Liberhan: 17 years and few surprises
By M J Akbar
A mere handful of professions are honoured with an honorific that survives beyond the office. Priests, judges, armed services officers, professors and doctors, of both the medical and academic disciplines: that’s about it. Journalists, even editors, and politicians, even cabinet ministers, would invite ridicule if they handed out visiting cards marked ‘Editor X’ or ‘Cabinet Minister Y’. Indians are, at best, ambivalent about media and politics. They respect our guardians of law, knowledge and security. There is a new tendency among former envoys to add ‘Ambassador’ before their name, a practice borrowed from America, but this is a title snatched from vanity rather than bestowed by popular acclaim.
Ego sometimes persuades a pompous politician to flaunt a bogus ‘Dr’ on his nameplate. This is not a reward for academic brilliance but an upgrade to a peacock feather, the ‘honorary doctorate’, a worthless piece of paper handed out by an institution desperate for attention. However, this does not matter too much, since we do not expect a high level of honesty from our politicians. Only two letters separate use from abuse, so there will always be a quack preening himself in the garb of a doctor. But when a person held in high esteem dilutes the trust reposed in him, it affects the collective reputation of the brotherhood.
Justice M S Liberhan did not need 17 years and a thousand pages to tell us what has been public knowledge since December 6, 1992. The Babri mosque was not torn down in the dark of night. It was brought down slowly, stone by stone, in Sunday sunlight, before hundreds of journalists, to the cheers of countless thousands of kar sewaks in and around Ayodhya. The mosque was not dynamited in a minute; it was demolished by crowbar and shovel.
Of course, senior leaders of the BJP and RSS were present, for they were kar sewaks as well. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was not there, but he was in nearby Lucknow, albeit a reluctant guest, but unable to refuse the invitation to the party. Newspapers the next day, and magazines the next weekend, published their pictures, some of which became iconic. We did not need a wait of 17 years to learn that Vinay Katiyar was responsible: he has been claiming responsibility for over 6,000 days.
Sharad Pawar, then defence minister, showed a filmed record of December 6 to an invited group at the home of a party MP a few days later. The Liberhan Commission could have completed half its report by taking a look at that film. The media was equally comprehensive in its coverage of the brutal riots that followed: The Sri Krishna report has done far greater justice to the truth in its findings on the Maharashtra riots, so much so that there is all-party collusion on its non-implementation. There was only one question trapped in doubt: What was prime minister P V Narasimha Rao doing while Babri was destroyed on the longest day of the last two decades? Why was home minister S B Chavan, father of the present Maharashtra chief minister, immobile, inscrutable and stolid?
Shock raced through Delhi when word filtered through that an assault had begun in Ayodhya. Phone calls began to pour into the prime minister’s residence in the hope that he would use the authority of the state to uphold the rule of law and fulfil a political and moral obligation. There was a monstrous response from the prime minister’s personal secretary. The PM was either unavailable or, worse, asleep. It was a lie. Rao’s inaction and Chavan’s collaboration were deliberate.
Liberhan protects Rao with an equally conscious fudge, shuffling the blame on to unspecified intelligence agencies. Everyone knew what was going on, IB officers better than most. Rao called a Cabinet meeting only in the evening, when there was nothing left to be saved — not even reputation. By this time, fires of hatred were lighting up the dusk of Mumbai and dozens of cities across the nation. An elaborate programme of blame, reward and punishment was put into place. Those (including bureaucrats and journalists) who acquiesced in Rao’s charade were rewarded; Congress Muslims got a bonus for silence. Rao remained in power till 1996, but he neither ruled nor lived in peace.
The words of this column will make no difference. A government can reduce the past to rubble as easily as an Opposition party can erase a centuries-old mosque. My apologies for a rare detour into the personal, but this is a rare moment. I was a minor part of the Rao government and resigned on the night of December 6 since the stone wall constructed around the prime minister’s house had become impervious to anything except sycophancy. Words demand a different kind of loyalty, and one was relieved to return to the world of words.
Appeared in Times of India - November 29, 2009