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Whither Justice (Karnataka Church Attacks)

Fallen by the wayside

by Teesta Setalvad, 10 April 2011

print version of this article print version, March 9, 2011

From interim report to final report: the Somasekhara Commission’s U-turn


Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done: This is a well-worn cliché that sums up the rigour and application that any process of justice delivery must observe to withstand the exacting test of public scrutiny. When the crimes to be investigated are mass crimes directed against a particular section of the population on account of their religious faith, and when the political party in power represents discriminatory, not constitutional, governance, this task requires from such a commission – apart from the time-tested norms of independence and integrity – both moral and physical fortitude.

The Justice BK Somasekhara Commission report on the sustained attack on 57 Christian churches and prayer halls in Karnataka in 2008, released in part on January 28, 2011, unfortunately fails to meet this test on all counts. The first reason for this is that the conclusions partially available to the public (the full report, which is said to be well over 400 pages long, has not yet been tabled in the state assembly) run contrary to the stark findings of the same commission in its interim report that were made public in February 2010, almost a year ago. The fact that these had displeased the Yeddyurappa government has been well documented by the media both then and now. In a blatant display of raw power soon after the commission’s interim report was released, the state government threatened to wind up the commission of inquiry even before its final report had been submitted.

The retired judge, who hails from the same town in Shimoga district as the chief minister, BS Yeddyurappa, had said in his interim report that a “strong impression is created that members belonging to the Bajrang Dal, Sri Rama Sene and the VHP, etc are mainly responsible in attacking the churches or places of worship, mainly in Mangalore and South Canara (Dakshina Kannada) districts, spreading to other districts and, in particular, Udupi, Chikmagalur, Davangere, Bellary, Dharwad, Bangalore, Kolar and Chikkaballapur.” Going by his final report however, Justice Somasekhara appears to have undergone a rather dramatic change of heart; he now concludes that in reality such impressions are incorrect.

In his interim report, the judge had also observed that “an impression is given that the top police officers and the district administration and other authorities and panchayat heads, specially in South Canara, Bellary and Davangere, colluded with the members of the Bajrang Dal and Sri Rama Sene, directly or indirectly, in attacking the churches or places of worship”. Today, as we read the highlights and churchwise findings of the commission’s final report, we are given to understand that the judge believes these “impressions and allegations” have “no merit”.

While any analysis of the reasons for this seemingly inexplicable change must await a full reading of the report, there is enough in the dynamics of the commission’s constitution, as well as the obvious omissions, to raise questions about the process and its outcome. Any such commission of inquiry appointed by the central or state governments under the Commission of Inquiry Act is required to perform a task and arrive at conclusions that satisfy vital questions and concerns within a democracy. Often such commissions are appointed when premeditated violence occurs to establish officially the reasons for the convulsions that have erupted and to offer recommendations that would, or should, serve as checks against such outbreaks in the future.

The very act of appointment of such mechanisms in the past performed a salutary task, especially for the targeted victim community. (Recall that the Rajiv Gandhi government, which rode to power in the wake of an anti-Sikh pogrom, only appointed the Ranganath Misra Commission in April 1985 when talks with the Akali Dal leaders were underway and the historic Rajiv-Longowal accord was at stake.) Any judge, serving or retired, appointed to conduct such an inquiry is required to meet high standards of independence and integrity. The reports of such inquiries, though unfortunately not statutorily binding on governments, have been the basis for acknowledgement, corrective measures and prosecution of the guilty.

However, with the appointment of the Wadhwa Commission by the BJP-led NDA government at the centre in 1999 (to investigate the murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his sons in Orissa), we saw time-tested norms fall by the wayside. Pliable and ideologically convenient individuals predisposed to giving the government in power a clean chit were handpicked then, as they were in Gujarat in 2002, three years later, to ensure the results before the process had even begun. Unfortunately, the BK Somasekhara Commission of Inquiry, set up to investigate the statewide anti-Christian violence in Karnataka, lays itself open to that charge.

What overwhelming evidence persuaded the commission to change its mind, to alter the views put forward in its interim report to those in the final document submitted just one year later, will probably forever remain a mystery. At any rate, no information has been provided so far to justify the final conclusions. Even the judge appears to be aware of this when he states, in the opening line of the Highlights, that “the final report should be read as the continuation of the interim report”.

The Somasekhara Commission was given a straightforward yet crucial mandate: “to identify persons and organisations” responsible for the attacks on places of worship and incidents thereafter which occurred in Karnataka in September 2008. On this count, the judge is hasty in giving a clean chit to both the ruling dispensation and its affiliate organisations when he says in conclusion that “There is no basis to the apprehension of Christian petitioners that the politicians, BJP, mainstream sangh parivar and state government, directly or indirectly, are involved in the attacks.”

