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An Encounter With A Judge

By Manoj Mitta

The Indian Express,
June 12, 2003

The inquiry into the Gujarat riots is yet to cover Ahmedabad and
Vadodara, where most of the killings took place. Obviously, this is
no stage for anybody, least of all the head of the inquiry
commission, Justice G.T. Nanavati, to say anything that tends to
prejudge the communal violence. So, what on earth could have made Nanavati, a former Supreme Court judge, make the gratuitous assertion that the evidence recorded so far did not indicate ''any serious lapse'' on the part of the police or administration? How could he be so unmindful of the adverse effect his statement would have had on the victims intending to depose before him on the horrors they suffered in Ahmedabad and Vadodara? Self-inflicted as it is, the damage to the credibility of the inquiry has caused much consternation.

But to me, this premature clean chit to the Gujarat police does not
come as a surprise. Nanavati did something similar not so long ago on more than one occasion with regard to the Delhi police while probing the 1984 massacre of Sikhs. I was personally involved in one instance as he called me about two years ago to appear before his Commission in connection with a story I did then on the 1984 carnage. The article shed new light on a gallantry medal given by the Rajiv Gandhi government to a high-profile police officer, Amod Kanth, for recovering ''deadly weapons'' and arresting ''indiscriminate shooters'' from a house at Paharganj in central Delhi. The shooters referred to in the citation were in fact a Sikh family which fired at a mob attacking its house. But the police, which intervened in the shootout, booked all the family members, including women, on the
charge of murder as a member of the mob and a soldier were killed along with the head of the family. Knocking the bottom out of Kanth's gallantry medal, my story revealed that the entire family has since been exonerated by the court as a forensic study established that none of the bullets recovered from the bodies of the rioter and soldier matched the weapons recovered from the family. The Carnage Justice Committee (CJC), appearing for victims, requested the Commission to recommend that Kanth be immediately stripped of his medal. Declining to give any interim report to the government, Nanavati said he would deal with the CJC's application only at the end of the proceedings.

When I appeared before the Commission, Nanavati did not fault any of the facts contained in the report. All he did was to take umbrage at the headline which described Kanth's gallantry medal as a ''badge of shame''. I said the matter was indeed shameful because if any police officer was rewarded in that context, one would expect it to be for acting against mobs that attacked Sikhs. Instead, Kanth was rewarded for rounding up a Sikh family which was so clearly acting in self defence from its own home. But Nanavati showed no sign of appreciating that incongruity.

Worse, he continued to quibble about the ''badge of shame'' headline in that hearing even after Kanth inadvertently disclosed a serious illegality committed by his men right inside the Commission. While making all sorts of allegations against me, Kanth accused me of doing the story on the basis of a ''non-existent'' affidavit. It turned out that an affidavit filed by one of the affected family members, Trilok Singh, was no more on the records of the Commission. That was totally contrary to the law because no document can be physically taken out of the Commission's records for any reason whatsoever without
Nanavati's orders. Much to his discredit, Nanavati desisted from
uncovering the complicity of his staff with the efforts to shield

Nanavati's reluctance to hold the police to account was even more evident on another occasion while he was dealing with a Delhi colony called Trilokpuri, which saw the massacre of over 300 Sikhs. Having recorded the highest concentration of killings in a single locality, Trilokpuri was the 1984 equivalent of Naroda Patia in Ahmedabad, where about 80 Muslims were killed last year. The CJC alleged that the police contributed to the massacre in Trilokpuri by seizing all arms from Sikhs and making them all the more vulnerable to attacks. Nanavati answered that he did not find anything wrong with the seizure of arms from Sikhs as a pre-emptive measure. The CJC pointed out that it would have been alright if the police had by the same token disarmed Hindus as well. A combative Nanavati challenged the CJC to give evidence revealing that Hindus also had arms.

Each of these instances shows that Nanavati has a certain mindset which makes him give the benefit of the doubt to the police in the face of all indications to the contrary. More importantly, Nanavati shares this mindset with a lot of others in judicial circles. He perhaps imbibed this attitude as he worked for several years as a government lawyer in Ahmedabad. Regrettably, a majority of the judges are recruited from among government lawyers. The bias is in-built. Nanavati is a typical product of the system. And that is why he does not even seem conscious of the bias he displays.