THEMES

The wrong arm of the law
March 1, 2011
The wrong arm of the law
The statewide targeting of Christians in BJP-ruled Karnataka in 2008

Hindutva’s evil genius


The sangh parivar is not just a sick organisation suffering from a blind and incurable hatred of Muslims and Christians. It is far worse than that. There is a method in the murder and mayhem that it promotes and perpetrates, which clearly points to an evil genius at work. Forget the average Indian, most secular activists outside Karnataka will probably remember the year 2008 in India’s communal calendar as the one in which the Bajrang Dal and other outfits of the sangh parivar chose to hound Adivasi Christians in Orissa’s Kandhamal district. They will most likely only recall that Christians were also targeted in BJP-ruled Karnataka as a subtext of the Orissa story. Advantage Hindutva.

For this very reason, the report of an independent inquiry into the violence against Christians, churches and prayer halls in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Bangalore in 2008 must be compulsory reading for every Indian concerned about the continuing threats to national unity and communal amity. The inquiry was conducted by Justice Michael F. Saldanha (a retired judge of the Karnataka high court) at the instance of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), South Kanara, and Transparency International India, Karnataka chapter, and its report was released in February.

In the October 2008 issue of Communalism Combat we had recorded how, as always and everywhere else, in Karnataka too, meticulous planning and build-up was an essential ingredient, a prelude to the outburst of manipulated rage. From July 2007 onwards a malicious campaign was launched, charging Christians with forcible conversions. It was a hate campaign in which everyone – the media, the police and the administration – cooperated through various acts of commission and omission. The CC issue had also published a ‘Calendar of horrors’ detailing incidents of violence month after month.

Fast-forward to the Justice Saldanha report. The first thing that strikes you is that, as in the case of Gujarat 2002 under the BJP’s Narendra Modi, here is yet another example of Hindutva on the rampage, sponsored by a state administration under their control. If there is a striking similarity at one level, there is a big difference at another level: active proof of the evil genius’s capacity to innovate. The genocidal killings in Gujarat had evoked far too much national and international outrage. Besides, unlike in 2002 when the BJP-led National Democratic(!) Alliance was in power, in 2007-2008 it was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance which ruled at the centre. So a repeat of 2002 would not do; the same agenda had to be differently executed.

Bear this in mind when you read Justice Saldanha’s report which for reasons of space we only reproduce excerpts of in this issue:

“The attacks that took place on September 14, 2008 were well planned, premeditated and executed with precision, as I found out to my distress when I conducted this inquiry. What was very significant was the fact that wherever this took place, the police protection was zero vis-ŕ-vis the victims though they were providing leadership and cover to the attackers, shocking as it may appear; but in the immediate aftermath, it was the police who were the main assailants, aided and abetted by the saffron political activists…

“Then comes the nicest part of the operation. The home department had instructed the police to get hold of the local shopkeepers and workmen to immediately restore all the damage that had taken place… The speed at which this counter-operation was undertaken was absolutely amazing. To my mind, this was a brilliant move on the part of the state government because on the one hand, the congregation was beaten up, they were terrorised and in every single instance, items such as mangalsutras, gold chains and other valuables, including ladies’ handbags, watches and men’s purses, were physically looted, the place was vandalised, and after all of this, a pious impression was projected by the police on behalf of the government that the authorities were very concerned over the incident and had decided to make good all the damage. By following such a brilliant procedure the government was able to officially state that not a single incident of this type had taken place and that the allegations with regard to these incidents are not only false but are motivated.”

Isn’t that smart? The crime never took place because the evidence does not exist. The evidence does not exist because it was wilfully destroyed by the government’s law and order machinery. And if this were not shocking enough, we have the subsequent conduct of the BJP government which, after appointing the Justice BK Somasekhara Commission of Inquiry to probe the attacks, bulldozed it into giving not only the BJP government and party but also its various organisational affiliates a clean chit.

In the Gujarat context too, there is a desperate attempt to somehow get Modi a “clean chit” while simultaneously maligning the secretary, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and co-editor, Communalism Combat, Teesta Setalvad. We applaud Tehelka magazine for scooping the report of the Special Investigation Team to establish that reports planted in the media about the SIT’s clean chit to Modi are a lie. And several human rights defenders have issued statements condemning the Modi government’s attempts to embroil Teesta Setalvad in false charges.

