Monday, January 25, 2010

Liberhan Commission: A Critical Analysis (Economic & Political Weekly, January 23, 2010)

Reports by enquiry commissions into an event that the nation could have done without can, in the best of circumstances, be taken as the basis for remedial measures that the State could take to prevent a recurrence of such tragic events. By its very nature, such inquests by bodies set up under the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952 cannot be expected to be complete and over-arching. Notwithstanding the powers of such commissions to summon evidence and record them in written, oral and in any other form (as it is the case with any civil court while trying a case under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908), the fact is that evidence recorded before commissions cannot be taken as they are in a criminal trial.

However, such proceedings before a commission can serve as a cue for the prosecution in the course of a trial. In this sense, there is a lot that can be drawn from the report of the Justice Liberhan Commission of Enquiry on the circumstances leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. Justice M S Liberhan, then a sitting judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, was expected to ascertain the events, facts and circumstances that resulted in the demolition of the “disputed structure’’ (the way the government chose to describe the Babri Masjid while appointing the commission within 10 days of the demolition). The job was to have been completed before 16 March 1993. But then, justice Liberhan continued with his job even after he ceased to be a high court judge and submitted a report running into 999 pages (and some more in annexures) after 48 extensions.

While such extensions are indeed usual with commissions and Justice Liberhan could not have been treated differently, the fact that the judge took 17 years to arrive at certain conclusions, some of which are as commonplace as (1) that the demolition was pre-planned; (2) that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leaders (whom he identifies as pseudo-moderates) were also responsible for the demolition even while they were not party to the planning; (3) that the state government under Kalyan Singh had pulled out all stops to make the demolition possible; (4) that the union government was crippled without adequate intelligence reports on the issue and that its hands were tied waiting for the Supreme Court’s direction to act; and (5) that the special rapporteur of the apex court too had failed to present the correct picture.

The point is that none of these can be taken as providing any insight that could help the prosecution in pursuing the trial in the relevant cases that are now pending before the special courts in Lucknow and Rae Bareli.

Justice Liberhan’s recommendation, in this specific context, betrays a thorough lack of commitment. The report recommends enactment of “a special separate law providing for exemplary punishment for misuse of religion, caste, etc, for political gains or illicit acquisition of political or other power”. The presumption, in doing so, is that the existing Code of Criminal Procedure is incapable of ensuring the ends of justice. The report in the same section also recommends that “regional tribunals for ensuring swift prosecution and effective implementation of the law ought to be set up in the four corners of the country”. The government’s Action Taken Report (ATR) simply accepts this and adds that the Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill, which is only being drafted at the moment, contemplates provisions for setting up special courts.

Existing Provisions
It is strange that neither the learned judge nor the officers in the Ministry of Home Affairs found this inappropriate. Criminal jurisprudence prohibits retrospective application and hence any such law, even if enacted, will not be relevant to cases involving the Babri Masjid demolition. Moreover, the existing Code of Criminal Procedure contains sufficient provisions to ensure speedy trial by way of setting up special courts. The pending cases are indeed before such special courts. It was, after all, possible for the regime to complete the trial and ensure conviction in such cases as the assassination of Indira Gandhi (1984) and Rajiv Gandhi (1991) and also in such cases as the Mumbai blasts (1993) and the Coimbatore blasts (1998). In other words, the commission’s report as well as the ATR betray an inability to view the tragic incidents of 6 December 1992 from within the framework of the rule of the law.

It is possible, even with the codes in existence to ensure justice without delay. Section 407 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 provides for conducting a trial before the high court. In this case, it was possible (and it is possible even now) to have the cases pending before the special courts in Lucknow and Rae Bareli transferred to the Allahabad High Court and render justice. The ATR, instead, maintains that “steps will be taken to expedite the hearing of these cases” without bothering to explain as to why such steps were not taken in the 17 years that have gone by. It cannot be that the law, as it exists, does not allow any such measures. The government could have invoked Section 482 of the Cr PC to seek speedy disposal of the cases.

A specific reference to these in the report would have helped establish that while the BJP was guilty of the crime in December 1992, successive governments at the centre since then have done a shoddy job delaying the course of justice. It is in this context that one cannot contrast Justice Liberhan’s report with that of Justice B N Srikrishna. Justice Srikrishna’s report, apart from providing a sharp focus on the subject matter and making specific recommendations detailing the task before the civil administration and the police, was unsparing when it came to apportioning the blame on a cross section of the political establishment. For instance, even while making it clear that the Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray went about commanding the killer mobs and locating the immediate context for the December 1992-January 1993 carnage on the “celebration rallies” by the Hindutva parties “gloating over the demolition of the Babri Masjid”, the Srikrishna Commission report also pointed out that the “effete political leadership” was responsible as much for the death and destruction in Mumbai.

Justice Liberhan’s report, however, steers clear of any such meaningful exercise and presents a story in which all that went wrong in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992 was the fallout of the designs and activities (at various levels) by members of the Sangh parivar. And hence, the report pronounces the leaders of its various outfits as having been responsible for the tragic events at the primary and secondary levels.

