Does Justice matter after 17 Years?
By M J Akbar
The first inquiry into the demolition of the Babri mosque on December 6, 1992 was completed within seven days. On the morning of Sunday, December 13, Sharad Pawar, then defence minister, invited a group of friends and colleagues to the home of an associate MP. He watched a film - live footage of the whole episode, taken by some government agency, possibly intelligence. Those antique reels should still be somewhere in the archives. There was little that any inquiry committee could have added about the sequence of events on December 6 that ended with the fall of the mosque by the evening.
The causes of this historic event were also a matter of public record. L K Advani's rath yatra was not a surreptitious journey. Indeed, extensive media coverage may have been part of the purpose, since he wanted to create mass momentum for his political project. Neither was there any secrecy when Congress laid the foundation stone of the temple to Lord Ram in the middle of the 1989 polls. Babri was a central theme, along with Bofors, of those dramatic elections. The 1989 BJP versions of Varun Gandhi were full-throated, not muted, in their slogans as parties sought votes with a rhetoric that has been subsequently banned: Mandir wahin banayenge! and Mussalman ke do sthaan, Pakistan ya kabristan! No one hid anything: We shall build a temple on that precise spot! Muslims have two options, either Pakistan or the graveyard!
Democracy is a volatile game played in the open. What was there left to inquire into?
All that an official inquiry could do was place a stamp of judicial impartiality on known facts. It did not seem strange, then, that Justice M S Liberhan, appointed on December 16, 1992, was asked to deliver his report in three months. If he had extended it to six months or even a year, it would have been reasonable. Why did he take 17 years?
The key actors were known and available. No sleuths needed here. Why did Liberhan take more than nine years to obtain V P Singh's deposition, and nine-and-a-half for P V Narasimha Rao's? Surely they were not evading his orders? Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti were ministers in a BJP-led government when they gave evidence. Former RSS chief K S Sudarshan appeared only on February 6, 2001. Rao could have said all he had to long before April 9, 2001, four years after he lost his job as prime minister.
Had the commission already served its first purpose by 2001? It had outlived Rao's term in office and thereby, ensured that its findings could not be used to demand Rao's resignation. Rao survived December 6, 1992 by the cynical expedient of buying out those he feared most, Muslims within the Congress. Some inside government were given promotions; most outside were inducted in a January 1993 reshuffle. Conscience purchased, life went on.
It would be interesting to know if the Liberhan Commission has disclosed the one mystery of December 6: what was Rao doing that entire day? Babri was not destroyed by a sudden, powerful, maverick explosion. It was brought down stone by stone, the process punctuated by the rousing cheers of kar sevaks.
So, what was Rao doing during those minutes and hours from morning till sunset? Sleeping. That is what his personal assistant said to the many agitated Congressmen and women who phoned to ask why the government was asleep. They were shocked to learn that this was, literally, the official explanation. Their agitation cooled when they realized that the party would have to pay a horrendous price if government was destabilized. Plus, of course, there were concrete benefits in silence.
There may not be a rational explanation for a 17-year inquiry, but there is a political explanation. Every government between 1992 and 2004 had a vested interest in delay. The minority governments of H D Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral could not have survived a day without support from the Rao-Sitaram Kesri Congress. (Mrs Sonia Gandhi was not party president then.) Neither Gowda nor Gujral would have wanted a report that indicted their benefactors.
The BJP-led coalition that ruled for six years had the guilty on its front row. Only Uma Bharti has been candid enough to say that she was delighted when the mosque fell ("I'm ready to own up to the demolition and will have no problem even if I'm hanged"). Justice Liberhan could have punched mortal holes into the BJP front row when it was in office. And so when he sought one extension after another, there was public silence and private relief.
Whether advertently or inadvertently, Justice Liberhan protected politicians on both sides of the great divide. There remains a curiosity question. Why did he not submit his report in 2004? Admittedly Dr Manmohan Singh was finance minister in the Rao government, but he had nothing to do with the politics of Babri. When delay becomes so comfortable, why bother?
Appeared in Times of India - July 5, 2009