The need for commissions of inquiry

Headed by former Calcutta High Court Chief Justice J N Patel, with bureaucrat Sumit Mullick as the other member, the Commission has begun its hearings in Mumbai.

Published: 19th September 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th September 2018 02:34 AM   |  A+A-

Will the commission of inquiry into the Bhima-Koregaon violence bring out the truth of what exactly happened on January 1 this year and why it happened? Those who faced the wrath of the rioters, be it Ashok and Rama Athavale whose factory and home were burnt; or those hit by stones such as Amit Bongade and Rahul Phatangade. The former was in hospital and missed his final B Com exams, and has since had speech difficulties and the latter died. For these and the families of many like them, the Commission is the only hope for justice.

Headed by former Calcutta High Court Chief Justice J N Patel, with bureaucrat Sumit Mullick as the other member, the Commission has begun its hearings in Mumbai.Those who deride commissions of inquiry as sops to appease people agitated over large scale violence against them, may never have spoken to the individuals affected by this violence. Whom do they turn to? The government makes a pretence of trying to please all parties, but its own religious, caste and class bias decides the actions it ultimately takes. The police are neither impartial nor thorough. At any rate, the victims of the violence know that had the government or the police done its job, the violence would not have taken place.

So judicial commissions, which allow every affected individual to relate his/her story through an affidavit, become the ultimate forum for justice. Legal justice, of course, may never follow, as the non-implementation of the Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry Report into the 92-93 Mumbai riots has shown. But other shades of justice can ease the wounds.

One of them is watching your tormentor—could be a rioter or a policeman—being grilled in a packed room by lawyers and sometimes, by the judge heading the commission. The other is the judge accepting your testimony despite a battery of seasoned lawyers subjecting you to relentless cross-examination.

This columnist has been privileged enough to witness these euphoric moments during and after the Srikrishna Commission. The Bhima Koregaon Commission hearings have been held so far for just three days, but these have had their moments too. Ordinary witnesses have shone heroically, sticking to their testimony in the face of prolonged cross-examination, despite having no lawyer to represent them.

The absence of any lawyer representing the Dalits before the Commission is inexplicable. The events of January 1 did not take place away from public attention in some obscure village. They’ve had a serious impact on politics and caste equations in the state. The setting up of a Commission was announced in January; in February, the Commission’s composition was announced; in May, affidavits were invited. There was enough time for the leaders who went to town about the Bhima-Koregaon violence, to provide lawyers to the victims—had they wanted to.

It’s not as if the Dalit leadership is inexperienced or lacks knowledge about how inquiry commissions work. Dalit leaders are more aware of their Constitutional rights than those of any other disadvantaged group. Plus, there are enough Dalit lawyers in Maharashtra. At any rate, there would have been no difficulty even in finding non-Dalit lawyers to represent Dalit victims, given the support among progressive sections for their cause.

The irony is that a former Dalit Panther is part of the Central government. Ramdas Athavale of the Republican Party of India is minister for state for social justice and empowerment at the Centre. He has been vocal on the Bhima Koregaon issue. His party man, Pune’s deputy mayor, was part of the 10-member fact-finding committee set up by the IG Police, whose report ascribed the violence to a planned conspiracy by Hindutva leaders Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote. (The IG has since denied having set
up the committee and rejected its report.)

Whether in the government or opposed to it, the unpleasant reality is that the many Dalit leaders in Maharashtra could not equip their people with an essential tool to face the Commission. Our leaders are great at organising bands; getting down to the nitty gritty of tracing victims and getting them to file affidavits is not their cup of tea, rued a Dalit activist.

Their negligence has resulted in a stark inequality before the Commission: two senior lawyers represent the Hindutva players in this controversy; one represents the government. All three try to discredit the Dalit witnesses. The only lawyer who stands up for them is a veteran representing a Congressman—and the judge heading the Commission.

Like in the Srikrishna Commission, here too, the victims of the violence have a strong ally in the judge. Justice Srikrishna gave the many lawyers ranged against the victims a long rope. But when it came to the crunch, he intervened to protect them.

Justice Patel, always genial and patient, does the same. So do the brief but sharp interventions by the other Commission member.Which is one more reason that judicial commissions cannot be dismissed as meaningless. Not only do they provide an official record of what happened, they are the one official forum where victims find that what they say is taken seriously. If only the Dalit leaders had taken the victims equally seriously, instead of cynically using them!

Jyoti Punwani
Freelance journalist based in Mumbai


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