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PERISCOPE
Commissions and omissions
By Saeed Suhrawardy

The NDA Government, rocked by the Tehelka expose, appointed former Supreme Court Judge, Justice K. Venkataswami, as head of the commission of inquiry to go into allegations of bribery in defence deals as revealed by Tehelka videotapes.

However, the decision neither instills hope nor inspires faith in the integrity of the government. It is a common perception that such judicial inquiries are instrumental in delaying justice with the aim of finally denying that. That is a move for diverting public attention from the issues in focus. The time gained is utilized for concealing what should be revealed. Even the facts revealed in the inquiry seldom lead to follow up or conviction. Srikrishna Commission’s report lies in cold storage.

Wadhwa Commission was appointed to inquire into the burning alive of the Australian missionary, Graham Staines and his two sons, Philip and Timothy, aged six and nine respectively. The crime was committed in January 1999, in a remote village, Manoharpur in Keonjhar District in Orissa. According to the terms of reference of the Commission, headed by Mr. Justice D.P. Wadhwa, a sitting judge of the Supreme Court of India had to inquire into two matters: - (1) the facts and circumstances related to the killing and (2) the role, if any, played by any authority, organization or individual in connection with the murder.

The Commission skipped over the fact that Dara Singh and his accomplices committed the worst conceivable crime. Justice Wadhwa concluded that the main person who organized the attack was Rabindra Kumar alias Dara Singh. His motive in committing the crime was misplaced fundamentalism, which ignited his perception that missionaries were threatening Hinduism. His perception, whatever it might have been, does not change the character of the crime. It was pre-meditated murder. Does reference to religion sanctify murder?

The National Minorities Commission, the first to inquire into the Staines’ murder, highlighted Dara Singh’s linkage with Bajrang Dal. However, Wadhwa Commission did not give credence to the Report.

Staines and his two sons were fast asleep when they were burnt alive. They were not conducting a meeting. They were not exhorting the people to embrace Christianity. It was a murder without provocation. Does fundamentalism, rightly placed or misplaced, empower a person or group of persons to murder a person or group of persons to commit murder in such a brutal manner?

Graham Stewart Staines’ contact with India began when he became a pen friend of Santanu Satpathy. They shared a common birthday. In fact, it was on Satpathy’s invitation that Staines first visited Baripada in Orissa in 1965. Earlier another Australian, Ms Gilbert founded the Evangelical Missionary Society at Mayurbhanj in1896. The Leprosy Home would not have materialized but for the munificence of Maharaja Shriram Chandra Bhanja, who donated 4.5 acres of land for the project. Very soon the Home became a heaven for leprosy patients. The encounter of Staines with inmates of the Leprosy Home had a profound influence on him. He decided to devote the rest of his life to serving the poor in that backward region of India. Staines was not alone in his work. He had in his wife Gladys Staines a loving companion and an able associate.

Christian missionaries do not work in a clandestine manner like RSS workers. Their churches, schools hospitals are there to be seen. Even their dress reveals them. There is nothing secret about the purpose for which they are there. There is no law banning missionary activity including conversion. Justice Wadhwa conceded Staines’ involvement with Leprosy House, but an accusing finger was pointed at Staines' missionary activities, which were combined with his work for Leprosy Home.

Wadhwa Commission took note of the state administration’s role that remained a passive witness to Dara Singh’s rise to criminal notoriety, in Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar districts of Orissa. Implicated in 11 serious criminal cases, Dara Singh remained free to perpetrate more and more heinous crimes, enjoying at times even the goodwill of police.

Communally slanted political patronage is the key to such immunity. Significantly, Dara Singh was frequently arrested and released till the end of 1997. Later the police dared not lay hands on him. Even after Manoharpur outrage, he moved around freely and was available for TV interview. But he remained invisible and inaccessible to the police.

The mala fide intentions of the government were clear from the very beginning. Though it chose a senior sitting judge of the Supreme Court to head the Commission after international condemnation of the triple murder, but took a long time in providing essential facilities for the Judge. Besides narrowing the scope of judicial inquiry, subsequently the Centre sat over the report. Only excerpts were selectively released to the media. The intention was to gain maximum political mileage. Dara Singh was eventually apprehended. Wadhwa Commission did not help in securing conviction for a heinous crime. Can we expect anything different from Justice K. Venkataswami?
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