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The Rediff Special/Sheela Bhatt
I haven't absolved Cong: Nanavati
February 17, 2005
Justice Girish Thakorlal Nanavati, who headed the one-man commission probing the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that followed then prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination on October 31, 1984, submitted his 185-page report to the government last week. The report has triggered controversy even before being made public.
The Congress leadership steadfastly denies the party machinery's involvement in organising the bloodletting in New Delhi, which killed over 3,000 Sikhs.
In an exclusive interview to rediff.com, Justice Nanavati said, "I haven't absolved the Congress party."
The retired Supreme Court judge refused to comment further, but said like the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission (which also probed the 1984 riots) he too believed the riots were organised crimes.
Justice Nanavati refused to elaborate on the contents of the report. Since the government had announced it would table his report before Parliament in the Budget session, it was advisable to wait, he said. However, he said he should not be blamed for high expectations from the commission.
'If you forget '84 riots be ready for another one'
Similarly, when asked if he has held any one from the Congress leadership responsible for the riots, he refused to answer. He said one should remember you could get the judgment in favour of the victim strictly according to the evidence brought before the court. And that evidence should not be "motivated" either, he added.
He said he had a witness before his commission who had spoken out for the first time, after keeping silent for 20 years.
Correcting the perception that the Sikh community may not get justice again, he said, "One should not say that justice has not been done when judges don't have evidence before them to indict anyone. When a judge follows the law how can you say justice is not done?"
"I agree, it is possible that rulings sometimes fail to give justice in the absence of evidence but for that the judges can't be blamed."
When asked about his image of being a conservative judge, he said bluntly, "To be popular, I would not set aside the law. I am not a hypocrite. I have taken an oath to follow the Constitution and the laws of the land; I can't give judgments even when there is not enough evidence."
Justice Nanavati has had an extraordinary opportunity to see the violent face of India closely. He is heading inquiries into the two most bloody and shameful events of Independent India. Besides heading the inquiry into the 1984 riots (which was dissolved last Friday), he is heading a two-member commission in Ahmedabad to inquire into the circumstances that led to the Sabarmati Express fire in Godhra and the riots that followed in Gujarat.
Next month, he will submit a report on the reasons behind unauthorised colonies in New Delhi despite a large number of legislation to prevent it.
Justice Nanavati, who turns 70 on Thursday, is nonchalant about his job. "I take up all things in a routine manner. My job is to go by prescribed laws. What is the big deal about it?"
The judge was born in Jambusar town near Bharuch in Gujarat in 1935. He is the eldest of 12 children -- five brothers and seven sisters. The law runs in his blood – his father, maternal grandfather and maternal uncle were in the legal profession. Justice Nanavati's sons Dhawal and Maulik are lawyers.
The Nanavatis belong to the Lad Baniya community, who are like the Nagars of Gujarat -- engaged in professional services. His family are highly educated; three of his brothers and two of his sisters are settled in the US.
The Nanavati family belonged to the lower middle class and was liberal in its outlook. "I wonder when people talk about secularism and such things. Without the mention of such words we were enjoying social harmony. In our home our Muslim client Rasoolbhai used to have dinner with us many times," Justice Nanavati said.
"One errant Muslim fellow of my village used to be so respectful whenever he saw my aunt. I have so many good memories. We have inculcated a healthy respect for all communities as a way of life. So why fuss about secularism?"
The judge studied at St Xavier's College Mumbai. He was average in studies, and passionate about Gujarati fiction. His focus was on acquiring a good education for himself; it was a family tradition.
He filled up two forms at St Xavier's, one for the arts faculty and one for science. He desperately wanted hostel accommodation, which the arts faculty offered him on the day of admission. The future judge, then an introverted teenager, accepted it immediately.
After graduation he joined the Government Law College in Mumbai and got his bachelor's and master's degrees in law.
It was a difficult decision for him to go back to Gujarat from metropolitan Mumbai when the bifurcation of the then Bombay state in 1960 forced him to return to Gujarat. His wish to practice at the prestigious Bombay high court could not be fulfilled.
He started practice in Ahmedabad on a very low key. He dealt with a few revenue cases, but his true potential was realised when he got criminal cases. He got an offer to become public prosecutor in 1964. That became a turning point in his career. At that time, high court judges -- and not the government -- used to appoint prosecutors.
For the next 15 years, he fought thousands of cases on the Gujarat government's behalf.
"I fought more than 3,000 criminal cases, more than 1,000 tax and Constitution-related cases and also innumerable cases concerning environment and corporate laws. There was hardly any Indian law I haven't dealt with at that time." Justice Nanavati told rediff.com.
"When you are able to solve a problem it makes you satisfied. I used to feel good about case where courts helped quarreling people reach a compromise."
From 1979 to 1993, he was a judge on the Gujarat high court. In 1993, he was transferred to the Orissa high court as chief justice and later for a few months to the Karnataka high court as chief justice.
In 1995, he was made a Supreme Court judge; he retired in 2000. He regards Justice P N Bhagwati and Justice V R Krishna Aiyer as trend-setting judges who enhanced and added meaning to process of justice. "They were genius brains and rare cases," he said.
Justice Nanavati, who insists he is "apolitical," gets a bit provoked when asked if he is conservative in his judgments. "I don't want the government and the system to suffer at the cost of my popular decisions. Just to look liberal if I issue a notice to any party it means Rs 50,000 cost to the party who receives the notice and it also means that my successor will have additional work. Why issue a notice and later change the decision?" he said.
"I go by the law book. I have no regrets in doing so."
"I don't do things to be remembered in legal history books. I write very short judgments. I don't write judgments running into hundred pages."
Public speeches can be liberal, but judgments could only be within the sphere of the country's laws, he said. "You can't put the law in your pocket and give your decisions."
He reminded his critics that "justice has to be done according to the law whether one likes it or not. If we have to interpret law in our personal way then why take an oath to follow the Constitution?"
In April, Justice Nanavati will leave New Delhi for Ahmedabad and plunge headlong into the Godhra and post-Godhra riots inquiry, which is expected to end in December.
After that, he would be engaged in arbitration work, he said.