March 23, 2010
A critique of the synopsis of BKS panel’s Interim Report
An expectant mother normally delivers nine months after conception. But the one-man judicial inquiry commission headed by retired high court judge, B K Somashekhara, has finally produced an interim report almost 16 months after its constitution.
And the 500-page interim report, mind you, not the final one, came exactly two months before the expiry of its third-time extended term. Why the sudden hurry to submit an interim report, one may wonder. Nobody knows why.
Instead of following the normal convention of submitting the report in a sealed cover to the Chief Minister in Bangalore, the eagerly awaited report was presented to the government to Additional Chief Secretary, Home Department, Abhijit Dasgupta in Mangalore.
Apart from this departure from the norm, the former judge himself presented a 15 page synopsis to the media and officials present in the Dakshina Kannada deputy commissioner’s office, which to say the least is quite unprecedented.
Normally, reports by any statutory commissions set up by government submit the report to the government and is taken up for discussion in the state cabinet after which the minister assigned the task of briefing the media discloses the salient features and government’s decision thereof. The full report, however, is tabled in the state legislature along with the government’s action taken report. These conventions were not followed by the Somashekhara commission.
Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa, who set up the commission within a week of the serial attacks against churches and places of worship belonging to Catholics and Christians in Mangalore on September 14, 2008 and other districts, including Bangalore, has preferred not to offer any comments except to state that he would await the final report.
However, Home Minister Dr V S Acharya, Law and Parliamentary Affairs Mnister S Suresh Kumar, Transport Minister R Ashok and the newly installed State BJP President K S Eshwarappa were not so circumspect. They have taken sharp exception to the breach of protocol and propriety. Eshwarappa’s predecessor D V Sadananda Gowda, who shifted his lok sabha constituency from Mangalore to Udupi after the church attacks, has gone to the extent of demanding that a breach of privilege motion be moved against the probe panel in the ensuing legislature session.
The opposition parties, particularly Congress and JD(S), pounced on the government and went to the extent of staging dharnas besides urging the state governor H R Bhardwaj to dismiss the Yeddyurappa regime for what they termed as the ``indictment’’ by the commission over the church attacks. The fact that church attacks, unfortunately, have become a regular feature since the BJP came to power in the state is an entirely different matter.
The ruling party ministers and leaders were particularly incensed at the retired judge’s audacity in releasing the synopsis and recommendations to the media himself rather than waiting for the state cabinet to consider them and disclose the details at a convenient time.
Justice Somashekhara, though, stuck to the stand that he did no wrong, nor flouted any rules or regulations as the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952, under which the probe panel was set up, did not provide for any such preconditions.
"The practices followed by other commissions for such purposes are neither precedents nor binding on any other commission as each commission regulates its own procedure for different purposes and results. The commission has acted within its own powers under the provisions of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952 and the regulations framed by it under Section 8 of the Act,’’ commission secretary M Vidyashankar clarified.
"The practices followed by several commissions in submitting their reports to the Government may be their own understanding or interpretation of such a law and not conclusive nor applicable to other commissions,’’ he contended.
So, why are the ruling and opposition parties worked up over the interim report? Well, therein lies the rub.
Justice Somashekhara, who had served as a high court judge in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, had been handpicked by Yeddyurappa-Eshwarappa duo, possibly because the former hailed from their home district of Shimoga and, therefore, may have been considered `amenable’ to doing their bidding in ensuring that the ruling BJP or the Sangh Parivar – especially in the light of the public involvement of Bajrang Dal, Sri Ram Sene and Vishwa Hindu Parishad – leadership and activists were not implicated. In fact, the Christian leaders were apprehensive of the impartiality of the inquiry panel for this very reason.
The commission in its interim report or rather the synopsis released by it, has given the `impression’ of trying to pander to all sections. Yes, impression because it has not said anything damaging either to Christians, the victims, or the Sangh Parivar activists, who were alleged to be the attackers, or the Government.
And, yet, a section of the Christians as well as the Bajrang Dal-Sri Ram Sene-VHP activists felt vindicated. A respectable and widely circulated Konkani weekly, termed the inquiry panel’s synopsis as a ``victory for truth.’’ The opposition parties, too, used the scanty details released by the commission to attack the Government, and even sought its dismissal.
