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Will Bhima Koregaon Commission wind up on December 31?

By JYOTI PUNWANI
October 21, 2021 11:17 IST
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'Not giving the Commission space in Mumbai is an insult to Maharashtra's Dalits who are waiting for the inquiry report.'
Jyoti Punwani reports.

IMAGE: Thousands of people gather at the Bhima Koregaon Victory Pillar. Photograph: PTI Photo
 

Will the Bhima Koregaon Commission wind up by December, when the current extension granted to it expires?

That was suggested at Wednesday's hearing by retired Justice J N Patel, who heads the two-member judicial inquiry into the violence that shook Maharashtra on January 1, 2018.

On that day, Dalits were attacked as they were proceeding towards Bhima Koregaon to observe the 200th anniversary of the historic battle where the British, helped by Dalits, had defeated the Peshwas. Later, the violence degenerated into riots, wherein a Maratha youth was killed.

On January 3, Dalit groups called for a state-wide protest bandh. The violence that marked that bandh is also a part of the Commission's terms of reference.

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On Wednesday, October 20, refusing to give witness Harshali Potdar another date, Justice Patel said, "Time is running out. We will finish by December 31."

Though the Commission's schedule was announced well in advance, Potdar's lawyer did not turn up in the morning session.

"If this was my court, things would not work like this," said Justice Patel. "This waiting for lawyers and witnesses would not have been tolerated."

Saying that the government seems to feel that the Commission was "doing time pass", and that the people of Maharashtra were waiting for the Commission's report, the retired judge said the Commission would complete its work with whatever material it had by December 31.

One reason for proceedings taking so long is logistical -- the lack of suitable premises for the Commission.

From the time it started functioning in 2018, the Commission has been functioning from the office of the State Information Commission in Mumbai (the state's Chief Information Commissioner Sumit Mullick is the second member of the Commission), with hearings being held in a tiny room which was never enough for the lawyers and journalists who attended.

Post-Covid, this room was not suitable given the social distancing required.

Despite repeated requests, the government has refused to provide either the Sahyadri guest house auditorium or space in the Yashwantrao Chavan Pratishthan complex, both located in south Mumbai.

IMAGE: Dalit groups stage a protest against the violence at Bhima Koregaon in Mumbai. Photograph: PTI Photo

The Maharashtra government was reportedly willing to provide the Sahyadri guest house auditorium every week day except Wednesdays, when the press conference following the weekly cabinet meeting is held there. But it was not willing to allot any room in the guest house for the Commission's members to break for lunch or meet lawyers. The only space offered was the green room behind the auditorium.

The government also wanted a list in advance of all those who would attend the hearings in Sahyadri, which is impossible for the Commission to give, given that a number of lawyers and journalists attend the hearings, but not necessarily every hearing.

As for the Yashwantrao Chavan Pratishtan complex, the government reportedly said they could only make it available as and when it became free.

This space crunch has resulted in inconvenience to lawyers. For instance, Advocate B G Bansode, representing Dalit victims, has for long been asking for documents relating to the police's functioning in the relevant period of January 2018.

These documents were brought to the State Information Commission premises earlier, but could not be kept there as the space there was neither enough nor considered safe.

Hence though two police witnesses have been called on Thursday, they will not be cross-examined because Advocate Bansode has not been able to read the documents necessary to confront them.

Another reason for the absence of lawyers and witnesses is that after the Commission resumed functioning post-lockdown, it has been holding hearings only in Pune. Pre-lockdown, it used to alternate between Pune and Mumbai.

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IMAGE: Advocate Ashish Satpute, counsel for the commission, Sumit Mullick, member, Commission, Shishir Hiray, Maharashtra government counsel, Justice J N Patel, chairman of the commission. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani

The Maharashtra's government's cavalier treatment of this important Commission came to light before the lockdown.

On January 31, 2020, Justice Patel announced at the start of a hearing in Mumbai that he was recommending to the government that the Commission be wound up. This was two months after the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government had taken over.

A letter to the state government by the Commission's Secretary revealed that negligence towards the Commission had begun under the Devendra Fadnavis-led government. Funds were not released on time and the budget was slashed.

In the period of uncertainty between the October 2019 election results and the formation of the MVA government, Mantralaya -- the state government hadquarters -- had not released even the funds necessary to pay the Commission members and its staff, who therefore went without salary for three months. Day to day expenses were being paid by the Commission's members.

What was worse, whenever the Commission's Superintendent went to Mantralaya to ask for funds, he was humiliated.

The situation is only slightly better now. The Maharashtra government has been releasing funds on a piecemeal basis. Hence, September salaries have yet to be received, and daily expenses are being paid by the Commission's members and senior staff. These are reimbursed later.

Will the government treat the Commission with the respect it deserves by ensuring a regular supply of funds and giving it suitable space in Mumbai?

As senior advocate B A Desai put it: "Not giving the Commission space in Mumbai is an insult to Maharashtra's Dalits who are waiting for the inquiry report."

Will it also give the Commission the extension necessary to do justice to its task?

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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