– EDITORS
The wrong arm of the law

 
The statewide targeting of Christians in BJP-ruled Karnataka in 2008, even as Adivasi Christians in Orissa’s Kandhamal district were being hounded under a coalition government of which the BJP was a partner, caused a huge national and internal outrage. In response, the Karnataka government appointed the Justice BK Somasekhara Commission to probe the widespread violence. An interim report of the commission, made public last year, suggested that the final report would be a severe indictment of various organisations owing allegiance to Hindutva. The final report submitted by the commission is yet to be tabled in the Karnataka assembly. But parts of the final report which have been made public suggest a shameful turnaround whereby the sangh parivar’s affiliate organisations have been given a clean chit. Meanwhile, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), South Kanara, and Transparency International India, Karnataka chapter, have released the findings of an independent inquiry into the violence against Christians, churches and prayer halls in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Bangalore in 2008. The report of this inquiry conducted by Justice Michael F. Saldanha, a retired judge of the Karnataka high court, brings to light the full horror of the violence unleashed against Christians by Hindutva forces with the full complicity of the police.

 

We reproduce below excerpts from the Report of the People’s Tribunal Inquiry followed by a critical evaluation of the conduct of the Somasekhara Commission.
 

The attacks that took place  on September 14, 2008  were well planned, premeditated and executed with precision, as I found out to my distress when I conducted this inquiry. What was very significant was the fact that wherever this took place, the police protection was zero vis-ŕ-vis the victims though they were providing leadership and cover to the attackers, shocking as it may appear; but in the immediate aftermath, it was the police who were the main assailants, aided and abetted by the saffron political activists. Again, there was absolutely no doubt about the origin of the violence because Mahendra Kumar, the local president of the Bajrang Dal wherever the attacks took place, has appeared repeatedly before the media (on 37 recorded occasions), claiming full responsibility for what was done and even promising to step up the violence. The same position holds good as far as Pramod Mutalik, head of the Rama Sene, goes. …

Shortly after the attacks, the local RSS chief in his public exhortation before Dussehra incited his followers by stating that “this Dussehra when the Ayudha Puja is done, do not do the puja of your implements of trade, as was the old custom, but do the puja to trishuls, knives and talwars (swords), as these will have to be used against the Christians and the Muslims. This sensational speech was carried on the front pages of all the dailies in the state and by the TV channels…

Immediately after September 14, 2008, oral instructions had been issued by the home minister personally, which the heads of the police stations admitted on over a dozen occasions to me, that whenever a complaint was received against any member of the Christian community on the allegation that attempts were being made to convert, the person should be arrested, bail should be opposed and that they should be given a good beating while in custody. Whereas prior to September 14, 2008, there had not been a single arrest under these provisions of law anywhere in the state, suddenly, hundreds of cases were being registered. The shocking part of the incidents were that the local courts refused bail for months in every case. …

During the months of September to December 2008, and to a large extent in the months that followed, the BJP government in Karnataka had given the Bajrang Dal a free hand to run wild, particularly in the Karavali area. Groups of young activists would be driving two-wheelers, jeeps and cars prominently flying saffron flags as an intimidatory gesture to all other communities. This had never happened before. These persons would indulge in violence at the slightest pretext, most of the time without any cause. The police stations and the hospitals had been instructed by the home department not to entertain and register any complaints from the victims and within a few weeks it was clear all over the state, particularly the Karavali area, that it was useless approaching any of these forums. What distresses me particularly is the fact that this infection had spread both to the Bar and to the subordinate judiciary in the whole of the area. A good percentage of the lawyers openly proclaimed allegiance to the BJP. …

There were no less than over a hundred incidents within a short period of time where boys and girls belonging to the Muslim and Christian communities were mercilessly beaten up, kidnapped, abducted and terrorised on the ground that they were associating with members of another community. There were as many as 218 such incidents reported from all over the state, the bulk of them from the Dakshina Kannada district. In not even one of these cases was anybody arrested. Anticipatory bail was freely available and in the small number of instances where some limited action was taken by the police, principally under public pressure, the subordinate judiciary was quick to grant bail within minutes with the police and prosecutors actively cooperating. (Foreword)

