Commissions of Inquiry: When Govt’s Don’t Want to Punish Terrorists

Consider the terrorists of November 1984 or December 1992 and January 1993. Now contrast with those of March 12, 1993.
SOMETIMES one comment says it all. In a recent argument with someone over the death sentence of Yakub Memon, the massacres in Bombay in December 1992 and January 1993 came up. Nearly a thousand of my fellow Indians were killed in those ghastly two months.
“Oh, those guys were punished,” was this person’s airy handwaving response.
“Really?” I asked. “Can you name one person who has been punished for those crimes?”
To which this person said two things: First, “Yakub Memon!” Second, “The rest are all named in the Srikrishna Commission report, why don’t you read it?”
So let’s get this straight. This person believes that those responsible for the slaughter in 1992-’93 have been punished. That Yakub Memon is one of those responsible. That the Srikrishna Commission report names all the murderers, and names Memon as well. Add one more: since in reality pretty much nobody has been punished for those killings, this person also believes that merely being named by Srikrishna constitutes punishment.
Wrong on all counts. And, therefore, a more twisted world view would be hard to find. You’d think.
Justice BN Srikrishna was asked to inquire into those massacres in Bombay. He submitted his report to the government of Maharashtra in 1998. I have read it, actually.
No, his report does not mention Yakub Memon. No, Memon had nothing to do with the December 1992-January 1993 killings – unless you’re one of those who falls for the specious and perverted argument that one atrocity justifies another. Entirely separate from Srikrishna’s inquiry, Memon was arrested, tried and sentenced for his role in the bomb blasts that happened two months later, in March 1993.
But yes, Justice Srikrishna’s report does name people. Among them, Bal Thackeray. Justice Srikrishna famously calls him “a veteran general” who ordered men from his Shiv Sena to carry out “organised attacks against Muslims”.
Crime and punishment
Here’s the real issue: the great majority of those whom Srikrishna’s report names have never faced justice for their deeds, let alone being punished. Far from it, some even went on to greater successes in their political careers. Case in point: Madhukar Sarpotdar, a mere Shiv Sena MLA when the army took him into custody for carrying guns and swords in a riot-hit area at the height of the violence (January 11, 1993). In 1995 and 1998, this same Sarpotdar was elected to the Lok Sabha – my MP, as it happened.
There’s plenty more to say about Sarpotdar, but I’ll save that for another day.
For now, perhaps you’re wondering why those who were named in Srikrishna’s report were never punished. There’s a simple, almost tautological reason for that: what he conducted was an inquiry, as spelled out in the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952 – and such an inquiry is not a court of law. Period.
True, an inquiry under the Act has “the powers of a Civil Court” in various respects. But the judgement in a 1977 case before the Supreme Court (State of Karnataka vs Union of India and Another) spells out what this really means (actually referring to an even earlier judgement, from the Nagpur High Court in 1954). The judges observed that “the Act merely clothes the Commission with certain powers of a civil court but does not confer on it the status of a court … the Commission is only fictionally a civil court”. What’s more, “there is no accuser, no accused and no specific charges for trial before the Commission, nor is the Government, under the law, required to pronounce one way or the other on the findings of the Commission”.
There you have it. Not only is an inquiry not a court of law, not only has it no powers to punish anyone – but our own law permits our governments to totally ignore an inquiry’s findings.
Commissions and omissions
Have you ever wondered why, when various particular episodes of terrorism in India happen – the massacre in Delhi in 1984, the massacre in Bombay in 1992-’93, the massacre in Gujarat in 2002, and more – governments promptly set up Commissions to inquire into them? Wonder no more. The reasoning goes like this: Governments know well, like you know well, that our homegrown terrorists, with their intricate political connections, are responsible for all this slaughter of Indians. Naturally, they can’t be touched. Yet there remains a degree of public outrage over the slaughter, at least at the time it happens. Therefore, quickly deflate that outrage by announcing an Inquiry Commission. Let it drag on for several years. By then, the outrage has dissipated, memories of the slaughter have grown fuzzy, and anyway the inquiry can be ignored.
And what’s more, there will even be some yahoos who will run around telling people that an inquiry equals punishment.
That’s the very Indian story of every inquiry like Srikrishna’s. Don’t believe me? Consider only that there have been nine official inquiries – I’m not making this up – into the 1984 massacre of 3,000 Indians in Delhi alone: Marwah, Misra, Jain-Bannerjee, Kapur-Mittal, Ahuja, Potti-Rosha, Jain-Aggarwal, Naroola, Nanavati.
Nine inquiries, all completely ignored. Not one has resulted in punishment for anyone who killed any of those 3,000 Indians in 1984.
In exactly the same way, Srikrishna’s report has been completely ignored. Seventeen years since it was submitted, and it hasn’t resulted in punishment for anyone who killed any of those nearly 1,000 Indians in 1992-’93.
Compare and contrast
With all that as context, let’s juxtapose two situations.
After the terrorism of December 1992 and January 1993 – the carnage that killed nearly 1,000 Indians – we had an inquiry and nobody has been punished for those crimes.
After the terrorism of March 12, 1993 – the bomb blasts that killed nearly 260 Indians – we had no inquiry. Instead, there was a long trial and many convictions, including that of Yakub Memon.
Perhaps we might all look in the mirror and ask: Why this difference?
Perhaps we might then ask: What does this do for justice and terrorism in India?

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