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The Hindu
The Hindu
Naresh Gupta

‘Commissions’ and omissions: of futile, long-winded investigations

The Tamil Nadu government set up on September 25, 2017 an inquiry commission headed by a retired High Court judge, Justice A. Arumugasamy, to investigate the death of former State Chief Minister Jayalalalithaa on December 5, 2016 after 75 days of treatment at Apollo Hospitals in Chennai. She was admitted to the hospital for fever and dehydration on September 22, 2016. After the prolonged hospitalisation, she died following a cardiac arrest.

Doubts had been raised by various political parties and leaders of both the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam over the events leading to her hospitalisation and her death. Apollo Hospitals arranged a media conference in February 2017, seeking to put to rest any such apprehensions.

In a plea to the Supreme Court, the hospital sought the disbanding of the inquiry commission, arguing that the “proceedings reeked of bias” and were a “violation of the principles of natural justice”. A seven-member Medical Board constituted by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) on the directions of the Supreme Court concluded in its report dated August 4, 2022 that she was provided “correct medical treatment” by Apollo Hospitals and no errors were found in the care provided to her.

The commission submitted its report on August 27, 2022 to the State government taking nearly five years. It is said to contain the statements of 158 people, including the doctors of the hospitals who treated Jayalalithaa. The report has recommended action against V.K. Sasikala, the then Health Minister, C. Vijayabaskar, and the then Chief Secretary, P. Rama Mohana Rao and others. This will necessitate another round of inquiry and investigation and result in legal proceedings which may be resorted to by these persons, impugning the further inquiry. A question arises why the panel, after five years and huge expenses, by the State government could not give some finding on their complicity or otherwise.

No enforceable orders

To meet the public demand for impartial and judicial inquiries, the government thought to come out with comprehensive legislation, which resulted in the passage of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952. Since its enactment, inquiry commissions have been constituted to take care of the public anger and divert their attention.

Since Independence, more than 100 such commissions have been set up under retired judges, but only a few have served the purpose. The provisions enshrined in this Act are not of a deterrent nature. Section 4 of the Act provides for powers and it is clear that the commission cannot pass enforceable verdicts or judgments

The Justice M.S. Liberhan Commission, which was constituted on December 16, 1992 to investigate the demolition of the Babri Masjid, submitted its voluminous report after 17 years. It was asked to give its report within three months. There is a long list of such commissions which have inordinately delayed their reports. Many of them have taken decades in conducting inquiries and even then, the reports which were submitted were so voluminous that another committee was required to find out ways to implement the recommendations.

For example, as many as 10 commissions or committees were set up with regard to the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Similarly, the Justice B.N. Kripal Commission of Inquiry was set up on July 13, 1985 to investigate the bombing of Air India Flight 182 Boeing 747 on June 23, 1985, which led to the crash of this aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean leaving 329 dead.

The commission submitted its report after extensive tours of countries such as Canada and the U.S., but when the prosecution began, nothing could be proved and no one could be punished. The entire “investigation and inquiry” went in vain. It is needless again to calculate the amount which was spent on such inquiries. After almost every police firing or so called fake encounters, the government sets up commissions of inquiry which tends to defer the problem for some years.

The effectiveness of the commissions, or the Commission of Inquiry Act, was looked into by a two-judge commission constituted in 1987. It gave its observations, and said the Act was “ineffective and toothless”. Public perception is that setting up of a commission does not serve much purpose. On the other hand, considerable expenditure is incurred, which is eventually the tax-payers’ money. Quite often, the commissions are set up for political purpose or interest.

(The author is a former Central Administrative Tribunal Member)

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