Wherever the attacks took place, police protection was zero vis-à-vis the victims although they were providing leadership and cover to the attackers, shocking as it may appear. In the immediate aftermath, it was the police who were the main assailants, aided and abetted by the saffron political activists

Destruction of evidence

Then comes the nicest part of the operation. The home department had instructed the police to get hold of the local shopkeepers and workmen to immediately restore all the damage that had taken place. Broken glass was replaced, damage to all other items was undone and the pastors were told that the government has instructed the police to ensure that whatever damage has taken place is immediately undone. The speed at which this counter-operation was undertaken was absolutely amazing. To my mind, this was a brilliant move on the part of the state government because on the one hand, the congregation was beaten up, they were terrorised and in every single instance, items such as mangalsutras, gold chains and other valuables, including ladies’ handbags, watches and men’s purses, were physically looted, the place was vandalised, and after all of this, a pious impression was projected by the police on behalf of the government that the authorities were very concerned over the incident and had decided to make good all the damage. By following such a brilliant procedure the government was able to officially state that not a single incident of this type had taken place and that the allegations with regard to these incidents are not only false but are motivated. (Chapter XVI, The Sathyadarshini Controversy)

 

False propaganda

In justification for the attacks against the community and the places of worship, the saffron brigade, and particularly the Bajrang Dal leaders, officially proclaimed that the Christian community has been circulating a publication entitled Sathyadarshini and that this publication contains highly offensive references to Hinduism, to Hindu deities, and that the statements are so very bad that they are in fact obscene in many instances. Not only did the leaders proclaim this in writing, and issued numerous press statements, but for a period of about two months they referred to this extensively on the electronic media and the TV statements put out the argument that since the Christian community had attacked Hinduism and Hindu beliefs, counter-attacks were necessary. In as many as 19 instances in different parts of the state where the activists vandalised churches and prayer halls belonging to denominations other than the Catholics, the strange part of it was that copies of this publication were alleged to have been in circulation but were never seized. …

In the two open meetings that were held with the chief minister and the home minister where several of their cabinet colleagues were present I had asked that since the issue was so very serious, the government should be in a position to produce at least one copy of this publication so that we could ascertain for ourselves as to what were the contents. The director-general of police (DGP) and the commissioner of police (CP), Bangalore, as also the superintendents of police (SPs) of Mangalore, Udupi, Chikmagalur and Davangere, were present. None of them was in a position to produce the material… As a face-saving device, the SPs in question stated that the police had raided all the churches and prayer halls as also other areas and searched them very meticulously but they could not find a single copy with anybody. (Chapter XVI, The Sathyadarshini Controversy)

 

Silencing the media

Only that section of the press and TV who were supportive were liberally fed with funds running into hundreds of crores of rupees by the state government through all sorts of dubious heads. For instance, 17 huge functions were held in honour of Swami Vivekananda all over the state and Rs 870 crore were spent by the state government in just seven weeks. The twofold objective of these activities was aimed at terrorising the local population because those attending would invariably indulge in a show of force on the way to these venues and on the way back. What was characteristic was the fact that apart from the leading politicians of the state government at all levels attending these functions, hundreds of KSRTC (Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation) buses and government vehicles were all mobilised for them… The Times of India, which is basically a neutral paper, published a news report on August 31, 2008 to the effect that in response to a query under the Right to Information Act, the chief secretary of the state government had admitted that in the preceding period, which covered just five months, the state government had spent Rs 3,118 crore on these activities. This was apart from an amount of Rs 289 crore which the chief minister had personally (again out of state funds) donated to various maths and Hindu religious places which he had visited. (Chapter XVII, The Editor, Seetaram Case – Attacks on the Media)

 

Throttling a free press

There is a small publication in the Karavali area which is a daily paper in the Kannada language and it is extremely popular in the whole of this belt. The name of this paper is Karavali Ale. The editor of this paper is BV Seetaram. He also brings out an English edition called The Canara Times which is published once a week. Seetaram, popularly known as BVSee, not only carried regular reports and pictures of the communal atrocities but he also wrote strong editorials disapproving of the atrocities and condemning them. He and his entire team received numerous threats over the telephone and were even subjected to physical violence from time to time with absolutely no relief from the police. His office was regularly stoned and vandalised and despite whatever security measures he could afford, damage to property became a regular affair. Instead of being intimidated, BVSee kept up the campaign.