In its 15-page synopsis, the commission has vaguely recorded its `findings’ on the points for determination and incidental questions arising out of the references. It has termed them as both `inferences and findings’ regarding ``each petition and the Church or the place of worship” by asserting that they ``shall be taken as the opinion of the commission based upon the materials gathered during the inquiry and supported by reasons.”
Indeed, how can ``inferences (or impressions)’’ be termed as ``findings” or the commission’s ``opinion” is beyond understanding.
A careful reading of the synopsis reveals that the commission has used the word `impression’ as many as 15 times besides liberally mentioning the terms `indications,’ `said to be,’ `might’ and `inferences’ in between in a text of 15 pages. Clearly, this should be enough to to suggest the tentative nature. If this assessment is borne out by the actual report, then the entire exercise may well be considered a wasted effort.
This is not to suggest that the commission has not done any work. Going by the details mentioned in the synopsis, it had received a total of 986 petitions from the nine districts of Bangalore city and rural, Bellary, Chikkaballapur, Chikmagalur, Davangere, Dharwad, Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, with the last two accounting for the highest number of 554 and 100 respectively. ``The incidents were ``alleged attacks … with the extent and magnitude of attack of different ranges like minimum, substantial and grave or colossal, some of them established and some of them not,” it said.
While eight petitions from the four districts of Bagalkot, Chitradurga, Shimoga and Dharwad had been received, they ``did not relate to the references of the commission,” the three districts of Bangalore rural, Belgaum and Kodagu had come out with another eight petitions regarding incidents which ``are true but not the cause of attack on churches/places of worships,” the commission said pointing out that ``petitions from individuals and institutions” had also been received and being ``dealt with independently as part of attacks or defences and opinions of learned and experienced persons.”
Commission secretary Vidyashankar has stated that a total of 1,019 affidavits had been received and 731 witnesses were heard in 170 sittings from January 7, 2009 till the end of December 2009 with as many as 31 advocates appearing before it. It has conducted spot inspection/investigation of 25 places of worship covering Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, Kolar, Chikkaballapur, Davangere, Bangalore Urban and Bangalore Rural districts besides holding public sittings in Bangalore, Kolar, Chkkaballapur, Mangalore, Davangere and Udupi.
Evidently, the commission has laboured hard and the total expenditure was more than Rs 1.25 crore, according to Dr Acharya when he spoke to Daijiworld in September last. The total can be expected to at least double the amount or even touch the Rs 3 crore mark by the time the final report is submitted.
As the synopsis has already received wide media attention, there is no point in repeating what is already known. But let us consider the findings, especially in view of Justice Somashekhara’s declaration that it contains ``90% of the findings in the actual interim report.”
"There are indications of massive conversions to Christianity by circumstances and inducements but not by compulsion, such conversions were only of faith and not of religion in legal and technical sense,” the commission says without specifying when, where and by whom. And what is the meaning of the term ``conversions only of faith and not of religion in legal and technical sense?” Does it amount to a new connotation to the fundamental right of freedom of religion guaranteed under Art 25?
The judge goes on to observe that ``conversions or adoption of faith on a mass scale has created an impression in the minds of the members of Hindu religion that the leaders of Christian religion or their self-styled representatives were indulging in mass conversions by various methods and maneuvers including inducement directly or indirectly by using foreign funds and other means as some Christians themselves have admitted all this (sic)” and says: ``This has damaged the reputation and holy image of the genuine and true Christians in sacred Indian Christianity and their known service to the nation in various fields and in various ways.” (emphasis supplied)
Really? If conversions or adoption of faith have taken place on a mass scale as mentioned by the judge, why does he not provide conclusive evidence instead of making vague insinuations and observations. Who are these ``some Christians” who have admitted the wild accusations mentioned? Also, how does one explain the terms ``genuine and true Christians” or the ``sacred Indian Christianity.”
"In addition to such a defense of conversions, other serious ground or defense for attack on the churches or places of worship broadly stated is said to be due to abusing and degrading or maligning the Hindu religion, Hindu Gods, Hindus, Hindu practices and Hindu traditions (sic),” the commission said pointing out that, ``The categoric defense in many cases is that the members of Hindu religion were provoked and angered due to the activities of the Christian leaders and Christians specially regarding conversion etc and might have resulted in attacks inevitably and spontaneously.”
