-Shah Commission report failed to find universal acceptability, let's not blame the prevailing atmosphere of distrust or the heightened sensitivities of a particular community. Equally blameworthy is the cynicism with which the politicians are using retired judges. Let’s admit that commissions of inquiry are being systematically reduced to a farce.

Otherwise, why would Justice Nanavati's report be as predictable as reindeer in Finland or penguins in Antarctica? Why did it have to essentially echo the sentiments of a police force, which was disgraced long before it began the probe? Why did he almost corroborate what both the government and the police machinery insisted? Why did he have to stick his neck out and insist that Chief Minister Narendra Modi and his administration are not culpable when he was penning the report on Godhra carnage?

Not that there is any reason to repose a greater degree of faith in the other discredited report --- the Banerjee Committee’s controversial findings on the Godhra fire. The U.C.Banerjee Committee jumped into the fray and started a competitive inquiry, goaded on by an overtly secular Laloo Yadav who was frightened by the prospect of a poll debacle in Bihar.

The one-man committee's educated conclusion chugged comfortably along the track the railway minister had specially laid for it. The judge inferred that outsiders never entered the ill-fated coach of the Sabarmati Express and the blaze, which claimed 59 lives, was accidental. Needless to say, it was the kind of deduction that would have found no takers even if its author shouted his arguments from a pulpit. Laloo Yadav was exceedingly convinced. His electorate wasn't.

The Nanavati-Shah Commission was meant to carry a bit more authority than the almost ad hoc committee conceived with not much political ingenuity by Laloo Yadav. Justice Nanavati’s appointment was under the Commission of Inquiries Act, 1952. Ideally, credibility should have been institutionally built into a commission of such significance. But, over the years, government-proposed, government-appointed commissions have been able to extract friendly and encouraging reports from grateful retired judges to whom such post-retirement assignments usually come as windfall profits.

Under the circumstances, the choice of Justice Nanavati or the procedure followed in his appointment is completely above board. Yet, from the beginning, he wasn’t expected to be critical. Justice Nanavati headed for Gujarat when he had already been tasked to head two other commissions instituted by the Vajpayee regime. There was talk of his proximity with the NDA government. This is where Indian politicians err repeatedly. This is easy succumbing to the politics of obvious predilection. Critics suggested even in those early stages that the appointment of Justice Nanavati meant that justice would have a colour and a credo.

Unlike Banerjee, Justice Nanavati has spent nearly six years in preparing the commission’s report. Unlike Banerjee, he has relied on a larger number of witnesses. There is no denying that he is somewhat closer to the truth. But his critics will obviously question his assumptions especially where he reasons how pre-meditated a conspiracy the Godhra carnage was. Justice Nanavati desperately needed to give the appearance of fairness. He needed to represent the views of the unconvinced, of the dissenters on why this conspiracy was not as pre-meditated as representatives of the majority community presumed it to be. Instead, he followed the beaten path; a perusal of his report would show that he accepted the testimonies of people who wanted him to write the report in the way he finally wrote it.

Commissions of Inquiry have long been losing credibility. After the way we dealt with the Shah Commission, Jain Commission, Srikrishna Commission and the ongoing Liberhan Commission, it’s time we reached a consensus on their purpose and objective. Till we achieve that broad agreement, let’s not waste time and money on a joke that has stopped being funny.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

For Sanity's Sake

A blast is a blast is a blast. Let's not forget this fundamental premise when we get into a post-encounter discussion on theDelhi blasts. The facts are too cold, too bloody to be ignored. The death toll stands at close to thirty; we don't have a definite calculation of how many have been maimed or crippled. A blast goes against the very essence of life and the living. It's a lust for blood for reasons that are worse than obscurantist.

Neither should we arrive at a conclusion on the police encounter. We don't have the wherewithal to crosscheck the police story and, therefore, we don't have the right to jump to conclusions. There are a few gray areas which we can talk about later; but definitely, not now. We are all aware of the kind of voices on the streets, depending on the neighborhood where we are. And that ominous geography of varying opinions is seriously worrying.

As an individual residing in probably the world's most vibrant democracy, I am proud that we question everything; it's my fundamental right to do so and I am glad that I am being able to exercise that right. But should we be carried away by hearsay and what each of us would like to believe? There are moments in history when the real picture gets blurred because strong opinions come in the way. It's difficult to see beyond the immediate smokescreen. Truth, as always, hurts and hurts badly. Do we need to make a fair assessment just now and judge the police harshly?

We don't even have to step out on the streets to feel how badly divided our battered society is. It's almost split down the middle and our respective belief depends on what our surnames are and which religion or community we have been born in to. We know faith carries with it the extraordinary power of kinship, where the mind of a mob takes over and colors our reasoning. Let me reassert that it's possible to drill holes in the police story, which, I admit, appears to be extremely fluid and simple with everything falling in place with considerable ease. To the incredulous, my plea is just hold on to those thoughts. Don't let that disbelief become disillusionment.

Why do I repeatedly say let's not dissect every story told to us just now? It's because I am trying to read the pulse of the country; and I can feel the two distinct beats, which creates a shockingly violent rhythm. We are sitting on a powder keg that won't even need a fuse to erupt. The slightest of tremors will be enough to start a fratricidal war. We need to talk, to listen to each other before communal sensitivities revive that old theme of "us and them". This time it's dangerous that even the rich and the successful of both communities, who generally subscribe to the one-dimensional religion of money, have taken hardened positions.

It's a countrywide confrontation. Ask the young man in Jamia Nagar inDelhi or Muhammed Ali Road in Mumbai, the verdict is the same; the views are equally harsh and strident. It's similarly rabid in the malls and the markets where a majority condemn blasts, as they should. But they don't stop there; they extend the culpability to an entire community; which prays daily during the holy month to extend the blessings of life to whomever they can.

It is time we realized that minority-ism doesn't give us a right to insecurity, to a persecution complex. It is time we also realized that majority-ism isn't an easy responsibility; it doesn't hand over the license to brutally impose one's will on those who are fewer in number. In fact, it is the sacred duty of the majority to instill a sense of confidence in the minority.

These are difficult times; these are also exciting times. We are a world power. Let there be no minorities in this country; let us all be a unified majority.India deserves that unique togetherness.