One Sunday morning a Jain sadhu took out a procession through one of the main roads of Mangalore city. The sadhu was nude, as that was his religious custom, and he was leading the procession with a group of his followers. This incident created a controversy in the area because it was a predominantly Christian part of town and the procession went through the area at the same time when the majority of the residents were making their way to the church for the Sunday mass. There were no confrontations… One of the readers wrote a strong letter to the editor in which he stated that obscenity is an offence under the Indian Penal Code and that even if it is done on religious grounds, if the offence is committed in a public place, it is actionable under law because it is highly offensive to the general public.

During the months of September to December 2008, and to a large extent in the months that followed, the BJP government in Karnataka had given the Bajrang Dal a free hand to run wild, particularly in the Karavali area

It so happened that BVSee published this letter. The government and the authorities were just waiting for an opportunity to hit back at him. He and his wife were arrested under half a dozen charges of inciting communal disharmony, etc and two criminal cases were registered against them, one in Mangalore and the second one in the chief minister’s home town of Shimoga. His wife had nothing to do with the publication; she was only a director of the company. BVSee had nothing [directly] to do with the publication of the letter, which was done in routine course by the news editor and the staff. The two of them were arrested by the police late in the evening on a weekend. When they asked for bail, it was refused… The two of them were put in the filthiest possible lock-up which was virtually stinking and infested with rats and every other form of vermin. They had the most notorious antisocial elements for company and the police refused to even allow them clothes or home food on the ground that they had instructions from the highest quarters in Bangalore i.e. the home minister himself not to allow this. …

BVSee’s lawyers applied to the high court, pointing out the conduct of the police and the magistrate. Not only did the high court straightaway order the release of both of them on bail but passed severe strictures against the police for registering an office which was supposed to be on the basis of the letter that had appeared in the paper regarding the naked procession of the Jain muni. The refusal to grant bail by the magistrate at his residence was held to be downright improper and motivated and the manner in which the bail application was deliberately delayed and dilated came in for condemnation from the high court. The high court even directed that a disciplinary inquiry be held against the judicial officer for the biased manner in which he had conducted himself. Nothing happened. …

This incident had a chilling effect on other publications, all of whom decided that it was too dangerous to invite similar steps against themselves. It must be said to the credit of BVSee that despite threats, regular attacks at his office and attacks on his editorial staff, they continued their campaign and, not surprisingly, this was highly appreciated by the readers and the popularity of the paper increased by about 10 times. The church attack incidents had swung public opinion heavily against the state government all over the country and all over the world and this was the reason why the police and the state government did not openly attack Seetaram for some time. It was however clear that they were looking for an opportunity.

All of a sudden, attacks were started against the distribution channels. The bundles of the newspaper were targeted in the course of distribution, forcibly seized and burnt. More than a hundred complaints were filed with the police, even pointing out the names of the persons doing this, but they refused to act. It became exceedingly difficult for the paper to be distributed to the cities, towns and villages because it was being targeted at the distribution points. The more effective tactic that was used was that every newspaper seller was attacked and beaten up if he so much as kept even one copy of this paper. This was being done on a daily basis. …

[O]n a Sunday evening… BVSee and his wife had decided to visit a temple some distance outside the city. A jeep and two police vans turned up at his residence where his student daughter was alone. They forced their way into the house on the ground that they had to search the place. Extensive damage was caused, a lot of valuables and cash disappeared from the place and the police party left. They had obtained information as to where BVSee was going and all of a sudden, at a lonely place in the dark, the police jeep overtook his car and stopped it. The police officers told BVSee that he was under arrest but refused to disclose the charges. His driver was ordered to follow the police jeep with the two vans behind the car. For the next hour this convoy proceeded from area to area in the hope of finding a sufficiently lonely place. Despite attempts for over an hour… they found it extremely difficult to find the secluded spot that they were looking for. BVSee and his wife were terrified principally because the district police have become infamous for the number of so-called “encounter killings” that they have been involved in. …

When the attempts to assassinate BVSee and his wife failed, they were driven to the police station in Udupi. They were made to sit there for about two hours and the police refused to disclose the ground on which they were being arrested. Udupi, incidentally, is the home base of the state home minister. The operations were being directed by Home Minister Acharya’s doctor son. Finally, at about 10:00 p.m., the police informed BVSee that there was a non-bailable warrant issued against him by one of the courts and that he was under arrest pursuant to this. …