One may not be wrong if somebody were to attribute these remarks quoted verbatim to Sadananda Gowda, Eshwarappa, Dr Acharya or even Mahendra Kumar or Pramod Mutalik, if the author’s identity was not disclosed because they do not sound like the judicial findings of a learned judge, who had served in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh high courts! Also, the judge should have identified the person, persons or organization responsible for the abuse and maligning of Hindu gods or religion instead of seeking to justify the attacks as ``inevitable and spontaneous.”
Having said so much against Christians on their alleged mass conversions, inducements, pumping of foreign funds and for abuse of Hindu gods and religion, the judge turns sanctimonious when he proclaims: ``The attack on churches or places of worship has deeply affected the harmony between the members of Hindu and Christian religions and created suspicion in the minds of each other. A strong impression is created (in whom?) that members belonging to Bajrang Dal, Sri Ram Sene, VHP etc are mainly responsible in attacking churches or places of worship mainly in Mangalore and South Canara district spreading to other districts and in particular Udupi, Chikmagalur, Davangere, Bellary, Dharwad, Bangalore, Kolar and Chikkaballapur (sic).”
"The other so-called attacks were only make-believe,” the judge says. If a categorical finding can be about other incidents, why not in respect of the other districts and why vaguely talk about a ``strong impression is created” without mentioning the basis for such an observation?
"As a whole, the allegations of attack on several churches or places of worship in districts of South Canara and other districts of Karnataka are true and sometimes believably probable (emphasis supplied),” the judge says. If the allegations of attack are true, how can they be believably probable? To come out with a vague finding like this, why do we need a judicial inquiry and spend crores of rupees?
The judge’s ``impression” regarding police excesses are even more dubious: ``An impression is given that the top police officers and the district administration and other authorities and panchayat heads specially in South Canara, Bellary, Davangere colluded with the members of Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sene directly or indirectly in attacking the churches or places of worship. An impression is given that under the guise of preventing Christian protestors unable to control in most of the churches in South Canara, the police exceeded their powers in lathi charge and bursting of tear gas shells putting the worshippers in the churches to a very harsh treatment resulting in injuries both agony and deep fear. An impression is created incidentally that due to the alleged excesses of the police during the lathi charge etc the innocent people like children, women are also victimized unjustifiably (sic).”
How can creative or imaginative can a judge be in recording the ``impressions” after nearly a year’s inquiry regarding police excesses and what does the terms ``impression is given” and ``impression is created” suggest? The judge relies on his impressions even while commenting on the lathi-charge and bursting of tear gas shells “putting worshippers in churches to a very harsh treatment” and ``unjustifiable victimization” of innocent people like children and women. Is this part of a new standard in jurisprudence?
The findings on the government and district administration’s handling of the situation, as recording by the commission, are equally vague and not specific: ``An impression is given that the government and the district administration did not treat the incidents sympathetically and with compassion to provide proper support or remedy to the victims as and when they required. An impression is created that under the guise of attacking churches or places of worship, the district administration misused the power and harmed the innocent individuals who were practicing faith of Christianity in their own way even to the extent of assaulting them and damaging their property sometimes resulting in the fire incidents. An impression is created that in many districts and particularly in Chikmagalur and Davangere that in spite of knowing the attacks on the churches and places of worship in districts like South Canara and other districts the district administration particularly the police officers had not prepared properly with sufficient force and plans to meet the situation and prevent the same and some members heading institutions like corporation, municipality themselves were responsible for such attacks due to their direct and indirect participation.”
The above three paragraphs, taken together, clearly amount to an indictment of the government and district administrations. But the judge has couched his words in ``impressions” even while holding those in charge as responsible for the attacks. If only the commission was a little bit more specific instead of talking in terms of `impressions’ those in responsible positions could have been taken to task.
In another instance of pussyfooting, the commission says even more ambiguously: ``An impression is given to the members of the Hindu religion (by whom?) that Christians are indulging in mischievous activities by commercializing or inducements etc directly with their literature maligning the Hindu religion, Hindu ancient systems, Hindu sacred beliefs, practices and sentiments..”