Unlike Justice Srikrishna, whose report placed a lot of blame on the Congress leaders such as the then Maharashtra Chief Minister Sudhakar Rao Naik and Sharad Pawar, whose role as union defence minister at that time, was not above board, Justice Liberhan paints the Congress Party and the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao as having been victims of a Sangh parivar conspiracy.

Blaming the Victims
The problems with the report do not stop there. Justice Liberhan takes things to far more absurd levels when he holds the organisations representing the concerns of the Muslim community and its leaders as responsible at the tertiary level for the demolition. Liberhan goes as far as to state,while the RSS, VHP, Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal and the BJP brought the temple construction movement to the front burner and caused it to boil over, the fanatic Muslim leadership making the counter claim were either completely complacent and had no substantive or effective leadership or was simply incompetent in projecting their own lopsided counterview to the people throughout the half century leading up to the 6th of December 1992.

It is strange that a retired high court judge should even see the issue in Ayodhya as one that was to have been dealt with between two religious communities. This, incidentally, is one of the arguments peddled by those in the Sangh parivar; its leaders have also maintained that an agreement between the representatives of the two communities as one of the solutions. Justice Liberhan, even while holding the leaders of the Sangh parivar responsible for the demolition, unwittingly endorses their stated position in his report.
“Their (the Muslim leadership) feeble attempt” Justice Liberhan adds, “after 1983 to present a blinkered view of history were without researched substance and therefore possibly incapable of being believed’’.

The facts interestingly are to the contrary. There was evidence, based on historical and archaeological research, to establish that the claims by the Sangh parivar were unsubstantiated. It is strange that Justice Liberhan had examined some of those who participated in this effort (Irfan Habib, for instance) and yet arrived at such conclusion. The judge, however, reveals his mind elsewhere in his report. In paragraph 159.4 of his report, the judge makes a statement: “It is established that the events of and leading up to the 6th of December in the birthplace of the virtuous Lord Ram considered an incarnation of God and the ideal king, were tainted by a joint conspiratorial enterprise”.

In other words, the judge too is in agreement with the Sangh parivar that this was the place of Lord Ram’s birth. His only quarrel is that they conspired to demolish the mosque over there!

Bommai Judgment

There is indeed something cynical about all this. In a landmark judgment in the S R Bommai and others vs Union of India case, the Supreme Court had held the dismissal of the BJP-led governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh (in January 1993 in the immediate wake of the 6 December 1992 demolition and where it was established that these state governments aided the crime at Ayodhya) as valid. The substantial point that was made in that judgment, which holds to this day, is that the demolition of the mosque on 6 December 1992 was an affront to secularism, and since secularism was part of the basic structure of the Constitution, it was an attack on the Constitution. Justice Liberhan has proclaimed his abject ignorance of this by making out the dispute to be one between the Sangh parivar and the leadership of what he describes as the “fanatic Muslim leadership”.

And the judge goes on to preach to the Muslim community. He says: “Unfortunately a sizeable number of Indians still feel that the Muslims of India should be treated as a deprived class despite the centuries long Moghul-Muslim rule in India” (emphasis added). Justice Liberhan’s indiscretion does not stop here. His report goes on to say more on these lines: it is inexplicable why the people belonging to the same community which effectively ruled the country for centuries not too long ago should not endeavour, struggle, compete, thrive and succeed in all segments of national life like every other citizen of India, and without having to rely on their religious difference to seek special privileges.

All these observations can be found in the diction of any small time preacher of the Hindutva campaign. The demagogues of the Sangh parivar, in fact, were heard saying such things during their campaign that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. But Justice Liberhan considers these as the basis to “hold these organisations and individuals guilty at a tertiary level, for their failure to effectively champion the cause of their constituents, and of the neutrals and for their failure as an effective democratic opposition”. The report also blames the leadership of the Muslim community for having “failed to protect the life and property of the innocent masses who got caught up in the post facto riots”.

It is indeed inexplicable that a former high court judge believes in all this and even that the Muslim leaders were responsible, leave alone capable, for saving lives and property during a riot. Such conclusions certainly betray Justice Liberhan’s sympathies with the Sangh parivar’s line of thinking; that the religious minorities adapt and accept the majority’s way of life and thinking. It is difficult to see this as very different and distinct from the way M S Golwalkar sought to define nationalism and citizenship in independent India. It is also important to pose the fact that this is contrary to the definition of citizenship in the constitutional scheme of things. In specific terms, Justice Liberhan’s approach is at variance with the letter and spirit of Articles 26 to 29 as well as Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution.

The commission devotes an entire section to recommendations pertaining to religious and cultural sites: And in that the whole thrust is to set up a national commission consisting of experts in archaeology and history “to delve into the question of provenance of historical monuments, artifacts, etc, and their determination should be deemed to be definitive and final’’. This approach, again, is dangerous to say the least for it is rooted in a worldview that sees revanchism as a means to settle disputes. It is a fact that the Sangh parivar’s campaign in the Ayodhya issue had sought legitimacy in the argument that the destruction of the mosque there was necessary to right a wrong committed by Babar’s general Mir Baqi. Such a premise is essentially medieval and cannot have a place in a modern society.