[The] magistrate refused bail and BVSee was retained in custody for the night. …

The next morning, in order to humiliate him, BVSee was chained hand and foot and was paraded through the court premises in Udupi. There are photographs of this in the national and international media. His lawyer raised a serious objection to a newspaper editor being chained as though he was a dangerous criminal. …

The horror story does not end there… A habeas corpus petition was filed before the high court and the court immediately intervened and stopped the atrocities of the state government. This petition was heard a few days later. The judges were virtually livid; they directed his immediate release and ordered compensatory costs of Rs 10,000. …

The world needs to know what happened to Seetaram because it is one of the blackest chapters in Karnataka’s judicial history and one of the most shameful in the annals of journalism. The home minister, Acharya’s sons have a website that drips with fundamentalist venom. The man who wrote one of the most vicious articles against the Christian community has recently been awarded a PhD by the Karnataka University on the recommendation of the state education minister. The editor of the paper, Vijaya Karnataka, who published this and dozens of similar articles and editorials, was also recommended for a PhD by the same politician .When the matter was brought to the notice of the governor and the university was asked how such a man could qualify for an honorary doctorate, the guilty vice-chancellor and his team removed the award from the convocation agenda on the eve of the convocation. Despite two FIRs (first information reports) against these two individuals for inciting communal disharmony, the Mangalore police openly admit that they were directed by Acharya himself not to proceed and to close the cases. Another newspaper in the city of Mangalore has been regularly targeting the Muslim community by publishing the most offensive articles and the state government is protecting this editor despite prosecuting others who did so and caused communal riots and curfew over the last few weeks. If this is not a total butchery of the principles of secularism, nothing else is. (Chapter XVII, The Editor, Seetaram Case – Attacks on the Media)

(The ‘Report of the People’s Tribunal Inquiry: State Terrorism – Tyranny (A Report on the Attacks on Minorities and their Places of Worship in Karnataka)’ by Justice Michael F. Saldanha, published by People’s Union for Civil Liberties, South Kanara and Transparency International India, Karnataka chapter, was released in February 2011.)

Crimes by men in uniform
Karnataka’s policemen: Lawbreakers on the rampage


Image for representation purpose only

Allegations of police excesses and partisan behaviour  have gone unacknowledged with the official report of the Justice BK Somashekara Commission apparently not recommending any stringent action. Eyewitness accounts of the conduct of three officers from Dakshina Kannada, Sathish Kumar, SP, Dakshina Kannada; Jayanth Shetty, DSP, Mangalore (rural); and MK Ganapathy, inspector, Mangalore (east), reveal disturbing aspects of police misbehaviour.


Immediately after the attacks on churches and prayer halls, on September 24-25 2008, the PUCL, Transparency International India and other human rights groups had called for disciplinary action against these officers as well as the commissioner of police, Bangalore. On September 25, 2008 a report in The Times of India, Bangalore, described how Inspector Ganapathy, who claimed that he was acting on instructions from the higher echelons of the force, had begun demanding land records, corporation licenses, etc from churches and prayer halls. The inspector-general of police (western range), Ashit Mohan Prasad, denied that any such instructions had been issued and was quoted by the newspaper as saying that this was probably being done by local officials at the behest of local, vested interests.

Instead of protecting the lives of persons belonging to the minority communities that were being targeted, the police have been found to have promulgated motivated orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (power to issue order in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger), facilitated the transportation of stones for stone-throwing on victims and employed the indiscriminate use of tear-gas shells. In almost all the cases of attacks on churches and prayer halls, the police had violated the basic rules of police service by obliterating all traces of the attacks and thus destroying the evidence (Chapter II, Promulgation of Order under Section 144 CrPC, Justice Saldanha Report). Subsequently, over 200 false cases were registered against innocent members of the Christian and Muslim communities.