While exonerating the ruling party, its chief minister and home minister as well as parent affiliates like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bajrang Dal and the Rama Sene of any organisational involvement in the violence, the report does pin blame on one individual, the then convener of the Bajrang Dal, Mahendra Kumar. “The plea of many Christian memorialists for taking action as per law against Mr Mahendra Kumar, the then convener of Bajrang Dal who publicly sought to justify the attacks on churches, is totally justified.” The report adds that “the plea… that organisations like Bajrang Dal need identification and registration for legal control deserves acceptance”.

It is not insignificant that the person whom the commission has sought to easily identify and pin culpability on, the notorious Mahendra Kumar, stated – in an interview with the media on January 31, three days after the commission’s final report was released – that “I went to jail to save the government from further embarrassment after the church attacks and on instructions from the sangh parivar leaders” (Bangalore Mirror, January 31, 2011). In this interview, Kumar, the alleged mastermind behind the 2008 attacks, accuses the ruling BJP government and the sangh parivar of scapegoating him and also raises some pertinent questions:

a) How can the Bajrang Dal be given a clean chit when its then convener is named as the prime accused?

b) Is it possible for one person to carry out attacks at all places simultaneously between 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.?

Mahendra Kumar conveniently “left” the Bajrang Dal after the attacks in 2008 and has, if recent reports are to be believed, now joined the Janata Dal-Secular (Deccan Herald, February 20, 2011).

Further contradictions arise in respect of a crucial annexure to the report, Annexure XLVII, which lists 56 churches that were attacked and specifies the Hindu fundamentalist organisations that were involved in some of these attacks. The Bajrang Dal has been held responsible for the attacks on nine churches, the Hindu Jagaran Vedike has been held responsible for the attacks on three churches, the sangh parivar has been held responsible for the attack on one church and unnamed Hindu fundamentalists have been held responsible for the attacks on two churches. Why then does the report in its conclusions shy away from pinning organisational responsibility and blame?

Although the commission holds that the Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Jagaran Vedike were behind the attacks on some churches, it seems eager to establish that these organisations are fringe groups that cannot be tied to the umbrella body of the sangh parivar.

The commission in its ‘Churchwise Findings’ observes that the attack on the DHM Prarthana Mandira in Nittuvalli was launched “by angered Hindus in general and about 10-15… Hindu Jagaran Vedike workers in particular”. The attack on the Eternal Life Church, also in Nittuvalli, was, according to the commission, also perpetrated by members of the Hindu Jagaran Vedike, at least nine of whom are mentioned by name. With regard to the attacks on the Jagadeeshwara Devalaya in Kalasa and the Carmel Mathe Devalaya at Kudremukh, the commission states that “The miscreants were not known but suspected to be workers of Bajrang Dal led by Mahendra Kumar” and, similarly, in respect of the attack on the Life and Light Ministries Church, Shiroor, the panel notes that “the involvement of workers of Bajrang Dal led by Mr Mahendra Kumar, the convener of Bajrang Dal, is probable and appears to be true”.

It is however the commission’s conclusions that give serious cause for concern, as they appear to offer justifications for the violence, which should have no place in the report of a judicial inquiry. Echoing a trend that has been witnessed in the highest echelons of the Indian judiciary, the report states that there are “clear indications of conversions to Christianity… by [a] few [non-Roman Catholic] organisations and self-styled or self-appointed pastors”. These activities had “damaged the reputation and holy image of the genuine and true Christians” and evoked anger among a section of the Hindus, which was further exacerbated by the mischievous behaviour of some Christians and their literature “maligning the Hindu religion, Hindu ancient systems, Hindu sacred beliefs, practices and sentiments” (Highlights of the Final Report of the Commission for Publication).

Such an unreasoned justification of violence, violence that has been unleashed against both Christians (from 2008 onwards) and Muslims in Karnataka – and which has been accompanied by widespread terrorising of the local media and inducements to other sections to ensure a statewide “cover-up” – is dangerous in the extreme. It gives murderous mobs and corrupt policemen an implicit carte blanche.

The Somasekhara Commission received 1,018 statements and affidavits, examined several hundred witnesses and conducted site inspections of 25 affected places of worship spread across Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, Kolar, Chikkaballapur, Davangere and Bangalore. But despite the extensive effort put in by the official commission of inquiry, the obvious contradictions and lacunae detailed above have rendered the report open to criticism and censure.

An area where the lacunae is inexcusable is in the exoneration of three officials of the state police, Sathish Kumar, SP, Dakshina Kannada; Jayanth Shetty, deputy superintendent of police (DSP), Mangalore (rural); and MK Ganapathy, inspector, Mangalore (east) (see box, ‘Crimes by men in uniform’). For many of us who visited southern Karnataka when the attacks took place and recorded evidence of the complicity of the police, one thing became clear: action against these three policemen had been recommended by top echelons of the Karnataka police at that time. When the top man in the Karnataka police force, DGP Ajai Kumar Singh, chickened out under pressure from the political bullies in his state, he betrayed not just the principle of the rule of law enshrined in the Indian Constitution that guarantees dignity of life to all Indians – he also let the better men in his force down.