In the past decade, Madhya Pradesh has set up several judicial commissions to investigate, among other things, police encounters, explosions and scams in the state. However, their reports, whenever submitted, have rarely been made public. Opposition parties expect the latest commission – appointed to investigate the police firing in Mandsaur on June 6 that killed five farmers – to go the same way.
On Monday, the state government appointed Justice JK Jain as the head of a one-member judicial commission to probe the police firing on farmers agitating to demand loan waivers and remunerative prices for their produce.
Government insiders said that the commission is expected to submit its report within three months of the government issuing a notification on its constitution. The panel will be based in Indore. It will probe under what circumstances the police firing and subsequent deaths occurred; if the police action was appropriate to the given situation, and, if not, who all could be held guilty.
Monday’s announcement evoked a sense of déjà vu among political observers in the state. In Madhya Pradesh, a judicial inquiry commission is cynically viewed as nothing more than an opportunity to provide a retired high court judge with a temporary job. In the past decade, the Chouhan government has put around a dozen such judges in charge of investigative commissions. Justice Jain, who retired in January from the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, is the latest addition to this league of justices.
Sceptical about justice
Politicians and social activists say that the fate of previous judicial inquiry commission reports gives them little hope that the JK Jain commission will bring justice to the victims of police firing.
Last year, senior Congress leader Ramniwas Rawat wrote to state Governor OP Kohli to highlight government inaction on the reports of nine judicial commissions instituted over the last 10 years. The letter said:
“The BJP government is in habit of instituting judicial commissions just to placate people and divert their attention from the real issue immediately.”
Lajja Shankar Hardenia, the convenor of social organisation National Secular Forum, said that the Commission of Judicial Inquiry Act, under which governments can set up commissions of inquiry to any question of public importance, is itself flawed as it does not compel the government to make public the reports submitted by the commissions.
The most glaring government inaction is regarding the report of the Justice SK Jha Commission, which looked into alleged irregularities related to the Sardar Sarovar Project.
The Madhya Pradesh High Court set up the Jha Commission in August 2008 to probe allegations of over 3,000 fake land sale registries, and corruption in rehabilitation sites, issuance of livelihood grants, allotment of plots for construction of houses to oustees of the Sardar Sarovar Project in Alirajpur, Dhar, Khargone and Barwani districts of Madhya Pradesh. The report was tabled in the state Assembly in February last year but is yet to be made public, leave alone acted upon.
Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar has been holding protests to demand that the Jha Commission report be made public. “The Madhya Pradesh government is sitting tight on the report and not taking any action against the corrupt officers who siphoned off huge money meant for rehabilitation,” alleged Patkar.
War around narratives
Congress’s Ajay Singh, the Leader of the Opposition, alleged that the government has deliberately messed up the narrative around the Mandsaur firing in order to influence the judicial investigation that has now been constituted.
Soon after the farmers were killed, Home Minister Bhupendra Singh suggested that the deaths might have been the outcome of bloody clashes between two groups of anti-social elements. He, however, made a U-turn three days later and admitted that the five farmers at Mandsaur had indeed fallen to police bullets.
Singh’s volte-face, however, did not deter Mandsaur superintendent of police Manoj Kumar Singh from telling the media that one of the deceased farmers was an opium smuggler. The police officer’s statement came even as relatives of the five deceased farmers met Chouhan – who was sitting on a fast to restore peace in the state following the farmers agitation – in Bhopal on June 10.
“If those killed were farmers then why did BJP leaders, including the home minister dub them anti-socials and opium smugglers,” asked Ajay Singh. “And if they were anti-socials, why did the government announce unheard of ex-gratia of Rs 1 crore to each of their kin?”
The Mandsaur incident was not the first time government representatives passed judgement on the incident shortly before a judicial investigation was constituted to ascertain what exactly happened.
Last year, a day after the state police shot dead eight undertrials hours after their alleged escape from the the highly-fortified Bhopal Central Jail on the night of October 31, Chief Minister Chouhan pronounced the eight slain men as “dreaded terrorists”. He was addressing a 10,000-strong crowd of party workers and sympathisers at Bhopal’s Lal Parade Ground on the occasion of the state’s foundation day on November 1. In January, Chouhan, again, referred to the slain undertrails as “dreaded terrorists”.
Chouhan announced a judicial investigation into the encounter days after the incident, when amateur videos and a citizens’ fact-finding report cast doubts on the state administration’s claim that the undertrials – allegedly members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India – had been killed in a gun battle. Retired high court judge SK Pande was given the job of investigating the alleged extrajudicial killings. The commission’s three-month tenure expired in March, and it has been given a six month extension.
Besides the report related to the Sardar Sarovar Project, other pending reports include one by the Justice SK Dubey Commission that was instituted to look into an incident related to the election to the post of president in the Bhopal Municipal Corporation in 2000. In his letter, Rawat claimed that the report was pending in the home department even 16 years after the commission was set up. Similarly, the state’s law department is said to be looking into the report of the Justice NK Jain Commission that was set up to inquire into a pension scam of the Indore Municipal Corporation. The scam took place in the early 2000s when BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya was the Indore mayor.
A judicial commission constituted in 2010 to look into the gas leak from the erstwhile Union Carbide factory in Bhopal – which killed thousands of people in 1984, and led to health complications among lakhs of others – has submitted its report to the government, which has not yet acted upon it either.
Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangthan convenor Abdul Jabbar said that the commission was hogwash. “The commission was instituted only to defuse public outrage over a local court’s verdict that handed a ridiculously light punishment to the guilty officials of the Union Carbide factory in June 2010,” said Jabbar.