On Reservation
And so are Justice Liberhan’s excursions when he comments on the efficacy of the members of the civil and police establishment; Justice Liberhan recommendations on areas that are extraneous to the brief or the terms of reference are another aspect that cannot be glossed over. For instance, Justice Liberhan avers to “the castesit or regional basis” while picking up men for posting civil servants at the helm of affairs and holds that this must be stopped. And the government, in its ATR, holds that this will be communicated to the Union Public Service Commission. This is yet another instance of how the commission has sought to undermine the Constitution and its premises. The bureaucracy turning unfaithful to the blue book in their enthusiasm to be seen on the side of the political establishment is a serious issue to be tackled (also covered in the recommendations) but then to hold the scheme of caste-based reservations in government jobs and posing merit as the casualty reflects a skewed way of thinking.

The judge blames the media for contributing to the frenzy. Some of this is true and has been recorded; that a section of the media ended up joining the Sangh parivar’s propaganda. But, his recommendation on how to deal with this is also dangerous. He calls for a statutory body to oversee the media and for a system where journalists are granted licences by this body with provisions for punishments like suspension of such licences in the event of professional misconduct. Such a measure will amount to institutionalising pre-censorship and curbing the media. Justice Liberhan’s mind seems to belong to those who govern in totalitarian systems and is inimical to democracy.

The Liberhan Commission also recommends enacting a new law enabling the Union government to take over the administration of a specified geographical area for restoring peace in the event the state government did not act. The Constitution does contain a provision of this kind. In the situation that prevailed during the couple of weeks before 6 December 1992, the then Union government could have resorted to Article 356 of the Constitution in Uttar Pradesh for sure. It was also possible to ensure that the constitutional scheme of things prevailed in the country by way of resorting to Article 352 (the provision to impose a national emergency) and thus invoke provisions of Articles 353, 354 and 358 of the Constitution.

Protecting the Congress
It cannot be the case that Justice Liberhan is unaware of these provisions. It is just that the judge, for reasons that are too obvious given the time he had chosen to finally deliver his report, did not want to apportion any part of the blame for the demolition of the mosque upon the Congress Party and the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao. He even decided to repeat what Rao had to say then: That the central government was betrayed by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh! The judge has also admitted without doubt the claim that the central intelligence agencies too were crippled without adequate information!

It is sad that the Liberhan Commission, even while referring to 1983, as a marker, in the Ayodhya trajectory, leaves out such important facts such as the context in which the Babri Masjid premises were unlocked in February 1986 and the preponderant view that it was not merely a decision by the officers of the subordinate judiciary at Faizabad as it may appear.

In the same way, Justice Liberhan, dealing with the telecast of such serials like the “Ramayana” on national television as having played a role in leading up to the demolition, dismisses such thinking as part of “farfetched fantastic theories’’ and records that he will refuse to comment on that further. Well, there has been a lot of research and writings on this to establish that it is not just a fantasy and that there is some realistic basis to argue that the telecast of the serial did contribute to the spread of the movement. But then, Justice Liberhan’s agenda seems to have been to absolve the Congress and its leaders of all the blame. Thus the cynical plans and steps taken by the Congress government in Uttar Pradesh even while the campaign for demolition was reaching its crescendo.

Justice Liberhan, does not even refer to the other important date and event in the Ayodhya trajectory: 9 November 1989. On that day, Rajiv Gandhi, then prime minister, allowed the VHP to perform shilanyas for the Ram temple on the disputed land that was dubiously declared, by the Uttar Pradesh government, as undisputed. The then union home minister, Buta Singh, was sent to Ayodhya with a specific brief to supervise the shilanyas. Another round of communal violence followed the shilanyas and this clearly vitiated the atmosphere during the general elections. The Ayodhya controversy, causing the death of several hundred people and finally the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the political changes in that context were all the outcome of this strategy.

It is another matter that this new strategy, intended to re-invent the Congress(I), ensured the fall of the party and its decimation from most parts of the Hindi-speaking region.

Commission and Omission
Justice Liberhan says that the inertia that was built up by the rabble-rousing organs of the Sangh parivar and inflammatory leaders was focused not at tugging at the emotional heartstrings of the common man and building a consensus for a temple at Ayodhya. Rather the emphasis was more on stunning the thinking masses into inaction and suppressing any voices of sanity or moderation that might arise.

By glossing over the simple fact that the Congress(I) too had played ball and the union government as well as that in Uttar Pradesh (led by the same party) too participated in that game, the judge is guilty of substantive omission. And in doing so, Justice Liberhan too has contributed his mite to stun the thinking masses into inaction. The ATR by the government too makes this point.

As for those who committed the criminal act on 6 December 1992, Justice Liberhan has this to say: “The hands that tore down the disputed structure and shredded the very fabric of society belonged to the common man… The remorse which is their constant shadow for the reminder of their mortal lives is their highest punishment”. The nation did not have to wait for 17 years and does not have to hold on to a penal code and other laws and expend a lot of its resources on these if Justice Liberhan’s prescriptions are to be held as gospel.


