Do judicial commissions and commissions of inquiry (COI) appointed by the government to examine issues ranging from communal riots, scandals and assassinations to inter-state disputes actually achieve anything? A sampling of the number of the commissions appointed till date and their fate is an eye-opener.
There have been over 40 commissions of inquiry that have been appointed to study major communal riots in the country since independence and none of the recommendations has been implemented. Jurists and lawmakers, critical of such commissions, firmly believe that they are at best a diversionary tactic to hoodwink people, that they take an inordinately long time to deliver reports and that their recommendations, when submitted, are seldom implemented.
The 41st extension, and perhaps the last, given in September to one of the country's longest running inquiry commissions probing the sequence of events leading to the razing of the Babri mosque by Hindu mobs on Dec 6, 1992, has put the spotlight on whether such commissions serve any real purpose. Considering that it has cost the exchequer over Rs.70 million for the one-man panel of Justice M.S. Liberhan, who is currently writing up his report, many believe this too will go the way of other commissions.
To name just a few: the Justice Jagmohan Reddy COI that probed the Ahmedabad riots in 1969, the Justice Venugopal COI that investigated the Kanyakumari riots, 1982, the Justice Joseph Vithayathal COI on the Tellicherry disturbances, 1971, and the Justice Madon COI into the communal disturbances at Bhiwandi, Jalgaon and Mahad in May 1970.
Almost every commission that probed these riots, including the Bhagalpur riots of 1989 that left 1,000 dead and the riots in Jabalpur of 1961, recommended various measures to prevent communal violence, de-communalise the police, punish the guilty and ensure justice to victims.
"Many of the recommendations have remained only on paper. No government, be it the Congress, or the Janata Dal or the Bharatiya Janata Party, has shown any interest or inclination in implementing any of the major recommendations," says Justice Hosbet Suresh, a retired judge of the Bombay High Court who was also a member of the Concerned Citizens' Tribunal, Gujarat, in 2002.
Interestingly, in almost all communal riots as gleaned by the inquiries it is the minority community that has suffered the most and nearly every COI appointed by the government concerned has, without exception, charged the majority community as mainly responsible for the violence.
Just two years ago, former chief justice of India R.C. Lahoti, expressed reservations about the importance of COIs, saying there were shortcomings in the Commission of Inquiry Act which should be corrected by an amendment.
"Personally, 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," he remarked.
Lahoti said the appointment of COIs was a diplomatic way of diverting attention of the people, and termed it a "waste of time" and in his reckoning the only way to make commissions more effective was to amend the law to make it binding on the government to implement their recommendations.
"It is a diversionary tactic. After a public controversy dies down, everything is forgotten and the recommendations are not implemented," constitutional expert K.K. Venugopal told IANS.
Justice B.N. Srikrishna, who headed the COI that went into the Mumbai communal riots of 1992-93, recently called for an institutional mechanism that ensures the government of the day does not have the discretion to reject a report it found inconvenient.
Nearly 1,000 people are known to have been killed in the riots that Justice Srikrishna investigated and he named 31 police officers for "actively participating in riots, communal incidents or incidents of looting, arson and so on". Till date, the recommendations of the COI have neither been accepted nor acted upon by the Maharashtra government.
"It is for you to judge my work. That is all I will say," Justice Srikrishna told IANS.
But it is not just COIs on communal riots that are put on the backburner. Ten years after the Justice Lentin COI submitted a comprehensive report on the deaths of 14 people following the administration of contaminated glycerol at the JJ Hospital, Mumbai, the state government is yet to take action.
Even the Jain panel set up to inquire into the conspiracy behind the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi came up with no specific conclusion except breeding yet another commission-the Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency (MDMA), which is currently going into the merits of the Jain COI report.
"Forget COI reports. Even the national commission report headed by Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah to review the constitution and the Law Commission reports are gathering dust. Ultimately, the government is simply not serious," said senior advocate P.P. Rao.
The most telling comment of the functioning of COIs came from a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Arijit Pasayat and S.H. Kapadia which observed in November last year that commission after commission were appointed only for political reasons "knowing fully well that nothing will come out of it".
"We hear that in some states there are big rooms only for keeping the final reports of such inquiry commissions and they are gathering dust there," the judges observed.