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.