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Now for the Final Report

Print edition : Feb 21, 1998 T+T-

Will Justice M.C. Jain's Final Report repeat its earlier pattern of selective indictment?

THE expected release on February 28 of the Final Report of the Justice M.C. Jain Commission of Inquiry has generated considerable interest. Recent developments such as the conviction of Rajiv Gandhi's assassins by the Designated Court of Judge V. Navaneetham and the revived supportive commentary on Justice Jain's enterprise by the Congress (I) provide the context for the Final Report. The Commission's findings are expected to say categorically whether there was in Jain's view a broader conspiracy behind Rajiv Gandhi's assassination than what was discovered by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Although there is very good reason to believe that there was no such conspiracy, Justice Jain's Final Report is expected to provide enough 'needles of suspicion' and cause unseemly frenzy among the camp-followers of the Nehru-Gandhi family within the Congress(I).

Sonia Gandhi's broadside against the Commission's critics in her speech in Amethi on February 1 gives an indication of what is to come. 'The last time I came here,' she said, referring to her previous non-political foray in August 1995, 'I had expressed my agony at the slow pace of the investigation into the assassination. Much has happened since then. The Chennai court has come out with its judgment and punished the killers. But the conspiracy behind the assassination is yet to be unravelled.' She then appealed to the Government to 'unmask those who were behind the killing'. Days earlier, former Union Minister and Nehru-Gandhi family acolyte Arjun Singh had made similar remarks defending the Jain Commission's Interim Report. Neither Arjun Singh nor Sonia Gandhi explained why they believed that a conspiracy other than the plot by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was uncovered by the SIT in an extraordinary, thorough and professional way, existed in the first place.

That it was in Amethi that Sonia Gandhi referred to the Jain Commission for the first time in her campaign reflects, at least partly, the limited credibility the Interim Report enjoys among the people. Some observers believe that she made references to the Commission only when her earlier rhetorical bombast on the Bofors scandal threatened to boomerang on the Congress(I). If the grief of Sonia Gandhi and her family is understandable and the search for a grand conspiracy, therefore, is comprehensible, the show of support from Rajiv Gandhi 'loyalists' is clearly self-serving. Arjun Singh's attack on the Jain Commission's critics is driven by his need to marginalise the remnants of the Narasimha Rao faction in the party. Having made P.V. Narasimha Rao a scapegoat for the demolition of the Babri Masjid, an act for which Rajiv Gandhi cannot escape at least part of the blame, Rajiv Gandhi loyalists have now found in the Jain Commission a platform from which to direct more attacks at the former Prime Minister.

A LOOK at Justice Jain's course of inquiry makes clear why Narasimha Rao's opponents believe that the Final Report might constitute a well-filled feeding trough. In October-November 1995, godman Nemi Chand Jain alias Chandraswami was questioned at length at the Jain Commission's hearing on his career of crime. The questioning was in part the result of disingenuous and over-the-top efforts to link Chandraswami's chicanery to Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. The interrogators sought to show that Chandraswami harboured enmity against Rajiv Gandhi since the former Prime Minister had him arrested in the course of the Bofors investigation. This was of course a half-truth, since Chandraswami subsequently made his peace with Rajiv Gandhi, lending his services to the cause of the St. Kitts forgery that was targeted at former Prime Minister V.P. Singh (Frontline, October 20, 1995). This supposed enmity was the basis of the conspiracy theory that Chandraswami and a sinister cabal of associates, ranging from former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, the Sultan of Brunei and one-time Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and, of course, Narasimha Rao brokered Rajiv Gandhi's killing.

Not surprisingly, nothing resembling a fact ever emerged to substantiate this lurid murder mystery plot. Nor was any sleep lost over the monstrously unjust nature of the suspicions aimed at the alleged cabalists, notably two ex-Prime Ministers and a foreign ruler. Among the witnesses who were given free play of the Jain Commission's public-funded time was a small-time political operator from Punjab, Mahant Sewa Das. The obscure religious figure deposed at length about having been despatched by the Chandra Shekhar Government to mediate with the London-based leadership of the Khalistan insurgency. Khalistan ideologue Jagjit Singh Chauhan, Sewa Das informed the Jain Commission, had told him of a conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi, involving Chandraswami, Khalistan terrorist groups and others. That Chandra Shekhar would have chosen a nondescript figure to negotiate with another irrelevant London-based politician was prima facie absurd, and this renders the conspiracy theory ludicrous. The former Prime Minister's irritation at such theories was evident during his deposition before the Commission, but this did not deter Jain.

That Justice Jain took such theories with at least some seriousness is evident from his Interim Report. 'Evidence placed before the Commission,' paragraph 12.6 of the Interim Report reads, 'also indicates that certain outside powers were also behind stoking the flames of militancy in India and were abetting the hostile terrorist elements in their plans to bring harm to the life of Shri Rajiv Gandhi.' It says further: 'In the reports available, which have been referred to earlier in this chapter, there are clear indications of the hostile attitude of a section of (the) Sri Lankan Government who was [sic.] opposed to the Indo Sri Lankan Accord and the induction of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force). During 1989-1990, there were informations pointing out instances of collusion between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE. Similarly, informations existed of hostile attitudes of a section of Pakistani Government and its security and intelligence agencies towards Shri Rajiv Gandhi.' Concluding the paragraph, Jain promises to elaborate on these theories in his Final Report.