Here are a few important markers that Justice Liberhan has glossed over.

While an application under Section 482 of the Cr PC will be appropriate for ordering speedy (and even time bound) disposal of the trial in a particular case, Section 483 of the code imposes a duty upon the high courts’ to exercise superintendence over the courts of judicial magistrates subordinate to them as to ensure that there is an expeditious and proper disposal of cases by such magistrates

The Justice Srikrishna Commission, in fact, commissioned a study by experts from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, on the socio-economic, demographic and political factors that could be seen as immediate causes for the riots. The commission’s report endorses such findings that the pronounced shift in the political discourse from themes of parliamentary democracy, the merits of public and private sector and such others to communalism as being the long-term cause that prepared the grounds for such violence as were witnessed in Mumbai in the aftermath of 6 December 1992

It is necessary to note here that though the Bommai case and the judgment are popularly remembered for the severe restrictions that the apex court laid against indiscriminate dismissal of state governments and the abuse of Article 356 of the Constitution, the bench also decided in that case on the dismissal of the BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. In the course of that, the bench also extensively discussed the concept of secularism and it being a part of the basic structure of the Constitution. In doing so, the bench held the dismissal of the three BJP governments valid. Justice A M Ahmadi and Justice B P Jeevan Reddy had dealt with the aspect of secularism and the Constitution in elaborate detail and the seven other judges in the bench explicitly endorsed their views in the judgment.

On 1 February 1986, K M Pandey, district judge, Faizabad, hearing a petition by Umesh Pandey, ordered opening of the locks to the Hindus for worship and that the Muslims were not to be let into the premises or offer prayers. Advocate Pande’s plea before a munsiff court in Faizabad on 23 January 1986 that the court allow unrestricted worship in the Ram Janmabhoomi, whose gates were locked at that time, was disposed of on grounds that the leading suit to this case was still pending before the Allahabad High Court. Advocate Pande then went on appeal before the Faizabad district court on 31 January 1986 and district judge K M Pande ordered unrestricted rights for the petitioner and others to offer worship at the Babri Masjid. Devotees were allowed, even otherwise, to enter into the compound and up to an enclosure of grills; there were two gates fixed to the grills and one of them, gate ‘O’ was open for the priests to enter and conduct pujas. The other gate remained locked since January 1951. The petition before the district judge was that this restriction be removed. The district judge’s order will have to be seen in context. The 31 January 1986 plea by advocate Pande before the district judge K M Pandey was to have the locks removed and judge K M Pandey, with ample cooperation coming from the district magistrate I K Pande and police chief Karam Veer Singh, ordered that the locks be opened. City magistrate Sabhajit Shukla, on whom the order was served, did not wait for a moment. Within minutes, Shukla rushed to the premises and hammered open the locks at gate ‘P’ to let in the flow of devotees! That no one waited to prefer an appeal against the district judge’s order is significant. The Congress(I) government in Uttar Pradesh, headed at that time by Vir Bahadur Singh, had instructed the concerned civil servants (district magistrate I K Pande and police chief Karam Veer Singh), to convince the district judge K M Pandey that the locks could be broken open. And city magistrate Sabhajit Shukla too was under instruction to implement the Judge’s order without losing time.

As late as on 21 June 1989, N D Tiwari, then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, announced construction of a Ram-katha Park in Ayodhya at a cost of Rs 15 crore. Tiwari made this announcement while inaugurating the Ram-ki-Pauri at Ayodhya, constructed at a cost of Rs 8.5 crore. It was in this specific context that the BJP too resolved to join the Ramjanambhoomi campaign. In its national executive session on June 1989, at Palampur in Himachal Pradesh, the party resolved to join the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s campaign to liberate the Ramjanmabhoomi. The Palampur resolution read: “The sentiments of the people must be respected and Ram Janmasthan handed over to the Hindus – if possible through a negotiated settlement, or else by legislation. Litigation certainly is no answer”. The importance of this resolution and the fact that the BJP jumped into the campaign only as late as in June 1989 is not to say that the party was innocent until then. The BJP had taken up an aggressive Hindutwa position since its plenary session at Delhi on 9-11 May 1986.

Vir Bahadur Singh, then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, instructed his officers to act in a way to hasten the process of opening the locks in February 1986 only on instructions from the Congress(I) high command. A new political strategy was being devised to entrench the party in the Hindi-speaking parts of the country (reconciled as it was to the reality that the party was in no position to reverse the rising tide of regional parties such as the TDP, the AGP, the Akali Dal, the National Conference, the DMK or the AIADMK and also the fact that the old social alliance of the upper castes, the scheduled castes and the Muslims that sustained the party in this region was now cracking up). And hence it was necessary to re-invent the party with a different social alliance. The experience from Assam, where the AGP could sweep the polls despite its anti--Muslim stance seemed to impress Rajiv Gandhi’s computer boys. Towards this end, the Rajiv Gandhi dispensation orchestrated the 1 February 1986 order by the district judge, K M Pandey.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jyoti Basu (July 8, 1914-January 17, 2010)
When he decided to associate with the communist movement in India Jyoti Basu could not have seen him becoming the Chief Minister of West Bengal. But then, Basu ended up being the longest serving Chief Minister of any State in India. Basu would not have thought that he would end up with this distinction when he was sworn in as Chief Minister of West Bengal on June 21, 1977.