“It is true that, mercifully, nobody died in these incidents. The record however indicates that over 418 persons sustained fractures, that as many as 198 persons sustained head injuries and that over 1,000 persons sustained painful injuries to different parts of their bodies, some of them extremely painful. More importantly, it was these stones that were used to start every one of the incidents and it is in this background that I record the clear finding that these stones, which come under the category of dangerous implements or weapons, had been procured and used by the state machinery in collusion with communal elements… This can neither be defended, condoned or justified and can only be condemned. I do not share the view that merely because the individuals concerned and responsible for these atrocious criminal acts cannot be singled out, the liability which devolves on the state is in any way diluted” (Chapter III, The mystery of the Lethal Rock Pebbles, Justice Saldanha Report).

“The police violence committed inside the primary school at Kulshekar is unpardonable and unprecedented and does not seem to have occurred anywhere else in the world; where police officers and the police in partnership with the other assailants stormed a primary school with 607 young children and a staff of over 35 women teachers and nuns and resorted to unmitigated violence on them was savage, barbaric and unpardonable” (Chapter XIX, Summary of Findings and Conclusions, Justice Saldanha Report).

“The police storming the church at Pemannur, obstructing and stopping the mass and assaulting the celebrant priest and then standing on top of the altar and directing the assault of the congregation followed by total vandalisation of the entire church and the theft of all the holy objects by the SP, apart from being downright criminal, are absolutely reprehensible. The further use of outdated tear-gas shells containing toxic gas inside the church… can only be defined as an attempt to murder. The same applies to the assault by the police on the congregation after they were brought out of the church with their hands above their heads, all of whom were heavily bleeding and were already injured, and the savage attack that followed was downright criminal and inhuman” (Chapter XIX, Summary of Findings and Conclusions, Justice Saldanha Report)

Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2011 Year 17    No.155, Cover Story

Media as collaborators


The dubious role of the fourth estate

 

The Kannada daily, Vijaya Karnataka, through its editor, Vishweshwar Bhat, has repeatedly published extremely inflammatory editorials and articles targeting the Christian community. The newspaper was rewarded by the Karnataka government with promotional advertisements worth over Rs 100 crore between 2008 and 2010. During that time the government’s financial position was so precarious that government employees, particularly in the rural areas, had not received their salaries for months together and many of them were driven to suicide. Yet the government appears to have had enough money to publish full-page colour advertisements of the chief minister and his colleagues every day. 

In December 2008 Vijaya Karnataka published a particularly offensive article that resulted in countrywide protests by right-thinking citizens belonging to all communities. Referring to this article in an open letter addressed to the Karnataka chief minister, BS Yeddyurappa, in March 2010, Justice Saldanha says:

“I have seen the article which is one of the most vicious, offensive and venomous pieces of writing directed against the Christian community and is sufficient to invoke the maximum jail sentence against the writer, (SL) Bhyrappa, the editor, Vishweshwar Bhat, the printer and the publishers. This was published at a point of time when the police all over the state and particularly in the Karavali area were indiscriminately registering false cases against members of the minority community and against any secular publication that disapproved of religious and human rights atrocities. This misuse of power has invoked strictures from the high court and orders for exemplary damages. 

“In sharp contrast, when the head of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) filed FIR No. 0343 at the Mangalore South police station on December 27, 2008, the police refused to take cognisance on the grounds that they required to get clearance from your most trusted colleague, Dr VS Acharya, the home minister of the state… 

“Similarly, in respect of this very article and this very newspaper, another FIR No. 0002 was filed at the Bangalore North police station by an aggrieved member of the community on January 2, 2009 and again, under the home minister’s directions, no action has been taken. At the same time, this very home minister directed the police to register nine false FIRs against the editor of Karavali Ale in different police stations spread over Mangalore and Udupi on absolutely false, imaginary and unsustainable allegations that he is inciting communal disharmony merely because that publication disapproved of the government-inspired violence against members of the Christian community.”

Incidentally, Communalism Combat’s cover story, ‘Bloody Harvest’, in September 2006, on the growing communalisation in Karnataka, included an article entitled ‘Hindutva’s vital organs’ by Gauri Lankesh who detailed the criminal and inflammatory role played by the same publication, Vijaya Karnataka, around that time.

Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2011 Year 17    No.155, Cover Story

Fallen by the wayside

 Karnataka 2008: The interior of a vandalised church in Mangalore
 
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.

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

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”.


The commission’s conclusions 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


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.


Archived from Communalism Combat,  March 2011 Year 17    No.155, Cover Story