Artists of ambiguity

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Demolition men A file photo of the razing of the Babri masjid
Demolition men A file photo of the razing of the Babri masjid
Photo: AFP
Prem Shankar Jha
Prem Shankar Jha

JUSTICE LIBERHAN has taken 17 long years to complete his report. In those nearly two decades, the Indian political landscape changed almost beyond recognition. Between 1998 and 2004, under Vajpayee and Advani’s stewardship, the BJP moved away from its vision of a Hindu India towards a pluralistic one and gave India, by and large, a good government. Mr Vajpayee personally led the effort to make a lasting improvement in India-Pakistan relations and took the crucial step of holding free and fair elections in Kashmir. Not only did his government turn India into a nuclear power, it handled the political and economic fallout so skilfully that India scarcely felt the pinch. Finally, it was his government that brought down interest rates to less than half their levels between 2000 and 2002 and kick-started the prolonged economic boom of which Indians are so proud today. Dr Manmohan Singh’s government, therefore, inherited a state with solid political and economic foundations and was able to build upon them.

Success has changed what the Indian people expect of their leaders. A growing demand for effective government is taming the dreaded anti-incumbency factor and bringing a new accountability to state politics. It has led to a massive turning away from the politics of discord. The BJP could have justifiably claimed a large part of the credit for the change, but it did not see the change continuing. For five years, it dithered over whether to persist with Vajpayee’s policies of moderation and pluralism or revert to Hindu monolithism once again.

In May, the Indian electorate soundly punished it for its failure. The rebellion of the ‘Vajpayee moderates’ that this provoked within the party showed that large sections of it, including Mr Advani himself, had belatedly learned their lesson. So would it not have been better to give the Liberhan commission a quiet burial – report or no report?

The answer is no. The nation, the minorities and, above all, the families of the victims of the riots that erupted after 1992 have a right to know who was responsible. But they did not have to be subjected to the distorted version originally leaked to the Indian Express, which specifically attacked Atal Bihari Vajpayee. According to this version, Justice Liberhan had concluded that “there is nothing to show that these leaders (Vajpayee and Advani) were either unaware of what was going on or innocent of any wrongdoing”. But what the report actually says is that “It cannot be assumed even for a moment that LK Advani, AB Vajpayee or MM Joshi did not know the designs of the Sangh Parivar”(p 958). And on the very next page, it says, “Be that as it may, the evidence that has been laid before the commission does not show that the pseudomoderates were in charge of the situation, much less capable of changing the course that the campaign was taking”.

In sum, Justice Liberhan has come to two conclusions: first, that it cannot be assumed from the lack of direct evidence (of their complicity) that Vajpayee and Advani did not know of the plot; and second, that although they knew about it, they were in no position to stop it. Given Vajpayee and Advani’s eminence in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, the second conclusion is scarcely credible. One is forced to conclude, therefore, that Justice Liberhan has come very close to contradicting himself.

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