Well. Nobody, including Basu and the CPI(M) in Bengal had expected, even a month before, that the party would win a majority in the State assembly elections. The Janata wave that swept most parts of Northern, Western and Eastern India had yet to show signs of subsiding at that time. The Janata Party had refused to assign as little as 80 assembly seats to the CPI(M) of the 240 seats in the West Bengal assembly that election. Talks between the CPI(M) and the Janata party broke down. And the party’s West Bengal leadership decided to go it alone.

Pramode Das Gupta is credited for that decision. And Jyoti Basu was certainly the one who must have inspired the party to decide that way. Having been the Deputy Chief Minister, twice in the past, Basu was already the most popular face of the party in West Bengal and when the party decided to fight the elections in all the 294 seats, it was now obvious that Jyoti Basu would be the Chief Minister in the event of a victory. And he remained the natural choice to that post until he decided, with the party’s sanction, to step down from that office in 2000.

It is almost certain that Basu remains the only one from the political establishment, in the present times, to retire from office. This would not have been a virtue in better times. But then, a man is judged in his circumstances and that makes it important to count voluntary retirement from public life as a virtue. Even if these are recorded history, the point is that Basu could not have imagined all these when he began looking at socialism as the alternative.

The transformation from being a studious lad into the one who empathized with the struggle for freedom happened in London. Basu, like many others in his times and more so from his class, landed there to study law. His father had the wealth to send his son abroad for higher studies and the choice of subject too was obvious: Basu went to study law. The times he spent in London too were critical. Being a student there in the 1930s also meant becoming a part of the radical groups that were closer to the idea of socialism and leaning so conspicuously to the Left. Jawaharlal Nehru was indeed the hero of this group and Basu too admired Nehru. He also looked at Subhas Chandra Bose as the ideal leader that the national movement could have.

There is very little from Basu’s recollections that show him close to the Gandhian fold. Jyoti Basu, unlike E.M.S.Namboodiripad, A.K.Gopalan and such others was not drawn into public life through the Gandhian way. Nor was he among those who adopted Marxian precepts as their ideal such as Muzaffar Ahmed, B.T.Ranadive and Pramode Das Gupta. Jyoti Basu belonged to a generation that was drawn into the communist movement in the course of their association with the socialist intellectuals who happened to be in England in the times between the Great Crash and the World War II.

In this sense, the ideas that influenced Basu in his formative years were distinctly different from the one that guided several others in his generation in the communist movement in India. Jyoti Basu was one of those who looked at Nehru with admiration and also shared an intimate relationship with Feroze Gandhi. And it is a fact that Indira Gandhi did not deal with Basu in the same way she dealt with many others in the communist movement. Jyoti Basu, for instance, was not arrested during the emergency. The Indira establishment did not show that respect to many others in the communist movement. Such others like Jyotirmoy Bosu and P.Sundaraya were in jail for the entire period of the emergency.

All this, however, did not render Jyoti Basu a lesser communist. On his return to India, Barrister Basu plunged into the communist party’s activities. The ban on the party then – January 1940 – did not scare him away from that. Jyoti Basu could have settled down to become a lawyer. He had, after all, planned to be one when he left Calcutta for London in 1935. But then, the transformation was complete. Basu was determined to work for his own liberation and the path he chose was to join the communist party. He had established his links with the party through such of those like R.P.Dutt and Ben Bradley, both members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and involved directly with the Communist Party of India too.

His assignment, once in India, was to be with the trade union movement in the Railways. Those were times when the Railways were owned by companies that were based in England. And the unions, hence, were as much engaged in nationalist struggles as much for wages and better living conditions. Basu emerged as leader of the union in the Bengal-Assam region; the Bengal, at that time, included today’s Bangladesh too. In February 1946, Basu was elected to the Bengal Legislative Assembly to represent the Railway workers. In 1946, there were constituencies to represent workers in specific industries. Interestingly, the communist leaders won elections in the Railway workers constituencies across the country. That was when K.Anandan Nambiar won elections to the Madras Assembly from the Railway Workers constituency.

The communist party, however, was banned on March 26, 1948 and Basu was among those arrested in the morning that day. The ban was a consequence of the party’s decision at its second congress in Calcutta between February 28 and March 6, 1948. And Basu’s stint in prison, the first time in his life, lasted a few days only. The party’s cadre was hounded into jail across West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala in the four years after the ban imposed in March 1948. And the battles that were fought in Telengana, Tebhaga and Punnapra-Vayalar rendered the party stronger than before. Basu played a crucial role in negotiating with Prime Minister Nehru for lifting of the ban. He was among those who met the Prime Minister, prior to the general election in 1951 to talk. The meeting between some communist leaders and Nehru was arranged by Mrinalini Sarabhai.