The Interim Report is replete with such findings. It speaks of a threat to Rajiv Gandhi's life from 'a growing nexus between the Sikh extremist organisations abroad and the JKLF (Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) and other organisations of Kashmiri expatriates from the POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) as well as the LTTE.' It even speaks, incredibly, of threats from 'Nepali groups', relying on an unverified Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) note making the monstrously unjust suggestion that Queen Aishwarya of Nepal wished to kill Rajiv Gandhi. Given the Jain Commission's willingness to pursue political witch-hunts on the thinnest of fact, as was evident in the Interim Report's attacks on the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and V.P. Singh (Frontline, December 12, 1997), it takes little to see how conspiracy theories may be deployed against Narasimha Rao and his associates. As the case of the Thakkar Commission of Inquiry that probed Indira Gandhi's assassination illustrated when it maligned Congress(I) leader R.K. Dhawan, unfounded allegations can destroy careers without offering those they target any chance of self-defence.

If Narasimha Rao's career was the sole casualty of Justice Jain's enterprise, that would be bad enough. Yet the Interim Report's progress makes clear the very serious consequences it has had. Apart from being the cause of the fall of a government and a round of elections, Justice Jain nearly derailed the trial of Rajiv Gandhi's assassins when, in 1995, he demanded that the SIT's investigation records be handed over to the Commission. Dogged resistance by SIT chief D.R. Karthikeyan forestalled the prospect of derailing the trial. 'If this court permits the SIT, CBI to produce the investigation records before the Jain Commission, it will amount to grant of stay of the trial of this case by this court itself,' the then Presiding Judge of the Designated Court, S.M. Sidickk, stated. 'This court cannot be a party to such a course of action.' The wisdom of the order is self-evident: a grant of stay of the trial would have entitled the accused to bail until the inquiry was complete.

Copies of the SIT records were eventually made over to the Jain Commission in April 1996, for the perusal of the Commission alone. Karthikeyan was reluctant to discuss the matter with Frontline. 'My fight with the Commission was that it was obstructing the trial,' he said. 'I now have no concern with what the Commission does or does not do... It has had seven years to do its work. It has the power to summon any documents it wishes from any authority in the land. Perhaps it will find some conspiracy which we overlooked. In my humble opinion, however, no such conspiracy existed,' he said.

Yet, Karthikeyan's uncompromising, courageous and at points single-handed battle to keep the trial alive underlines the damage the Jain Commission almost caused. As A.G. Noorani has pointed out, the SIT chief had to struggle to save the proceedings at the Designated Court at Poonamallee, near Chennai, as successive governments and the Supreme Court refused to take on Jain (Frontline, February 20). Sources told Frontline that former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma has personally complimented Karthikeyan for refusing to bow to the Jain Commission's arbitrary demands.

IT is perhaps symptomatic of the progress of the Jain Commission that Rajiv Gandhi loyalists remained silent in the face of the possibility of the trial coming unstuck. Those who believe that the Commission will now be a useful political instrument would, however, do well to pause to think. Justice Jain's Final Report might indeed repeat its earlier selective indictment of V.P. Singh for his handling of Rajiv Gandhi's security, and the DMK for its alleged support to the LTTE. And it might just direct enough innuendo at Narasimha Rao and Chandra Shekhar through the medium of Chandraswami to enable the Congress(I) to settle its internal feuds.

All these observations would be of special use as instruments of leverage if the Congress(I) was to have a place in the next Union Government. At once, however, they would work against the conclusion of the Designated Court's well-founded trial. It would also offer the accused an opportunity to use the Final Report for legal obfuscation when their appeals come up before the Supreme Court.

There is, of course, one more possibility. The Jain Commission could seek to perpetuate its existence by asking for another extension after February 28. If so, it would be the 13th extension of term for the Commission since it was set up in 1991, the last having been granted for a six-month period in August 1997. Sources in the Prime Minister's Office told Frontline that such a request would be refused. However, in the event of a non-BJP coalition government emerging at the Centre, with a leading role for the Congress(I) , how will such a government respond on the Jain Commission issue?

Jain himself appears to be considering the implications of winding up the Commission of Inquiry. Sources told Frontline that he has been considering the option of retaining the official residence allotted to him, along with some perquisites like security and communications facilities. If this is true, it would mark a sad departure from the standards of conduct expected of judicial public servants. Chief Justice Verma, for example, vacated his official residence in less than 24 hours after retirement and shifted to a flat.

Among the thin ranks of Justice Jain's inquisition is Pakistan's Information Minister, Musahid Hussain. 'The Jain Commission,' Hussain said on February 1, 'has exposed India's Machiavellian policies, particularly of sponsoring terrorism in neighbouring Sri Lanka.'' Machiavellian is perhaps an inaccurate description of Rajiv Gandhi's honourable but schizoid policy on Sri Lanka, but the second part of Hussain's comment is irrefutable. In seeking to pin blame on Rajiv Gandhi's political opponents for his assassination, the Commission has only served to focus attention on the tragic Sri Lanka policy he presided over. And if nothing else ,this should be sufficient reason for the 'loyalists' claiming to represent his memory to pause and think over.