The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Inquiry commissions are a serious business in India — as long as they deliberate for ever and publish anodyne findings. The Tehelka exposé of defence-related muck duly bred its own inquiry commission. The then chief justice duly recommended Mr K. Venkataswami as chairman of the commission. A retired judge of the Supreme Court, Mr Venkataswami’s fairness, integrity and mastery over law relating to money matters were vouched for. But this same set of qualities subsequently won him a post in the finance ministry. Most peculiarly, after taking on the chairmanship of the inquiry commission, he was appointed chairman of the authority on advance ruling on customs and excise in May. The latter is, of course, an office of profit. Here was then the curious situation of a government employee investigating the alleged misdemeanours of another Central ministry. This absurd double identity complicates accepted notions of neutrality, to say the least. Accepting a plump post offered by the very employer whose credentials one is probing does qualify one’s impartiality towards this employer quite radically.

This is the point that was vociferously made by the opposition, which refused to take the commission’s findings seriously if Mr Venkataswami continued to be its chairman. The government retaliated with yet another strange move. It released the chief justice’s letter of recommendation to the press, in order to prove that the Centre had nothing at all to do with Mr Venkataswami’s appointment to the commission. This was done by none other than Mr Arun Jaitley, as spokesman of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Mr Venkat- aswami had, by that time, begun to get nervous and touchy about these posts. He put in his papers, and his resignation has now been accepted by the government. This looks like a sort of triumph — for the opposition, and of certain principles of fairness. But this also means — rather dishearteningly — further delay in the possibility of getting to know the facts of the case. Inquiry commissions usually amount to nothing when they do publish their findings. The report on the Gujarat pogroms published by the Concerned Citizen’s Tribunal — headed by another retired judge — seems to have met with total indifference. One would have thought that its findings would at least excite the opposition. But nobody seems to have noticed the report, and the implications of what the commission has found out. It is difficult, therefore, to feel particularly hopeful about the acceptance of Mr Venkataswami’s resignation. It might amount to being another obst- acle in the path of yet another meaningless “inquiry”.

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