That the communist movement did not lose its support base during the ban period was evident in the results of the first general elections. And Basu too won as MLA from Baranagar, in 24 Parganas district. He would represent this constituency continuously for several terms until the March 1972 elections. Basu also happened to address an election campaign rally in Malabar along with AKG; that was on November 4, 1951.Basu was also instrumental in striking a broad alliance with some other Left-leaning groups in the first ever general elections. In one of his reminiscences, Basu laments that the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party and the Socialist Party could not be brought into the United Socialist Platform at that time. This, in fact, was one of the most striking distinction that Basu showed from his other comrades in the communist movement. Jyoti Basu was among those who realized the necessity of forging as broad a socialist alliance as is possible than letting the movement drift in the path of left sectarianism.

Basu, along with other leaders of the party, were in the front leading a mass agitation against increase in tram fares in Calcutta in 1953 and also in agitations pressuring the Government to ensure foodgrain supply to the masses. And all this helped the Communist Party win in 46 assembly seats in West Bengal in the 1967 elections. This was against the 28 seats it won in 1951-52. And this time, there was a pre-poll seat sharing arrangement and a Common Minimum Programme among the CPI, RSP, PSP, Forward Bloc and some smaller left-progressive platforms. The foundation was laid for a United Front in Bengal in 1957 and when a section led by Ajoy Mukherjee left the Congress to found the Bangla Congress, Basu was among those who moved fast to strike an alliance with them.

It was, thus, that the first non-Congress Government came into place in West Bengal. Jyoti Basu was sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister holding charge of the Finance as well as Transport portfolios in that cabinet. Ajoy Mukherjee of the Bangla Congress became Chief Minister. Comrade Hari Krishna Konar became Minister for Land Revenue in that cabinet and set in motion the land reforms programme that made the communist party into what it became in West Bengal in the years to come. Though the United Front collapsed under its own weight and due to defections led by P.C.Ghosh (who would become Chief Minister for a few months after November 1967), the idea or the concept of a broad front against the Congress remained alive for long. The Front won a majority in the February 1969 elections too and Basu was now the Deputy Chief Minister again holding charge of the Home Portfolio.

His approach to politics remained non-sectarian. Basu did not give up this commitment to the idea of a United Front even in the wake of a hunger strike that Chief Minister Ajoy Mukherjee resorted to on December 1, 1969. The Chief Minister’s fast was to record his opposition to his own Home Minister’s refusal to let the police loose against protestors in the State. The Government fell after Mukherjee resigned as Chief Minister on March 16, 1970. And Basu survived an attempt on his life at Patna railway station on March 31, 1970. Imam Ali, a member of the party and an officer with the Life Insurance Corporation of India was hit by a bullet that was aimed at Basu. The killer belonged to the Anand Marg, a sect that believed in violent means against anyone who opposed it. Basu was the target that day. In the elections to the state assembly, held in March 1971, Basu led the CPI(M) to win as many as 111 seats.

The Congress, under Indira Gandhi in Delhi and Sidhartha Sankar Ray in Calcutta, however, pulled all the stops to wrest power. Ajoy Mukherjee, with only five MLAs from his Bangla Congress, was swron in Chief Minister. The Government collapsed in no time and West Bengal went to polls again in March 1972. It turned out to be the bloodiest elections ever. In Baranagar, where Basu was the candidate once again, the rigging was unprecedented. All the votes were cast even before 10 30 in the morning on March 9, 1972. And that was the only instance when Basu did not win from Baranagar. The stage was set for bringing democracy to an end and what followed was a reign of terror. The semi-fascist terror in Bengal preceded the emergency declared on June 25, 1975. Basu led the CPI(M) from the front. And in the elections to the sate assembly, in June 1977, the CPI(M) won 178 seats in the House of 294 and Jyoti Basu was sworn in as Chief Minister on June 21, 1977.

Basu emerged a key player in mobilizing the opposition to the Congress in the early eighties. And in due course emerged into a key player in the several conclaves of non-Congress Chief Ministers such as Ramakrishna Hegde, Farooq Abdullah, N.T.Rama Rao and also in the process by which the individual leaders of the Janata Party such as H.N.Bahuguna, Charan Singh, Devi Lal and Karpoori Thakur were brought to realise the imperative for unity. In many ways, Basu’s role in the making of the National Front was from behind the scenes and substantive. Basu was also conscious of the dangers to democracy that the BJP posed and it was quite natural that his name came up for the Prime Minister’s job in May 1996.

Basu knew the mind of his party’s leaders. He was not naïve to even imagine that the proposal to make him the Prime Minister of a United Front consisting of parties and leaders brought together without any ideological coherence was anything to celebrate. Basu did not react against the proposal, made at an impromptu meeting of leaders at the Bihar Bhawan one night during the tumultuous summer in May 1996. Basu had, after all, just been at the meeting with his Central Committee that had resolved, only a few hours before he reached the Bihar Bhawan, against participating in a Government that the United Front was trying to form. And he knew as did anyone who followed the party’s affairs that his party was not going to let him become the Prime Minister and knowing very well that such a Government was possible only with support coming from the Congress.

