In the normal course, some 17 years of single-minded perusal of a subject — backed by an army of researchers and support staff and privileged access to government records and all the relevant individuals — should have resulted in a work that is magisterial, rigorous, incisive and almost definitive. It is a commentary on Manmohan Singh Liberhan that all the privileges and perks of the government of India and an astonishingly flexible deadline couldn’t inspire him to produce a report on the “sequence and events leading to and all the facts and circumstances relating to the occurrence at the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid complex at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992” that would have been cherished for its fairness and legal erudition. Instead, the country has been, first, “leaked”, and subsequently presented with, a report that may well serve as a model for undistinguished prose, empirical inadequacies and tendentious generalizations.
A cabinet under pressure to respond speedily to contain the damage arising from a breach of parliamentary privilege met hurriedly for 30 minutes to consider the report. India’s political guardians considered a clutch of recommendations, including profundities such as “It is inherently unfair, immoral and legally dubious to hold democracy hostage to religious and casteist blackmail”, and “As members of a single union, the State Governments must… trust the union government and expect a reciprocal trust as well”. The monosyllabic response of the government’s action taken report to most of the insights of the commission was: “Agreed.”
Displaying a sense of humour that is otherwise not very evident, the report’s recommendations include the observation that: “In the first half of their career, most officers fall prey to extraneous influence for securing transfers and postings or other benefits for themselves. In the latter half, the emphasis is equally on finding out and securing a roosting ground for their post-retirement period.” To this unexpected display of candidness, an astonished government could only respond: “Noted.”
To those interested in governance, the Liberhan Commission has thrown up a multitude of issues. The more abstruse of these centre on the wisdom of charging the Rs 8 crore or so spent by the commission on salaries (not including expenses) to the national rural employment guarantee scheme. At a more sublime level, there are concerns over the unrestricted licence granted to State-appointed commissions of inquiry to reflect on life in general. Since one inquiry report often becomes a template for another, there may be some virtue in imposing a set of guidelines to prevent the rigorous exploration of a specific subject from being embellished by lessons in undergraduate civics.
The extent to which the premises of one inquiry are reproduced in another is quite remarkable. In the past two decades or so, there have been three inquiry reports, all three divulged to the media before being presented to Parliament, that have pursued a common thread: conspiracy.
The Thakkar Commission report on the assassination of Indira Gandhi, presented to the government in February 1986, but suppressed till it was leaked to the media in March 1989, recommended that the “Central government should seriously consider the question of appropriate agencies to investigate the matter as regards the involvement of R.K. Dhawan, the then special assistant to the former prime minister”. To C.K. Thakkar, Indira Gandhi’s death at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards seemed a consequence of a palace conspiracy.
In a similar vein, the Jain Commission of inquiry — which was given 12 extensions — into the death of Rajiv Gandhi at the hands of a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam death squad in 1991, had its interim report leaked to the media in 1997. Relying quite heavily on Intelligence Bureau inputs, the 5,280-page report, comprising eight volumes of interim findings, also smelt an elaborate conspiracy that stretched from the LTTE-held Northern Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu. M.C. Jain held the then Tamil Nadu chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, and his Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam responsible for abetting Rajiv’s murderers. It also went on to blame the former prime ministers, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar, for being indifferent to the threats to Rajiv’s life. The Congress responded angrily to the report, demanded the dropping of all DMK ministers from the Union council of ministers and subsequently withdrew support to the I.K. Gujral-led United Front government.
This week, and perhaps because it, too, included suggestions of an elaborate conspiracy that extended from the top to the lowest rung of the sangh parivar, the Liberhan Commission was leaked to the media. Unfortunately for those who fed the media, there are as yet no indications that the political fallout of Liberhan’s experiments with truth will have as devastating a consequence as the reports of Thakkar and Jain — perhaps a case of diminishing returns from conspiracies.
A feature of the Liberhan report is its post-facto rationalization of events that at that time seemed to be discordant. That there was a loose coordination between the various arms of what has come to be known as the sangh parivar isn’t in any serious doubt. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and, for that matter, sundry sadhus and sants were, after all, working for a common cause: the construction of a grand Ram temple at the site of the erstwhile Babri Masjid. Yet there were important differences.
The BJP, for example, had to combine its commitment to the temple with the imperatives of running a state government and respecting the rule of law. Just three months prior to the demolition, the state government run by Kalyan Singh was put into an awkward position by obstinate sants and sadhus (unconnected to the RSS) who refused to obey a Supreme Court directive to desist from constructing a ceremonial gate and a podium at a distance from the disputed shrine. The BJP believed the sadhus were being obstinate and it took a lot of persuasive skill to persuade the VHP to observe a short truce for negotiations with the Centre. Predictably, these yielded nothing and it is in the ensuing frustration and anger of the VHP and the sants that we can glean important clues relating to the demolition. Curiously, most of the holy men who added their congregational might to the movement have not been censured.
This doesn’t exonerate the BJP of its responsibility for reneging on an assurance to the Supreme Court. At the same time, it doesn’t detract from the fact that L.K. Advani, Vijaya Raje Scindia and even Kalyan Singh were completely taken aback by the unexpected turn of events. As an eyewitness to the demolition, I can state with certainty that until about 12.30 pm, when a former editor of an RSS publication (and a virulent Advani critic) rushed to the podium and asked for the idols to be removed, the BJP leadership was unaware that the Babri structure was in danger of imminent collapse.
These may be trivial details in a sweeping reconstruction, but it does suggest that the perception of a grand conspiracy involving the BJP, VHP, RSS and the assortment of highly individualistic sadhus may be somewhat facile. There were some people who organized a small band of activists with pickaxes and ropes. They rightly calculated that the actions of the vanguard would have an unstoppable bandwagon effect. It was the job of Liberhan to sift through the evidence and present a picture of the events as they happened. Instead, he fell back on the Indian penchant for grand conspiracies that can’t be corroborated with empirical evidence.
In India, conspiracy is a rhetorical flourish and the commissions of inquiry mirror this casual attitude to a serious charge.