How can a sober and learned judge talk about, what can certainly be termed as utter rubbish, when he said: ``An impression is given that the Christians are responsible for killing some Hindu persons in Orissa and therefore they were justified in resorting to the violence against the Christians.” It may be recalled that a Congress minister and a Christian T John was forced to quit the S M Krishna ministry for terming Gujarat earthquake as God’s retribution for the post-Godhra massacre of innocent Muslims.
One can go on dissecting the judge’s ``impressions” and argue how they must be dismissed as the ramblings and rantings of a retired (or perhaps senile!) person.
However, these two paras taken from the synopsis deserve some thought. ``Many Hindu religious people have proposed suitable legislation to prevent the Christian religious people to resort to practices detrimental to the interest of Hindu religion,” or, ``Many Christian memorialists plead for taking action against Mr Mahendra Kumar, the then convenor of Bajrang Dal and leaders of Sri Ram Sene, VHP etc as per law, which according to them, the district administration ought to have done immediately, after the attacks.” Hindus or Christians may have their own grievances and demands. But the point is, what the commission has to say and wants the government to do.
Even while giving a list of 20 suggestions and recommendations to the government for immediate consideration and implementation, the commission has come with a three-page preamble that defies comprehension, to say the least.
Just sample this passage quoted verbatim: ``… The incidents also speak of emortional or zealous attitudes. The members belonging to two religions specially in Mangalore living in harmony and peace for generations barring some instances of avoidable clashes for other reasons suffered the results of unreasonable and harsh treatment which the government had to deal with firmly further resulting in agony and anguish and protests. Reasons may be different but the result was disastrous. In the lapse of time a smell of some introspection and reconciliation among the two sections is apparently felt. Public interest is not mere empty formality through prosecutions or other methods to ponder or proliferate, but the real intent is cure and ameliorate the disturbed situations by a balm of sympathy and kind methods. Any technical dealing results in further difficulties which will be against the interest of State and public peace and harmony. The state has a very wide discretion to exercise its powers of pardoning and presenting a workable formula to put an end to such ugly situations instead of jargoning on technical platitudes. The state will never be vindictive in any action but should try to balance between the evil situation with welfare consequences to put at rest all problems to fortitude the future good.”
Can anybody explain what the commission said or intended to say in the above passage?
If that is not enough, take this passage: ``…Even when crucified on a holy Cross Lord Jesus was merciful and pardoning the perpetrators. Whole of Indian Constitution impregnates them (pardon and clemency) in several methods and means which are not merely human rights but divine graces. India that is Bharath has been a beacon light for the globe to preach and practice them in full measure. Why not the Govt of Karnataka the benevolent chip of benevolent Bharath follow this righteous path to put an end to ignominious and shameful event in the history of religions involved in the events (sic)?”
Any takers for deciphering this `opinion’?
As the commission’s 20-point suggestions and recommendations have been widely reported in the media, there is no point in repeating them. Prominent among the recommendations are: Banning of all communal organizations preaching or practicing any activity against any religion, constitution of a Commission of Religions, special census of religions and their institutions and constitution, gearing up of intelligence wing in each district to deal with religious conflicts under the supervision of IGP rank officer, special legislation to check atrocities in the name of religion, banning of books or literature against any religion, withdrawal or compounding of all criminal cases registered, investigated or charge-sheeted against all persons or institutions upto December 31, 2008 as per law based on facts and circumstances of each case and setting up of a task force under the chairmanship of this commission with government representatives to monitor and implement the recommendations.
There is, however, a nagging suspicion as to whether the commission’s unusual decision to release its findings in the form of a synopsis while submitting the interim report to the government in Mangalore was a deliberate and calculated ploy to gauge the public mood as also the reaction of the government and opposition parties before preparing the final report? One ardently hopes that the suspicion remains just that as people in India still have a high regard and faith in the judiciary.
Whether the government will accept the commission’s recommendations and act is anybody’s guess. As of now, the government has made it clear that it would await the full and final report. Both Yeddyurappa and Dr Acharya have dropped sufficient hints that the government has no intention of extending the term of the Commission due to expire on March 31.