But then, Basu insisted upon calling that decision against his becoming the Prime Minister as a ``historic blunder’’. A lot of communist leaders were pilloried and persecuted for saying more innocuous things. But then, Basu probably knew that he was not going to meet with the same fate. Basu’s moorings or his initiation into the communist movement, after all, were not the same as such others like Ranadive’s or Sundarayya’s. And he did not seem to believe that the Parliamentary path to political power was the same as surrendering to bourgeois politics. Basu, after all, had spent most part of his political life as an elected member of the state assembly. He had become a MLA in February 1946; within a couple of years after he was assigned to lead the union in the Bengal Assam Railway! And he remained a legislator throughout until May 2001.

Basu also believed in forging political alliances and he established himself as a master in the art of coalition politics in West Bengal. And he did not see that as deviating from the tenets of democratic socialism even while being a part of the CPI(M)’s Politburo ever since the party was founded, from out of the CPI, in 1964. He was one of the nine members of the Politburo at the time of the CPI(M)’s formation. And the others were: A.K.Gopalan, E.M.S.Namboodiripad, P.Sundarayya, M.Basavapunaiah, B.T.Ranadive, P.Ramamurthi, Pramode Das Gupta and Harkishen Singh Surjeet. All of them are now dead and gone.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Amar Singh should stick to his retirement plans

I remember having met Amar Singh first sometimes in 1993. That was at the Jay Vilas Palace in Gwallior. As a reporter with an English language paper in New Delhi, I was assigned to report on a public meeting that Madhavrao Scindia had organised then. The real purpose behind that meeting was to establish Scindia’s clout in the region and thus part of his efforts to stake his claim for the leadership of the Congress party in Madhya Pradesh.

The Congress party in the state, then, was ridden by several factions and Scindia led one of them like such others as V.C.Shukla, Arjun Singh, Motilal Vora, P.C.Sethi, and S.C.Shukla. There were such others as Ajit Jogi, Kamal Nath and Digvijai Singh who were younger than the veterans but trying to establish as leaders too. And the immediate context was the ensuing elections to the State assembly in Madhya Pradesh. Elections were held in November 1993, a few months after I happened to meet Amar Singh, and Digvijai Singh managed to beat the others to become Chief Minister soon.

Amar Singh, then, had not arrived as a political operator in Delhi. He was hanging around Madhavrao Scindia and was also an advisor to the Birlas. His contact point then was Shobhana Bharthia, a member of the Birla clan and the person who controlled the Hindustan Times, an English language newspaper owned by the family. Shobhana was an intimate friend of Madhavrao Scindia and that was reason enough for Amar Singh to hang around the maharaja. Amar Singh was also a member of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) at that time. He belonged to the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee at that time.

I do remember my first encounter with Amar Singh at the Jay Vilas Palace. He did make it a point to tell me that he was with my Associate Editor for dinner the evening before. My first reaction was so what! But then, the purpose behind his statement was not lost. It did remain in my mind that here was an important person who had his contacts where it mattered. Let me add that I did not work for the Hindustan Times. I worked for another paper with its headquarters located in Chennai (Madras then). But then, I knew what it means to deal with a politician who knew my boss so well to have a meal with her!

In a few months from then, I was in Mumbai, once again to report on the National Executive meet of the Samajwadi Party. The party had, by that time, come to power in Uttar Pradesh and its leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was showing signs of emerging into a key player in the nation’s politics as well. I had my contacts in the party and among them was Raghu Thakur, its then general secretary and a socialist by nature and conviction. Mulayam Singh had use for him because he also happened to be a Rajput by caste. Even in the post Mandal political discourse, Mulayam Singh perceived a Yadav-Rajput social alliance as not only necessary but also possible.

But then, Raghu was critical of the manner in which Mulayam Singh was promoting some of the industrialists. Among those who gained from Mulayam’s un-socialist ways was Sanjay Dalmia. Mulayam, as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh had transferred a public Sector cement corporation – Dalla Cements – to Sanjay Dalmis. And that he said was in return to the favours that Sanjay extended to him before the elections. Mulayam was using Sanjay’s small plane to traverse across Uttar Pradesh between 1991, when he formed his own party, and November 1993 when he won the assembly elections.

Mulayam did not want to take Raghu’s socialistic ways too far. And within a couple of days after the Mumbai national executive, Raghu Thakur was expelled from the party. Everyone thought that Sanjay Dalmia would take the place. And so did I. But then, Amar Singh became the Samajwadi Party’s general secretary. None bothered to recall that Singh was in the AICC! Well. Amar Singh seemed to realise then that the Congress was a lost case in Uttar Pradesh. And it made sense for him, with his intimate links with industrial houses as well as sections in the underworld, to team up with a leader who showed promise. Mulayam Singh was flexible too. He was willing to pull all the stops to reach higher levels and Amar Singh was a perfect conduit to that.

It was at that stage that I began looking into Amar Singh’s past. Hailing from a lower-middle class family in Azamgarh, Amar Singh went to study in Calcutta. He did not excel as a student anywhere but that is not important for our concern. He returned home and located himself in Gorakhpur from where he also operated as an aide to Congress politician from the region, Vir Bahadur Singh. This Singh began his political life as PWD Minister in UP in the late seventies and made lots of money making full use of the nexus that such ministers have with civil and road contractors. Vir Bahadur Singh, thus managed to become Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1985; and made more money. Amar Singh remained his aide until he was alive and on Singh’s death, re-located himself to Calcutta.

V.B.Singh’s son, Sant Bux Singh, however, was left a poor man with just the household goods and a few property that were in the dead man’s name. Singh’s ill-gotten wealth was however not to be enjoyed by Sant Bux. A mere coincidence, if that it, Amar Singh commanded a lot of wealth from this time. He soon moved into Delhi, landed up in the Birla establishment as political advisor and the rest is recorded history. And by the time he arrived at Mulayam Singh’s estate (that is a better way to describe the Samajwadi Party), he had his own wealth with which he could bail out Amithabh Bachan, enslist Jaya Bachan into the fold and command Jaya Pradha to join the Samajwadi Party.

Amar Singh was also resourceful to have Anil Dhirubhai Ambani invest in Uttar Pradesh. The Sahara group, with its finger in the media, airlines and many other dubious business shifted its headquarters to Lucknow and Mulayam even allowed Subroto Roy to build his own castle outside the city. It is held, in popular perception, that the Sahara group is also a holder of wealth that actually belongs to a wanted underworld don, now living in Karachi but with huge business interests and investment in Dubai. This don is also known to visit Sharjah to watch day-night cricket matches there. Well. It does it ring a bell that Amar Singh’s announcement that he would no longer carry the burden of running the Samajwadi Party was made from Dubai?

Here are now a few options before Amar Singh.
1. To join the Congress and this could mean that the battle between the Ambani brothers, within and outside the court halls, that is causing a drain of their wealth and helping some others in the corporate world is amicably settled. The fact is that while Anil Ambani is Amar Singh’s man (or is it the other way?). Mukesh Ambani has his own men in the Congress including a very senior member of the Union cabinet. And a settlement is possible in the event Amar Singh joins the Congress and thus bring the two warring brothers to settle their fight, Recall that Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had urged (by way of a public statement) that the brothers stop quarrelling ``in the interest of the nation’’.(The Hindu, August 22, 2009). This will mean that Amar Singh can claim that he left his interests in the Samajwadi Party ``in the interest of the nation’’.

2. To join the BSP, if Mayawati is willing to play ball and ensure that the corporate houses spend a lot of money in building parks with Ambedkar’s statues and Mayawati’s as well. Singh himself can spend some of his ill-gotten wealth in such activities. This will also save Mayawati from being hauled up in the courts for spending public money in her pet projects. And where corporate houses are engaged in this ``social’’ agenda, it will also ensure positive comments from the media. The pink papers will even decide to vest awards for Mayawati in this event!

3. To join the BJP, shift to Gujarat. Amar Singh can also fit into the vacuum created in the BJP due to the untimely death of Pramod Mahajan. Am I reading too much into a news, that appeared in the papers the same day as that of Amar Singh’s decision to unburden himself of the Samajwadi tag, that Amitabh Bachan is now keen on becoming the brand ambassador for Narendra Modi’s Gujarat; and that Modi too has lost not time to enlist video campaigns with Amitabh telling that Gujarat is a great place. Recall the videos that were produced in 2007, with money from the State Government when Mulayam was the Chief Minister and Amar Singh the chairman of the UP State Industrial Development Corporation! This would also mean that Gujarat can gather investment from Amar Singh himself, the underworld don who lives in Karachi and many others!

4. Amar Singh can also talk to such others like Prakash Karat and A.B.Bardhan. I do recall that this man from Azamgarh used to address Karat as his Comrade! He can even fly into Kerala from Dubai and revive the Smart City project and several other investment ideas so that Kerala is turned into another Uttar Pradesh! He can also help Buddhadeb Bhattacharya ``develop'' West Bengal into an industrial hun on the lines of Gujarat!

5. He can also talk with Mamta Banerjee, J.Jayalalitha, M.Karunandidhi, N.Chandrababu Naidu, Bal Thackeray, Raj Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, Chandrasekara Rao, Shibhu Soren or N.D.Tiwari and chart another political path to himself in collaboration with any one of them. He could even emerge as a consensus of a Third Front in the event!

6. Amar Singh can also stick to his overt statement that he would now live his life for himself, his wife and his two daughters; in that event, he can live in one of the villas in Palm Jumeirah in Dubai or even buy himself a flat (if he has not done that yet) in Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building. For all that he has done to our democracy, this man deserves a life in retirement and far away from Azamgarh, where he began.

If only I have the powers to determine what this man should do, I will recommend the last option so that Indian Democracy will be saved from further distortion. It does not mean that someone else like Amar Singh will not arrive and flourish in this system but then, it will be one evil mind less!